A three month stint in the States and I am already feeling that urge to be endlessly productive. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing but sometimes I have to remind myself to slow down and just enjoy being: enjoy staring out the window and dreaming, enjoy puttering around the place without any measure of efficiency or effectiveness, enjoy sipping on a cup of tea and having a natter with a friend who just dropped in.
Which got me to thinking about making my own tea blends. This Productive Pioneer identity, sort of the ‘Anti-consumer American’ approach to life which is very au courant and necessitates filling all moments of the day with producing something you could just go out and buy, has sunk its claws into me. Yesterday I made some butter and it was fantastic. Last week, I made my own yogurt. It was to die for.
So now, how about my own tea! And this is such a perfect gardening opportunity for Ireland because some of the BEST tea ingredients grow so easily.
The plan is this:
1. To set aside and cordon off an area of the garden for teas. This is because many flowers that are great for teas are also very vigorous growers which can run rampant in the beds if left unchecked. Use buried timber or some other actual physical root barrier as these will spread like mad. A raised bed would even be perfect for the perennials. Shrubs might be better off in the ground.
2. Make minimal soil amendments by adding a bit, tiny bit, of Gee-Up or Celtic Worm Compost. Be careful with Gee-Up especially because it is potent and can turn any plant into a beast. Vigorous growers like some of the plants that are good for teas will definitely turn your garden into a scene out of Little Shop of Horrors if you amend the soil too much.
3. Put together a layout for the following plants that I know will grow well in our dear Irish climate, be great for making my own teas and, if I happen to revert to my Irish ways and don’t ever make my own tea, will still be beautiful in the garden. Some of the less vigorous ones can also simply be added to any perennial and shrub border as part of your main garden:
Monarda didyma – Also known as Bee Balm or Monarda.
Growing Tips: Behaves somewhat like a mint but not AS vigourous. It does spread via runner roots but usually at a glacial pace. It can be susceptible to mildew but still well worth a try in the garden as it has beautiful colors and is great for attracting butterflies. Fullish sun required.
Tea Tips: Harvest any time of year. Use leaves or flowers. Flavor is minty and citrusy. Try with ginger for a twist on the old lemon ginger combo.
Calendula officinalis – Not be confused with Marigold as only a few of the Marigold varieties are edible
Growing Tips: Calendula is about as straightforward as you can get. Sow in trays and plant out in Late Spring or sow directly onto the soil in full sun once things start warming up. These are not vigorous but they are tough and may even self-seed. I am going to sow directly and let them pop up in between things where they can
Tea Tips: Use the flowers. Floral flavor and great color. If you drink it straight a drop of honey makes all the difference.
Chamaemelum nobile – It’s the English or Roman Chammomile that grows best in Ireland. German Chammomile is more popular overall (despite that there is not much difference in flavor between the two) but it is an annual.
Growing Tips: Just set it in the ground and let it go! They are a bit lanky and can be a little fickle if the soil is really heavy clay. They are a good one for growing in between things to hide their lankiness.
Tea Tips: Use the flowers whole for a lovely, calming cuppa. I like to add lavender and honey. Taste is florally with a bit of citrus.
Echinacea purpurea – beautiful garden plant, bee and butterfly attractor (if you never get around to that tea), great for colds
Growing Tips: So this is not the easiest plant to grow in Ireland as it is susceptible to slugs and it also likes slightly freer draining soils. BUT, if you think you have that perfect location for it and keep an eye on it in the Spring when the slugs can destroy it’s new growth, give it a try. Full Sun is best.
Tea Tips: You can use the flowers, stems and leaves for tea. The root can also be used in its ground up form but I am going to stick with above ground components for my tea. Great for helping the immune system combat colds.
Sambucus nigra – Yes. That lanky, tangly Elderbush has its uses, tea being one of them
Growing Tips: None other than just stick it in the ground in a place with plenty of space. These will grow wild although they can be pruned very easily.
Tea Tips: Use the flowers.
Foeniculum vulgare – I LOVE Fennel in the garden. It is both statuesque and whimsical. Tall, bulky and yet the delicate sprays of flower catch the light and give it such an airy feel.
Growing Tips: Fennel is another one that just stick it in the ground and let it go. Full Sun preferred but it will take a bit of shade. They get up to 5′ tall and about 3′ wide but are easy to divide if they outgrow their location. They can be prone to whitefly and when young, sometimes slugs can get to them but for the most part they are tough and can be left to their own devices.
Tea Tips: Wait for the seeds to go quite yellow and then harvest for you tea.
Jasminum officinale – Beautiful plant in the garden if you can keep it alive
Growing Tips: Warm and sheltered. Grow it up a trellis and be ready to tie it back if it likes the spot it’s in as it can get wild.
Tea Tips: Making your own Jasmine Tea actually involves ‘infusing’ green tea leaves with Jasmine scent. For more info check out this link about how to make your own Jasmine Tea
Lavandula angustifolia – A fickle garden plant in Ireland but beautiful in teas (and in the garden if you can find the right spot)
Growing Tips: So Lavender is a common garden plant in Ireland but it can also be a complete headwreck. This is mainly because it just can’t handle the heavy, wet clay soil. If you want to try and grow it with success find the sunniest spot you can and add grit, sand, gravel and compost to lighten up the soil. Expect it to need replacing in 5-8 years, if it makes it that far.
Tea Tips: Use the flowers. The tase is a mild version of the fragrance and is lovely with fennel and chammomile.
Melissa officinalis – it’s a beast if it is left unchecked. Treat it like a mint and keep it contained. Underwhelming in the garden but lovely scent
Growing Tips: Contain. Full Sun. Grows about 5′ tall. That’s about it.
Tea Tips: Use the leaves. A lovely citrusy flavor
Spearmint, Peppermint, Chocolate Mint…there are so many kinds, try them all!!!
Growing Tips: Contain these vigorous growers!!
Tea Tips: Use the leaves fresh or dried
This is my new favorite tea ingredient. It also makes a lovely pesto.
Growing Tips: You would have a good laugh if I actually told you how to grow Nettle
Tea Tips: Use the dried leaves to make the most beautiful, earthy tea
I have never tried Parsley tea to be honest but it grows so well in Ireland I am going to give it a try
Growing Tips: Plant in full sun et Voila!
Tea Tips: Use the leaves fresh or dried. Apparently you can also use the root.
Growing Tips: Raspberries grow crazy in Ireland so try and provide some sort of support if you would like to try and keep it neat and tidy. If you are only growing for tea, one shrub would do.
Tea Tips: Use the dried leaf in your tea. Has a slight black tea flavor, without the caffeine. Harvest in Early Spring when all the good stuff is still in the leaf.
Growing Tips: As you may know there are entire books devoted to growing roses so I am keeping it simple: Sun, good soil that you add some good compost/manure to, and personally, I would use a climber as they are more reliable.
Tea Tips: Use the petals!
Growing Tips: Plant it in your Granny’s garden if it’s not already there. Or in other words, another fickle Meditaerranean plant that theoretically prefers sun and free draining soil.
Tea Tips: Use the leaf or the flower
Growing Tips: As Spanish as you can get in your garden. Sheltered from the wind and up against a South facing wall and you would be surprised how well Sage will grow.
Tea Tips: Dry the leaves and use alone or combine with mint to make the most incredible tea blend.
Growing Tips: Fickle but free-draining and sun are your best bets
Tea Tips: Use the fresh or dried leaves for a lovely cup of tea.
Once you have decided what to grow and have them all laid out beautifully and planted, we will need to harvest.
4. Harvesting tips vary by plant so once you decide on your Tea Garden Plants do a bit of research. With that said, I plan to harvest when I remember or when I am craving a cup of fresh, herbal tea.
5. Once harvested, you can decide whether to use them fresh or dry them. While I enjoy both (especially fresh Mint tea) I am going to dry mine so that I can store them forever more. There are several ways to dry. I am guessing the air drying will be tricky with the humidity in Ireland so I will probably speed it along using the oven method below:
Air Dry: Bunches of cut herbs can be tied with string and hung upside down to dry. Choose a warm, dark place with good ventilation. Herbs may mildew or not dry properly if air circulation is poor.The herbs are ready for storage when the leaves are dry and crackly. Strip the leaves off the stems, crumble in your hands or use a food processor, and store in airtight jars away from direct sunlight. If drying stems with seed pods, tie up bunches as above, then slip a brown paper bag over the clump to catch the seeds. For ventilation, poke a few slits in the sides of the bag with a sharp knife. Or spread the seeds on a cloth towel or layer of paper towels in a dry spot for one to two weeks. When dry, store in jars with tight lids.
If using screens for air drying, remove the flower heads or leaves from the stems (discarding the stems), and spread in a thin layer on the screen. You can stack several screens, providing you leave a few inches between each one.
Assisted Drying Methods:
Microwave – place herbs on a paper towel and microwave on low for 60 seconds. Dry for one-minute intervals until the herbs are almost dry. Then allow to air dry for 24 to 48 hours before storage.
Conventional oven – spread foliage and flowers thinly on cookie sheets, and “bake” at the lowest possible oven temperature setting for several hours with the oven door open. Stir occasionally. When herbs are completely dry, let cool completely before placing in jars.
And LASTLY, blend your herbs and share your trials and tribulations of growing your own teas over a hot cuppa with a friend!!!