Our Attempt at Growing Tea

One of Janis's remaining tea bushes!

One of Janis’s remaining tea bushes!

by Naomi Rosen

As a tea lover, I have dreams of one day being able to visit tea farms all over the United States. Before I start booking my trips, I’m keeping tabs on start-up farms from California to New York and Michigan to Mississippi. As with any new venture, not all of the farms are going to flourish…even if they look great on paper. Why is that? Growing tea is an art and you need to be one hell of an artist! I bet you didn’t know that tea has a fickle side and Janis Badarau of CrafTEA Designs and TeaGuide.net has the first-hand knowledge to prove it and has graciously agreed to share the story of her and her husband’s struggles to launch a tea farm in South Carolina! Take notes…there are multiple lessons to learn!

Naomi: Where are you located? 
Janis: Sunny South Carolina in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We moved here from New Jersey (a.k.a. The Garden State), just oustide NYC, with soil so excellent that you could spit a watermelon seed one day and it would be a vine the next day! Well, okay, that’s a little exaggerated, but the soil was perfect. It’s been a long learning curve trying to grow in very poor soil. (Wadmalaw Island, on the opposite side of the state, has almost opposite conditions to ours, with a long history of successful farming.)
Naomi: What kind of educational prep did you do prior to planting the tea in ground?
Janis: I informally consulted with Nigel Melican at the 2007 World Tea East, and with one of the horticulturists at Clemson University. Of course I read everything I could, mostly online, for information. This was six or seven years ago so information was limited. I also asked questions of the sellers where I purchased my tea plants (two different nurseries). The first grower was not too helpful with the care of the plants. The second, while much more helpful with information, was located in the New England area and was unfamiliar with our climate and growing conditions.  If and when we purchase additional plants, I imagine it will be from North Carolina.
Naomi: Did you know ahead of time about the soil condition and irrigation problems on your land or did you learn on the fly?
Janis: We knew when we purchased the land that it had been part of a former cotton farm that the owners had over-used, abused, and abandoned, and we knew that growing on it would be a challenge. One of the first things we did was build several raised beds for vegetable gardening. We put two of our first four tea plants in one of these beds and the other two into pots. The owners of the local farm and garden supply store — and any farmers who happened to be in the store at the time — helped us out with recommendations to rebuild the soil, which was extremely acidic and clay-ey (swampy when wet, bricklike when dry). We’ve been adding lime, manure, autumn leaves, grass cuttings, and a lot of non-composted household waste, including eggshells, banana peels, pea and bean pods, spent tea leaves, etc., to improve the soil. It has taken several years for the soil to regenerate. We also put in plants that break up the soil: in the beds Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes do this well, and outside the garden we’ve planted trees and grasses that were recommended for their deep, hearty roots. A couple of other problems with growing on this land were the wild raspberry bushes — we’re delighted to have them in a clump near the fruit trees, but they are very aggressive elsewhere. And the construction debris we keep finding every time we dig! Seems that the builder was a bit of a slob and buried almost as much debris as he put into the solid-waste container for legal disposal. Finally, the climate is not necessarily conducive to growing tea: the air is usually quite dry, and temperatures get into the 80’s, 90’s, and 100’s for weeks on end with little or no rain. We need to canopy our tomato, bell pepper, cucumber, and parsley plants because the sun will burn them right up; at one point we drew up a plan to plant tea amongst the larger trees to provide shade.
Naomi: Were there any actions taken to rectify irrigation and soil or did the fire ants get to the plants first?
Janis: There is accessible water under our land, and we were looking into digging a well for irrigation. We still plan to build a well once all the other puzzle pieces are ready to go. Around the third growing season, we discovered earthworms and almost threw a party … until around the fourth season when they started disappearing and we learned that the fire ants were eating them and anything else they could get their miserable little jaws around (roots, stems, leaves). When we got rid of one hill it seems like two or three more popped up. They build their accursed hills right around plants and trees, swarming the plant until it dies — both directly in the soil and even in pots. I know there’s a purpose for every creature on Earth, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what fire ants are good for. It was really heart-breaking when our beautiful thriving tea plants started to die out thanks to the fire ants.
Naomi: Are there any known treatments for fire ants?
Janis: There are various ways to limit them, but nothing really stops them. Not poison, not boiling water, not gasoline fire, nothing. And we’ve tried all of these methods. At one point last year I was seriously looking into whether we could raise anteaters. These animals are from the same South American region as the fire ants, but their climate requirements are rather limited…unlike the miserable fire ants. Locals tell us that there are a couple of insects that kill fire ants by using their bodies to lay their eggs, but that these insects are in turn difficult to manage and often become a nuisance themselves.
Naomi: Have you tried plucking/processing any of the leaves from the remaining bushes?
Janis: Not from the current bushes. The first plants were a good size before they started to give up, and I plucked a couple of handfuls of leaves of various sizes from them and dried them in the sun. They produced some interesting cups, tho’ not something I’d want to drink on a regular basis! Although we can’t farm tea right now, we haven’t given up and continue to make improvements and further our education. And, be inspired by folks like Jason at The Great Mississippi Tea Company.
Naomi: Any suggestions for the types of questions one might need to ask when scouting out partners in this tea growing venture?
Janis: Firstly, make sure you find out what kind of tea-specific experience your partners might have. For example, Clemson has an excellent Ag school, and maintains a beautiful state botanical garden. However, the majority of their focus with camellias is of the flowering variety, not C. sinensis. Second, find out what kind of staying power your partners have in the area. One of the companies I originally purchased stock from was somewhat responsive in the beginning, but then handed operations over to other employees and the information I received wasn’t as forthcoming.


Thank you to Janis and her husband for sharing their experience and struggles of growing tea in South Carolina! For some of our growers that are knee deep in the trenches of establishing flourishing tea farms, what were some of your hard earned lessons? Something no amount of research could have prepared you for? 


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