The ultimate Growing Tea Leaves Guide is something people have been requesting for years. We have made hundreds of videos all about Japanese green tea, how its grown and how to prepare it, but never about growing your own at home. This is because we do not grow our own teas, but rather we work with dozens of talented farmers who produce some of the best Japanese Green Tea in the world.
After traveling around Japan for years, and meeting with different farmers, we have learned quite a lot about how the tea plant is grown, and how much work goes into producing premium Japanese green tea. We thought we would put this information together in a complete Growing Tea Leaves Guide, so that you can try to grow your own tea plant at home. Let’s dive in!
What Is a Tea Plant?
When we talk about the tea plant, we are talking about camelia sinensis. Many drinks like chamomile and peppermint are referred to as “tea” but technically they are not because they do not come from the tea plant.
Camelia sinensis is an evergreen, subtropical shrub native to Southeast and south asia. Although normally trimmed and pruned to the size of a small bush, if left undisturbed it can grow to a tree up to 10-15 meters in height. These larger tea trees take hundreds of years to reach their full height, and some rare tea trees can even reach ages of over 1,000 years. The tea plant prefers mild winters and warmer climates with seasonal rainfall.
All true teas come from this tea plant, but there are two main varieties and hundreds of subvarieties (cultivars) to this plant. In the next section of the growing tea leaves guide, we will discuss the 2 main types of tea plants.
The 2 Main Types of Tea Plants
Camelia sinensis assamica
This tea plant is also known as the Indian variety, as it can be found throughout Northeastern India.
The leaves are much larger than their Chinese counterparts, and the tea can contain quite a lot of bitterness.
Assamica teas are more suitable for black teas, because some of this bitterness is reduced during the oxidation process.
Camelia sinensis sinensis
This tea plant is also known as the Chinese variety, although it is not exclusive to China.
Although its origins are not entirely known, it likely originated in Southern China and later migrated to other parts of the world.
There are records of tea cultivation and consumption dating back thousands of years, but the camelia sinsensis sinensis plant made its way to Japan as recently as 1191.
This tea plant has smaller leaves compared to the assamica variety, and it is mostly used to make green teas.
Where does tea grow?
The largest tea producers in the world are India and China, followed by Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Iran and Indonesia. Japan ranks only 10th in terms of the total production of tea, but the quality tends to be so high that it has earned a reputation as a major tea producing country.
How Is Tea Grown?
Next in the growing tea leaves guide, we will talk about how tea is grown. There are a few important things to consider here, and they are especially important if you plan on making tea grow at home.
Growing tea from seed
Like other plants, the tea plant produces seeds in order to pass on its genetic information to the next generation. The tea plant grows a protective pod outside of the tea seeds in order to keep them safe until they are ready to drop. Once the tea seeds are ready to be dropped into the soil, this pod will crack open and release the seeds, which contain a hard outer coating similar to an acorn. Making tea grow from seeds is a bit harder, but it can be done.
Propagation of tea seeds
To create seed propagated tea plants, you first have to gather tea seeds from the tea plant. This is best done in the mid to late fall when the seed capsules are ripe and a reddish brown color. Once they crack open, you should be able to easily extract the seeds from inside.
When it comes to germinating the tea seeds, you want to keep a close eye on them until they begin to form tiny sprouts. Later on in the growing tea leaves guide, we will show you how to germinate the tea seeds so they are ready to be planted!
Wants the tea seeds have been germinated, it is time to cultivate the tea plants. This can take a very long time, so make sure you are ready for the commitment and the time it takes to grow a tea plant until it has reached maturity.
Can you grow tea plants at home?
You can grow your own tea plants at home, but it is extremely difficult. It will take months or even years until the tea plant is recognized as a tea plant. If you feel that you are up to the challenge, we will show you how in our growing tea leaves guide!
How to: Growing Tea Leaves at Home in 7 steps
#1 Buy tea seeds
You can buy tea seeds online or you can gather them from a nursery. If you live in the North America or Europe, it will be very unlikely that you have a farm nearby, as these are only a handful of tea fields outside of Asia and Africa.
#2 Prepare your soil
When it comes to preparing the soil, you want to use soil that is damp, slightly acidic and porous. For this, we recommend a mixture of potting soil and vermiculite.
This will allow you to retain a lot of moisture even if you miss a day or two of watering. This type of soil makes the tea grow exceptionally well.
#3 Soak and dry out your seeds
To germinate tea seeds, you first can start by soaking them in water for 24 hours. This is necessary in order to soften the outer hull, which can be quite tough. Just put the tea seeds into a bowl and add in some water. If any float to the top, you can throw these away. After you have waited 24 hours, you can drain the seeds and spread them out onto a tarp in the sun to dry.
#4 Nurture your seeds
You don’t want the seeds to dry out completely, so make sure you spray them with a little bit of water every couple of hours. Keep an eye on these for a couple of days because once cracks begin to form, you are ready to plant them. If you really want to make the tea grow well, you have to keep a close eye on it until it is ready to plant.
#5 Plant your tea
After you have collected the tea seeds that have formed cracks, you can plant these in a pot with soil. It’s best to use a pot that drains well, as you will need to water it frequently. For the mixture of soil, you can use half potting soil and half vermiculite to increase the porosity. You can bury the seeds about an inch into the soil and make sure the eye of the tea seed is facing either directly up or directly down.
You will want to keep the tea seeds at a warmer temperature between 70-75 degrees fahrenheit and make sure the soil stays moist. Adding a little bit of water occasionally and covering the pot with a plastic wrap will help this, but make sure that the soil is not waterlogged.
After about a month or two, the tea seeds may start to show signs of growth. Once a stem and two leaves begin to form, you can remove the plastic wrap and transfer the tea plant seeds to a larger pot
#6 Water your plant
You will want to keep the tea plant lightly watered and out of direct sunlight for the next 2-3 months.
You will want to keep them in a space that gets light shade throughout the day, but the tea plant may appreciate some morning and late afternoon sun.
#7 Allow you plant to grow
After the tea plants reach about 1 foot (30,48 cm) in height, they are ready to be transplanted. You will want to grow the tea plants in moist, acidic soil with a distance of about 15 feet (4,57 m) in between each one. Here you will also want to avoid direct sunlight, just give them partial shading throughout the day.
If you live in a cooler climate, you will find it difficult to grow the tea plants outside without containers. Tea is meant to thrive in warm, subtropical climates, and even most of Japan is a bit too cold to grow tea.
Harvesting and Processing Your Tea
After about 3-4 years, the tea plant can be harvested. If the tea plant is harvested too early, it can really damage the plant. It needs to have enough leaves to be able to spare a few for harvest. After the leaves are picked, there is still more work to be done. The leaves need to be processed, and how they are processed will determine the type of tea that is created. In the next section of the growing tea leaves guide, we will briefly discuss 4 types of tea and how they are produced. There are in total 6 types of tea, but dark tea and yellow tea are a bit more complicated.
#1 Green tea
Green tea is an unoxidized tea. When the leaves are picked from the tea plant, they will naturally begin to oxidize and turn into a black tea. In order to stop this oxidation, heat must be applied in order to deactivate the enzymes that cause oxidation. This allows the tea to lock in its green color and its fresher, more citrusy flavors.
In China, the heat is applied by firing the tea leaves in a large pan, while in Japan the heat is applied by steaming the leaves. These two techniques lead to very different taste profiles, with Chinese teas taking on more nutty characteristics and Japanese teas taking on more vegetal characteristics.
#2 Black tea
Black tea is known as a fully oxidized tea. This time, the farmer will allow the leaves of the tea plant to oxidize naturally and not apply the heat after harvest. During the oxidation process, the catechins are converted into theaflavins, and rather than these fresh vegetal characteristics, the black tea takes on warmer characteristics of caramel or chocolate.
#3 White tea
White tea involves the least amount of steps to produce, but in this simplicity lies complexity. The tea is essentially taken through a controlled drying process, during which the farmer has to worry about temperature and humidity. Traditionally, white tea is dried out in the sun but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
If the tea leaves are at too high of a temperature, they will cook and take on more of a roasted flavor. If they are left at too low of a temperature, the humidity will stay in for too long and this will negatively affect the taste of the tea.
#4 Oolong tea
Oolong tea is a partially oxidized tea. It is tempting to say that it lies somewhere in between a green tea and a black tea, but this is not necessarily the case. The tea leaves are rolled, withered and slightly broken in order to bring enzymes to the surface of the leaf and speed up the oxidation process. The oxidation is then stopped by applying heat. This tea has the most complicated production process and therefore it is more about the skill of the producer rather than the leaves used.
What type of soil works best for planting tea?
The tea plant grows best in humid, mildly acidic soil. If you are new to growing tea, you may want to start by optimizing the conditions but it can be good for the tea plant to be challenged by an adverse environment. For example, mountain tea plants are known for producing good quality tea, because the rough rocky soil and high altitude provides a difficult environment for the tea plant to overcome.
How far apart should plants be spaced?
The tea plants should be spaced out around 15 feet (4,57 m) apart. This will ensure that they do not compete for space or nutrients with the other tea plants.
How much light does a tea plant need?
The tea plant prefers partial shade throughout the day. Direct sunlight can be a bit too harsh, but some weaker sun in the morning and afternoon can be good for the plant.
How much water does a tea plant need?
When watering the tea plant, you want to make sure that the water doesn't pool in the soil. You want to make sure that the soil is sufficiently damp without being waterlogged.
The tea plant doesn’t require much maintenance, but it does require being watered daily. It is used to growing in environments that receive a lot of rainfall.
When you water the tea plant, make sure you use softer water as hard water may throw off the pH of the soil. The tea plant prefers acidic soils so this is important when it comes to creating the best conditions.
Too busy to grow your own?
If all these steps seem like a lot of work, you can always leave the tea growing to the professionals. This is why we work with so many talented farmers. Mr. Sakamoto for example has been growing tea without the use of pesticides since 1985, and he knows just about everything there is to know about growing delicious gyokuro tea. If you would like to simply try his Gyokuro, you can find it on our website! Hopefully by learning about all the work that goes into growing premium Japanese green tea, you will enjoy the taste of the tea even more!