Probably one of the biggest challenges in gardening is just getting started.
Resistance to startup is especially profound with new and unfamiliar crop species such as the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. North America has only recently begun to appreciate tea as a beverage and has very little experience cultivating the tea plant. There is even less expertise with tea manufacture.
But are the hurdles to starting a home tea garden or small-scale tea farm really so insurmountable? I don’t think so.
It’s probably easier than ever to obtain all the materials necessary to cultivate tea camellia. Today I’m going to focus on how to get your tea garden going with tea seed which is now widely available through foreign importers and US-based tea growers.
I’ll discuss in detail the best ways to germinate tea seed and, along the way, highlight some common pitfalls that new tea growers might encounter. Once you learn to grow tea from seed, your tea enterprise will really thrive!
Why grow tea from seed?
Not all tea gardens are started with tea seed. In fact, for much of the last century, rooted cuttings, which are genetic clones of a parent plant, have formed the propagation backbone of the commercial tea industry.
One key advantage of cuttings is that dozens can be procured from the stems of just one parent plant. Moreover, cuttings allow growers to propagate genetic stock with known, desirable characteristics.
Given such advantages, why would anyone want to cultivate tea seed? Here are two of the important benefits of using tea seed to start your tea garden.
Benefit 1: tea seed is convenient
The average diameter of a viable tea seed is a little more than one-half of an inch (about twelve millimeters). Tea seeds also have a tough outer coat that can endure a course of “shipping and handling.” Because of their small size and impressive durability, thousands of seeds can be conveniently packed into a small box and mailed around the world.
If properly stored in refrigeration, tea seed may remain viable for several months after harvest. The convenience of storability, in turn, gives the grower a measure of flexibility with respect to the timing of planting and the number of seeds to germinate.
Benefit 2: tea seed is genetically diverse
Each tea seed is the product of sexual reproduction and thus no two seeds are genetically exactly alike. This is important because even “sibling” seeds that share the same parent plants (tea camellia does not self-pollinate) may have alternative gene combinations that differ in performance. For instance, some genes may confer resistance to disease while others enhance cold hardiness.
Planting out tea seedlings may thereby reduce the risk of losing an entire tea estate to blights and other stresses.
Indeed, the future of the tea industry in America depends on small-scale operations each conducting planned or ad hoc genetic experiments. Out of this effort will eventually emerge the best-adapted tea cultivars. Your own adventures with tea seeds will play a part in this larger agro-experimental undertaking.
The downsides of tea seed
As the saying goes, if it has a frontend then it has a backend too. There are indeed downsides to growing tea from seed, and these are as follows:
Globalized trade is a wonderful thing, but there are sometimes issues with accountability. For instance, there is no telling when imported tea seeds were collected. The seller may claim that they collected fresh seed, but how do you really know for sure when the farm is located eight thousand miles away from you?
The reason that planters have long favored rooted tea cuttings over tea seedlings is that they knew what they were getting. For example, a cold-resistant tea clone will be a cold-resistant tea clone, even if it may also be susceptible to blight.
With genetically diverse seedlings, in contrast, there is not that level of certainty in performance. This is because sexual recombination breaks up beneficial gene combinations at the same time that it creates them. Because of such genetic variation, there might be considerable unevenness in productivity and survival among seedlings in the field.
The third concern is related to predictability, and it’ll be a gut-punch. Are you ready? Here it is:
Most tea seeds are duds. That’s right: the chances are very high that the tea seeds you just received in the mail are only useful in a game of marbles. To be specific, I’ve learned to expect only ten to fifteen percent of randomly chosen tea seeds to produce a seedling worthy of being planted. To be sure, you will have germination success higher than this value but this is not the same as seedling success. You want the highest possible seedling success.
And here’s the really painful part. Instead of paying what you thought was just pennies for each seed, you have to eventually discard 85 percent of your purchase and effectively pay several dollars apiece.
And so the perceived convenience of tea seed collapses into a pile of disappointment.
How to find the best tea seed
It’s not all that bad though. Over the years, I have developed a system to increase the chances that tea seeds are a worthy investment. Try to apply as many of these suggestions as you can to your next purchase of seeds.
How to germinate tea seed: screen first, ask questions later
Let’s suppose that you’ve secured the highest-quality tea seed that you can find. Now you have a few tasks to perform before you can start planting your tea seeds. The first task is to screen your seed for viability. After screening, you can concern yourself with planting up the makings of your future tea garden.
If you can’t get to screening right away, then you can store your seeds in a partially opened plastic bag that is placed in the warmest part of the refrigerator. But be careful here: a fungus can quickly sweep through the lot and kill your precious seeds. Check frequently to make sure that moisture is not building up within the bag.
Step 1: give your tea seed a soaking
To sort out viable seeds from loser seeds, all you need is four items:
- Tea seeds.
- One mesh bag such as a garment bag for laundry or a nylon bag for toting SCUBA gear.
- One plastic five-gallon bucket or similar container.
- One heavy, non-buoyant object to serve as an anchor.
First, fill your mesh bag with seeds to half capacity and then wrap the loose, unfilled end of the bag around the anchor (a small hand-weight is good). Place the bag with anchor into the bucket.
Next, fill the bucket with ordinary tap water and you will immediately notice that the bag of seeds floats towards the water surface. Add enough water to cover the floating bag by an inch or more. With the anchor holding down the bag, all the seeds should be completely submerged regardless of their buoyancy.
Now reach into the bucket and give the floating bag a quick tug or two towards the bottom. Agitating the bag will release air bubbles that are stuck to the seeds.
Place the bucket where it will not freeze or get really hot and let the seed bag soak, undisturbed, for 36 hours (more or less).
At the 36-hour mark, dump the seeds out of the bag and into the bucket of water. You’ll hear the clicking sound of sinker seeds hitting the bottom of the bucket just as you see the floaters rising to the surface. Using either your hand or a wire strainer with a handle, collect the floaters from the water’s surface.
Then collect the sinkers and segregate floaters and sinkers into different bins. You will not mix these seeds together in the future unless you want to repeat the segregation process all over again.
Step 2: give your tea seeds a rest
Fill into shallow flats with drain holes a potting medium with both excellent drainage and moisture retention. If you don’t have flats, any shallow container will do so long as it drains. Adding more perlite and coarse vermiculite to a standard soil mix improves the passage of water through the medium while at the same time keeping the medium damp.
Spread a single layer of seeds evenly onto the medium. Do not cover the seeds with the medium; just leave them on the soil surface, as if they are resting on the ground underneath their parent plants.
Next, place your soil-and-seed trays in a space that receives partial sun. Alternatively, you can place trays in the full sun but cover the seeds with a fabric or other contraption that throws at least 80% shade. I like to use heavy-duty flower baskets with slotted bottom and sides that allow the passage of dappled sunlight onto the seeds.
Do not let the seeds overheat! If you have any doubts about temperature exposure, move the seeds to the shade and leave them there indefinitely.
Similarly, protect the seed flats from freezes.
Mist or lightly spray the seeds with water on a regular schedule. The challenge here is that you don’t want the seeds to desiccate, nor do you want the seeds to stay water-saturated. Fungal infections are the enemy of tea seeds so keep an eye on moisture levels. It should be damp but not soggy.
Next comes the tedious part of this process, which involves a lot of watching and waiting.
Step 3: check for cracks in the seed coat
In order for the tea seed to germinate, the tough outer coat has to first crack open. Alternating periods of hydrating and drying cause the seed coat to expand and contract. In turn, little cracks are formed which allows water to be absorbed by the developing embryo. As the embryonic tissue grows, it forces open ever wider cracks. This is what you what to happen.
Every other day, check the seeds for cracks. You might be able to see the yellowish endosperm (i.e., the seed’s nutrients) through the crack and this is a good sign. Turn the seeds by rolling your hand over the lot and further inspect for open seed. Separate out promising seeds for the next step.
Be forewarned: It might take several weeks, perhaps even two months or longer, for your seeds to show any cracks. If no cracks appear after the first ten days or so, repeat the soaking procedure described above. Even among those seeds that initially sank underwater, you will find a few that decide to become floaters on subsequent soakings. Separate these out and return the seeds to the appropriate trays for further resting and watering. Repeat the soaking step as needed.
Patience through this process is a must. Don’t lose it!
How to plant tea seed in starter trays
Accumulate enough cracked tea seeds to make the next step worth the trouble. The goal in this part of the process is to encourage the root system to develop sufficiently to endure either up-potting or the rigors of the field. My system described below is a cost-effective way to achieve this goal.
There are three components: cracked seeds, propagation trays, and potting medium. Here is what I do to grow the strongest tea seedlings possible.
Camellia sinensis has a baby taproot that will shoot past the seed coat like a ground-penetrating rocket. Your containers for starting tea seed must, therefore, accommodate a long, ponderous taproot. The fine, laterally projecting roots will develop much more slowly.
I prefer to use propagation trays with cells that are at least five inches (127 millimeters) deep and two inches (51 mm) square. Trays of 50 cells total, supported by a webbed 1020 flat, are a very efficient use of space and materials. If you have trays or other containers deeper than five inches, then, by all means, use them. Tea will appreciate the extra room to grow.
If you’re under a tight budget, however, the 50-cell flat is probably the best bargain available.
Growth medium recipe for tea seeds
A commercial potting media works well but always check for moisture retention. As with the uncracked tea seeds, you don’t want your potted seeds to rot. To improve the passage of water, add more perlite and small-sized, pine bark chips (also called “bark fines”).
If you’re the DIY type and want to mix up your own medium, here’s what I mix up to provide a spatially complex, well-drained medium. I also add a little bit of compost, nutrients, and minerals.
To make a planting medium for tea seeds, combine and thoroughly mix together the following ingredients:
Adjust the quantities of fertilizer and mineral sources so that they are available in trace amounts. For example, I add to every 8 gallons (30 liters) of mixture, 1 cup (128 grams) each of fertilizer and minerals.
Once you have mixed your materials, test a sample of medium for drainage. If you find that a near-saturated handful of medium binds together into a dense or muddy clump, then it’s not loose enough. Add more pine bark fines or perlite to loosen up the medium and then retest. A well-structured medium should fall apart fairly easily after you open up your hand to release the mixture.
If you find that drainage is still not right, consider omitting worm castings which can often be very retentive of water.
Planting tea seeds in propagation trays
The final step is to plant cracked seeds in trays. This is straight-forward except for one important trick. Pay attention.
Fill the cells of the propagation tray with your potting medium and give the tray a shake to settle the material. Leave the top inch of the cell unfilled.
Next, look closely at the seed. You will notice that there is a light-colored eyespot on the seed coat. Most of the time, the crack will run through the eyespot. Position the seed so that the eyespot is parallel to the surface of the potting medium.
Proper positioning of the seed assures that embryonic stem and root do not have to grow out and around the seed coat in order to grow up and down, respectively. Young tissue that makes a partial loop around the seed coat may develop a permanent kink at soil level that weakens a maturing plant.
Now, cover the seed with more potting medium, leaving about a quarter-inch of depth for coarse vermiculite as a topping.
Give the newly planted seeds a spray of water and then protect the tray from high heat and freezing cold. Use a greenhouse heating pad for gentle warmth if you have one.
Water as needed to keep the soil damp but not soggy. Depending on ambient temperatures, you will have to wait between two weeks to a month for your seeds to sprout. Patience, my tea friend.
Transplant tea seedlings to pots or to the garden?
You’ve made it this far and now you have a bunch of sprouted tea seedlings. That’s awesome!
Once you see that the tea taproots have reached the bottom of the propagation cell, and the plant has four or five true leaves, then you have to decide where to transplant your seedlings. You have two options:
- Up-pot seedlings.
- Directly transplant seedlings to the garden.
The good and the bad of up-potting tea seedlings
One advantage of up-potting is that your seedlings will have time to develop into a hardy plant before they are exposed to the stresses of the field. You will also have the opportunity to sort out the robust seedlings from the sure losers. When it comes time to install plants in the garden you will be fairly confident in the overall vigor of your stock.
The disadvantages of up-potting are the costs of materials and labor. In terms of materials, you will need deep plastic pots (again, depth is more important than width) and potting medium (well-drained and balanced for acid-loving plants here too). Labor involves up-potting seedlings and then watering and monitoring pots over time so that they don’t freeze or burn up.
It may then take up to ten months of managing your potted seedlings before you can put them out in the garden.
Direct transplanting of tea seedlings has risks
Directly transplanting seedlings from trays to your garden also has pros and cons. The main reason for direct transplanting is that all the costs of up-potting are avoided. If money for your tea project is tight, then direct transplanting will have a strong appeal.
But consider this delayed cost of direct transplanting: You must expect that many seedlings, even the robust ones, will fall prey to insects, rodents, deer, and microbial pathogens. In addition, a cold snap or a long, hot dry spell can also be fatal to your dainty charges.
To be sure, up-potted seedlings, once finally installed in the garden, will not be immune to such hazards. But after growing strong for many months in the relative safety of pots, they will be much less vulnerable than direct-transplanted seedlings.
Still, the direct transplant method is widely used throughout the tea-growing world. To make this method work, you can allow for field attrition of your seedlings by purchasing a few extra seeds for insurance. To be super-conservative, assume that conversion of seed to surviving plants in the field is just five, rather than fifteen, percent. And now, you’re being realistic tea farmer.
Installation scheme for your tea seedlings in the garden
You can’t just stick your young tea plants in the ground willy-nilly. You will need to decide on a configuration to your plantings and then prepare planting beds. I prefer planting tea in hedgerows at a fairly high density per square foot, but you may choose a different scheme. In any case, it will take some contemplation on your part to get it right. As you wait for seeds to germinate and seedlings to grow, you will have plenty of time to plot your next move in the garden.
Black tea seeds, green tea seeds, oolong tea seeds: What’s the difference?
One widespread misconception is that different types of tea—black, green, oolong, white, and pu’erh teas—come from different types of tea plants. The truth, however, is that the difference between teas arises primarily from how leaves are processed after harvest, and not from the plants that yielded the leaf. Therefore, you cannot grow different types of seeds of Camellia sinensis in order to make a particular type of tea.
But here’s an important caveat. There are indeed different cultivated varieties of tea camellia, and some a better for making, say, green tea than black tea. For example, one variety, called Camellia sinensis var. assamica, is widely cultivated in warm regions for its black tea and less so for green tea. Another tea cultivar, var. sinensis—there’s redundancy in nomenclature—is grown in cooler regions and largely for its green tea.
The point here is to discourage you from choosing seeds based on the supposed potential of some cultivars to favor different types of tea. Instead, choose tea seed based upon its suitability for your growing environment. And in nearly all of North America, the best choice is the cold-hardy sinensis variety.
As you hone your skills as a tea gardener, you can branch out into other, more risky, tea cultivars.
Exciting times for nascent tea growers
During the course of your early forays into tea farming, keep in mind that the tea industry in America is still very green. This means that you will necessarily have to take a few chances here and there. But try to embrace the uncertainty. It’s all part of the excitement of getting in on the ground floor of a promising new opportunity!