Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

The nights are getting markedly cooler. This drop in temperature seems to be met with a corresponding increase in the consumption of warm wake-up and bed-time beverages. For a vast number of people, the warm beverage of choice is often one of the many varieties of tea that are now so widely available. As we discovered last week in Garden Gossip, brewing this tea from your own home grown leaves is not as difficult as one might think. Once thought of as a mysterious, delicate, tropical plant, the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is now being widely grown in homes around the globe.

Last week we touched very generally on the idea of growing tea plants in the north. Today, in response to a few questions, I’ll try to be a little more specific with regards to what will help you be most successful in this venture. Whether your tea plants have come to you as established plants or are being started from seed, their care is going to be exactly the same. First, be patient. You are unlikely to be able to harvest any tea leaves from your plants until they are at least three years old. On the bright side, Camellia plants have been known to live for 100 years while remaining highly productive the entire time. Perhaps the most important aspect of getting your tea plant off to a good start is potting it up in optimum growing conditions. Camellia plants enjoy soil that leans to the acidic side. They also like to be well watered but they hate wet feet. A rich, well draining, soil is critical. Commercially available rhododendron soil is ideal for growing tea plants. In addition to regular watering, Camellias enjoy humidity so regular misting is beneficial as is placing the plants on a humidity tray. You can make your own humidity tray by filling a shallow pan with marbles. Place your Camellia plant on top of the marbles. Pour enough water into the tray that it will evaporate up through the plant’s foliage but not enough that the plant’s roots are sitting in the water (Note that this trick works well for other humidity loving plants such as orchids). When watering your camellia plants, be aware that most Island tap water is far too hard, or alkaline, for tea plants. Always water Camellias with soft water such as rain water or in the winter, melted snow. As for feeding your Camellia plants, there are different strategies for different aged plants as well as for different times of the year. Tea plants grown from seed are exceptionally light feeders during the early stages of their lives. Occasional drinks of mild compost tea will more than suffice for tiny tea plants that you start from seed. If you purchase older, more established plants, from a nursery, they have likely been pushed for maximum growth. These plants will benefit from small amounts of slow release plant food during the spring and early summer. By late summer, feeding of all tea plants should stop as they like to go dormant for the low light winter season. During this period of rest their watering needs will also be diminished. Don’t, however, reduce their ambient humidity. Our northern homes are notoriously dry in the winter and Camellias, even dormant ones, are not happy with dry air. The tea plant enjoys bright light and is happy with a small amount of direct sunlight. They don’t want full-on bright sun during the heat of the afternoon so providing them with semi-shaded conditions perfectly mimics their natural growth habits where they are often found growing under pine over-stories in China. Camellia plants appeal to insect pests just like they do to humans. With a little diligence, most problems can be nipped in the bud but occasionally infestations of scale, spider mites or aphids can occur. Thorough soakings with horticultural oil sprays (two soakings ten days apart) are the best solution for heavy infestations. Carefully hand picking small infestations may prevent large scale problems. There are many “home” remedies for these various pests and I recommend very careful use of these on valuable plants such as tea. Just because you read it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

By three years of age your tea plants should be approaching a meter in height. At this age your plant should be bushy and there should be several branches with new growth on them. It is the terminal bud with two or three tender new leaves that is harvested for tea. Carefully removing these portions of the plant will simply lead to more bushiness and and ever increasing harvest. The internet is full of instructions on how to dry, bruise, smoke and generally prepare your tea leaves for future brewing. It could take an entire column to cover so for now I’ll leave the research for you.

As I’ve shared already, you can look for started plants at your favourite nursery or you can accept the challenge and start with seeds. Intrepid gardeners can find tea plant seeds online at seedrack.com.