Most people have never tasted fresh tea, within days to weeks of harvest and processing. The flavors are light and never bitter. The aroma of the infusing tea leaves transports you to the garden in a way no store-bought tea ever can (especially if you brew your tea unfiltered directly in the cup). Lastly, although I've never sent out my teas for testing, it seems likely that fresh tea will have more nutrients and anti-oxidants. In a way, it is not unlike the difference between a garden-fresh tomato and a supermarket, mass produced fruit. Garden-fresh wins ever time.
It's creative and fun
In the garden, variation in tea naturally come from three sources: soil, climate and processing. Some of the best flavors come from the early growth in the cooler temperatures of spring ("first flush"). Like the weather, the inherent characteristics of "terroir" are largely out of your control. Minor differences in processing, however, can make a huge difference in aroma and flavor. If you like to experiment, like me, this is especially fun. I also like to make my own blends depending on what else is growing or blooming in the garden.
Evergreen leaves and pretty flowers
Mature tea plants can make a lovely hedge or foundation planting. For small-scale farming, tea is also well suited as an crop grown on the edge of fields and hills where tractors are impractical. Just like some ornamental Camellias, tea plants flower in the fall with small (1-2 inch) white blossoms with prominent yellow anthers. For farmers and bee keepers, these may provide a key source of pollen for fall foraging. In October, after all the picking is over, our gardens are literally humming with bees and other pollinators.
This year's summer tea harvest is over. Now we're getting ready to start planting again! Never a dull moment...
So - Part 1, Why grow your own tea?
Because you can
For a variety of historical and economical reasons, tea farming never took hold in the US. But that is beginning to change, not from the top-down, but from the backyard up! Once you grow your own, you'll never want to go back. Even if you don't produce a huge crop to supply all your own drinking needs, making your own tea provides a new appreciation for fine tea and the artisan tea crafters worldwide.
It's (relatively) easy
Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, grows wherever ornamental camellias grow, throughout much of the southeast, south, and west coast of the US. They do best in well-drained, acidic soil, and can flourish both in the sun and partial shade. Once the tea plants are established in 3-5 years, they require minimal upkeep. Depending on climate and especially when they are first starting, tea plants may be happier to have a drip-line. If you harvest a lot, then adding a nitrogen fertilizer is a good idea. Pruning may eventually be needed, unless you want to climb a ladder to pick (tea plants can grow into small trees). But otherwise, no major digging, tilling, pesticides, or other upkeep required.
Christine Parks, co-owner of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens, enjoys the creative process of taking tea from garden to cup.