Is there anything more refreshing on a hot summer day than a tall glass of iced tea with a sprig of fresh mint? Or a more calming end to a long day than a steaming infusion with chamomile or mint? A tea garden can ensure that you have a steady supply of your favorite herbs – and it’s surprisingly easy to grow.
Most tea herbs grow quite happily in moderate sun, so choose a spot that gets about 6 hours of full sun a day. If you choose to grow your tea herbs directly in the ground, be aware that many of them will spread voraciously, choking out any other plants nearby. To prevent that, sink bottomless buckets or baskets into the ground and plant the herb plant inside it to help control the roots. Of course, if you choose to garden in containers, that won’t be a problem at all.
Chamomile is a very pretty, lacy annual (though there is one variety that is a perennial) that grows about 2 feet high. It likes partial shade to full sun, and sandy, dry soil. The tea is made from chamomile flowers rather than leaves. Harvest regularly once the plants start to flower. To dry chamomile, cut stems back to new leaf growth and tie in loose bunches. Hang upside down in a dry, dark place till the leaves are crumbly. Or: dry just the flower heads on drying screens in the oven or in the sun.
Catnip has been used for medicinal teas for colds and stomach upsets since ancient times. Its most often combined with other herbs – lemon balm and lemon grass are particular favorites. The plant is a perennial that grows readily in dry, sandy conditions, but can be coaxed along in nearly any sort of soil or light conditions. Added bonus: catnip is a natural pest repellent, both in the garden and dried. To take advantage of its pest repellent properties, dry and place in cloth pouches and tuck under baseboards or closets. Tea is made from dry or fresh leaves, combined with chamomile, comfrey or lemon balm.
A hardy, drought-resistant perennial, lemon balm grows so readily that it is actually considered a pest plant in some parts of the United States. The plant looks a lot like mint – to which it’s related – and has a hint of minty flavor to it. Like most other tea herbs, it can be used either dried or fresh, though the dried leaves have a more intense flavor. The plant grows about 24 inches tall, and must be pinched back and pruned often to keep it under control.
Ah, mint! There are so many varieties of mint that you could easily plant a mint garden with no other plants at all. At last count, there were an estimated 6,000 varieties – and growing, since the plant cross-pollinates so easily. It’s also the most pernicious spreader of all the herbs. One plant will take over an entire garden within two seasons if it’s not contained. Mint likes rich soil and light shade, but will grow in almost any conditions. It also makes a great, easy to maintain house plant.
Some favorite mint varieties for tea are:
Peppermint – of course! Peppermint is the most popular of all the mints, with its sharp, spicy, cooling tastes.
Spearmint – the mint of mint juleps. Spearmint grows readily in any climate.
Apple mint – a hint of fruity flavor underlying the cool, fresh taste of mint
Chocolate mint – yes, chocolate! This one is far better with dessert than as a tea. Crush the leaves and whirl in a blender with vanilla ice cream for an incredible treat.