What can cool you down on a hot summer day, pair with cakes at a fancy brunch, and soothe a sore throat on a frosty winter night? It’s the second most consumed beverage in the world, tea.
From its roots in China over 4,000 years ago, tea made its way across Asia and Europe and into the homes and hearts of people around the world. Along with its widespread popularity have come endless ways of preparing tea.
One of the most popular ways Americans serve hot tea is brewed it with herbs, such as lavender and mint. Some people forgo the tea altogether and brew the herbs on their own, making herbal infusions known as tisanes. No matter how you make it, tea is a delightful addition to most any meal.
Growing a garden of tea and herbs can allow you to enjoy your own blends, as well as the beautiful flowers and aromas of fresh herbs. Here, we’ll teach you how to plant, harvest, prepare, and brew some of the more popular tisanes and teas.
Chamomile is known for its calming effects, but the small, daisy-like flower can also increase appetite and relieve indigestion. The two most popular varieties of chamomile are German and Roman. German chamomile is more suited to small gardens or planters, while Roman chamomile makes a good ground cover.
Sow chamomile seeds indoors or in the garden. Chamomile grows easily when allowed to shed mature seeds. Plants do best in fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny spot. While chamomile will grow most places, it will not tolerate temperatures over 98 degrees for very long.
Harvest branches when they have several open flowers, and hang to dry in bunches. Once the stems have dried, remove the blooms and store in an airtight container. To brew, steep two teaspoons of dried flowers in one cup of boiling water for five to 10 minutes.
Mint is a hardy plant that is fairly easy to care for. It will grow in average soil and partial to full sun. Start seeds indoors and place outside after last frost, or place fresh stem-tip cuttings in moist soil to root. Mint will spread, so plant it near a barrier, such as a sidewalk, or grow it in a container.
Pick leaves often to promote growth and keep the plant bushy. While mint can be dried, it tastes as good fresh. Harvest fresh leaves, tear them up slightly, and steep in boiling water for three to seven minutes, depending on your preference. Learn more about how to grow mint and the health benefits of mint tea.
People have valued lemon balm for its calming properties for centuries. It can also help relieve headaches and lower blood pressure. Lemon balm can be grown from a root clump and is best transferred from early spring to early summer. Start seedlings safely indoors late in the winter, and set them out in spring.
While lemon balm grows easily in most places, it tends to spread. To prevent spread, grow this herb in a pot, or cut back flowering stems in late summer. Lemon balm grows best in rich, well-drained soil and full sun. Its leaves are best when harvested just as flowers are beginning to bloom. For tea, steep a few fresh leaves in boiling water for two to five minutes.
Lavender produces beautiful purple flowers that not only smell and taste wonderful, but also help ease headaches and prevent fainting and dizziness. Lavender prefers very well-drained, almost sandy, soil and sunny, open areas. It can grow in pots or planters, but will grow taller and have better air circulation in a garden, which will help deter fungus.
Plant seeds in late summer or early autumn, or split and plant existing clumps in autumn. Harvest stalks of lavender just as flowers bloom, and dry in small bundles before storing in an airtight container. To brew, steep four teaspoons of dried flowers in boiling water for two to five minutes. Learn more about growing lavender.
Echinacea has antiviral and antibacterial properties, which make it great for helping to combat colds and sore throats. The whole echinacea plant, from its purple coneflowers to its roots, can be used in tinctures and teas. Start with a plant from a nursery, or sow seeds indoors in late winter. Echinacea will not bloom reliably until its second year, but it is hardy and can withstand cold winters. It prefers full sun in cold climates and partial shade in areas with hot summers. Echinacea grows best in rich soil with a neutral pH.
Roots can be washed, cut into small pieces, and dried. Stems should be cut above the bottom set of leaves and hung upside down to dry. To brew echinacea tea, steep one tablespoon of dried root or dried stems and flowers in one cup of boiling water for three minutes.
Hibiscus tea has a very tangy flavor and a rich red color. Like with several other herbal teas, when you brew hibiscus you are actually brewing the flower. Studies show that it can measurably lower blood pressure. It is also frequently used for stomach upset, cramps, fever and sore throat. It’s rich in vitamin C so it can help to boost your body’s immune system.
Stevia – A Tea Sweetener You Can Grow Too!
Stevia is a popular alternative to refined sugar and other sweeteners, and makes a delicious addition to tea. It grows well in average, well-drained soil and partial afternoon shade to full sun. Stevia seeds are hesitant to sprout, so start with a purchased plant. Pinch back often to promote bushiness and delay flowering. Gather sprigs and brew fresh in boiling water to your strength preference. Gather stems to dry before plants bloom in midsummer.
The tea plant, or Camellia sinensis, is the plant from which tea is made. Tea leaves contain caffeine, and the leaves can be processed in different ways to produce different kinds of teas. Any brewed tea including Camellia sinensis is a proper tea, while those without Camellia sinensis—usually made from mixtures of herbs and flowers—are tisanes.
This plant prefers hardiness zones seven through nine and rich, moist environments with a lot of rainfall. Gardens located in moderate zones will be able to grow tea plants outdoors, while those in colder environments might consider keeping their tea plants in greenhouses, or pots for easy movement to insulated spaces come winter.
Despite its variety, all tea comes from the same plant. Whether it’s white, green, oolong, black, or something more intense, such as pu-erh tea, all of it is made of the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Perhaps even more surprising is that variances in flavor are generally not attributed to the way the plant is raised, not to the part of the plant used in tea-making (almost all tea is made using the leaves), but in how the leaves are processed on their journey between stem and cup. A less common type of tea, twig tea, is made using the woody parts (think stems and branches) of the tea plant as opposed to the leaves.
While many people drink tea for its complex, intriguing bouquet of flavors or the antioxidants, others sip tea for its pick-me-up caffeine boost. If you’re looking for some extra mental energy, then aim for darker teas. It is the processing that causes teas to oxidize and become caffeinated.
Here are some of the processes you’ll need to know when harvesting from your tea plants.
Collecting: Use gardening shears or sharp scissors to snip freshly grown leaves from the ends of your tea plant.
Withering: This is the process of allowing the leaves to air-dry. Usually leaves are withered in a thin layer on a flat tray.
Rolling: using your hand or a cloth, roll the leaves so they’re wrinkled. Rolling cracks the cell walls of the leaves and allows the flavors and antioxidants to escape into your brew.
Drying: While tea can be served after it has been rolled, it is often more economic to spend your time producing enough tea for several brews. To store your tea for later use, you’ll want to dry it. You can dry your tea by spreading it out in a thin layer to air dry, then lay it out in the sun—or you can bake it under low heat until the moisture is gone from the leaves.
If you want to add some caffeinated kick to your brews, you’ll need to use some Camellia sinensis in your recipe. When harvesting from your tea plant, fresh, tender leaves are best for brewing. Depending on how processed the leaves are, various types of tea can be brewed.
White tea has generally undergone minimal processing between harvest and consumption. To prepare white tea leaves, snip freshly grown leaves from the end of your tea plant’s branches, then let them air out away from the sun for a couple of days. Be sure to allow plenty of space and not pile them up so the moisture can evaporate and not grow mold.
When people think of hot tea, a freshly brewed cup of green tea often comes to mind. Green tea is very convenient because it can be consumed the same day it is harvested. To prepare green tea,snip fresh leaves from your tea plant and again let them air dry for a while—approximately seven hours. At this point, heat the leaves briefly in a frying pan, then roll the leaves. Your tea is now ready to steep and brew.!
For oolong tea, the leaves must first undergo wilting for a couple days. To allow for oxidation, the leaves must then be shaken several times in a span of about 30 minutes between each shaking. After this process, the leaves are ready to be rolled.
Black tea requires trial and error. Depending on your tea plant and your environment, the leaves may need a longer or shorter wilting period after harvest. While rolling leaves for black tea, more pressure is necessary than for other types of tea. You will know your leaves have been sufficiently rolled when juice starts to come out of the leaves.
The last step before serving or storing is to allow the leaves to rest in a warm place until they change color to that rich, warm red-brown black tea leaves boast. Again, depending on your tea plant and the environment you’re working in, the time it takes can vary drastically, sometimes as little as a few hours are necessary, and sometimes half a day. It will require trial and error and a watchful eye for you to learn what the exact process is to produce your best cup of tea.
Whichever type of tea or tisane you prefer, you’re bound to find the process of growing and harvesting your own cup rewarding. Use this guide to help you in selecting the types best for your taste and your environment. Then relax with a cup of freshly prepared tea you can trace every step of the way from leaf to brew.
Visit these sites to find even more information about growing your own tea garden:
Megan Smith Mauk grew up in Texas, where she developed a reverence for all forms of life. In college, she became co-chair of the environmental coalition. She now lives with her husband, and their dog and cat, in Virginia.
Kelly Jacobi is an artist, designer, student, and patio gardener who enjoys seeing her plants
thrive and adorning her walls with pieces of art created by local artists and artisans. She is currently
in pursuit of a bachelor’s of art and performance and hopes to delve deeper into her art and writing
upon completion of her degree.