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!