Garden Detective: Growing your own tea

Look for Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the hardier Look for Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the hardier Chinese variety that should in most cases withstand our winters. Photo Credit: Camellia Forest Nursery

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

For the past five years, ever since seeing the Snapple iced tea commercial that shows a farmer plucking a white tea leaf, I've wanted to try my hand at growing and plucking my own tea. I've made herbal varieties by steeping homegrown lemon balm, lavender and chamomile, even rose hips. But never real tea -- Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is loaded with antioxidants, flavonoids and soul-warming goodness.

In addition to tomatoes, peppers, squash and herbs, which are fixtures in my backyard every summer, I always take on the challenge of growing one new edible. Last year it was potatoes. Before that it was corn, and before that, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries. I do this not only because it's fun to learn new things but also because I like to have firsthand experience growing plants that you might have problems with one day.

This year, I'm finally getting around to exploring the intriguing tea plant. I've poked around, researched, read and decided where my lone Camellia sinensis will reside. And instead of reporting my findings after the fact, I want to share what I've learned so that you can give it a go this year, too.

Look for Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the hardier Chinese variety that should in most cases withstand our winters -- not Camellia sinensis var. assamica, the less cold-tolerant plant from India. I'm ordering my plants from Camelia Forest Nursery in North Carolina (camforest.com; 919-968-0504), where they're selling for $15 apiece, plus $15 shipping).

The multistemmed shrubs, which actually are small trees in the wild, usually reach 2 to 6 feet tall in the landscape. You can keep the larger ones pruned waist-high for easy harvesting. The evergreen plants put forth small, white fragrant flowers in fall and are very easy to grow, thriving in well-draining soil with a slightly acidic soil pH and any light condition from deep shade to full sun (although part sun or light shade are ideal).

Allow two years for new plants to begin to produce enough leaves for a sufficient harvest, and after five years one plant should provide a nice supply. However, if you have a family and everyone enjoys a daily cup or two, you'll need more plants.

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Drying the leaves

To transform fresh leaves into tea, most will have to be oxidized to varying degrees, depending on the type of tea desired. Black tea, green tea, oolong tea and white tea all come from the Camellia sinensis plant; it's how the leaves are treated after harvest that determines the beverage you'll brew.

For black, green and oolong tea, pluck the two or three youngest leaves and the leaf bud from each stem tip, and repeat every 10-12 days as new tender shoots develop.

For white tea, pluck only the buds from stem tips before they fully open. Then heat in a pan over a low flame, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes, allow to cool and store in an airtight container.

For green tea, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida recommends briefly steaming the leaves or heating them in a pan at 480-570 degrees for 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning, then drying the leaves in a standard oven or toaster oven at 212-302 degrees for another 10-15 minutes, at which point they'll be ready for brewing or storing.

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For oolong tea, leaves should be spread in a single layer on trays and left to wilt in the sun for 30 minutes to one hour, then moved to a shady spot for 8-10 hours, tossing every hour. Next, leaves should be placed in a wide pan and heated over a low flame (121-149 degrees) for 15 minutes. Finally, leaves should be rolled individually to preserve their oils and flavor, and allowed to dry completely. Store in an airtight container when dried; the rolled balls will unfurl as they brew.

Black tea requires a longer fermentation period: Dry the leaves on a baking sheet in the sun for 10-12 hours to remove 55 percent to 70 percent of leaf moisture. Then cut leaves into strips and roll into small balls, allowing the still-moist leaf pieces to ferment. The leaves will be black at the end of this process.

For the best brewed tea, heat water to just below the boiling point. Allowing it to reach a boil would release oxygen and distort the flavor of your tea. Drink up, everyone!

Plant of the Year

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The Perennial Plant Association has named the 2013 Perennial Plant of the Year: Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum' (but you can call it "variegated Solomon's seal").

This year's honoree is a shade lover that prefers moist, well-draining soil and is hailed for its arching stems and small, bell-shaped, greenish-white flowers that bloom during spring. Foliage turns yellow in autumn, and there are no insect or disease problems to worryabout.

Plant rhizomes just below the soil surface in shaded areas, and divide plants in spring or fall. Leaves make a nice addition to flower arrangements, too.

Sweet-smelling, blooming, variegated and shade-loving? All in all, a worthy winner.

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