Experimentation with sunlight and tea has gone on for years at the Fairhope Tea Plantation. If you plant young plants in direct sunlight they will be dead, brown in about five days. But, tea grown in full sun* developed a different cell structure and produces a much more robust drink.
A Florida horticulturist told Donnie in the 1990’s that shade grown tea was all the rage in Central American countries. So Donnie took the next three years and planted a large “tea garden” under established oak trees. For years the garden produces lots of tea, with large broad leaves, which under taste test consistently produces a weaker, milder brew. Now days, most of the tea garden growth is pruned off and wasted. Donnie is concerned with the many new tea farm startups now who are planting their new plants in the shade.
*How do you train new plants to grow in the sun? Donnie learned from the Chinese that you have to use tea covers. When he first went to China in 1984 to learn how to make tea, he saw small tea plants under rows of bamboo houses. These were like long bamboo baskets with one open side arranged in rows that covered open fields and open hill sides. The last time he went to China, they had modernized, using nylon rods bent over and covered with greenhouse shade cloth.
The Fairhope farm has experimented with many materials to shade the young, freshly planted plants. They have used strips of plywood, roofing metal, black plastic cloth and silt fence material. Different systems of connecting to stakes driven into the ground would allow adjusting in height or for sun direction or to allow more sunlight to get inside. Storm resistance was a big factor because a winter time storm would roll the covers up and blow them into the woods. It was found that these covers needed to be in place for a year and removed slowly, in stages, to allow the growing tea plants have time to adjust to the stronger sun light.
The newly exposed plants would get a bit yellowish the next year but would survive. The leaves that grow in the direct sunlight would have cell structure where the cells would develop on end instead of laying out flat. This produced a leaf almost half the size as one grown in the shade. This makes for a better, more robust brewed tea.