Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Growing tea plants at home

The subject keeps coming up:  can I grow tea plants at home, and if so can I process them into tea I could drink?  I was asking the same thing myself awhile back, I just never did get around to finding those plants and getting it done.  I live in Bangkok, so I'd be looking into plants that are ok with quite warm weather instead of cold, but the concerns seem similar.

I never did get around to writing about the subject; not having followed up there wasn't that much to say.  Looking back I that was in 2013, right around the time this blog started, and I was a lot less chatty and diverse in tea writing back then. 

Back then I discussed it a little with a nursery (Camellia Forest Nursery, in North Carolina), a business that sells tea plants in the US.  They're one of the main plant sources that comes up in discussion, to the limited extent I run across that.  They mentioned this advice related to growing tea plants in hot weather climates (like Bangkok), or indoors versus outdoors:

home based tea plant garden in Mexico (related story)

Tea in general will tolerate high temperatures as long as it gets water.  They do need a cooler period in the winter as they go dormant for a while.  There are tea plantations in warm areas of China and Vietnam...

...For growing tea indoors, again they like cooler temperatures and high humidity during the winter so a hot dry house sometimes is stressful for the plant.  If you have a cool sunroom they will do well indoors.

We have a couple of nice, small garden areas at the house I live in, even though we're in the city.

at the house; we could clear a space for some plants out there

Online references:  a source for plants and tea growing group

The Camellia Forest Nursery website sells different related types of plants (other decorative Camellias and other plants), with a section on Camellia Sinensis (tea!).  It includes an overview of processed types, and a separate website on growing and producing tea (and a Facebook page).  It wouldn't be remarkably simple, getting the right version of the plants to thrive under local conditions, and then picking and processing leaves into good quality finished tea, but having a go at it wouldn't seem that impossible either. 

A second interesting reference is a Facebook group about growing tea in the US, Let's Grow Tea.  The group focus is really more about small producers helping each other share information, rather than for people with a few plants growing in a greenhouse themed room in their house, but even just paging through discussions would turn up good information related to common issues.  And the group members seem nice.

Wonosari plantation in East Java, Indonesia, from visiting in 2016

Input from David Parks, Camellia Forest Nursery co-owner

Those nursery website pages go through lots of detail, on different types of Camellia Sinensis plants, and on growing zones and specific plant weather tolerances.  It seems to be most of what someone would need to know related to if it would be practical or not.

camellia japonica version (credit Camellia Forest FB page)

From there other levels of concerns would crop up, related to growing inside versus outside, watering, nutrition, and pest issues, harvesting leaves, and especially related to actually processing tea.  It would seem highly impractical to actually try to produce substantial amounts of tea, even if someone did happen to live in a suitable US environment (to the South), but of course that wouldn't generally be the point.  What tea enthusiast wouldn't want to add some plants around their house that could actually produce tea to drink?  Even if is difficult, and recreating a favorite Wuyi Yancha or pu'er wouldn't be practical.

I asked the owners of the Camellia Forest Nursery if they could fill in more details, and David was kind enough to summarize some thoughts related to trends in that actually happening and related background, as follows.

The interest in tea over the last 30 years has grown from a few individuals and a handful of nurseries to a general interest in tea and tea potentially being sold in big box stores. There are even some nurseries that sell only tea plants but I saw in a large nursery R+D department that they are experimenting with tea that would be marketed to big box stores as a premade hedge. We have gone from selling a few dozen plants to thousands of tea plants-the nursery has grown ten fold also.

In general, people do enjoy the tea made from their own plants. They find it is very different from typical bagged tea but are pleasantly surprised. There are cases of people using mature leaves or even the dead leaves with rather poor success.

Since we are a mail order nursery we get requests from all over the country even locations that are too cold for growing tea. So many people try growing it indoors. The success varies but it can be done. Although actual production will probably be limited unless one is experienced growing plants to get good growth without getting too big a plant for a pot. Moving the plant outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter is probably the best option. People also have success in small or large greenhouses. One customer grows tea in a polyhouse in Michigan.

USDA plant hardiness zone map (credit USDA site)

This year was a cold hardiness test for tea in North Carolina. We had one night when the temperature dropped to 3 F and almost 2 weeks of temperatures below freezing. So far most looks OK and even tender varieties are expected to regrow from the roots. One issue we see is that harvested tea will keep growing into the fall and not harden off so the top leaves of many bushes are completely brown but lower leaves look green. Although not attractive I believe this does not hurt the plants and we will prune off these leaves very soon in preparation for the new flush in spring. Surprisingly some varieties like Sochi appear almost unhurt. Other varieties that look good include small leaf tea, 'Dave's Fave', and Lipton Plantation.

Camellia Forest nursery photo from a 2013 ice storm (credit their FB page)

Snow actually protects plants although it can splay out tea branches if it is very heavy snow. It is the low temperatures that seem to damage tea the most. From reports I have gotten from customers Sochi tea does appear to be one of the hardiest. It comes from tea plantations around the black sea in Russia. My Korean strain and small leaf tea have also been hardy strains and the best variety has not been clear.

Some of those last parts overlap with a story about trying North Korean tea, and about how they were able to produce that there.

All of this encourages me to renew my own efforts to track down tea plants here.  Thailand produces tea, so I only need to go to the North and I can visit plantations up there.  And Bangkok is a big place, with a little bit of everything around; most likely tea plants are also here.

Nursery open house announcement (details here)

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