A few years ago, my sister gave me a dozen Indian tea seeds as a Christmas present. I had no idea how to go about growing a tea seed and I let them sit in my tea cabinet for 6 months. About that time, I started hearing about US grown tea and had an opportunity to meet Jason McDonald at World Tea Expo 2012. Jason is a tea farmer in Mississippi and one of the founders of the US League of Tea Growers. With a little advice from Jason, I tried planting my Indian tea seeds. A vital first step is rehydrating them (soaking them in a bowl) and determining which seeds will be more viable (Sinkers = winners; Floaters = questionable). I had only 1 sinker. Not good odds. I still held out hope and I planted those 12 seeds about 6 inches deep in regular potting soil in my backyard. I watered them daily but knew nothing of soil pH, the fact that I had planted them too deep, and probably placed the seed upside down. Not surprisingly, nothing happened. The seeds were old, I doubt even the one sinker would have become a plant, but I was also completely lacking in tea growing knowledge.
About 18 months ago I was gifted with a two year old tea plant as part of the TeaAcrossAmerica initiative. We named him Teany. Again, I didn’t totally have a good grasp on what a tea plant would need in the desert, and it obviously needed more humidity. He made it about three months before he kicked the bucket.
Why would I try it again? Mostly because I really want to grow tea in Vegas and I love a good challenge! Over the last three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to get my hands on about 1000 seeds from the Republic of Georgia. Thankfully, I’ve been doing a lot of writing for the US League of Tea Growers, I’ve had the opportunity to interview and interact with successful tea growers, I’ve watched videos on germination, I attended a demo on planting, I’ve read countless articles and resources, and I’ve gotten in touch with my local extension services. Third times a charm, right?
Step #1 – I soaked the seeds for about 36 hours. Roughly 70% of the seeds sank. That’s a nice start.
Step #2 – I made a soil mix based on recommendations from Jason. Everything was purchased at a local nursery, so none of this is super difficult to get your hands on. The recipe is below:
• 1 bag of Organic Potting Soil (1 cubic foot)
• 12 cups of Perlite
• 10 ounces of elemental Sulphur
Step #3 – I used Seed Starting Trays to plant my seeds. I filled the trays about 80% full, placed the seeds with their hilum (small scar on the seed where it was attached to the tea plant) parallel to the soil, dusted over the seeds with more soil, and watered.
Step #4 – We purchased some small, portable greenhouses from the local nursery. These aren’t going to work in the long term, but they are doing the job of keeping in the humidity for now. As the plants get larger, and we have to transplant to larger pots, we will need more space and are in the market for an 8 x 10 greenhouse structure for the backyard. The larger structure will allow us to better regulate humidity and temperature. As you can see in the picture, all of the trays have labels stating whether they were floaters or sinkers, and the date they were planted.
Step #5 – Get yourself a pH tester. Ideal soil needs to have a pH of 4.5 – 5.5. So far, this has been my biggest challenge. I test the soil pH every three days and have yet to be able to keep the soil in the ideal range. It just continually creeps back up to that 6.5-7.0 range. I’ve been treating the seeds/soil with a mix that Jason recommended:
- • 1 gallon distilled water
- • ¾ Tbsp Aluminum Sulphate
I will continue to track when I’m watering, and how much of the distilled water mixture I’m adding, until I can get the pH situation under control. Also, we had to purchase a higher quality pH tester. Against Jason’s recommendation, we bought a cheap probe type tester at the local nursery for $25. It’s super inaccurate. We ended up purchasing a Dr. Meter pH100 off of Amazon for $50 that seems to be much more accurate.
I don’t have signs of life yet, but it is still early. It’s nice and warm here, we’re getting some seasonal rain, and I’m keeping the soil damp but not soaking wet. I’m thinking we should start to see some tea action here in the next week or two. I don’t think my conscience can handle the death of 1000 innocent seeds that had the unfortunate luck of being shipped off to Las Vegas!
Images courtesy of Naomi Rosen.