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Growing Tea- against the ANTI hugelkultur farmers in MS

 
Della Miller
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Location: Hernando, MS Zone 7b clay soil
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Joined a site for "Lets grow tea" online because I plan to import some purple tea, and get som ecamellia sinesis  plants and try to grow using hugelkultur.  Online this "lets grow tea group" essentially told me that I would be ignoring centuries of traditional gardening methods.  I felt like I had stepped on some toes and couldn't  figure out why until I found out there is a move to grow Tea in MS in large scale reproduction.  This group has been drafted to be funded by the state to test tea growth in the area.  My response was, well wouldn't testing different methods on smaller scales make sense if we want a fruitful crop with less overall loss?

Now- I am a homesteader and have no plans on growing for profit.   None at all.  I am excited about my tea plants from Kenya and other areas to see how they do.  Granted, they did have a good point that it might be more difficult using hugelkultur to keep a PH balance for the tea, but if nature used this method to cultivate and sustain tea plants, why would they suggest it doesn't work?  Why are farmers so adamant that hugelkultur is not a good plan for gardening? 
 
Glenn Herbert
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My guess would be, because it can't be applied to large-scale mechanized farms with the kind of equipment they all currently have. Therefore it's impractical or ineffective
 
Della Miller
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I agree, but eh... I wasnt planning on doing large scale.  They even discouraged it for small farming. 
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Welcome to the fight against "Big Ag". You will find they are super resistant to non-conventional methods and will even bully people that don't conform to their methods.

I really would not worry about them since you will not be "in competition" with them.

If you were to do it on a larger scale, it would be very cool to "One up them" by producing a far better crop than they could ever hope for.
With hugelkultur you would have the ability to better control micro climates and so produce a wonderful tea leaf.
That is one of the reasons that most of the massive tea plantations are set up in down hill terraces.
Those micro climates help to regulate both air and soil temp, moisture is controlled easier and all that adds up to better tea leaves at harvest.

About the pH thing, it would not be that hard to control the pH of a well built hugel, in fact you could set it up so that the roots would drive deeper just to get to even better pH levels and underground pH levels are easier to maintain than when they are near the surface.
As you lay in the wood, simply supply the needed pH buffer all around each log or you could  even drill the logs and pack the buffer into those openings, super long lasting since it will also soak into the wood as it becomes water saturated.
Underground, the water filtering is slower and so doesn't wash away any of the nutrients and buffers that are present. At the soil surface this happens quite quickly.

I'm setting up an area for service and blue berries over this winter (Hope, hope, hope) and I will be going down to the bed rock in that area so I can incorporate enough sulfur to get the pH to the proper 5.5 level.
While this area won't be a hugel, it will have plenty of wood chips incorporated as the sulfur holding component of the deep soil. I will get to totally reconstruct the hyphae matrix in that area as well as introduce many bacteria.
The only reason I'm willing to do this much disturbance is, I love blue berries and service berries, and if I can get them I'll even put in a huckleberry stand which will give me my big three of the berry world.

Good luck with your "Tea Plantation" I hope it works magnificently for you. (I love tea too)

Redhawk
 
Thekla McDaniels
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I say go for it, with the hugel.  Of course I was imagining my nontraditional hugel, with the logs all buried underground, because I live in the desert.  I think pH is an important consideration, but too complex to even consider that we can control it, or measure conditions accurately.  I think we have to provide the best conditions we can, but trust the plants to put their roots where they find what they need.

I suggest taking a look at Steve Solomon's book "The Intelligent Gardener" for his take on trying to control pH to a specific reading.  I learned a lot when I read that.  He suggests a wholly different approach for soils with alkaline readings than the "big ag" advisors and the extension offices across the country.  Before I lived here I lived in another area with alkaline soils.  To grow camellias and blueberries, people often buried wood of any kind to give the plant roots a chance to find the conditions that suited them.  And there were those who just planted them in the alkaline soil, on the shadiest side of the house, and I worked for one woman who had lots of azaleas and camellias, and she always said "they are tougher than you think, it doesn't do to baby them".  I think, but may have got this confused, that an important thing to the camellia is that it not get buried with its crown too high or too low.  If you think of a camellia in a 5 gallon pot that has sat in the nursery a long time, and has only half the soil... if you just add soil to the top, you can kill the plant.

You have inspired me to try some tea camellias on some of my buried log hugel type regions.

good luck with your endeavor.  I hope your tea plantation is so successful you have people beating down the door to know how you are doing it. !
 
Bryant RedHawk
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You are correct Thelka, you can't absolutely control pH in soil, what you can do is make it lean towards the range the plants want.

The area I have for service, blue and huckle berries tests out at 6.8, blueberries I planted there two years ago died within 8 weeks because of the too alkaline soil.
So I will make an overall adjustment with woodchips soaked in sulfur. These will release sulfuric acid as the rains soak into the soil where they will be buried.
The end result will be an area that is overall more acidic than it currently is, there are ranges of acidity that these berries need to be able to survive and I have to make that adjustment to the biome.

If I had any pine trees on or even near my land it would be un-necessary to make the adjustment since I could just plant these bushes near those trees.
I'm sure I can get the pH in this berry bush area to get below 6.0 and that will be good enough to get berries to grow pretty well.

By the way, I only have one "traditional hugel" myself, the others are sub surface, like yours.

Redhawk
 
Thekla McDaniels
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hope those blueberries appreciate your work and grow for you.  I know in the 50s people used to put rusty nails and such under hydrangeas to make them ?pink?  or was it purple-blue.  I don't know if it was for the iron content, but think it was more likely the change in pH, do you know which?  It might be a handy thing to know, to assist with the acidity those forest floor plants like so much.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hydrangeas change colors per minerals in the soil but there is also a change in pH because of the minerals.
Manganese makes a pink bloom and copper sulfate will make a blue or green (depending on other minerals in the soil).

 
Thekla McDaniels
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and what are effects of this, long term?  would this would be  a good habit in trying to bring the pH down?  Just tossing waste iron and steel bits under the shrubs, and out of the way of passing tires and feet?

maybe copper wire?
 
J. Adams
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I agree with the others in that you bumped up against big-ag mentality. It can happen to just about any crop including tea. Followers support their leader, and any outsider who isn't supporting the leader is a threat. Their lead goal isn't best methods to grow tea, which is probably what their site appeared to be, but rather, their lead goal is how to grow tea according to their one previously chosen method. Humans, I suppose, do make progress when they operate that way, but thank goodness everyone doesn't operate like that. Good for you for experimenting with growing tea this way. I'll be following this and hope to learn from it.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I would not just toss it under trees, to much can be detrimental to the plants health.
I use Epsom salts and powdered copper or iron filings but very sparingly.
These minerals are easy to get to poisonous concentrations, think brillcreame (a little dab will do ya).
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Thanks!

A friend asked me about phosphorous

Got any ideas for it?  All I know is bones and bone meal.  I figure there must be some in whey, more in milk, but I think too much whey can throw things off, and I don't have enough extra milk to pour it out...

Are egg shells a good source of phosphorous, or just calcium?

 
Bryant RedHawk
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For Phosphorous additions you can use: Rock phosphate, green sand, bone meal. There is not much phosphorous or phosphate in milk products it is more vitamins, fats and calcium.


Egg shells are calcium carbonate, nothing else. They also take forever to break down so if you want to use them as a vegetable additive you need to grind them very fine and make sure the soil has plenty of bacteria to complete the break down and you will want mycelium to carry the molecules to plant roots.
We use these around our tomatoes when the vines start showing weakness (usually at the end of the season our tomato vines are so long they can start to break. The extra calcium seems to help them not self destruct. I have not fully investigated why this seems to help, just observed it as an experiment.
Ground egg shells do seem to also deter slugs a little when they are not ground really fine. Copper wire formed in a circle will do the same thing,

If you want more advice on these sorts of things, let's start a new thread for it please. I don't want this to hijack this thread.

Redhawk
 
Greg McCain
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Hi 
It could be that they were saying that for the same reason that you shouldn't plant a tree in your hugel. As your hugel ages it will collapse which could expose roots and/or bury the stem. 
Also this may be 10-20-30 years down the line but you will eventually have to rebuild your hugel and then you would either have to dig that plant up or go around it either way it would be more work.
Generally speaking hugels work best with annul crops where your plants only have to deal with 1 year of collapsing soil instead of a life time. In my opinion.
Good luck with what ever you decide to do tho.
 
Sher Miller Lehman
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Grow Tea in a Hugelkultur
As a commercial tea grower from Hawaii let me say there is no special reason why tea, Camellia sinensis cannot be grown in a huglekultur.  I know some of the people involved in Mississippi. They looked at  buying my tea garden in Hawaii. From my perspective their motivation is money over quality. I sold my tea farm in Hawaii because I could not afford the taxes, labor cost, taxes and fees, and did I mention taxes? The small farmer is indeed under attack. But back to tea, and I will try to be brief. If you have more questions I will be happy to answer from my moonrisetea email at gmail.com. Can I put my email here??
Tea is a subtropical understory tree that grows as a shrub, small tree. They are grown as a waist high hedge with a flat “table” to force new shoot growth, which becomes tea. The old leaves are tough, dry, and tasteless or extremely bitter.  If you let the bush grow wild you will get very little leaf that can be harvested. And what is good leaf will be hard to harvest and take a lot of time. Don’t be afraid. Tea has been nibbled by human fingers for 5000 years. The more you nibble at it the happier the tea and the healthier the bush. It has a wonderful relationship with human hands.
They need 80 inches of rain per year or need to be irrigated. If a tea bush gets dry the leaves will not show any signs of wilting. The first indication there is not enough moisture is a dead bush. I always grow them with something that easily wilts as an early warning system.
Tastes like what it grows with. Be careful. It tastes like the air and the soil and the smell of the place, and most especially any plants in close proximity.
As an understory tree it likes a little shade but can grow in full sun. The more shade it gets (keep in mind there is a lower limit if you want it to grow) then the more chlorophyll will be produced as well as the chemicals that give tea its aroma and flavor. Shade is often offered seasonally. Some of the best tea is grown in colder climates in full sun and covered with shade for a couple of weeks before harvest.
Different cultivars have varying degrees of frost-hardiness. This seems to be the main issue in North America is finding the right frost tolerant variety for the right micro-clime.
They prefer very acid soil, similar to blueberries. Our friends in Mississippi are interested in the science. As a published research scientist I have experience with both real science and real farming. Academia really has no choice but to follow big-ag. Like artists, we scientists must have a patron. As a scientist I want to have repeat-able scientific knowledge to back me up but personally prefer to throw out “rules” and observe what works on-the-ground/in-the-dirt as it were. In this case it is good to understand the science behind the importance of pH.
Under scientifically controlled conditions, necessary to make scientifically valid observations, different minerals and nutrients are bio-available at different pH levels. For each crop you are trying to find the “sweet spot” of nutrient availability which differs for each crop. For tea that sweet spot is way over on acid side. When grown in acidic soil tea does best because the “food” it likes is most available in that range. HOWEVER…
However, in my personal experience, if you have active, MICROBE-DENSE soil with high levels of BIO-AVAILABLE minerals and nutrients (compost completely digested, not fresh) then pH is not as important as an issue. Not only can you bend the rules, you can do so very successfully. If your soil is just okay or just good, better work with pH. I have trained with Master Cho in Natural Farming and have seen the value of microbial load in any growing system I have seen it used, plant or animal.
Keep in mind when placing your tea bushes that they can live for hundreds of years. Some are over 1000 years old and still produce. The average age of a commercial bush worldwide is 65 years if memory serves.
My advice always is- Go for it! What do you have to lose? Everything is an experiment. Life is an adventure!
 
Sher Miller Lehman
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:Thanks!

A friend asked me about phosphorous

Got any ideas for it?  All I know is bones and bone meal.  I figure there must be some in whey, more in milk, but I think too much whey can throw things off, and I don't have enough extra milk to pour it out...

Are egg shells a good source of phosphorous, or just calcium?


Eggshells offer calcium. Phosphorous comes from bone. To see a natural farming instructions to make water soluable calcium phosphate there should be a paper I co-wrote at University of Hawaii CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources).
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Phosphorous comes from bone. To see a natural farming instructions to make water soluable calcium phosphate there should be a paper I co-wrote at University of Hawaii CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources).

Thanks, that's what I thought.  If I want a local and not mined source of phosphorous, it is bones bones bones.  I have a friend who grows grass (cradle to grave) beef and goat, and butchers and direct markets them, and another friend who buys the bones and boils them for bone broth.  I jsut saw her tonight and I asked her what she does with her boiled (24 hours!) bones.  She throws them away, and I'll be helping her with that.  I think she's going to make them available to local farmers and gardeners as soil amendment "buckets of boiled bones"  yay!
 
Rebecca Norman
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Della, I'm no expert and have never grown tea, but I'd just like to encourage you to try, like everyone above. I stayed for a couple of weeks in Mineral Springs, a village in Darjeeling, India, where the people are growing tea in polycultures with a wide variety of other crops. They have small terraces on very steep land, and each little terrace has cardamom or ginger or a patch of one type of vegetable, with an orange tree or two in the middle, and two or three tea bushes clinging to the steep terrace wall. It's not like the tea monocrop that dominates the rest of Darjeeling. So I don't see any reason it wouldn't grow on a hugelbed. Give it a try!

These people organized the villagers there: Darjeeling Prerna (The website doesn't have much detail about tea growing, but the guys who run the organization are really knowledgeable about tea, the technical details, the politics and international economics of it, etc.)
 
Thekla McDaniels
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I'm thankful for your post Rebecca.  And for this thread on the tea camellia.

I have a round "infiltration basin" that I planted hops on the north side of, and used old pieces of trees to create a structure for them to climb on.  We had strange winds this summer, which blew limbs off my fruit trees, and blew the hops structure down.  This morning I have been filling in the infiltration basin with the cut up wood from the former trellis.  I plan to cover the wood up with the stalks of sunflowers and other annuals that the goats did not eat, and cover that with plenty of bedding, then build a strawbale shelter over it.  The goats will add their contribution all winter, and next spring I can fill the whole space  with water, and start the whole thing on its way to becoming soil.   When I design the new hops structure, I can create a leafy shade for the space where I have just buried all the wood.  It seems if I let a year pass, to let the microbes move into the hugel-fill  I may have a perfect place for tea plants.  In the mean time I can go back and read all the ways to enhance acidity, though the soil community creates micro conditions to the extent it is not clear what the soil pH is in any given plot of ground, still they do benefit from having their preferred minerals at least available to them.
 
John Stannum
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Doesn't tea want an acid soil?
The wood in hugelculture would feed fungus which would push the pH towards 5.5
 
Thekla McDaniels
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5.5 is acid
 
Dave Bennett
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Interesting that the state of Mississippi is experimenting with Camiellua Sinensus Sin.  The Charleston (South Carolina) Tea Company has been growing Tea for at least a decade if not longer.  I believe they are the only commercial tea "plantation" in the US.  I am experimenting 28th growing Tea here in the frozen tundra of central upstate NY.  Started with 10 cultivars.  Lost 4 the first winter.  I replaced them.  Lost 7 the second winter.  Replaced them and now have 10 with 1 plant that is almost 4 years old.  Hopefully I can get two or three to survive.  I just want to maintain a source of caffeine that is locally produced.  I am also experimenting with Ecuadorian Holly.  If that grows here I may give up on the cameillia. 
 
Sher Miller Lehman
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Charleston is growing commodity tea, tea so processed people need sugar and milk to choke it down. Most of the wave of current new growers/experimenters are looking at specialty tea, high quality, usually hand processed. It's like comparing cafo beef in a can to organic home grown grass fed steak.
Seriously, if you think loose leaf tea is expensive, compare the cost by weight of actual tea in a tea bag. Understand that loose leaf tea also can be brewed at least twice (no, dipping a weak tea bag and getting a little color in the second cup is NOT a second brew). Some varieties of tea, particularly oolong and puer, can be brewed multiple times, like 3-10 or even more times. Each brew lifts of a different layer of taste and aroma. This increases the good tea's value.
Tea bags are often filled with tea dust, and are known to be laden with chemicals. I encourage you to try REAL (whole, loose leaf) tea. 
 
Kerry Rodgers
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Sher Miller Lehman wrote: Most of the wave of current new growers/experimenters are looking at specialty tea, high quality, usually hand processed. It's like comparing cafo beef in a can to organic home grown grass fed steak.


Hi Sher and others,
Very interesting thread!

I'm just a home-growing beginner with a couple of tea bushes so far (one doing ok, one very sad), but I'd love to learn more for my own growing, and also to support small, ideally "local", growers of high quality tea.  Any resources you could recommend, and any pointers to small growers selling online would be much appreciated.  Or even to large, established growers whose quality matches your quote above.  To continue your metaphor just a bit, I've had plenty of "organic home grown grass fed" beef that wasn't up to the quality promised.  But I know more about beef than about tea.
 
Sher Miller Lehman
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Glad to hear you're growing tea Kerry Rodgers. University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Has papers on growing tea. Google CTAHR pubs.
Remember to keep watered, at least 80 inches per year, evenly spaced, feed lightly and regularly (every inch of rain but no more than once a week is my method), and keep trimmed into a nice tabletop, waist high.
Remember it takes on the taste of its environment, anything growing close. Surprisingly been cake does not give it a bad taste. It's a light fertilizer and will keep out chewing insects and aphids/scales (= ants). The more you use it the better it works against pests. If you get mites use wettable sulfur.
And teach yourself how to process the leaves. Use your nose and mouth to test how it progresses. And don't process tea when not in a good mood. It shows it the cup!
Good luck and have fun.
 
Sher Miller Lehman
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Correction: surprisingly NEEM CAKE...
 
Ben Zukisian
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The sunk cost fallacy is very strong and these farmers have put a decade's income into one piece of equipment at times and need to rationalize this. It also depends on your access to wood, but conifers should not be disqualified as they grow the greatest forests on earth and a good fungal inoculation in  a soil can take liquid fertilizer mix going in at the low 4's (ph) and coming at at 6.8 in runoff in my observation. Forests grow on forests and every ecosystem succeeds to forest if allowed to.
 
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