Growing tea is a lot like growing camellias. For water, soil, ph, sunlight and temperature needs, it is easy to find these requirements. Camellias and tea accept a wide range of tolerances, but tea can be downright picky. Tea does not show stress, or a little withering or some yellowing leaves. If it does not like where it is – toast. Donnie has taken the approach that tea is an understory shrub that lives in colonies under a climax forest.
Camellia sinensis likes lots of water but will not grow where water will stand. A tea technician once said tea does not like to grow near water but the Fairhope plantation is a mile from Mobile Bay, on one side, and a mile from Weeks Bay on the other. The plantation is near the Gulf of Mexico’s north coast which receives over 65 inches of rain a year, more than Seattle, Washington. On the other hand, the area has seen minor drought conditions where it had not rained for months, but tea still puts on a fine crop of new growth.
When new plants are planted, the bare root plants from rootings, or seedlings, are planted in prepared rows. This is done in the Chinese style of being planted very close together, with only a few inches between plants with rows seven feet, three inches apart. The young plants are kept wet by either irrigation or rain for at least a year. After that they are established and have developed a tap root and are not irrigated again, depending on rainfall alone.
Soil & pH
Tea likes slightly acidic soil with a ph range from 5.0 to 5.7. This is exactly the range of the Fairhope farm so no ph adjustments have ever been needed. There were times when a little crushed lime was used, but not very often, and now not in many years. The soil in Fairhope is a little low in potassium and potash has been applied several times, but not often or recently.
When new rows are planted the ground is prepared as you would find on the floor of a stable, climax forest. There broad leaf hardwoods, not pines, have built an accumulation of years of decayed leaves. To simulate this, the ground is dug up in a row a foot wide and a foot deep. The bottom of this trench receives a good layer of well decayed compost. Rotten leaf mater is added as the trench is filled and the top of the ground covered in well decayed leaves. When the new plants are planted, fresh fallen leaves are added to almost cover the new plantings. This seems like a lot of trouble but it has worked very well at the Fairhope farm.
The second year the plants are established and starting to grow vigorously, comes the hardest part – pruning them off short again. This is what needs to be done to start the plant branching out. The plant would otherwise shoot up tall and straight into a twenty foot shrub, but for tea production the bush needs to look more like an azalea bush. You can’t pick tea if you can’t reach it and if pruned down low, the plant tries harder and throws out a good crop all at one time.
Most producers keep their bushes pruned to around “belly button” high so when picking the forearms are horizontal to lessen fatigue. More and more photographs of farms now show tea cut only 18 inches from the ground and some styles replace these plants only after a few years. The low cut rows are harder to pick but the production is considerably better. The Fairhope farm has rows of bushes four foot tall that are plucked for oolong and black teas, and low cut rows for their best quality green teas. The low cut rows are starting to win favor and more and more of their tea rows are being cut down low.
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.