Growing Your Own Tea Garden
article by P. Allen Smith
I just love a soothing cup of herbal tea out in my garden, particularly when I’ve grown some of the herbs myself. They’re so easy to grow, whether you grow them in containers or raised beds, they’re really useful to have around. And there are so many aromatic and flavorful varieties to choose from.
I suggest siting your tea garden close to your kitchen, either in containers, raised beds or in the ground so you can harvest your herbs while the water boils. Also, have a planting plan. Knowing what plants you want and the dimensions of your space can save you a lot of time and resources at the garden center.
Some of my favorite herbs and plants to grow for tea are:
Mint: For a refreshing and uplifting flavor, go with a mint, like peppermint or spearmint. Or try a mint with a twist, like chocolate or sweet mint. Another great thing about mint is it helps soothe an upset stomach. Mint can spread like wildfire, and this plant is known for being a bit of a thug. One of the ways to keep it from taking over your garden is to plant it in a container and then plant the container in your garden bed. This will keep the roots contained.
Lemon thyme or lemon verbena: If you’re looking for a citrus flavor without growing your own fruit tree, give lemon thyme or lemon verbena a try. Both brighten and complement many other flavors. Lemon thyme can also double as a groundcover—make sure it has well-drained soil.
Lemongrass: This plant makes quite a statement growing in the middle of an herb garden. You just tear off a leaf and bruise it to release a wonderful lemony flavor—it’s so refreshing. Lemongrass thrives in full sun, even in the hot South. It also needs rich, well-drained soil.
Lavender: This is perfect for a calming, aromatic tea, and the fragrance always reminds me of my time spent in the English countryside. In my humid, mid-south garden I’ve had the most success with a lavandin called ‘Provence.’
No matter the type, all lavenders thrive in growing conditions similar to their native habitat along the Mediterranean coast. They prefer moist, cool winters and hot, dry summers. Well-drained soil and a full day’s sun are also essential for robust plants and plentiful blooms. In the humid South, try Spanish or French lavender.
Hibiscus: These flowers lend a tart flavor and beautiful color to teas. Use flowers that are fully open. Remove the stamen and rinse the petals before using the flower. Hibiscus requires plenty of direct sunlight and prefers rich, fertile, loamy soil that is well-drained and moist.
Calendula: These flowers are commonly referred to as “pot marigolds,” because, as you may have guessed, they grow well in containers. These annuals are easily grown from seed. To ensure a long flowering season, pick the flowers every few days.
There is a good reason why stevia is commonly known as sweetleaf. Its dried leaves are 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar and a glycoside extracted from the leaves is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. If you grow your own stevia, dry and crush the leaves before using as a sweetener.
It’s best to plant stevia in late spring or early summer when all danger of frost has passed. Stevia is finicky about soil drainage; excess moisture, especially right after planting, is the kiss of death. The roots are shallow, so apply a layer of mulch or compost on top of the soil to protect keep them from drying out.
When it comes time to brew your tea, you can use dried or fresh herbs depending on the season and flavor preference. Dried herbs will last longer and are a little more potent, while fresh herbs generally taste more vibrant and, well, fresh. If you prefer dried herbs, an easy way to do it yourself it to bundle your harvest by the stems with twine and hang the bunch upside down to dry, out of direct sunlight.
The amount of each herb you use depends on how strong you want your tea. If using crushed dried herbs, start with 1 teaspoon per cup of hot water. If you’re using fresh herbs, triple that amount. The real key to brewing the perfect cup of tea is water temperature and infusion time. The general rule of thumb on water temperature is the darker the leaf of the herb, the hotter the water needs to be. Start with your water around 200 degrees F and steep for 4-5 minutes. Depending on your herbs, you may need to adjust. Just experiment until you find interesting and tasty combinations that suit your palate.
Photo credits: Hibiscus – Photographer, Donna Evans; Calendula – Photographer, Kelly Quinn; Lavender – Photographer, Jane Colclasure; Tea – Photographer, Karen Segraves; and Stevia – Photographer, Kelly Quinn