Growing Camellia sinensis: Tea for Home Gardeners and Herbalists

Camellia sinensis comes a many, many varieties. Most of the Tea we drink today comes from either C. sinensis var sinensis or C. sinensis var. assamica. C Amelia sinensis is a member of the Theacaeae family, alongside about 29 other brothers and sisters. While C. sinensis still grows in the wild in some places, most of the world’s Tea comes from farms, where it is grown, tended, and nurtured with careful attention to its needs.

Does Camellia Sinensis Need Special Conditions to Grow Well?

Even though we may think of Tea as being an plant that needs special tropical conditions to thrive, that’s not entirely true. Camellia sinensis var assamica, the Indian type, most certainly prefers sub-tropical to tropical conditions with lots of warmth and humidity. Camellia sinensis var sinensis, the China type, likes a little chill each winter akin to its native environment on the hillsides and mountainous slopes of China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

For the China type, a light frost or even a little snowfall isn’t such a big deal so long as the frost or snow melts away within a day or two. The general rule if you’re considering planting your own C. sinensis is, if ornamental camellia’s thrive in your area with relatively little extra care, then C. sinensis is likely to do so, too. Many of the ornamental camellia’s are a little more hardy that C. sinensis, but as long as the adaptations you make to keep your ornamental camellia’s happy are minimal you’ll probably do okay with C. sinensis, too.

Humidity: Successful Camellia Sinensis Growers Secret

The key to keeping all varieties of C. sinensis happy is a good level of humidity alongside damp but not saturated soils. Camellia sinensis likes to drink water in through its roots and luxuriate in humid air, but it needs good drainage to prevent root rot. That’s part of why C. sinensis thrives in the wild on hillsides; the slightly rocky soil allows for plenty of run-off, keeping roots healthy while allowing for a steady supply of water from regular rainfall.

Many gardeners who live in climates with long, warm, humid summers and cold winters choose to plant C. sinensis in pots. Camellia sinensis can be quite content living in a pot, so long as its neither too large nor too small and you keep the soil well-watered and well-drained. You can have a mini-tea plantation on your back patio for the summer and bring the whole lot in for a warm winter indoors so long as you have a sunny indoor location. A good greenhouse that protects your plants from freezing conditions may do the trick too. Camellia sinensis can be surprisingly flexible and adaptable, so long as you provide reasonable sunshine and neither too much water nor too little.

Dappled Shade for Camellia Sinensis

Sun is an important factor in growing C. sinensis. In the wild, C. sinensis tends to choose the edges of forests, where it can get a bit of early-morning direct sun but by late morning to early afternoon it’s residing in the dappled shade provided by the bigger, more established tree community. Late afternoon sun in the summer can be too much for C. sinensis, especially in a garden space where the temperatures creep into the high 90s F. Or 30s C. At those hot temperatures, even the Indian type of C. sinensis needs a bit of shady protection.

How Big does Camellia sinensis Grow?

Camellia sinensis can grow up to 30 feet in the wild, roughly the size of a full-sized apple tree. That’s when they’re not pruned regularly. Those grown for Tea productions are usually pruned lightly in their second season for the first time and by their fourth season they’re pruned rigorously several times a season. Most producers keep their C. sinensis in shrub or hedgerow form, pruned low enough for easy plucking, so waist- to shoulder-high and no more than an arm’s length for reaching the center of the shrubbery.

Home-Grown Tea: What You Need to Know

If you’re thinking about growing Camellia sinensis in your garden, you might want to consider buying your first plant so you know for sure what type you’re getting. Camellia sinensis can be started from seed, but the seeds don’t always grow true to type. That means that the seeds from a C. sinensis parent may not produce baby C. sinensis plants with the same qualities. That could be good. Certainly it can be exciting and adventurous. It can also be disappointing, especially if you’re hoping to create a functional tea garden where you can grow, harvest, and process your very own home-grown Tea.

Instead, consider buying your first C. sinensis plant in bare-root or potted form so you know for sure what you’re getting. Once it’s established, you can start many more C. sinensis plants using the same technique cannabis growers use to clone starts from their preferred strains. You’ll take clippings of the young slightly woody parts and root them, keeping them potted until you feel confident they’re strong enough to withstand being transplanted into your garden space. It may take a few more years to establish your full Tea garden, but you’ll know that the variety you’re growing will be hardy in your conditions and likely to provide you with years and years of tasty Tea.

It’ll take a few years before you start really harvesting…

It’ll take you a few years before you get your first really strong harvests beyond what it takes for you to get your first plants in the ground. Camellia sinensis needs a good two seasons or so to establish, during which you’ll do some light pruning to shape and encourage growth but you won’t get a whole lot of leaves for brewing. After about the third to fourth year, though, your C. sinensis ought to be ready for the first robust harvest. Camellia sinensis takes a good three to four seasons of vigorous growth to establish a strong foundation for future harvests.

If you give it plenty of care, protecting it through the colder months and shading it from severe sun-heat-drought in the summers, you’ll be rewarded with many years of robust leaf harvest. Typically, healthy C. sinensis plants offer up as many as four flushes, times when the plant naturally sprouts new leaves. Making time to pluck with each flush will encourage vigorous growth in the next flush. Unlike fruit trees, which generally have a limited number of robust fruiting years, C. sinensis will keep on growing leaves in a rhythmic fashion indefinitely. There are reports of C. sinensis tress in China as old as 200 years, and domestically we know some they can live for easily 50 years edging into the 100 year range.


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