Thursday, January 3, 2019

How To Grow Tea, Pt. 1: Growing Camellia Sinensis

watering the tea plants
One of my most favorite tea activities of 2018 was watching tea seeds grow into new little seedlings. Discussing new beginnings and growth felt like the perfect way to welcome in 2019, so here we go! My first post all about growing tea at home. I'll walk through everything I did, mention what worked, and what didn't. Growing tea at home is a learning process, so this is part 1 of the installment: germinating the seeds through transplanting to mid-sized pots.


I love plants. My family will confirm this, as every time we pass any sort of store with plants for sale, my daughter immediately says 'Nope! Mom, don't look! Keep walking. You have enough plants!'. Of course my response is, 'It's impossible to have too many plants'. I don't get as much green time as I'd like living in a big city, so having plants at home really helps me interact with nature. I have everything from succulents to ferns, and orchids, and each plant requires different care. I'm still a novice plant parent but when I realized you could grow tea plants from seeds, I knew I had to give it a try. The idea of having a tea plant growing at home is a natural progression for my plant obsession. I'm not planning on starting a tea farm, but having a few tea plants at home and possibly in our back garden just feels right for me.

Growing tea from seed is very educational, and an incredibly fun way to interact with tea. I'm really devoted to my little seedlings! Before we begin I must give a huge thank you to tea grower Jason McDonald and my tea sister Jo Johnson, as they have given me quite a bit of advice and guidance through the growing process.

the tea seeds before soaking

The Seeds
There are places where you can buy tea seeds online, and you can also visit the US League Of Tea Growers to see who in the US grows tea, as they may be willing to send you seeds they collect. My seeds are from The Great Mississippi Tea Company, collected from the plants in their fields. These seeds are the camellia sinensis sinensis variety. The original plants used at The Great Mississippi Tea Company came from bushes collected from ornamental gardens around the US. According to co-founder Jason McDonald, "People bought tea plants as curiosity plants and had them in their yards. So, we started collecting there since we knew they would grow." I like the idea of using seeds I could get domestically, especially from tea friends.

The Gear
If you're going to grow one tea plant or dozens, you'll need some gear. I like to keep things as simple as possible as I don't have a ton of space to work with. Here are all of the things I couldn't go without:

You can start your seeds with a wet paper towel and a plastic bag, but I had far better results using this Jiffy seed-starter greenhouse. Almost all the seeds I planted in this little 'greenhouse' sprouted, so I highly recommend it.

Once the seeds are ready to be potted up, you're going to need potting mix. A well-draining soil is essential. Orchid mix was recommended to me, so that's what I use. The plants are all doing very well with it, so I definitely recommend it. If you can't find orchid mix, a cactus and succulent mix also works well (I used this when I ran out of orchid mix and those plants are also doing great).

It's important to give the plants a bit of humidity, especially during the winter when apartments and houses are incredibly dry (at least they are where I live). You could use a humidifier for this, but the easiest thing to do is use a plant mister. I also kept my tiny baby seedlings in a tabletop greenhouse (pro tip: this greenhouse is much cheaper if you can buy it in an Ikea store, instead of online), which also helped to lock in the moisture.

Pots are tricky. You want to keep your plants in a pot that's big enough for the roots to grow comfortably, but also small enough that they can absorb as much water as they need. I'll get into that a little bit more below. When the seeds are ready for a real pot, I planted them in these plastic pots. I wasn't keen on plastic, but I needed inexpensive pots that are lightweight, compact, and easy to move around. A drainage hole is also key- you need to keep your plants moist, but not swimming in water. The plastic pots are perfect for these needs, and look fairly nice. You'll see them in many of my Instagram photos.

Ok, you've got your seeds and gear. Now you are ready for...

roots and plants sprouting from seeds - these plants are several months old

Germination
You'll need to soak your seeds in water for 24-48 hours. This way the seeds absorb as much water as possible to start the germination process. After the appropriate soaking time, you'll notice some seeds are floating, and some are at the bottom of the bowl. You can try to germinate all of the seeds, but the ones that sink tend to be more viable and you'll have better luck with them.

I wrapped half the seeds in a wet paper towel and put them in a large zip-top plastic bag, and I planted the other half in the little seed greenhouse (plant them with the 'eye' of the seed facing sideways). Once everything is well hydrated, stash all the seeds in a dark, warm location. Check on them every few days to make sure they stay moist. Patience is key with germinating seeds! It can take up to 8 weeks for a seed to start growing, so don't despair if you don't see anything within a couple of weeks.

plants, seeds, and roots! These plants are several months old

After a few weeks, the first thing you'll see is a cracked seed. This is a good sign! A white root will eventually start to emerge. The root will eventually get longer, and a green shoot will also develop.
Once the shoot looks big enough to pot (I waited until there was a root of about an inch long), I transferred the seedlings to little plastic yogurt cups (I eat a lot of yogurt, but you can use any small container of similar size). I kept these seedlings in my Ikea greenhouse, which traps in heat and moisture (this greenhouse doesn't seal very well, so I wrapped the top in plastic wrap).

When the seedlings were about 3-4 inches in length with a couple of developed leaves, I removed them from the greenhouse and transferred them to the 6" plastic pots. I hoped they'd be established enough to live outside of the greenhouse, and honestly, there wasn't room to keep them in there any longer! So far they are doing just fine with a little bit of attention.

some tea plants in the background

What I learned
-Patience is KEY! Some of my seeds sprouted within a week, but some took weeks and weeks before a little root started emerging.
-It's important to keep the plants well-watered and with a bit of humidity. But too much moisture is also not good. Don't water your seedlings more than once or twice a week as the roots can rot if they stay too wet. Also, I wouldn't recommend misting more than once a day. I got a little overzealous with the misting and ended up attracting fungus gnats! I had to replant ALL the plants, which was not easy to do. Thankfully I didn't lose any in the process.

Maintenance Tips
Water: I mist and water the plants regularly. I water about once a week (sometimes more if the soil is really dry or the plant looks droopy), and mist about once a day during winter.
Light: Once the seedlings are planted in their small pots, they need as much sunshine as possible. Once they grow a bit taller with a few established leaves, you can move them to partial sun. But make sure they are still getting a few hours of sunlight each day.
Feeding: I honestly haven't given the plants any fertilizers yet, as I'm not confident in what to give them. It's also winter, so the plants won't grow as much. I'll probably research fertilizers and feed the plants in the early spring. I'll post about what I use.
Critters: As I mentioned, plants can end up attracting all sorts of pests. It's possible you won't experience this issue, but I did. Depending on the critter you get, you'll need to use a particular method to eradicate them. But if you are diligent and inspect your plants for visitors often, you can get ahead of the issue before it gets out of control.
Mushrooms: No, not the edible kind! It turns out that the seed starter mix that came with my jiffy greenhouse had mycelium soil, which led to little shroom friends popping up all over. I wish I had better pics of the mushrooms, they were crazy! Thankfully I have a friend that knows all about mushrooms and she assured me they are helpful and I should leave them unless they were damaging the plants (they weren't). They add nutrients to the soil, and don't last more than a few days. One mushroom was so tall, we named it LeBron!
Interacting: Talk to your plants! Get to know them, chat with them, tell them your secrets. They are very good listeners.


Not ready to take on sprouting tea seeds, but you're interested in having a plant or two at home? There are many greenhouses that sell tea plants, and the most popular seems to be Camellia Forest Nursery. I've also had luck with (non-tea) plants from Logee's, and they are great with customer service. If you live in a colder climate you're better off ordering your plants when the weather warms up a little bit, so you don't shock your plant too much during shipping. Some places won't even ship the plants during the coldest winter months.

It's been about 4 months since I've started my tea plant adventure, and so far so good. But plants are living things, and you never know what may happen. Pests, seasonal changes, changes in watering schedule can all have an effect on the plants. And sometimes one just won't make it, and you're not sure why. And that's ok! It's all part of the learning process.

It's still tough to know how many of my little tea plants will survive though the dry winter, and once they're planted in my garden in the spring. But I'll post a few follow-ups on this process so you can join me on this tea growing adventure! For more frequent updates, visit my Instagram page where you'll find a story all about my adventures in growing tea. If you have any questions about the process, leave a comment below!  Happy New Year, here's to new beginnings and growth!

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