For a number of years, I’ve dreamed of growing tea in the Pacific Northwest. Last spring, I took the first steps towards making this happen!
Tea is produced from the leaves and leaf buds of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen tree. White, green, oolong, pu-erh and black teas are all made from this plant, but are processed differently to obtain different levels of oxidation, and a wide variety of flavors.
My first step toward growing tea was researching whether it was realistic in the Columbia Gorge area… here are my notes from Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties:
- Acidic, pH 4.5-5.5 is best, this helps the tea absorb nutrients
- Rich in minerals (nitrogen, potassium)
- Covered with a deep layer of hummus
- Central root needs to get a solid grip at depth of 6 ft, so soil should be loose (not limestone or clay)
- Permeable, well-draining, but with good moisture retention
- Tropical or subtropical (Uh Oh!)
- Minimum 60″ rain per year
- Dry season should be no longer than 3 months
- Average temperature 65-68º F
- Minimum 5 hours of sun per day
- Relative humidity 70-90%
- With the exception of some cultivars, trees are likely to be killed by temperatures below 23º F
- Growth slows considerably when temperatures are low throughout the year, but climatic variation can help develop flavors
If you’re familiar with the climate in the Columbia River Gorge, it probably won’t surprise you that the things I was reading were pretty discouraging. I knew that if I ever wanted this to work I’d have to find a very cold-hardy variety of Camellia sinensis.
Hopefully, I found it! In the spring of 2015, a shipment of cold-hardy tea seeds were imported from Georgia (country, not state), and I ordered 100 seeds.
In the next installment, Growing Tea in the Columbia Gorge: Part 2, I’ll lay out my method for starting the seeds, and the things that worked well (and that didn’t work so well!).