Growing Tea: Finding Zen in the Garden

Nothing’s more relaxing than a cup of steaming tea, right? But what if you could also unwind by growing the tea yourself? Growing tea is simpler than it seems and will fill your home with a calming, and delicious, vibe.

Tea is frequently touted for its many health benefits, including antioxidants and stress relief. It can boost heart health and reduce the risk of stroke. Green tea is famous for weight loss while the caffeine in black tea gets us up in the morning. With your own plant, you get all these benefits plus the joy of gardening!

There are hundreds of tea flavors but only one true tea plant. Camellia sinensis is the vegetation you have to thank for your daily fix. Its evergreen foliage adds charm to any garden and homegrown comfort to your cup.

By growing Camellia sinensis, you’re taking part in a worldwide and ancient practice. Tea has been prized by Chinese monarchy, taken center stage in Japanese ceremonies, and introduced to the British by Portuguese royalty. At one point, it was such an expensive delicacy that it was smuggled into Britain to avoid the high prices.

Luckily, today you can grow this historical luxury in your own backyard. The price may have gone down, but the elegance and reverence of tea is ever-present in the beautiful Camellia sinensis. So, let’s dive into growing, processing, and sipping the world’s favorite beverage.

Get A Tea Plant

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Quick Care Guide

Growing Tea
Growing tea is surprisingly easy to do! Source: TeachAgPSU
Common Name(s)Tea, tea plant, Chinese tea, India tea, cha, tea camellia, matcha
Scientific NameCamellia sinensis
Months of Harvest4+ months of the year
LightPartial shade or mild sun
Water:Consistent medium watering
SoilWell-draining and lightly acidic
FertilizerHigh nitrogen in spring
PestsScale, spider mites, aphids
DiseasesAlgal leaf spot, root rot, canker

About The Tea Plant

To say the tea plant is historical is an understatement. It has played a huge role in the cultures of the past and continues to have great traditional, medical, and spiritual significance today. This single plant that originated in China and India around 2,000 years ago is grown and consumed all over the world today!

Camellia sinensis is adapted to tropical and subtropical climates, which means it’s going to like humidity and warm, not hot, temperatures. Because of this, commercial tea production is mostly concentrated in Asia, from Japan to Nepal to Sri Lanka.

Camellia sinensis is a woody shrub that can also grow into a small tree. Pruning usually keeps it around 3-7 feet tall, but it has the potential to reach 20 feet or higher. The coveted tea leaves are vivid bright green and oblong. In the fall and winter, this evergreen plant produces the cutest little white flowers with buttery yellow centers.

The Camellia genus includes various ornamentals with showy, colorful flowers. Out of them all though, the Sinensis species is the tea maker.

At tea time, we’re dealing with two cultivars of this plant. C. sinensis var. Assamica is mainly grown in India, where it likes the heat. It has large leaves that produce a strong, robust flavor. Because of this, it’s mostly used for black tea. C. sinensis var. Sinensis is grown in China and has much smaller leaves. It’s hardy in cold weather and has a delicate taste that’s prized in green and white teas.

Multiple Teas From One Plant

Tea plantation
Tea plantations are not uncommon in major growing regions. Source: j_arlecchino

While you won’t get your herbal blends (called “tisanes”) from tea leaves, you will get all true teas from the same source. Occasionally, there will be blends that mix tea leaves with herbal ingredients for flavor, but anything that is truly tea will be made with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.

True tea includes black, green, oolong (sometimes called red), and white tea. Each flavor is created by processing the plant differently, primarily with oxidation. To put it simply, oxidation is what happens when a leaf dries up. This begins as soon as the leaf is picked and doesn’t stop until the gardener literally stops it with heat.

The more the leaf dries out, the darker it turns in color and the stronger its flavor is. As you can probably guess, white or green tea is made from barely processed leaves and black tea is the most oxidized. Of course, this is barely brushing the surface of the many ways to process tea. The many flavors out there may require different parts of the plant, various heating methods, and even fermentation. We’ll get into that a bit more later!

Planting Tea

The Camellia sinensis plant sets tea seeds really well, but they aren’t reliable for germination. To ensure they’re growing the right plant, most gardeners rely on store-bought starts. These shrubs are best grown outside but can also be indoor-outdoor growers. If you decide to plant in a container, be prepared for yearly pruning to keep the size manageable. You’ll also need a 3-5 gallon container with good drainage.

Start your tea growing in early spring, just before the growing season starts. If you choose to plant in the ground, select the appropriate location beforehand. Your little tea garden needs to be somewhere with partial shade – under a tree canopy is perfect. However, these plants need to be protected from cold wind and weather, so plant them on the south side of your house if needed. Space each shrub at least 36” away from other plants.

Like wine, tea flavor depends heavily on its growing environment, or terroir. Taste may differ between leaves grown in different climates, elevation, or even parts of the garden. You might try experimenting with finding your garden’s sweet spot by planting in several places.

Now that your location is set, remove the start from its container and plant it in well-draining, slightly acidic soil. If the location is below the water-table, build up a mound for the plant so it won’t drown. It may be tempting to pick the tea leaves right away, but it’s highly recommended to let the plant grow for about 3 years before harvesting.

These are typically slow-growing plants that don’t mind being rootbound. That being said though, make sure you do repot if your tea plant is obviously too big for its container.

Caring For Your Tea Leaf Plant

Tea flower
The camellia sinensis flower can be quite beautiful. Source: cosmic-angler

Now that your Camellia sinensis is planted, it needs some TLC before teatime. Here’s everything you need to know about growing these relaxing tea leaves.

Sun and Temperature

You may think tropical plants need full sun, but most naturally grow under tree canopies, where they thrive in dappled light. Give your green tea plant part shade and protect it from direct light and heat. Indoors, you’ll want to place it in indirect sunlight.

The ideal temperature here is between 50 and 90°F. When the temperature begins to drop below 50°F, the Camellia will go dormant for the winter. During this time, it should consistently be between 25 and 50°F. If needed, you can cover the plants or move potted ones to a warmer place. Keep in mind though that the plant won’t flower unless it’s allowed to go dormant.

Watering & Humidity

Tea plants need even and consistent watering. Water when the top inch of the soil dries out, which will be about once a week depending on location. Container plants go through water quickly, so you’ll be watering more frequently with them.

Humidity is a must for keeping tea plants spry. If you live in a naturally humid climate, your Camellia sinensis should thrive outdoors. For drier regions and indoor plants though, you’ll need to up the humidity. An easy way to do this is with a water tray. Just find a tray that’s larger than the base of the pot, fill it with pebbles, and add water to just below the pebble line. With your Camellia placed on top, the water will evaporate around it while the rocks keep the roots from drowning.

There are alternate methods of adding humidity, like using a plant humidifier. At the very least, you should mist the leaves daily with a spray bottle.

Soil

Camellia sinensis is an acid-loving plant with a preferred pH of 5.5-6.5. You’ll need to ensure the soil is acidic before tea planting and maintain the pH from there. Use a soil testing kit to determine if your growing medium needs to be doctored. To help keep the acidity up through the years, use an acidic fertilizer and mulch.

Waterlogged roots is a serious danger to the black tea plant, so you’ll need a fast and well-draining soil. It also needs to be fairly fertile, which can be achieved by adding some organic matter. Make sure it doesn’t mess up the drainage!

Fertilizing

You’ll need an acidic fertilizer for tea plants. There are lots of products out there made specifically for Camellias (Azalea fertilizer works well too). If you want to boost leaf growth though, look for a fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen.

Start fertilizing in early spring, when the tree is starting to grow. You can do a yearly application of slow-release fertilizer or 1-3 applications of short-term feed throughout the spring. If you’ve applied mulch to the ground, remove it before fertilizing. After you’ve applied the plant food, water it in and replace the mulch.

Pruning / Training

Rows of tea plants
Tea is often grown in hedgelike rows for ease of harvesting. Source: f99aq8ove

This is a slow-growing plant, so you won’t have to prune too often. At least once a year though you should check for dead or dying branches. If you’re really serious about your tea-garden though, there’s more to it.

It’s a common practice in tea cultivation to clip off flower buds in order to get better leaf growth. We know it’s a shame to part with such lovely flowers, but it’ll help your tree grow bushier. You’ll also want to prune back the main branches to keep indoor trees containable and outdoor trees within harvesting reach. Additionally, remove crossing branches to encourage aeration through the tree.

Propagation

Since tea plant seeds don’t germinate well, we recommend propagating by a vegetative method. Stem cuttings are a common and easy method that creates clones of the original plant. You can multiply your own trees or take a cutting from a friend’s.

Take your cutting from the tip of a healthy branch, containing 2-4 leaves and growth buds. It should be around 3-4 inches long with a diagonal cut. Dip the cut end in a fungicide if necessary and then rooting hormone.

Stick the cutting an inch deep in well-draining, moist soil. The medium needs to be kept warm while the cutting roots, so start the process in the spring or keep it indoors on a heating mat during the winter (around 65-75°F). Lightly water it so the soil is consistently moist but not soaked. When the cutting has successfully rooted and shows stem or leaf growth, you can transplant it into its permanent home or a larger container. Your new tree should start blooming in 1 – 3 years.

Harvesting, Processing & Storing

Harvesting tea leaves
Tea leaves are harvested at different times of year for different flavor profiles. Source: jaundicedferret

Before you dive into planning a tea party, the leaves need to be harvested and prepared. Here’s what you’ll need to do.

Harvesting

You’ll be picking your tea leaves by hand, just like the highest quality teas around the world are. Be sure to only pick disease-free leaves that aren’t broken or damaged in any way. 

In the spring, tea plants have “flushes” of new growth. At each flush, you can pinch off the new leaves and buds. So that the plant continues growing, it’s recommended to only harvest the leaves and buds at the tip of each branch. Like pruning, you shouldn’t remove more than a third of the plant.

If you’re planning to make green or white tea, you’ll want to pick the smallest, youngest leaves and buds. Some white teas are even made with only buds. Black and oolong tea, on the other hand, tastes best when made with larger, more mature leaves.

After harvesting, the next flush should be ready in 1-2 weeks. You can harvest whenever new growth shows up or just schedule a couple harvests per year so you have larger leaves to choose from. Some gardeners even harvest the flowers, which can be done in the late fall.

Processing

After harvesting, you’ll need to start processing the tea leaves right away. This is perhaps the most important part, since how you process them will determine the type of tea you get. Every step in processing tea leaves can impact the taste, so there’s lots of room for experimentation. You may find that each batch you process has its own flavor.

White tea is the least processed overall, and the finest tea leaves. The delicateness is achieved by only using buds and unfurled leaves at the very tip of a branch. In fact, the leaves are usually so young that they’re still coated in white fuzz. They aren’t heated like green tea, but instead allowed to oxidize slightly while they dry. Let them dry out gently – preferably in the sun.

Green tea is the least oxidized, which is what makes it so fresh-tasting. Oxidation begins as soon as you pick the leaf, so immediately apply heat to stop it. Steam them for a couple minutes to lock in their current flavor. Chinese-style green teas are pan-fried with dry heat rather than steamed, which gives them a distinctively different flavor. They can be carefully rolled between the hands without bruising the leaves to create a distinctive shape.

For Red or Oolong tea, we need partial oxidation. Begin by gently rolling the leaves in your hands to bruise them. This exposes more of the internal leaf to the air, speeding up the oxidation process. Now, it’ll only take around half an hour for the leaf to begin turning brown. You’ll need to heat them as soon as they start browning to prevent your fruity Oolong from becoming a strong black tea.

You can keep the leaves rolled or even form them into a tea ball. When they steep, the leaves will slowly unfold. They can even be steeped more than once for a slightly different flavor each time. 

Black tea is the most oxidized, giving it the strongest flavor. Roll the leaves, but bruise them a bit more this time. You may even crush them or bruise them multiple times. Once thoroughly beaten up, leave them out for several hours until they turn entirely brown. Like Oolong, the leaves can be shaped into a tea ball before drying.

Now that your tea leaves are oxidized and fixed at the desired taste, they need to dry. This can be done in the sun, which is recommended for white tea, or on a baking sheet in the oven. Lay the leaves out evenly on the baking sheet and heat them at 200-250°F for 10-20 minutes.

Storing

Tea won’t really go bad to the point that it’s poisonous, but it does get stale. Once processed, it’s best when used within six months but will stay fresh for about a year. Black and Oolong tea, if processed correctly, can store for two years without losing flavor.

Keep your tea in a dark pantry that’s room temperature or slightly cool. You must use an airtight container for the tea to store properly – you may even want to double up on lids. We know you’d love to show off the pretty leaves in a glass jar, but opaque containers are better since light won’t get through. Metal or glass is preferable since plastic can affect the flavor. Tea will also steal flavors from its storage neighbors, so keep it away from spices and coffee.

Troubleshooting

Tippy leaves with some leaf spotting
These leaf tips show some hints of leaf spotting. Source: matt 2906

As always, be on the lookout for any signs of distress in your Camellia. Catching these problems early on is the best thing you can do to keep your tea-plant healthy.

Growing Problems

The symptoms of growing problems are usually evident in the most important part of a tea shrub – the leaves. Yellowing leaves are typically a sign that the soil needs to be more acidic. Pale leaves, accompanied by stunted or leggy growth, may speak of nitrogen deficiency.

Magnesium deficiency is a common problem for camellias. Unlike the even paling of nitrogen deficiency, it causes yellowing in between the veins and eventual leaf drop. Prevent deficiencies by applying organic matter to the ground yearly.

Pests

Scale insects can be a big problem for Camellias. These are tiny insects that come in a myriad of colors. Most secrete honeydew which often grows sooty mold and attracts ants. Scales feed on sap, causing the leaves to yellow and drop. Horticultural oil and neem oil are excellent organic controls for this pest. When coated on the plant, they will smother the insects.

Spider mites are miniscule arachnids that cover the leaves with fine webs. They make little yellow dots on the leaves and eventually kill them. They like dry conditions, so make sure your Camellia is well-watered. They can be removed with insecticidal soap or even a strong blast of water.

Last, we have the common yet threatening aphids. Large infestations of these buggers can yellow the leaves, make decaying spots, and stunt shoot growth. Like scales, they make honeydew that invites sooty mold and entices ants to visit. Minor populations can simply be pruned off the tree or sprayed with water. Large numbers call for a more serious control though, like insecticidal soap.

Diseases

Algal leaf spot shows up as silvery, raised spots on the leaves. Large infections can yellow and kill the leaves. This disease thrives in hot, humid weather, and must be caught early on. The best control method is to prune the infected leaves and allow good aeration through the bush.

Root rot, usually caused by Phytophthora or Pythium, damages the plant under and above ground. It starts with waterlogged roots that start to rot and can move up the shrub. This disease will slow the growth, yellow leaves, and eventually kill the whole tree. The most efficient way to prevent root rot is to use well-draining soil and not overwater. If you suspect root rot is already underway, stop watering, switch to a better soil, and apply fungicide.

Canker and dieback wilts new growth, kills leaves, and creates lesions on older wood. This disease enters the plant through a wound, combined with heat and humidity. Whenever you prune or harvest your C. sinensis, keep the wounds dry and aerated until they callous over. If you notice infected leaves or twigs, prune them right away. If needed, fungicide can be applied yearly in the spring.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How long does it take to grow tea?

A: Once planted, it’ll be about 3 years before your Camellia sinensis can be harvested.

Q: Can you grow tea from tea bags?

A: It’s best to leave your tea bags in the pantry. Tea plants can only be grown by live vegetative propagation or tea seeds, which the bags don’t contain.

Q: Is tea plant the same as tea tree?

A: Tea plants are shrublike and can grow like trees. However, the term “tea tree” usually refers to Melaleuca, which is a completely different plant.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Rachel Garcia
Succulent Fanatic

Clarisa Teodoro
Researcher

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

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