Tea seems like one of those simple pleasures that just turns up in the supermarket, like coffee and chocolate. And like coffee and chocolate, it also has a certain amount of romance attached to it. In the past tea has been a commodity of politics and intrigue and, of course, has long been a symbol of the reach of the British Empire. Perhaps it's the rejection of the notion of Britishness which has increased our appetite for coffee which is now romanced to us by marketers as a more European option and somehow more sophisticated, cultured or even chic.
However, the image of tea is having a renaissance of its own and contributing to this are the strong cultural ties tea has with Asia.
Many smaller tea brands use this association with Asia to promote their tea as authentic, handmade and artisan. We're all familiar with the Dilmah brand. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is of course native to Asia and particularly the confluence between India, China and Burma. Most high quality teas are grown at altitudes of around 1500ft. The reason for this is the plant grows a little more slowly, which concentrates the flavours in the leaves. Tea also enjoys tropical or subtropical conditions so tropical alpine regions such as the highlands of Sri Lanka are perfect. Another geographical area where tea does well is in river basins. This is primarily because of the rich alluvial soils, the temperature reductions at night and the extra humidity during the day.
Camellia sinensis is, however, relatively easy to grow here in New Zealand. It makes an attractive hedge or border, growing vigorously if left un-pruned. I've picked up a few tea plants from the Incredible Edibles range (available at Bunnings) and have planted them in my front garden. At this stage, it is more as an experiment really, as I'm not sure if I'm going to get the desired quality growing tea in Auckland's climate. However, there are major plantations for Waikato producing an extremely refined product although the climatic difference between these two locations can be quite marked. If my small plot is successful I'll be increasing my plantation to a full-blown hedge.
The ideal height for a tea bush seems to be around four to six feet.
Major pruning should be done in the early spring, just as the plant shows signs of some fresh spring growth. This will help keep the plant in a manageable state but will also encourage the bifurcation of spring growth, a big benefit come harvest time.
The young trees should be planted between eight hundred millimetres and a metre apart in a sandy, free-draining acid soil with a soil pH of around 5.5 to 5.1.
Use a basic soil testing kit from Bunnings to test the soil before you plant your trees. Add plenty of organic materials such as sheep pellets to the hole and in heavy soils add large sand particles such as pumice.
As well as enjoying free draining acidic soils, camellia sinensis likes plenty of water which means to get the best out of your plants you'll need to irrigate in some way. Because of the amount of watering required combined with a free draining soil, a certain amount of nutrient leaching will occur. I recommend liquid feeding especially through summer.
The last step is harvesting your tea. The plants should be at least three years old before you harvest them and you only really want the youngest leaves, so that is the tips plus the three leaves below them. The leaves can be dried in various ways. I've read about leaving leaves in a hot pan at about 260C, turning them continuously for 15 minutes then finishing them off at a low heat in the oven. This fast drying process apparently reduces oxidation. But I'm going to dry mine in a paper bag in the hot water cupboard and hopefully I can produce something worthy of the big deal that comes from that little word, tea.