Do you enjoy getting your hands in the soil, feeling the earth between your fingers? Do you often have a cup (or tumbler) of tea nearby as you do? There’s a wonderful way to combine your love of tea with your passion for gardening—that’s by growing your own tea bush at home!
With the below tips from our friends at Minto Island Tea Company, pioneers of growing and crafting tea here in the US, as well as Alicia Gentili, who has grown tea around the world, you’ll have your very own Camellia sinensis sprouting in no time.
Can you grow tea plants at home?
The answer is a resounding “yes!” The plant from which all true tea is made, Camellia sinensis, grows to be a large shrub or small tree. Typically, it grows to be a beautiful three-to-five-foot-tall cultivated hedge. You can grow the tea plant indoors, or, provided you have a favorable climate, outdoors as well (more on favorable conditions below.)
How do you plant a tea bush?
For those who live in our backyard (the Pacific Northwest), the ideal planting time is between April and late-August. If planted too soon (or too late), the plant may be susceptible to frostbite. If you hail from another part of the country, research your best growing times and conditions by contacting the US League of Tea Growers.
If you want to move the tea bush from a pot into the ground, wait until your plant start is about 1-2 years old. It should also go through a small period of hardening off (placing the plant outdoors to acclimate).
If you've ever planted a shrub, you'll be familiar with the process. Dig a hole that's as deep as the root ball but twice as wide. Make sure the top of the root is level with the soil height. Backfill with mostly native soil that's amended with well-aged compost. While the tea plant is establishing, mulch the area with sawdust, leaves, or compost, especially in early fall before temperatures drop. Easy peasy.
What type of soil works best for planting tea?
Camellia sinensis grows in acidic soils, ideally with a pH of 4.5-6. This is similar to the kind of soil where blueberries thrive, so if those are growing well on your garden plot, you can probably grow tea too. To prevent the roots from rotting, you'll need adequate drainage. In wetter sites, consider using a raised bed with extra compost amendments.
How far apart should plants be spaced?
For hedge plantings in a production setting, individual saplings can be spaced between 1.5 feet to 3 feet apart. But for regular, at-home gardens with just a few plants, allow for at least five feet in between each plant. We suggest pruning frequently to encourage branching and numerous growing tips—optimal tea plucking conditions!
How much light does a tea plant need?
Tea plants grow best in the mountains, which offer cycles of strong sunlight and heavy rains. Here in the Pacific Northwest, try for sites with full sun. Try to avoid garden plots that are fully shaded, as they need at least some sunlight to become hardy, vigorous plants.
How long does a tea plant take to grow?
You shouldn’t harvest leaves from your plant until it is at least three years old. After that, if well cared, your tea bush should last at least 50 years, if not hundreds!
How much water does a tea plant need?
Tea plants need at least 60 inches of water per year. They love water, but hate sitting in it so making sure they are in a well drained environment (with sandy/rocky soil or planted on a slope) is essential.
For the first two years, before the plant is well-established, water two or three times each week throughout the summer. When young saplings, they need a significant amount of water, so ensure the entire root ball is soaked through before turning off the spigot. Once the plant is more established, watering regularly during dry summers will encourage more growth of new shoots, but take care not to overwater.
What are tea flowers used for?
Typically, The flowers are typically white and look similar to (only smaller than) the ornamental camellia. If you want to have the tea plants around for their ornamental charm, then leaving the flowers be and allowing them to bloom will make for an even more attractive plant.
Commercial tea growers discourage flowers from blooming because the blossoms redirect nutrients away from the leaf, which is what makes tea. If you don't plan on processing your harvest into tea, it’s okay to leave the showy flowers on your tea bush. In fact, the blooms can be made into their own delicious, relaxing brew that is smooth and sweet.
If you do want to grow your tea plant mostly for the purposes of tea making, then the shrub should be harvested just as the bud first appears. This ensures the plant's energy is going into its leaves, leading to a more complex finished cup. Learn more about why only harvesting the top two leaves and a bud make its finished flavors pop.
Where can I buy a tea plant?
Minto Island sometimes sells tea saplings for those who can visit their farm stand near Portland, Oregon. Some other resources for purchasing saplings and seeds:
- Camellia Forest Nursery
- Fast Growing Trees
- Angela, founder of Oregon Tea Traders, often sells plants in our hometown of Eugene, Oregon
Too busy to grow your own?
You might also be interested in:
- Minto Island Tea Company’s tips for processing your tea leaves into tea you can drink
- How black tea is made
- Tea's carbon capture potential
Raj Vable, Founder
He has been confounded by the leaf since his first transcendental encounter with white tea in 2010. Three years later, he started Young Mountain Tea to bridge his budding tea obsession with his interest in traveling in the mountains and previous experience creating job opportunities in rural India. He revels in working across cultures and can be regularly found trying to get the rest of the team on board with another outlandish tea project. His favorite teas remain white, and he’s always searching for the next cup of magic.