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Grow a Flourishing Backyard Tea Garden for Brewing

Homegrown herbs and tea leaves can flavor your beverage

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En español | Basil, lemon balm, sage and mint might be popular in pesto, lasagna and soup but Christina Dedora prefers using the herbs in tea.

Dedora started blending and selling herbal teas like Afternoon Delight, Dream Sweet and Flower Power through her business, Sanctuary Herbs of Providence. The process, she says, is easy to replicate in a home garden.

"Herbs are a great addition to the garden [and] people don't know how easy it is to make your own tea,” she says.

Technically, “teas” made from herbs aren't teas at all; they are tisanes or herbal infusions. Only beverages made with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis (tea) plant truly merit the “tea” moniker.

But informally these herbal concoctions are called “tea because … if we called them tisanes or herbal infusions, people wouldn't know what we were talking about,” explains Dedora.

Home gardeners can grow plants to make their own herbal tisanes or traditional teas.

Growing a true tea bush

Camellia sinensis leaves are used to make black, green, white and oolong teas. Like other camellia species, this evergreen bush grows best in warmer climates.

Steve Lorch, founder of Table Rock Tea Company, suggests gardeners below zone 7 grow Camellia sinensis in greenhouses or pots that can be moved indoors in the winter. (Not sure of your gardening zone? Check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map). Tea plants tolerate sun or shade but prefer acidic soil.

"It's a pretty, useful ornamental plant [and] once you get it established, it's an easy plant to care for,” Lorch says.

After four to six years, plants are considered mature and produce up to five servings of tea per year. Processing Camellia sinensis takes a bit of work.

Lorch, who describes the process in detail in his book, How to Grow and Make Tea in the United States, notes that it involves harvesting new growth and using a combination of heat or steam, drying and rolling the leaves (depending on whether you're making white, black, green or oolong tea) to take the leaves from garden to teacup. The leaves also can be steeped fresh but won't have the same robust flavor as dried, hand-processed tea.

There is a learning curve, Lorch admits, but with a little practice it can be a DIY process. He adds: “Tea has been around for thousands of years; there is no special equipment needed."

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Herbs to flavor your brew

Growing herbs for tisanes or herbal “teas” is much easier. Choose a sunny garden spot to plant seedlings like chamomile, lavender, echinacea and lemongrass, which are sold in most nurseries. Peppermint, spearmint and catnip can even be grown in containers on the patio.

Herbal teas also offer significant health benefits: Chamomile is linked to improved sleep quality; peppermint has antimicrobial and antiviral properties and has been shown to ease digestive upset; and ginger is associated with lowered inflammation.

If you're growing herbs for tea, Dedora suggests steering clear of pesticides. Harvest fresh herbs in the morning when the oils — and flavor — are strongest. You can steep fresh herbs in boiling water to make garden-to-teacup brews but dried herbs pack a bigger flavor punch.

"Dried is the way to go,” Dedora says. “Dried herbs dry in the oils so you use less."

To dry, harvest a handful of herbs on the stem and bundle the stem ends with an elastic; hang them in a dark room. Exposure to direct sunlight will degrade the oils in the leaves, while a humid spot — like a bathroom — could cause mold to grow on the leaves.

Once the leaves are dried, which takes about two weeks, strip them from the stems (a process called garbling) and store them in a paper bag or glass jar until you're ready to make tea. Dedora notes that dried herbs have a shelf life of up to two years.

Plan to use about one tablespoon of dried herbs per teacup; double the amount if using fresh herbs. You can purchase reusable tea bags or a tea strainer (also known as a tea ball) to separate the fresh or dried herbs from the water. You can use a single variety of herb, like peppermint, or mix multiple herbs, like lavender, lemon verbena and spearmint, to make custom tea blends. Don't be afraid to get creative.

"Not only is [tea from herbs growing in your backyard] healthier and fresher but you're saving on your carbon footprint,” Dedora says. “There is absolutely a wow factor."

Lemon verbena leaves and white tea cup

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Lemon verbana tea

Recipes for Herbal Infusions to Make at Home

Lemon Balm Blend

  • 1/4 cup dried peppermint leaves
  • 1/4 cup dried lemon balm leaves
  • 2 cups water

Place the peppermint and lemon balm leaves in a teapot. Bring a kettle of water to a boil and pour it over the leaves, leaving them to steep for three to five minutes. Strain the leaves before drinking.

Citrus Lift Tea

  • 1 tablespoon dried lemon verbena leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried lemon balm leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried bee balm leaves
  • 2 cups water

Boil the water, add the lemon verbena, lemon balm and bee balm; steep for three to five minutes. Strain the leaves, pour the tea into a warm mug and serve.

Recipes from Growing Your Own Tea Garden: The Guide to Growing and Harvesting Flavorful Teas in Your Backyard by Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.