How to Grow an Herbal Tea Garden
If you enjoy sipping on tea and are looking for a new plant project, consider growing an herbal tea garden! Vegetable farmer Briana Yablosnki will share how to design, plant, and care for this fragrant garden.
Whether I’m winding down in the evening or looking for a flavorful, caffeine-free beverage in the afternoon, I always have herbal teas on hand. There’s the enlivening blend of lemon verbena and ginger and the soothing mixture of chamomile and peppermint. And you can’t forget about the healing blend of echinacea and rosehips!
Store-bought teas work in a pinch, but I’ve found that growing an herbal tea garden is easy and fun. Many herbs are low-maintenance perennials great for beginning gardeners and experts. Since so many plants work well in herbal teas, you have many to choose from.
I’ll share how to design, plant, and care for an herbal tea garden so you can confidently take on this new gardening project.
How to Grow an Herbal Tea Garden
One of the best things about herbal tea gardens is their flexibility! You can plant some calendula and mint in containers on your patio, fill the edge of your vegetable garden with coneflower, rosemary, and lemon verbena, or devote your entire front garden to herbal tea! No matter what type of garden you envision, follow the steps below to grow your herbal tea garden.
Survey Your Space
Before you decide what herbs to plant in your tea garden, look at the space you’re working with. The size of the garden, the soil type, and the sun exposure all impact what plants you can grow.
If you have a larger growing space, determine how much area you’d like to devote to your herbal tea garden. Write this number down so you’ll have it on hand in the design process. Working with a patio or other small space? Don’t worry! Many herbal tea plants grow great in pots.
After determining how much space you’d like to devote to these fragrant herbs, look at soil type and sun exposure. Most herbal tea plants require at least six hours of daily light to thrive, so stay away from shady areas. If possible, choose a location with well-draining soil. While you can improve the soil by aerating it with a broad fork and adding materials like compost, it’s difficult to transform an always-wet area of your garden into a well-draining spot.
Choose Your Plants
Once you determine how much space you’re working with, it’s time to move on to the fun part: picking out what plants for making herbal tea blends! I recommend starting by listing any herbs you’d like to grow.
Enjoy sipping on calming tea before bed? Add chamomile and catnip to your list. Looking for something warm and invigorating? Write down ginger, lemon verbena, and lemongrass. If you’re unsure where to start, look through some popular plants for herbal tea gardens and select a handful of appealing ones.
Once you have your dream list of plants, look at your available space and decide if you can fit all of these herbs in your garden. If you think you’ll be short on room, narrow your list until you arrive at a manageable number of herbs. And don’t forget you can add more plants in the future! I like to start with fewer plants to ensure they have enough room to grow and then add more plants down the line.
I also recommend choosing compact herbs if you’re working with a small garden space. Chamomile, holy basil, lemon thyme, and calendula are a few plants that work well in small gardens or containers.
Design Your Garden
With your final list of plants in hand, it’s time to design your garden. There’s no rule saying you must create a design before planting, but spending some time with a pencil and paper helps prevent crowded and unhappy plants (and it’s a great activity during the dead of winter).
I like to start by dividing the list into annuals and perennials. Many herbs are perennials, so you only need to plant them once. While this makes planting easier, it also means you should carefully consider where to place them. You’ll have to replant annuals each year, but it’s easy to change the location of these plants.
Look at the size and spread of each perennial herb and add them to your paper garden while ensuring they have space to grow. Even if you’re planting a four-inch rosemary or anise hyssop seedling, remember that these plants often grow multiple feet tall and wide within a few years. Since plants like mint and lemon balm can quickly spread throughout your garden, consider planting them inside a pot or rock barrier to prevent them from overtaking the other plants.
Once you’ve laid out your perennials, fill empty spaces with annual herbs like holy basil and calendula.
Plant Your Herbs in the Spring
The middle of spring is the best time to plant most herbs. Wait until the last frost has passed and the soil has warmed, then head into your garden to plant. Depending on your space, you can grow your herbal tea garden in the ground or in containers.
Planting Herbs in the Ground
If you have an area that receives at least six hours of sunlight, you can plant your herbal tea garden in the ground. Before you work the soil, make sure the ground is free of grasses and weeds. A stirrup hoe is designed for removing weeds and grasses from the soil surface. Use this to clear your space, and set a border around the in-ground bed with cardboard, wood, or rocks.
The next step is to amend the soil as necessary. I like to start by working the soil with a digging fork or broad fork to improve aeration and drainage. Insert the tines of the fork into the ground and gently pull back on the handle until the soil cracks. Pull the tines out of the ground, move backward a foot, and repeat this process.
Provide the soil with any necessary amendments. Compost offers some aeration and fertility. Agricultural sand and perlite give the soil more grit. If you have particularly sandy soil, adding fertile elements and water-retentive media is important. Peat moss, coco coir, and even potting soil give the soil better tilth.
After your soil is loose, grab your planting map and lay out your herb seedlings. Remember, it’s easier to move potted plants than plants that are in the ground! Once the plant spacing looks good, it’s time to plant.
Dig a hole for each seedling and place the plant’s root ball in the soil. Cover the top of the root ball with soil and water well. Then top off your garden with some natural mulch, like wood chips, shredded leaves, or straw.
Planting Herbs in Containers
If you don’t have access to an in-ground garden or want to keep your herbs contained, plant your herbs in pots! Start by selecting the proper container. The material isn’t too important—plastic, terra cotta, and ceramic all work well. However, ensure the bottom of the container has drainage holes to let water escape.
Pot size is also important. Smaller herbs like chamomile, holy basil, lemon thyme, and calendula will be comfortable in eight-inch pots, but larger plants like rosemary, purple coneflower, and lavender will be happier in 12-inch or 14-inch containers. And if you want to grow a shrub like a rose or roselle hibiscus, choose a container at least two feet in diameter.
Fill the containers with a well-draining soilless potting mix. Mixes based on peat moss or coco coir work well, especially if they contain nutrient-rich compost and drainage materials like perlite and pine bark. Place the herb’s root ball into the container, cover it with soil, and water well.
Maintain Your Garden
As with all gardens, planting your herbal tea garden is just the first step! You must properly water, fertilize, and prune your plants to end up with luscious plants and a bountiful harvest.
Like all plants, herbs require water to grow. The exact water requirements vary between plants, but most plants in an herbal tea garden like slightly moist soil. Aim to water your garden when the top few inches of soil are dry.
You’ll typically have to water container-grown herbs more often than herbs growing in the ground. That’s because the soil in containers dries out quicker than native soil. However, let the top few inches of soil dry out before you water. Overwatering can lead to root rot and other serious problems.
I also recommend closely monitoring your herbs the first few weeks after you plant them. Transplanting stresses plants, so keeping the soil moist during this time is important for limiting stress. And since seedlings have small root systems, they can’t reach moisture deep in the ground.
Most herbs require little fertilizer, especially plants like purple coneflower, lemon balm, and peppermint. Adding an annual dose of slow-release fertilizer to your herbal tea garden will give the plants the nutrients they need to produce healthy leaves and flowers.
Add a few handfuls of finished compost to your plants each spring as a good starting place. Not only will the compost provide plants with nutrients, but it will also add organic matter that feeds beneficial soil microorganisms. These microbes break down nutrients into plant-available forms, fight disease, and improve soil structure.
You can also add a fertilizer specifically for flowering plants to herbs like chamomile, anise hyssop, and roses. These products contain higher amounts of phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen, encouraging plants to produce more flowers and fruits. Avoid adding excess nitrogen to aromatic plants, as this can reduce essential oil production.
Unfortunately, weeds can be a problem in herbal tea gardens. If left unchecked, small weed seedlings quickly overtake slow-growing herbs and turn your garden into a wild mess. Fortunately, weeding your garden for a few minutes each week keeps weeds under control.
Although you can use your hands to pull large weeds, I like to use a weeding tool like a hand hoe or scuffle hoe to disturb the soil and kill small weeds. Killing weeds right before or right after they emerge from the soil, what farmers know as the “white thread stage,” is simple. The trick is to keep up with the weekly weeding, even when it looks like few weeds are present. Remember, five minutes of work now can save you hours of future work.
Mulching your garden also helps control weeds and conserve moisture. I recommend using wood chips to mulch your herbal tea garden since these materials will cover the soil throughout the season and break down to enrich the soil. However, you can also mulch with straw, leaves, rocks, and other materials. No matter what type of material you choose, apply it as soon after planting as possible.
While most herbal tea gardens grow without pruning, removing extra growth keeps plants tidy, improves airflow, and prevents diseases like powdery mildew. Pruning methods vary between plants, but I’ve included several ways to prune herbs below. No matter what herb you’re pruning, use sharp and sanitized tools to speed healing and prevent the spread of disease.
Pruning herbs with semi-wood stems will encourage the plants to produce bushy growth, prevent disease, and encourage strong roots. Early spring is the best time to prune these woody herbs, but early fall also works.
Start by grabbing a pair of sharp pruning shears and distinguishing hard woody growth from pliable vegetative growth. Aim to remove a third of the vegetative growth while keeping your shears away from the woody stems. You can also remove dead portions and trim the plant to a desirable shape.
Mint, Catnip, and Lemon Balm
These plants are known for their rapid growth and ability to take over your garden. While they are often prolific producers, they can also become leggy. Pruning allows you to control the plants’ growth and produce bushy plants.
Spring is the best time to prune, but you can also prune during the early summer and fall. Grab a sharp pair of shears or knife and remove the top few inches of each stem. This trim encourages the plants to develop healthy new growth and sends energy into their roots.
If the plants start creeping into unwelcome areas, pull their roots from the ground.
Tall, Flowering Perennials
Since these plants are native, they don’t require pruning to thrive. However, cleaning up last year’s growth can limit the spread of disease and keep your garden tidy.
Although you may be tempted to remove old flower stalks and stems in fall, I encourage you to avoid doing so. Native bees overwinter in these small, hollow cavities, and caterpillars pupate inside them. Instead, wait until the weather warms in the spring before cleaning. Use your hands to gently remove any dead stems and leaves.
I also like to deadhead my plants throughout the summer to encourage a continuous supply of healthy flowers.
After spending hours designing, planting, and maintaining your herbal tea garden, you’ll be happy when harvest time rolls around. When I worked at a vegetable farm in Virginia, everyone hoped they’d be on the herb team on harvest days. After all, what’s better than spending a morning sitting under the sun, snipping herbs, and taking in the incredible aromas?
Since herbs mature at different times of the year, the best time to harvest varies between plants. However, you can harvest most leaves and flowers in summer and dig roots and rhizomes in fall.
Harvesting Herbal Greens
Gardeners praise many herbs for their fragrant and flavorful leaves. I’m talking about the bright, citrusy scent of lemon verbena, the refreshing taste of peppermint, and the unmistakable, slightly bitter horehound. Harvesting these leaves is as easy as snipping them off your plant, but following a few harvesting tips can lead to high-quality harvests and healthy plants.
First, harvest in the early morning, evening, or any other time the sun isn’t out. Sun and heat quickly wilt leaves and cause the plants to lose some flavor. I like to harvest my herbal greens in the early morning, dunk them in cold water to cool them, and bring them inside as quickly as possible.
Don’t harvest more than one-third of a single stem or entire plant at one time. Leaving at least two-thirds of the plant intact limits plant stress and allows the herb to produce new growth.
Chamomile, anise hyssop, and lavender produce fragrant flowers that provide flavor and color to herbal teas. Picking flowers when they’ve just opened lets you capture them at the peak of flavor and fragrance.
Like leaves, I recommend harvesting flowers in the morning before the sun warms them. However, if this doesn’t work with your schedule, you can also pick the flowers in the evening or on a cool, cloudy day.
I typically use my hands to harvest large flowers like chamomile and calendula. Just grab the base of the flower between your fingers and give it a firm yet gentle pull. The process may seem slow initially, but you’ll get faster with some practice. You can also use a specially designed chamomile rake to harvest these flowers at larger scales.
Harvest small, clumped flowers like lavender and anise hyssop by cutting the stems. I like to use sharp shears to harvest, but you can also use a knife.
Harvesting Roots and Rhizomes
People grow herbs such as coneflower, dandelion, and ginger for their roots and rhizomes. These underground plant parts are packed with medicinal and flavorful compounds, but since the soil covers them, it can be challenging to determine when they’re ready to harvest.
The first step is to look at the above-ground growth. While robust stems and greens don’t necessarily indicate healthy roots, small and spindly plants are likely to accompany little roots. Therefore, only dig up healthy and mature plants.
The fall is the best time to dig up coneflower and dandelion roots as well as ginger rhizomes. Use a digging fork or shovel to loosen the soil around the plant while not cutting or puncturing the roots. Lift the root ball from the ground and knock off any extra soil.
Use and Preserve the Herbs
You can steep both fresh and dried herbs in water to make tea, so it’s up to you if you want to harvest fresh herbs for each cup of tea or batch harvest and dry herbs for future use. Even if you want to use fresh herbs as much as possible, drying some of your plants will allow you to enjoy homegrown tea during the winter.
The easiest way to dry herbs is to create small bundles and hang them upside down in a dry location. As long as the humidity is low, the plants will dry within a few weeks. However, there are quicker options available.
If you have a dehumidifier at home, you can use it to dry herbs ranging from dandelion roots to calendula flowers. Another option is laying a single layer of herbs on a baking tray and placing them into an oven set at 175°F (79°C). Leaves and flowers will fully dry in an hour or two, but roots can take three or four hours.
Once the herbs are dry, place them into airtight containers and store them somewhere cool and dry. Most herbs will remain fragrant for one year.
Growing an herbal tea garden allows you to express your creativity, learn about new plants, and create tasty beverages. So pick out a few of your favorite herbs and get growing!