Many people have taken an interest in growing their own tea. I am a big fan of the tea plant, camellia sinensis. It is an interesting plant and in my research and experience, it grows much like an apple tree. Now is the time of year when we, in Eugene, Oregon, are picking the freshly grown leaves. The first day of picking is an important and exciting day. Pay attention to the maturity of the fresh grown leaves. One distinct sign that I look for here in The Willamette Valley is the presence of cottonwood fluff in the air. When I see cottonwood seed fluff floating through the air on my way home from the tea house, I know it is time to start picking tea. This event seems to coincide with the ideal maturity of the fresh grown tea. If you don’t have any cottonwood trees around you, you can just check the leaf size. Different tea cultivars will have different ideal sizes. All plucked leaves and the stem should be tender. The ideal time to pick is early in the morning, just before the first direct light from the sun warms the leaves, but if you aren’t a morning person, no fear. You can pick later in the day as well. Keep the weather in mind. If it is raining, wait for another day. You might have to wait a few days until it is not raining, and if you have to wait too long you run the risk of going outside the ideal leaf maturity level. I wouldn’t worry too much about this. Just pick on your first non-rainy day. It will make the tea processing a lot easier. According to the experts in Taiwan, tea that is picked in the rain has higher levels of astringency and acidity in the flavor of the finished tea.
I said that the first day of picking is important because I like to make sure that the conditions are good. This is true, but by most people's standards, I do a pretty cursory picking on that first day. My goal is to go as fast as possible covering everything I can quickly pick. I love to go back on the next day and do the same thing again. I am always amazed at how much I missed. I sort of settled on this method after a number of years. I just counted and we have 21 tea plants on our tea house tea plantation, here on Friendly Street. Seven of which are pretty big, so no matter how careful I am to pick everything that first day, I always seem to miss a lot.
When you pick, you are grooming the plant and removing part of the outer layer, which makes the next layer more visible. So then when you go back the next day, you are sure to find some good stuff. Also, picking the leaves stimulates the plant to grow even more leaves. They really pop.
As a person of tea, having a few days of the year where I get to lose myself in the moment of picking tea is a blessing. If you too wish to embark on this journey, or if you want to encourage me on my learning journey, we have some tea plants for sale at the Oolong Bar on 19th and Agate, here in Eugene, Oregon. Stop by and say “hi” and we’re always happy to answer questions.
There are a lot of books on growing tea, but here is one of my favorites! “Homegrown Tea: An Illustrated Guide to Planting, Harvesting, and Blending Teas and Tisanes” by Cassie Liversidge. And though it has a lot of information on other plants, the information on Camellia Sinensis is really helpful with regards to propagating, growing and processing tea.