I was asked about growing tea in the shade so here are my thoughts. My horticulturist brother, Dr. J. E. Barrett, III, told me 25 years ago that the best tea grown in Costa Rica was grown in the shade. That is when I started planting my shade grown garden which took three years to complete. As soon as I started picking and processing the tea from the “garden,” I was disappointed with the results. The shade grown tea was flat, mild, uninteresting and did not have those notes of robust tea flavonoids.
I now have thousands of plants in about one hundred yards of 25-year-old rows that most years I have not picked or pruned. In September 2020 we had a hurricane that tore away the oak tree canopy overhead and the bushes were in the sun and made really good tea. I plucked there several times last season and was pleased with the product. Now that it is shady again, I think I have picked it for the last time. The tea I get off the shade grown bushes this past several weeks is not good quality.
When tea grows in the shade, the cells in the leaf lay out flat and longwise to help gather sun. Most plants do this. The leaf is larger and darker green. When tea grows in the sun, the leaf is smaller, not as dark green and the cells in the leaf stand on end. The top of the cell has the chlorophyl and the bottom of the cell fills with plant lipid, plant fat, flavor. So, the tea struggling out in the sun where it is stressed, makes for a better cup of tea. I learned this from the publication of research papers from the Sri Lankan Tea Institute.
For many years I have been selling small plants to customers to start their own tea gardens. I usually help with a dozen sites a year and sell around 5000 plants at $1 each. I advise moving them in the fall and have already lined up orders for this coming fall. My “Fairhope Select” cultivar, and I do not know who started calling them that, is being grown now in five universities as part of the USDA’s healthy food project. I am hearing that my cultivar is “outperforming” the other varieties in the test plots.
When folks come to buy plants I give them an hour long class on tea cultivation. I can not tell them where to plant them but about half of my customers are planting them in the shade against my instructions. That is ill-advised as I’ve known for years that shade doesn’t make for a good brewed tea. Even one well know producer announces that “my best tea is grown in the shade,” so we all can believe what we want to believe.
Call or email me and we will set you up to get some of the Fairhope Select plants this fall.