Grow your own tea with these simple tips on how to harvest herbal tea leaves from your own garden.
By Terra Hangen
Santa Cruz, California
Whether you want a tall, cold glass or a steaming mug of tea, it’s easy to grow your own tea herbs to make it. Not only will you have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what you’re drinking, but you’ll find these pretty plants attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees to your garden.
You don’t need a lot of space, just a spot that gets partial to full sun. The plants will grow well in containers on a patio, and look charming when four or five different plants share a single large pot.
Technically, tea made from plants other than the tea bush (Camellia sinensis) is called a tisane or an herbal infusion. Herbal teas have a rich, long history in folk medicine as treatment for various ailments. But non-caffeinated herbal teas have become increasingly popular in recent years simply for their taste. Here are a few of my favorites.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) has a clean, fresh scent that was said to have been author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s favorite fragrance. This herb thrives in containers, where it grows 2 to 3 feet high, or in the ground, reaching heights of 5 to 10 feet where winters are temperate. It grows best in Zones 5-8. Pinch it back each year and prune to keep it thick and bushy. Or train it as a standard, with a tall, straight branchless trunk leading to a treelike top. Alone, the leaves brew into an excellent hot or iced tea, but they also add appealing accents in black tea or mint tea.
Make It Mint
Mint plants grow quickly. The common peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and less intense spearmint (Mentha spicata) spread by runners. I’m happy to let mint ramble through the more moist parts of my yard, but you may want to consider containers to keep it out of certain areas of yours. And since mint likes more moisture than most herbs, remember to water during hot, dry spells. Within a month of planting, you can pick five to 10 leaves to brew a cup of tea.
Variations are fun, too. Chocolate mint (Mentha piperita ‘Chocolate mint’), hardy in Zones 3-7, brings a fresh note to coffee, hot cocoa or tea mixes, as well as to home-baked brownies. Orange mint (Mentha x piperita x citrata) or Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) are delicious accents in iced tea, or brew up nicely into hot tea.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a sweet herb in the mint family that Victorian women once carried in fragrant bouquets—tussie mussies—to counteract unpleasant aromas in the streets. It grows 12-18 inches tall and is hardy in Zones 4-9. Besides using lemon balm for tea, you can add fresh leaves to salads or meat marinades, or freeze into ice cubes to add to iced tea.
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) flowers, which resemble tiny daisies, are widely used for a delicious apple-scented tea. The plant has soft, feathery leaves and is hardy in Zones 4-8. Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis or Chamaemelum nobile) is a less-sweet version.
Rose hips turn a pretty red when left on the bush, and make a beautiful red tea that’s rich in vitamin C. If you plan to use the rose hips for tea, don’t spray your roses with insecticides or use systemic rose food. Rosa rugosa bushes, the preferred variety for teas, are prolific producers of rose hips, but my floribunda rose yields hundreds of hips at the end of the blooming season.
Secrets of Steeping
Brewing with fresh leaves is simple. For a cup of tea, gently bruise or crush 2 tablespoons of fresh leaves to help release flavor and aroma. Put the leaves (or, for chamomile tea, the flowers) in a china cup and add water that’s been heated to a boil. Steep for 3 to 5 minutes and then strain out the leaves. Making lots? It’s traditional to throw in some extra leaves “for the pot.”
For rose hip tea, bruise the hips and brew for 10 minutes. Part of the fun of growing your own herbs for tea is experimenting with blends to find your favorite. You can even add a gourmet touch by making ice cubes of a strong mint tea brew to use in black tea drinks.
Don’t forget to dry some herbs so you can enjoy your garden tea all year-round, or to give as unique holiday presents. Pick stems with lots of leaves, tie them together at one end and hang upside down, out of direct sunlight, anywhere in your house. The hanging bunches add a homey, picturesque touch to your kitchen.
Once they’re completely dry, strip the leaves from the stems and store in glass jars or zippered plastic bags. And remember, when making tea with dried leaves, you’ll need only about a tablespoon per cup. Then put the kettle on—and sit and savor the taste of tea from your garden.
Editor’s Note: Terra Hangen has been growing her own tea for more than 15 years.