Did you know you can grow and harvest your own tea plant at home? Tea is the world’s second most popular drink (after water) and with so many ‘tea totalers’ around, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a fresh supply on hand! Growing tea at home is easier than you might think, and hopefully after you read this post you’ll be convinced to give it a try for yourself.
Surprisingly green, oolong and black tea all come from the same tea plant – a Camellia Sinensis. Its a type of Camellia shrub that can be and often is grown as an ordinary garden variety plant, with some amazing benefits. How can different teas come from the one plant? It all comes down to how the leaves are dried and processed after they’ve been picked. But first, here’s how to care for your new Tea Plant.
Caring For a Tea Plant
The Camellia Sinensis, or Tea Plant is a shrub that won’t grow any bigger than around 6 feet when planted in a container, or can be pruned to keep its size small. Tea plants can sometimes be hard to come by, so try ordering one through your local nursery or even check out the range on Amazon. Once you’ve got a tea plant, the good news is, it’s quite easy to care for. The basic requirements are:
Light: Keep your tea plant in full sun to part shade. Giving it more sun will help it grow to be a hardy plant. Be careful when you first bring your plant home though. Allow time for it to transition to its new conditions without too much harsh sun.
Water & Fertilizing: Tea Plants prefer well drained soil, but don’t let the soil dry out. When the top couple of inches of soil are dry, water until the soil is soaked through. Being a Camellia, tea plants prefer slightly acidic soil. You can use a general acidic fertilizer for camellias and azaleas during Spring and Summer. Try fertilizing every couple of weeks at half-strength.
Location: Tea Plants do best in milder climates such as plant hardiness zones 7-9. However for cooler climates they can be kept in a pot and brought inside during the colder months.
Pruning: Your tea plant can be pruned down to maintain size or remove unwanted branches (read more about pruning in harvesting the leaves for your tea). Pruning is important to tea plants as it promotes new growth – and the new leaves are the ones that we’ll be using for tea!
Harvesting Leaves from Your Tea Plant
Your Tea Plant generally needs to mature to two years before you can harvest the leaves, and within a few more years it will be a great producer of tea leaves! Generally the newer, lighter green leaves and buds are used for making tea.
How you prune (pick) leaves from your tea plant is the same process no matter what sort of tea you’d like to make. The variation in the type of tea comes from the process after your tea leaves are picked.
Prune your tea plant in late winter. During early Spring, when new growth appears, harvest these new leaves. Wait until there are 2-4 new leaves unfurling from new shoots, then pick the top two leaves and bud from the stems with your fingers.
Using this method of picking new leaves, its possible to harvest your tea plant every 1-2 weeks from the new growth! Each time you pick leaves, it encourages the Tea Plant to grow more in their place.
After you’ve picked the fresh leaves, the oxidisation process (or fermentation) of the picked leaves is what will change the flavour and type of tea you make. Oxidisation happens when leaves are left out and is characterised by the reddish-brown colour the leaves will start to get.
How to Make Green Tea
Green tea requires no oxidisation process to make! This gives it the earthy flavour it is so well known for. Once your tea leaves have bene picked, we need to prevent oxidisation from occurring. Steam the leaves on the stove (like you would cook vegetables) for 1-2 minutes. You can also do this by dry cooking them in a stir fry pan. Use the leaves straight away, or dry them out further by placing them on an oven tray. Dry them out for 10-20 minutes in the oven on low (200-250 degrees or 90-120 Celcius), then store in an airtight container.
Brewing Green Tea: Use a teaspoon of leaves in hot water (slightly less than boiling). Steep for 2-3 minutes.
How to Make Oolong Tea
Oolong tea needs to be partially oxidised. Once the leaves have been picked, bruise them by gently scrunching them in your hand, shaking them or pressing them slightly. Allow the leaves to sit for 30 minutes to a few hours, until they just start to turn brown. Dry in a low oven for up to 20 minutes.
Brewing Oolong Tea: Use hot (nearly boiling water) and let the leaves steep for 5-8 minutes.
How to Make Black Tea
Black tea requires more oxidisation than Oolong. Use the same process of pressing or scrunching the leaves, more firmly this time. This allows juices to be released. Let the leaves sit out until they are fully brown – this may take a few hours or overnight. Then dry them in a low oven for 20 or more minutes.
Brewing Black Tea: Use hot (nearly boiling) water and let the leaves steep for 3-5 minutes.
Once you’ve tried the process of making tea at home, you can mix it up and experiment with different drying times and leaf types to try different flavours! Use the Camellia buds, stems and older leaves as well as different methods of preparation to find what you like best. For other great uses of tea, check out my post on the benefits of green tea baths.