Barefoot Gardener: Grow a Tea Garden

February 9, 2020, 11:58 AM HST (Updated February 9, 2020, 11:58 AM)
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A 4-week-old herb container garden that includes peppermint (black pot, foreground), lavender and sage is already producing enough to make different tea blends. Photo: J.M. Buck.

Many folks enjoy drinking organic herbal teas, especially during the chilly evenings we’ve been having lately. However, with rising food costs many people are cutting back on things that aren’t deemed “necessary.” About a month ago I wanted to buy my favorite organic peppermint tea and saw that it had gone up to a whopping $8.29. Forget that!

For about the same price I bought a handful of seed packets of different organic herbs I could make tea from — peppermint, chamomile, lemon balm, sage, lavender and Echinacea.

Besides being a warm, pleasant-tasting drink, herbal teas are also used for helping relieve a host of physical ailments. Peppermint and chamomile are soothing to the nerves and the stomach; valerian, hops and licorice are excellent sleep aids; slippery elm eases coughs and sore throat; and mullein is good for clearing congestion from the lungs. Hops tea was my mom’s secret weapon for maintaining sanity and finding time for herself. When I was a kid she would give me fresh-picked hops tea every night so I would fall asleep quickly. It works wel — really well.

For a comprehensive list of healing herbs and spices and how to use them, one of the best references I have found is The Natural Remedy Bible by John Lust. It is available either on Amazon.com or directly from publishers Simon and Schuster.

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For a quick tea garden, mints and chamomile take off quickly. Like most herbs, tea garden plants enjoy a rich loamy soil with a pH of about 7.0 and a sunny location. The exception to this norm is German chamomile.

There are two different chamomiles: German (Matricaria chamomile) and Roman (Chamaemelum nobile). If you have an area of poor soil that is in need of ground cover, German chamomile is what you want. It loves junk soil, grows well in partial to full sun (you’ll get more blossoms in full sun though) and is practically indestructible. I once planted the stuff on some terraces of hardpan clay and it seemed like the more I trounced on it, the better it grew.

The daisy-like flowers of the chamomile plant can be used either fresh or dried. There are a couple of options: 1. Harvest a bundle of blossoms, making sure to leave about 8 to 12 inches of stem length. Tie the stems together to form a “bouquet” and hang it upside-down in a dry, sunny location. When the blossoms are dry, remove them and discard the leaves and stems. 2. Snip off just the mature flower heads and use them fresh or lay them out dry in a sunny spot.

Other tea herbs can be prepared in the same fashion. Fresh herbs impart a more robust flavor than dried herbs; however, if you choose to dry them keep the parts to be used for tea as intact as possible in order to avoid losing any of the volatile essential oils. These oils carry healing properties and can be lost when the herb is crushed or crumbled. Once the drying is complete, keep the herbs whole and sealed in an airtight container. Crush them only as you use them.

Happy gardening!

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