Tea fanatics can grow tea right at home, which might be a surprise for some people. I always thought that I had to stick to purchasing tea at the store. I had no idea that I could learn the skills for growing tea in my own backyard and that the plants can thrive in many parts of the U.S.
Tea, whether it's black, oolong, white, or green, comes from the plant Camellia sinensis. It's an evergreen shrub or small tree, and the leaves look similar to bay leaves. Originally from Asia, it prefers tropical weather, but that doesn't mean you can't make it work in cooler climates.
You don't need a large garden to grow your own tea – it can be grown in a container on a patio or a balcony; you just won't be able to produce large quantities.
As with any other plant, tea requires your time and proper care, but that said, growing tea isn't as difficult you may think. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Tea Plant Varieties
You can find many types of caffeinated tea on the market, and most come from the “tea plant,” Camellia sinensis. This plant is a hardy, evergreen plant with glossy green, pointed, fragrant leaves. In the autumn, the plant displays delicate white flowers, so the shrub has more to offer than just a cup of tea.
The plant originated in China and India. Camellia sinensis sinensis comes from China and prefers cooler temps. Camellia sinensis var. assamica comes from India, and it thrives in warmer areas. It has larger leaves than its Chinese sibling.
When grown outside, these shrubs can reach 15 feet tall, but when grown in containers, most only reach 6 feet tall. In the U.S., the tea plant is commercially cultivated in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and some parts of the Southeast.
How to Plant Tea
If you've decided that you want to grow a tea plant at home, let's look at the essential details you need to know.
Tea grows in zones 6-9.
Camellia sinensis needs to be planted in a bright, sheltered location, with partial shade in the heat of the day. The Indian cultivar can handle more sun and warmer temps.
Tea is an acid-loving plant that prefers a pH between 4.5-6.5. They need to grow in soil that is free draining, loamy, loose, and rich. Many gardeners find that growing in pots is ideal because you can control the drainage and acid levels easier than in a garden bed. Be sure to add compost to the soil before planting.
Growing Tea Plants from Seed
Most gardeners prefer to start from a seedling. It's easier, but you can also begin tea from seeds. It's far from an exact science, and germination can take up to 8 weeks.
To grow tea from seeds, first, soak your tea seeds in water for 24-48 hours. Soaking your seeds helps to jumpstart the germination process, leading to the highest chance of successful germination.
After soaking, put the seeds in a seed tray that’s located in a warm, sunny position. Be sure to spray the soil to keep it damp. Expect to see germination occur in 6-8 weeks. After the seeds have germinated and developed 3-4 leaves, it’s time to move them into their permanent home or larger container.
These plants can grow to around 6 feet tall, and if you plant more than one shrub in the ground, leave a distance of 4-5 feet between each plant. These plants need plenty of room to breathe and to become bushy. You want as many leaves as possible.
It's best to wait to plant it outside until after the second winter. Tea plants are delicate at first and need to be moved to a sunny location when it frosts. It takes 3 years to reach maturity. For the first year, consider keeping plants in a large container that you can move as needed.
If you live in an area that's ideal for growing tea, go ahead and put plants out after they've reached 8 inches and all danger of frost has passed. Be sure to harden plants off for a week.
When you move them outside, dig a large hole that can fit the root ball. Add some compost to the bottom of the hole, and spread out the roots before putting the shrub into the hole. Fill the hole in and firmly press down on the soil. Water deeply.
Growing Tea Plants in Containers
If you don't live in the right climate, try growing tea in a container. Pick a pot that has plenty of drainage holes, and that's twice the size of the root ball of the plant. Good drainage is critical because tea plants will die in waterlogged soil.
Inside the container, fill a third with well-draining, acidic potting soil. Put the plant into the center of the pot and fill in the rest of the area with soil. The crown of the plant should show above the top of the earth.
You'll need to re-pot the plants every 2-4 years, or as required as the shrub grows. If the roots start to outgrow their container, move up to a slightly larger one. You could also trim the roots to make sure they fit into the pot properly.
How to Care for Tea
Now that you have your tea plant ready and planted, whether it's in the ground or a container, here are some details on how to take care of this plant. It's not hard at all!
Tea plants need protection from frost when they’re young, so it’s best to bring them into a greenhouse or a porch during the first two winters.
Tea plants need plenty of water. When the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry, water the plant deeply. It's essential to let the soil dry out between each watering though to avoid waterlogging the plant. Let the soil drain and don't let the pot sit in water.
Tea plants usually don't need to be fed much. Give them a fertilizer with plenty of acid in the spring as the growing season starts.
You’ll be harvesting your plant throughout the growing season, but you also have to prune your Camellia sinensis shrubs. Prune the plants back yearly after the bloom period. Make sure you remove any dead or damaged stems with clean pruning shears.
Cut the stem back to the base of the shrub. If you’re cutting for size or shape, cut individual branches to just outside a bud or leaf node.
Common Pests and Disease
Algal Leaf Spot
Algal leaf spot is, as the name implies, a disease caused by algae. It leads to grey, green or tan spots or blotches on the leaves. It can be hard to fight, so prevention is best. Avoid overhead watering, which can spread the disease, and leave enough space between each plant for maximum air circulation. You can use an application of protective fungicides as well.
Blister blight creates small, pin-hole sized spots on young leaves. Some spots become transparent and larger, turning light brown. It can cause blisters on the underside of the leaves that can be dark green, white, or brown.
Blister blight is a fungus. You can use appropriate foliar or systemic fungicide to protect your plants from harm.
Camellia Dieback & Canker
Camellia dieback is a fungus that can bother tea plants. The leaves suddenly turn yellow and start to wilt off of the branches. Gray blotches develop on the bark and stem, developing into sunken areas called cankers. The parts of the plant above the cankers lose their vigor, causing the plant to wilt and die.
To prevent this fungus, be sure to use well-draining, acidic soil and remove all diseased twigs by cutting several inches below the cankered areas. Disinfect your soil between cuts. You can also apply appropriate protective fungicides during wet weather.
Camellia Flower Blight
This fungus leads to small, brown, irregular-shaped spots on the flower petals. The whole flower will turn brown, dropping from the plant. This fungus tends to emerge in the spring during periods of moisture.
It’s best to remove all infected flowers from the plants and all crop debris around the plants. Use appropriate fungicides on the soil to reduce the intensity of the disease.
If you notice pale yellow spots on the leaves or the entire leaves turning yellow, you might have a tea scale problem. It can lead to the leaves turning brown and dropping prematurely, as well as reduced flower size. The adult scale insects are an oblong shape, typically found on the underside of leaves.
You can manage light infestations by removing the insects off of the plants and destroying the leaves. If you have a heavier infestation, you can apply a horticultural oil after blooming.
Tea grows well with beans and grasses. Don't plant tea with potatoes.
Harvesting and Storing Tea
Tea plants go dormant in the winter, and springtime brings new growth with the first flush of tea shoots. Once plants have reached their third year, you can remove the first two bright green leaves and buds from each branch. These young, apple green leaves are perfect for a fresh cup of tea.
After that, it’s best to harvest the plants regularly to encourage growth and help to create a bushy shrub. You can plan to harvest the tea plant throughout the year from spring until summer. Only pluck leaves from the top of the plant, leaving lower leaves to continue growing.
To dry your leaves, steam them on the stove for about a minute, then spread them on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes at 250°F.
The Bottom Line for Growing Tea
I assumed for years that I wasn't able to grow tea in my backyard, but I was wrong. If you're a tea fanatic, the next step is learning how to grow tea at home, and you'll be pleased to discover it isn't as hard as you might have thought. Anyone can do it and have fresh, homegrown tea anytime.