Monday, June 22, 2015


People around the world have been creating tea gardens for as long as they have been drinking tea. In China and Japan, the tradition dates back not just centuries but millennia. Eastern cultures have long appreciated the psychological and spiritual importance of creating contemplative places for sipping tea. In Europe, tea gardens are also a venerable tradition. For hundreds of years the English, famous tea drinkers, have cultivated herbs in formal and cottage gardens and appreciated their harvest in that most celebrated of cultural rituals, afternoon tea. In our frenetically paced modern lives, making time for growing herbs and savoring herbal infusions may seem like an anachronism, a quaint throwback to a more unhurried age. But we need such time-tested tonics, places to slow down and enjoy nature's bounty, seemingly more than ever. 

Harvesting and Drying Herbs

Most herbs should be harvested just before they bloom. Choose a sunny day and harvest in the morning, when the herbs' oils are strongest. Never pick herbs when they are wet; wait until the morning dew has evaporated. Don't leave cut herbs out in the sun; take them into a shady area to sort and tie into bunches.  In cold-winter areas the last harvest should be six to eight weeks before the first hard freeze to give perennials time to harden off new growth. At your final harvest, cut annuals to the ground and cut back perennials to about two thirds of their height.

To dry herbs, tie the stalks into small bundles with string or twine and hang them up. You can also spread the herbs on screens or in baskets. Leave small or needlelike leaves like those of thyme and rosemary on their stems, but remove large leaves from stalks. Place the bundles, screens, or baskets in a dry, well-ventilated place out of the sun, such as a shed or attic. Depending on the climate and humidity, drying can take from a few days to two weeks. Check the herbs every day; if you leave them too long, especially in humid weather, they will turn brown.

Alternatively, you can use your refrigerator to dry herbs. Simply place small bundles of freshly harvested herbs in paper bags, label them, and place the partially closed bags on a shelf. The fridge-drying process is slow—about two weeks, depending upon the thickness of the leaves—but worth the wait. In the cool environment and relative darkness of the refrigerator, herb leaves retain valuable essential oils and more chlorophyll. You can completely dry the herbs in the fridge and then use them from the bag as needed. Or, remove all excess moisture and store them in a cool, dark place.

A fully dried herb will crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. If the leaves are not crisp, they still contain some moisture. To remove the last bit of excess moisture and completely dry the herbs, finish them in the oven. Preheat the oven to its lowest temperature, but definitely under 200°F, and then turn it off. Spread the herbs on baking sheets and place them in the warm oven for about five minutes. Repeat if necessary.

Once the herbs are completely dried, strip whole leaves from the stems and pack them in clean, dark-glass jars with tight-fitting lids. (Incompletely dried herbs will get moldy and spoil.) Don't crumble the leaves as you pack them or you'll release their essential oils.

Design Tips
Tea gardens should be places for relaxation and reflection. The sense of calm can be accentuated by creating a feeling of enclosure in the garden. This can be accomplished with traditional hedges, trellises or wooden fences, or even rows of good-sized plant specimens in pots.  Make room in your garden for a tea table and chairs or benches where you can sip your freshly brewed herbal tonic.
Tea paraphernalia used as garden ornament can add an entertaining touch. For example, try edging a bed with some old teaspoons or mismatched saucers turned on end. Or attach old teacups to garden stakes and use them as plant markers.  As in any garden in which plants are intended to be eaten, be sure to grow your tea garden organically.

The perfect design, in my opinion, is shaping your tea garden into the shape of a teapot as below:

Plants Featured in This Garden
Plants Featured in This Garden
Aloysia citriodora, lemon verbena
Matricaria recutita, German chamomile
Melissa officinalis, lemon balm
Mentha aquatica, orange mint
Mentha spicata, spearmint
Monarda didyma 'Cambridge Scarlet', red-flowered bee balm
Ocimum 'Mrs. Burns' Lemon', 'Mrs. Burns' Lemon' basil
Rosmarinus species, rosemarys
Salvia elegans, pineapple sage
Salvia species, sages
Stevia rebaudiana, stevia
Thymus x citriodorus 'Aureus', golden lemon thyme

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