Growing Tea?

I got a letter this morning from the County Council about my allotment application. I have been offered a lease on a 10m x 20m “transition” allotment.

The plan is keep it simple with carrots, spinach and maybe potatoes but for future years I have noted that there is nothing in the lease agreement that prevents me from starting a tiny tea plantation so I did some investigations. Most of us have heard of the decorative camellia plant but the tea variety (Camellia sinensis) is becoming popular for gardeners. Although it prefers subtropical climates the Camellia sinensis plant is both resilient and adaptable.It is an evergreen shrub but can grow up to 17 m high. In cultivation, it is usually kept below 2 m high by pruning. Its bright green leaves are shiny, and often have a hairy underside. Its fruits are brownish-green and contain one to four seeds.

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis (Source)

There are three major varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea),  Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea) and Camellia sinensis var. cambodi  (Java tea). It seems that Chinese camellia is the original tea plant and is hardier than the other varieties. It has relatively small and narrow leaves and produces fragrant white flowers in autumn. Given the right conditions, a tea plant can grow and produce for 50-100 years.

C. sinensis var. assamica is taller in its natural state and can grow into a loosely branched tree to a height of about 17 m. It is a less hardy variety with medium, droopy, leathery leaves. It needs well-drained soil and needs ample water but it is the most cold-sensitive camellia.

Camellia sinensis var. cambodi is used to create hybrids and not grown on its own so much but it can also grow quite tall and has the small white flowers when temperatures cool in autumn.

Tea can be propagated from cuttings or from seeds but the seeds take extra time. From seed, it will take 2-3 years to be ready to harvest. The plant likes regular harvesting and the new shoots can be used for tea. They need to be properly pruned back every four years to rejuvenate the bush and keep it at a convenient height.

Camillia sinensisFor planting, Camellia sinensis likes well-drained, sandy, acidic soil but will do well in other soil types too. They grow well in sunny areas but light shade develops the flavor of the leaves. They should be kept 1 meter apart to avoid competition. Camellia bushes are drought-tolerant and will survive dry summers. The problem for Irish weather conditions is that they need to be kept in a dry atmosphere to avoid mildew developing and the plant prefers “not very frosty dry winters”. Ideally, day temperatures of ~25 °C and night temperatures of >10 °C. Considering it is the end of March and there was snow on the ground here this morning, I’m guessing they would need to be kept in a greenhouse or indoors for most of winter and spring to survive.

I notice that there are a few tea plantations in the UK (Cornwall, Kent Pembrokeshire) so it seems that it is definitely possible to grow Camellia sinensis outside a subtropical climate. I might give it a shot at some stage but probably just as an experiment in a pot so I can move it indoors.

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