Grow your own tea (in the UK)
This might come as a surprise but the UK makes the perfect environment for growing your own tea plants. All types of tea; green, oolong and black are produced from the same tea leaves, which are carefully picked from a type of camellia shrub; the Camellia Sinensis.
Whilst the hot wet tropical climates of southeast Asia are associated with the mass production of tea, it is actually the cold damp climate of Taiwan's mountain ranges that produce the best tea. This is because the full range of flavors coupled with the health benefits of the polyphenols become most potent when the growth of the tea plant is stunted due to the cool moist climate. Needless to say, much of the UK, an island situated next to the gulf stream, with its moist cool climate, makes for the ideal condition to slow the growth of tea plants.
The reason that the UK Tea industry does not enjoy the same reputation of Taiwan, is perhaps due to the expertise and dedication that the entire island that seems to give to the production of this particular crop. For example, a tea master, a scientist that will have undertaken 5 years of post-graduate education in tea, has a similar status in Taiwan as a medical doctor. It is the tea master, who is primarily responsible for taking a simple leaf and turning it into something with immense value (some packets of rare oolong tea will exchange hands for several thousands of pounds).
Even tea leaf pickers, are considered highly skilled tradesmen, not so much due to the speed at which they pick, but the precision that avoids injury to the plant.
However, the cool moist climate that we experience in the UK, with the stunted flavor rich leaves, gives us a considerable advantage over the hot tropics.
Sourcing tea plants.
Perhaps the best place to source tea plants is the https://www.duchyofcornwallnursery.co.uk/the-nursery.
Duchy of Cornwall nursery employs a team of expert camelia gardeners, that grow the tea plants from seed to saplings of 8”– 10”. In our experience, their saplings are extremely hardy and robust enough to survive our violent southwestern storms.
Location of Tea Plants
We have experimented with placing tea plants in polytunnels but, as with the tropics, the warm miost climate produces rapid growth, weakens stems and the resultant tea leaves tend to be quite bitter. In our experience the best idea is to find some soil with good drainage, with abundant light and be patient. Also, as the camelia synensis is part of the camelia family it is sensible to plant these shrubs in a similar location as a regular camelia plant. As drainage is very important, a sloping hill side would be an excellent setting. You can of course create your own bank / slope or use giant plant pots.
Planting Tea Saplings.
The roots of a tea shrub will reach up to a meter in depth. It is therefore worth digging (if possible) a hole of 1 meter depth and removing the dead soil or clay (if any) and replacing with this with a top soil / compost mix of circa 50:50. It is important that when you plant your camelia synensis that you water the hole first and then lower the shrun in carefully without bending the roots. If you experience a dry spell, you can cover the area surrounding the stem with straw although this must be changed frequently to avoid the build up of bacteria and pests. If you live in an area of high clold winds you may wish to protect the plants with netting or a screen. If you live on the sea front, salt water spray should be washed off with rain water using a watering can.
In the high moutains of Taiwan there is frequent rain fall or humid mists. There is are also occasioally days and weeeks of hot (English version of hot) weather. To be frank, most English climates will replicate that of Taiwanese mountain of circa 1000 meters.
Do not use weed killer, slug killer or pesticide. The tea leaves (as with most plants) are capable of absorbing pollutants and this can I turn enter the human food chain. The best tip is to treta it as a hardy cammelia plant and remove all vegetation (by hand) from the immediate base of the plant.
The Taiwanese will tend to leave their plants to get to 70cm height before collecting leaves. Then, they will simply remove the top three leaves. Great care is talen when collecting these leaves as the resultant wound can lead to infection. It is best to peel each leaf in a swift downward motion whilst pulling gently.
Production of Tea.
These raw leaves are arguably ready to drink in that raw green tea leaves are heated with mineral water to create green tea. If you were to leave the leaves to air or oxidize under the hot sun they would slowly turn black in effectively start to rot. This process is called oxidization. A fully oxidized tea leaf is called black tea. A <10% oxidized leaf is called green tea. Anywhere between the two is partially oxidized and called Oolong tea.
The key to making a good quality tea is brewing it to your taste. This should commence with brewing tea leaves with mineral water to circa 80Ofor about 35 seconds. If you require something a little richer, extend the brewing period to suit. You can brew your tea leaves several times within 48 hours. As the strength of the leaves weakens you can progressively increase the temperature of the water whilst extending the brewing period to at least 6 minutes.