How to Grow Your Own Tea Plant
Are you one of the millions of people who regularly shell out $10 dollars or more for a small box of tea bags? If so, you have probably wondered whether or not you can learn how to grow your own tea plant at home.
Well, I’ve got great news for you. You can grow your own tea plant. It might be a bit of a challenge. Growing tea is harder for some and easier for others, depending largely on where they live. But as long as you’re willing to take a few extra steps to ensure that the right growing conditions are provided… anyone can grow their own tea plant at home.
By the way - you can rest assured that you’re not alone on this project. Tea is the most popular beverage in the world, and today the global market for tea exceeds $38 Billion (USD) per year. The rising cost of premium quality organic tea is driving more and more people to start growing their own tea plants at home.
There’s a Lot in a Name
Before you run off to your local nursery and grab the first “tea” plant you see, let’s take a quick look at the semantics to make sure that you end up with the correct plant.
The plant you’re looking for could be labelled as “Tea Plant,” “Tea Shrub,” “Tea Bush,” or “Tea Tree.”
We need to clarify here because there are other plants which go by the same names but are not used to make tea. Another “tea tree,” Melaleuca alternifolia, is the source of tea tree oil, but is not the source of tea leaves. Leptospermum scoparium is another imposter to watch out for. Commonly known as the New Zealand Tea Tree – it is also not a good source of tea leaves.
The plant you’re looking for is Camellia sinensis– so be sure to ask for it by name. This is the plant whose leaves are used to produce white tea, yellow tea, green tea, black tea, oolong tea, and pu-erh tea.
Choosing the Right Location for Your Tea Plant
The tea plant is native to Southeast Asia, and it thrives in tropical and subtropical climates. However, with special care, it is currently being successfully cultivated as far North as Cornwall in the UK and Oregon in the US.
There are three main factors that you should take into consideration when choosing a location for your tea plant: temperature, moisture, and soil pH.
Tea plants are cold hardy to USDA zone 7. They can survive temperatures down to 0F. However, the plants are happiest above 55F, and leaves can be damaged by temperatures below 40F. Plants should be protected below 40F to maintain the quality of tea.
Tea plants also do not appreciate extreme heat. While they are native to the tropics, they typically thrive in partial shade with a canopy overhead to protect them from intense afternoon sunlight. If you are growing these plants in an area with extreme ambient temperatures in the summertime, be sure to provide protection from direct afternoon sun with a shade cloth or a tree canopy. Try to maintain ambient temperatures below 90F in summer, as stress will start to affect the plants and the quality of tea at temperatures above 95F.
Like other tropical plants, tea plants prefer consistent moisture. They come from areas that routinely receive 50 inches or more rainfall in a year, so you should probably plan to provide plenty of supplemental water. Drainage is important however, as these plants do not appreciate soggy soil and will likely have problems with fungus and parasites in soil that does not drain well.
The ideal pH range for the tea plant is quite acidic – 4.5 to 5.5. Neutral soil is acceptable, but alkaline soil will result in extremely slow growth, discolored leaves, susceptibility to disease, and poor quality tea.
Several tools are available to assist you in creating an acidic environment for your tea plant, and these are discussed in some depth below.
Because of its finicky nature, the best option for many people is to grow their tea plant in a container. The confines of a pot can allow you to more easily manipulate the ambient temperature, the soil moisture, and the pH level of the soil.
Growing Tea in a Container
If you live in an area with acidic soil in zone 7 or higher, you should be able to grow tea plants in the ground. But for the rest of us, planting these evergreen beauties in a pot is definitely the easiest method.
Tea plants do not mind being bound up in a pot, and even a mature plant can thrive in a pot no larger than about 10 gallons – or 15 inches in diameter.
In a pot, it will be easy to move your tea plant into the shade to avoid intense afternoon sun – or into a protected area to avoid winter temperatures below 40F. Drainage is easily manipulated by appropriately amending your potting medium. And in a pot, your watering schedule will be more regular and predictable than it would be if you were growing in the ground.
If you live in an area with alkaline soil, planting your tea tree in a pot is the way to go. While you may be able to temporarily lower the pH in an isolated garden bed, over time it will normalize and revert to the alkalinity of its surroundings. Maintaining acidic soil in an alkaline environment is an uphill battle that can be completely avoided by moving your acid-loving plants out of the ground and into containers.
Soil Amendments and Fertilizers for Tea Plants
Some horticultural products are naturally acidic and can be used to lower the pH of the container or garden bed in which they are used.
Pine bark is an excellent amendment for tea plants growing in pots or in the ground. Pine bark has a natural pH between 4.0 and 5.0. Its relatively large and highly varied particle size creates excellent drainage in the soil. And pine bark boasts air space equal to 20 to 30 percent by volume – meaning that the soil and any roots in that soil will be well-aerated.
Peat moss is another great soil amendment that will serve your tea tree well if it is planted in a pot. Peat moss is quite acidic, and it greatly improves the structure of a potting mix by increasing water retention and aeration.
Some fertilizers can feed your plants while also promoting soil acidity. A few that would be great to use for your tea plant include cottonseed meal and compost made from cottonseed meal; coffee grounds and compost made from coffee grounds; and seaweed extract with added iron.
Pine straw makes an ideal mulch for tea plants, whether in the ground in planting beds or above the ground in pots. Pine straw is slightly acidic, but the reason it makes an excellent mulch for the tea plant is its ability to insulate the soil from ambient air conditions – retaining a consistent level of moisture in the soil.
If you are not concerned about using only organic ingredients, you will find that there are many commercial synthetic fertilizers on the market that are engineered especially for acid-loving plants. These may be labeled as fertilizers for rhododendrons, azaleas, blueberries, or gardenias.
Now for the Hard Part – Finding a Tea Plant
Alright – now that you have thought about where you will locate your new tea plant and what you will do to provide excellent growing conditions – you’re ready to start shopping for the actual plant.
Depending upon where you live, this might actually be the hardest part of the whole process. There are several large commercial nurseries that do carry this plant on a seasonal basis. However, many states have restrictions that prevent this plant from being shipped across state lines – and several countries have similar restrictions.
If you are lucky enough to live in an area with no restrictions – you can simply order online and have a young plant shipped directly to your door. Some nurseries only offer this plant during the fall season, so plan your purchase accordingly.
If you live in an area with shipping restrictions on Camellia sinensis, your task will be a bit harder. You will need to locate nurseries within your state or territory that specialize in edible and medicinal plants. Call them or email them and ask if they carry this plant. Don’t give up easily. If you get “no” for an answer, ask to speak with a manager or a plant buyer, and ask that person if they are able to special order this plant from any of their existing suppliers.
As a last resort, you can consider growing your own new tea plant from seed. Unfortunately, germinating tea seeds is a tricky task. While this may be a rewarding adventure for accomplished gardeners, it is more likely to be a frustrating experience for beginners. The process to germinate a tea seed involves many steps and can take several months. If this is the route you choose, you will need to do some additional research on this process.
Planting Your New Tea Plant
The best time to plant or transplant a young tea plant is in the autumn. While these plants are evergreen in nature, they are still subject to seasonal growth cycles, and the plant will soon enter a phase of active root growth during the cold winter months.
By transplanting in the fall, you ensure that the young roots will have fresh, loose, and nutritious soil available for their first growing season.
If you are transplanting a young plant into a larger container, choose the new container wisely. Do not place a very small plant into a very large pot, as this can cause several problems. You will have much better success if you gradually move the plant up to successively bigger containers over many growing seasons.
A good rule of thumb is to increase the volume of the container by a factor of about 2. So, move a 1-gallon plant up to a 2-gallon pot. Move a 2-gallon plant up to a 5-gallon pot. Move a 5-gallon plant up to a 10-gallon pot, etc.
The most common mistake new gardeners make when planting a tree like the tea plant is to plant it too deeply. You should pay attention to depth at which the plant was previously planted, and respect the color change that exists where the plant’s tissue changes from a lighter color above ground to a darker color below ground. Burying the plant deeper than that line will harmit, not help it. When in doubt, err on the side of planting the plant higher up – not deeper.
Caring for a Newly Transplanted Tea Plant
Your young tea plant will benefit from some special care after transplanting.
Adding amycorrhizal inoculant to the soil will greatly benefit your new tea plant’s young root system. This step is optional if you are planting directly in the ground (where mycorrhizal fungi are naturally present), but is strongly recommended for planting in a container.
Additionally, if you are able to produce or purchase some aerobic compost tea – I would highly recommend that you do so. This will help to kick-start the microbial life in your soil, ensuring an ample supply of micronutrients that are vital to the plant’s long-term health.
Keep the young plant protected from harsh direct sunlight immediately after transplanting, and give it several weeks to acclimate to its new conditions before exposing it to any stressful conditions.
You can begin to feed lightly after the plant has developed new roots and feels sturdy in its new home – but wait until the springtime to begin using any high-nitrogen fertilizers.
A Little-Known Secret to Help You Succeed
One trick that can make a big impact for your young tea plant is to pay special attention to the water that you use to water your plant.
Even if you have added pine bark and peat moss to your potting mix or garden soil, those naturally acidic amendments can become alkaline if they are continually exposed to alkaline water. To keep your soil nicely acidic and keep your tea plant growing happily, you have a few options.
The best option is to use rainwater to water your plant. Rainwater is naturally slightly acidic, and will cause the least amount of harmful chemical buildup in your soil over time.
If you don’t have access to a store of fresh rainwater, you can acidify your tap water by simply adding 5% white vinegar from the grocery store. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar per gallon of water and mix thoroughly. Avoid stronger concentrations of vinegar that are labeled as horticultural vinegar. Those are too strong and can harm your plant.
Next Up, Harvest Your Tea Leaves
If you follow these steps, you’ll be harvesting fresh tea leaves as early as next summer. Pay close attention to your plant, and respond quickly if you start to see signs of stress like discoloration of the leaves or defoliation.
You will have plenty of choices about how you process your fresh tea leaves to make green tea, black tea, or even kombucha. There are many different herbs and oils you can use to flavor your tea, and the possibilities are almost endless. Enjoy!
1) World tea production and trade. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4480e.pdf
2) Size of the global tea beverage market from 2013 to 2021. Statista – The Statistics Portal. https://www.statista.com/statistics/326384/global-tea-beverage-market-size/
3) US Tea Planting Tips. Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd. via Tealet. https://tealet.com/usteaplanting
4) Fertilizing Blueberries in Pine Bark Beds (B 1291). University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=B1291
5) Germinating Tea Seeds (SCM-17). University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service. http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/scm-17.pdf