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Guide: Growing Tea Plants (Camellia Sinensis)


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Intro

Tea!  One of the most popular drinks though out time is actually from a single plant.  Black, green, oolong, and white tea are all from the Camellia Sinensis plant depending on how the plant is processed.  The plant itself is fairly hardy and easy to grow, making it one of the easiest ways to enjoy a fresh cup of homemade tea!  Processing the leaves into tea is also an easy task that does not require much more the some time, water, and an oven. So why not take the step to growing your own tea plant?

The Plant

The plant itself is a bushy shrub, although can grow into a smaller tree-like plant if left to grow wild.  Most plants will get between 6 to 12 feet tall and about the same size wide.  It's hardiness zone is from 6 to 10, but most varieties are 7 to 9.  Yes, there are multiple varieties within the Camellia Sinensis family that offer slightly different advantages over the other.  The camellia assamica or broad leaf is the most popular type of tea plant, grows larger, and favors a wetter and more "tropical" environment, while the camellia sinensis var sinensis or small leaf is a smaller variety and favors higher elevations and dryer areas.  While those two are the most popular, many other varieties exist and all of them fall into the same hardiness range and overall same growing needs.

Personally I enjoy Camellia Forest Nursery for my plants as finding them locally is often impossible, even more-so for myself as i live outside of their growing zone.  There are numerous online stores that sell the plant, like A Natural Farm or even Amazon, so finding one should not be a problem.

Planting

The tea plant is a hardy plant if grown within it's grow zones and can often tolerate being grown slightly outside of its zones it extra steps are taken for care.  It also does well in containers and being grown indoors, which is how I grow mine as my hardiness zone is 6.  

The plant prefers an acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, which may be slightly challenging to achieve with your local soil, but is far from any extreme levels.  If you are planting in a pot, then using an Azalea focused soil is a great choice and you can also use this potting mix when planting in-ground by digging a hole and back filling with the soil so the plant is happier until it gets fully established.  It is also noteworthy that Camellia plants can live for years, over 100 in fact, and using a quality soil in your planter is a most if you want to even come close to this age.  You can use a premium soil like Dr. Earth Acid Lovers and avoid mixing but it is quite expensive up front (be advised that it is often much cheaper in stores and often carried by the big box stores like Lowes.)  I (being cheap) used regular old potting mix and added extra perlite and an acid based fertilizer and plant is doing well.  My ratio was 25% perlite to 75% potting soil (don't factor in the perlite already included) and I followed the directions on my fertilizer which was a 1/2 for my plant size.  Do not increase the moisture holding abilities of the soil for this plant.

The plant is very slow growing, so starting in a small pot is advised and it will take quite some time to need repotting as it grows.  Although it will require a large planter once it gets old as it is a large bush after all.  

Growing

As stated before, the plant grows very slow.  It will need repotting as it grows if in a container but you do not need to rush buying bigger pots for this plant.  Outdoors, the plant will also grow quite slow and needs to be watched for pests.  The plant itself is a Chinese plant and therefore may not be of interest for your local pest, but it is still an edible leaf and needs to be watched.  Be very careful on using chemical pesticides as they are designed to soak into leaves and tea is literally drinking the favors and chemicals in the leaf.  I would highly advise using food safe pest deterrents.

For indoor growing, the plants do not enjoy the high heat of your home and need to have a winter of some type.  If you are within or near the hardiness zones 7 to 9, then a porch or garage may be your best location so the plant can cool at night and also experience a cold winter.  You may struggle if the plant never gets below 60F.  Light is required at all times and even if you are placing your plants on a patio in the summer and bringing them inside for their winter dormancy, they will require a grow light or windows that gets a heavy dose of sunlight.  I have mine sitting outside in the summer and on my enclosed east facing porch in the winter with a grow light (this one to exact) for extra sunlight as I do not have a south facing porch.

Watering can be a bit of a learning curve as the plants enjoy well draining soil and pots but can not be left with moist soil and do not tolerate dry soil well either.  Waiting for the top half inch of soil to completely dry out before watering is a great way to keep the plant happy.  Fertilizing is a much more important task if the plant is in a container, but should be done even in ground to help the acid levels.  I use an acid based fertilizer in the spring and so far it has been enough.  Be careful with liquid fertilizers as they may will wash out quite rapidly in the high draining soil, I stick with Fox Farm's Acid Loving Fertilizer but there are many good brands.

For a side note on watering, be wary if you have hard water as the pH level is often very alkaline and if you must use it then you may very likely need to work harder to keep your soil acidic.  You can get all sorts of water pH testing strips and meters and even soil pH testers to help in this task.

Harvesting

Harvesting and processing will require a guide of their own; however, there are some notable items you need to know.  First, the plant is slow growing and needs to be at least 3 years old before harvesting any leaves.  Second, the older and established leaves should be left on the plant and only the young leaves should be harvested.  Harvesting the young leaves not only provides you with better tea, but it also makes life much easier on the plant itself.  Tea plants do well with pruning but constantly pruning their old growth for tea will stress the plant out.  It is also best a harvest leaves at different times of the year for the best flavor.

Edited by Guardian
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