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Growing Your Own Tea - The Story Found In Tea Leaves

In my opinion, as a gardener, you haven’t grown anything unless you’ve grown your own caffeine fixes. 

Yes, I’m talking about growing your own tea (I’ll tell you about growing your own coffee later).  Growing tea is something that virtually anyone, anywhere, can grow as the plants can be grown indoors as house plants, on balconies, in just about any climate. 

However, before I get into the specifics of growing your own tea, let’s talk a little tea history.  It’s probably a quirk on the part of my personality, but I always want to know the history of most ordinary things. 

This is largely due to the fact that in the history of anything, it moves from being ordinary to quite extra-ordinary.  There’s a story to be found everywhere, even in the tea leaves in a teacup.

Tea was known to the Chinese for more than five hundred years before Christ was born.  It is believed that tea was first used in China, not as a beverage, but as a medicine.  Later, the custom of tea drinking became so popular that the governments saw a way to get money from it.  A tax was put on tea.  Somehow, this does not surprise me given the recent news that our own government is contemplating putting a ten cent tax on toilet paper. 

Anyway, this tax on tea did not discourage tea drinkers and the custom continued to spread all over China and Japan.  I’m guessing the similar tax on toilet paper won’t change anyone’s habits either, but I won’t digress to a serious discussion on that, because growing your own toilet paper probably isn’t an option. 

 Getting back to tea, it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that tea was introduced into Western Europe.  From there it was brought to America by British settlers.  As we all probably know, the tax that the mother country put on tea was one of the grievances that finally helped to bring about the American Revolution.  Later on, in the nineteenth century, the British East India Company began to encourage the cultivation of tea in India, and today tea from that country is an important item of national commerce. 

The Tea Plant

I think one of the most amazing things is that the tea plant is an evergreen tree, which, if allowed to grow, would be as tall as a maple tree.  However, when it comes to the consumption of tea,  in order to get many small, tender leaves, it is kept trimmed so that it forms a bush of about four feet high.  These bushes are grown in rows, and they are ready to be picked when they are about four years old.  Then, the pickers go along the rows with their baskets, picking only the bud and the upper leaves from each branch.  Since new leaves are always coming out, the picking goes on all during the growing season.

Where Tea Leaves Have Names

It would surprise most tea drinkers that each of these tea leaves has a name. In China, the bud and the first tiny leaf are called “gunpowder.” The next three leaves are called, in order of size:

  • Young Hyson
  • Hyson
  • Imperia

However, in India and Ceylon — the bud and first leaf have different names: The bud and the first leaf are called “broken” (also “flowery or orange pekoe). The next three leaves are called:

  • Orange Pekoe (pronounced pee’-ko)
  • Pekoe
  • Souchong

The smaller leaves are the most tender, but there is such a difference in that tenderness in different tea bushes that the larger leaves on one bush may be more tender than the smaller leaves on another tea bush variety.

The finest teas, as a rule, are those grown on high mountain slopes.  This is because the bushes grow so fast in hot lowlands that the leaves become woody and do not have so much flavor.

Processing Tea For Market The Old Fashioned Way

In the past and still today, in some third world countries, tea leaves are processed for market at factories. There the baskets of leaves are emptied out on shallow trays and a pound of tea covers an area a yard square.

The trays are carried to a heated room, through which a strong current of air is forced. This softens and withers the leaf until it becomes quite limp. The process usually takes from eighteen to twenty hours.

Special machines, consisting of cylinders rotating in hot air are often used instead of the open trays. This hastens the process.  

The Difference Between Green and Black Tea

Now, the leaves are passed through a machine that curls them and presses the juice out upon their surface. After this the tea is spread out in darkened rooms or placed in drawers in layers, one or two inches thick. It is then covered with damp curtains so arranged that they do not actually touch the leaves.

The heat and moisture cause the tea to ferment, after which it goes through a sort of baking process for a little while to stop fermentation and to dry out the leaves.  It is this fermentation that changes the color of the leaves and gives us what is called black tea.

Green and black teas may come from the same tea bush. However the green tea is not fermented — it is steamed and baked soon after it is gathered.  There is a third type of tea in which the leaves are partially fermented.  This is called “oolong” tea.

The leaves must now be sorted into sizes and qualities.  Sieves of various meshes are employed for this purpose.  Then, after a second drying, the tea is ready for market.  It is packed by machinery and off it goes to the ships.  Great care must be exercised in the containers as tea readily absorbs odors and thereby loses its own.

Continuing The Tea Process

In China, even today, much of this process is carried out by hand, although more and more machinery is being introduced.  Years ago, tea culture was introduced in the United States. An excellent tea was grown in Summerville, South Carolina, along with other places where the climate and soil were found suitable.  However, the cost of labor is so much greater with this crop that really isn’t possible to produce tea in really large commercial operations in the United States.

The Strange Job Of The Tea Taster

When I think about the history found in a tea cup, I can’t help but think of the tea tasters of yesterday. When a tea shipment would arrive at a port, samples were drawn from the cargo and sent to the tea merchants, who submitted them to a tea taster so that they may have his opinion on the quality and value of the shipment.

The tea taster had a tiny pot of tea made from each sample and took a sip from each brew. Those that they liked, they recommended, and the merchant would buy them.  I’m thinking you’d have to really like tea to have enjoyed that job.

Nowadays, most of the tea that we buy is blended — that is, several teas are mixed together. The blending is done by the wholesale tea merchants under the direction of experts who know just which combinations of different kinds of tea give the best flavors. However, it’s interesting that there are still tea tasters and it’s still a job being done today in many parts of the world.

The water with which tea is brewed also has an important effect upon tea. Since the water varies in different places of the world, most of the larger commercial tea companies prepare their blends to suit the water in the district where the tea is to be sold.

A Little More Tea History

When tea was first brought to England, it was such a novelty that people paid as high as fifty dollars a pound for it. As more tea came, prices dropped and more people could afford it. The demand became so great that the fastest ships were devoted to the tea trade. As soon as they got their cargo they raced home. The ship that arrived first got the best price for the new season’s crop.

The tea trade had much to do with the development of the fast clipper ships, both in America and in England. In 1866, three of these vessels left Foochow, on the coast of China, at the same time. They made the voyage of fully sixteen thousand miles in ninety-nine days and were docked in London within two hours of each other.

Before the American Revolution, the colonies were not permitted to trade directly with foreign countries.  All of their products had to be taken to England to be sold.  Many goods that they imported also had to be brought from England.  So it was with the tea that was used in the American colonies.

It was not until after the American Revolution, in 1784, that the American tea trade was started.  Americans ships then made the long voyage around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to China and back, bringing tea, silk, and spices.  The trade grew so rapidly that within three years from its beginning; more than a million pounds of tea were being imported annually.  Today tea is one of the cheapest of all beverages, and even some of the poorest people on earth can afford it.  However, certain rare teas still sell for high prices.

Growing Your Own Tea

The case for growing your own tea is simple.  Tea plants make an attractive patio or balcony plants.  While they don’t require much care, they do require a little patience since your first harvest (if growing from seed) of really good tea leaves is about four years away. 

The good news is that tea plants can be easily had by making use of standard propagation methods.  Even better, just simply buy a tea plant.  Regardless of which method you use, the key thing is to remember that tea plants like a medium pH soil with a good bit of sand mixed in.  

If you are not planting your tea plant in a container, and you are planting them in the ground, you should space them about three and a half feet apart, in an area that is wind protected, somewhat sunny, but with at least partial shade. 

It’s important to know that tea plants have a certain rhythm to their growth.  They do experience periodic dormant times, usually each winter, producing free growth in the spring, like much of Mother Nature. 

This is a good thing, for this “new growth” is your tea harvest.  Now, if you live in a warm climate, your tea plants will instead of each spring, will have several spurts of growth each year.  All the more tea for you.  

Harvesting Your Tea Leaves

Nothing could be simpler than simply picking the top two leaves and new buds.  Steam the for about a minute in a double boiler, then spread on a cookie sheet in a single layer.  Bake at 250 degrees for twenty to twenty-five minutes.  When cooled, store in an airtight container in a sunlight free place until ready to use.

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