A Cuppa Tea from the Garden!

It was time to prune back the ornamental Camellias, and clean up the dead flowers and fallen leaves. My mother-in-law (from China) was coming over for brunch, just before my day of gardening. As she passed by my waiting basket and hedge clippers, she asked: Was I planning to make some tea?

Tea?

According to her, the fussy-flowered Japanese cultivar (Camellia japonica), which is typically grown as a garden ornamental, also has leaves that can be used to make tea, just as the leaves of the regular “tea” making varietal (Camellia sinensis) – only somewhat less flavorful.

I had my doubts. But after verifying by web-research that Camellia leaves are not considered toxic, and can, indeed be used to make tea, I set out to harvest some shiny, waxy new leaves for an experiment in tea making!

I harvested one large cookie-rack-full of baby Camellia leaves, and let them wither indoors overnight, covered with a towel. By lucky coincidence, our weather for the next few days was expected to be in the upper 70s and low 80s, which would allow for fermenting at room temperature. The process I attempted to follow was one which I obtained from the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Extension Service: Tea Processing (PDF downloaded from U. of Hawaii). The following morning, I wrapped the withered Camellia leaves in a couple of layers of cheese cloth, and kneaded and crumbled them, as the handout suggested. Then, I spread them in a thin layer on damp paper towel, and covered them with a wet towel, and set them in the sun to ferment in the heat.

The result was about 1/2 cup of what looked and smelled like a mild black tea.

The next morning, I brewed a few cups of tea with it, to serve to the family with breakfast. Much to my surprise, it yielded a very respectable cup of oolong-stye tea!

I believe the main trouble I had in getting my desired black tea out of the process was that we live in a very dry area, and so, while I set the tea out in the warm sun (covered with damp towel) to let it ferment in the heat, the towel dried out too quickly, and the dry heat stopped the fermentation before the full flavor had been achieved. Next time, I will try re-wetting the towels periodically, to keep it fermenting for a few hours longer, before allowing the dry heat to stop the process.

I had for a long time regretted my attachment to coffee and tea, and other culinary staples that I thought must be transported half-way around the world, with the associated carbon-footprint attached. Now, it seems, all I need to do is plant a few more Camellia bushes (probably sinensis variety), and snip my own leaves for a local-harvested tea supply. It sure makes pruning “chores” a whole lot more palatable!

A Coast Range Planting Poem

Having grown tired of all the delightful ditties pertaining to farming schedules that have nothing whatsoever to do with my microclimate, I decided to begin to compose my own. Here is the first:

Seeds we planted Groundhog’s Day
Bring Salad Fairies, early May;
At end of June, we plant again
For Harvest Feast, come winter rain.

Organic Mini-Farm

Once our California native ecosystem restoration was well in hand, we began implementing the second part of our plan, which was to build and optimize production in an organic mini-farm and orchard, interplanted among the various areas of our thriving, native garden.

The first area we wanted to plant was to contain some vegetable beds.  It was located in full sun, but dessicated by icy winds from the West, all summer long, which posed serious difficulties pertaining to water use and conservation. Also, the native “soils” of our yard are composed of serpentine rock and magnesium-laden adobe clay — great for building missions, but not so good for planting and growing anything other than native plants. The soil test results came back scary:

  • Low organic matter;
  • Very low Nitrogen;
  • Very low Phosphorus;
  • Low Potassium;
  • Excessively high Magnesium (needed corrective action to leach it out);
  • Low Calcium;
  • Low Sulfur; and
  • Very low in all other “trace elements” except for WAY too much Iron.

Also, our “drainage” was non-existent. Dig a 12″ hole and fill it with water.  Two days later, the water is still there.  Rain water simply ran off the hill without sinking in at all. In order to grow food here, we needed to get really creative. So, I hit the books.

My research on annual and perennial vegetable gardening yielded a concept called hugelkultur, which attempts to recreate the spongy, fertile forest floor of Europe, by piling partially decayed logs, sticks, and compostable materials, and then covering them with soil. But we also had the problem of solid clay which has zero drainage, and allows all rain water to race downhill to the sea, without seeping in. That means that plain hugelkultur mounds would drain out the bottom, and fail.

Research into vegetable gardening techniques used in the mountains of South America led me to the idea of terracing. And I was inspired to attempt to combine the two concepts, by digging 2-3 foot deep, clay bathtubs in the hillside, in a terraced fashion, and then build hugelkulur “mounds” within those terraced bathtubs, to retain the water and encourage vibrant soil life. We then built raised beds atop those hugel-tubs, and filled them with heavily composted and amended soil of the kind that vegetables like to grow in.  Our process looked like this:

And the end result was this:

The crop plants are very happy in these beds, and since we worked so incredibly hard for every square inch of bed space, we grow vegetables according to bio-intensive gardening principles.  This, in turn, made the local critters really happy.  So, we built a set of hinged cages to protect our food crops, and also to support row-cover material to make mini-greenhouses for the cooler weather.

So, now, we can plant out a first crop in February, for June harvest, and then a second crop is planted in June, for October/November harvest.  And the bio-intensive gardening technique really seems to be paying off: