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From Tea to Shining Tea

Enjoyed the world over, herbs come in hundreds of varieties to please the palate


Most people can remember, in detail, the moment they fell in love. I know I can. It began in a tiny, back-street shop in San Francisco where my daughter and I were buying a cover for her futon.

In a motion to finalize the sale, the shop owner's sister emerged from the back of the store with a black lacquer tray holding handleless cups of fragrant jasmine and honeysuckle tea. We cradled the cups in the palms of our hands, smiling at one another through the rising steam.

I was in love--with tea.

Returning home to Orange, I dug a 3-foot circular bed around the base of our birdbath. I planted a trellis of jasmine, four kinds of mint and three scented geraniums--my first "tea garden."

Years later I'm still discovering the myriad flowers and herbs that can be used for making tea.

Enjoyed the world over, herbal teas are touted for their medicinal value. It is said that they can ease conversation, restore sleep, calm a cold, refresh the spirit at the end of the day and are a great solution for those avoiding caffeine.

The black tea we all know is the fermented leaves of the Camellia sinensis, cousin to the familiar garden camellia, Camellia japonica, says Helen Gustafson, tea guru for Chez Panisse in Berkeley and author of "The Agony of the Leaves: The Ecstasy of My Life With Tea" (Henry Holt and Co., $23).

So, you may wonder, can I grow the Camellia sinensis in my garden?

"Herbal tea is the only tea you can grow in your backyard," Gustafson says.

Growing Tea

Although a tea garden is simple to create, with more than 400 plants to choose from, it's easy to get carried away. Begin with six or eight plants, then introduce a few new choices each year and discover what teas please your palate.

"Most herbs have four basic needs--sunlight, a loose, fast-draining medium, water and good soil," says Diane Weber, resident herbalist at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar. "Herbs are undemanding when it comes to food and do best in well-amended soil that provides essential nutrients and allows for slower, steadier growth."

Too much fertilizer results in larger plants at the expense of flavor.

At Lingle's Herbs, a retail supplier of organic herbs and rare plants in Long Beach, a moderate amount of blood meal, bone meal, fish emulsion, composted chicken manure and liquid seaweed is applied on a rotating schedule. Owner John Lingle gives herbs a good feeding in early spring, then a light dose every other month throughout the growing season.

Mediterranean in their ancestry, most herbs prefer a drier condition than you might imagine. The goal is to supply moisture when they're growing and back off during the herbs' dormant stage.

"Pests are very rarely a problem," Weber says.

With the herbs' volatile oils and pronounced fragrance, they pretty much take care of themselves.

When choosing herbs for a tea garden, Weber suggests envisioning how they will look when full-sized. Tall varieties should go in the rear of the garden, against fences or walls. Medium-sized herbs are planted next. Low-growing varieties are great around the garden's edges.

"And don't let a lack of space stop you," she continues. "Use containers on decks and patios; or grow mint, rosemary, thyme or scented geraniums on a windowsill."


Gustafson thinks that carefully dried herbs will result in teas with more intense flavor than those made with fresh herbs, which yield a more delicate taste. "It is always better to use fresh herbs directly from the garden," she says. "That's one of the lovely things about the home garden: You have complete control in dealing with freshness."

Your tea's flavor may vary depending on the time of day you harvest your herbs.

"Never gather the leaves and blossoms during the heat of day when the sun dissipates their moisture content and alters the intensity of their essential oils," Weber says. "And don't harvest on wet days, since they tend not to dry out as well and may mildew."

Instead, stroll through the garden, basket and clippers in hand, in early morning after the dew has evaporated, when flower buds are just opening and the flavor of the leaves is at its peak. And harvest only the amount to be used that day.

You can harvest annual and perennial herbs from early spring through fall. But don't cut plants back too hard when harvesting; allow them to recover and produce a new crop.

When cleaning up the late-season garden, give plants their final pruning well before the first frost to assure their survival through winter. More weather-tolerant herbs such as sage and thyme will continue supplying you with fresh growth year-round.


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