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My Latest Garden Experiment: Growing My Favorite Beverage

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

I’ve been growing some of my own food for 45 or so years now. Part of the fun of that experience is the opportunity to try growing new kinds of food. With varying success, I’ve tried most culinary herbs and quite a few different varieties of garden vegetables. Often, our favorite fruits and veggies are too tender for farm production, so the only way to have them is to grow them ourselves. This past October, we decided to expand our garden repertoire to include tea plants. Yes, you can use a vast array of native and herb plant leaves to brew tasty beverages, but our new plants are the source of what most tea drinkers consume: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis f. Rosea

Cousins to better known ornamental camellias like C. sasanqua and C. japonica, tea camellias do not produce large colorful blooms. Their magic lies in their leaves, most of which contain an array of compounds that include methylxanthines – caffeine. Another tea cousin – C. ptilophylla – is sometimes called cocoa tea, because instead of containing caffeine, the leaves of this species contain a different compound, theobromine, which is also found in chocolate. Leaves of cocoa tea don’t taste like chocolate, but they do contain much lower levels of caffeine – a potential source of decaffeinated tea without the decaffeination process!

It is my understanding that certain tea varieties are best used to produce certain types of tea – black, green, and oolong, for example. But, ultimately, the tea created depends on how harvested leaves are processed. I’m planning to stick to trying to produce green tea, because the process is not as elaborate as for other types.

Numerous honeybees were visiting every tea camellia flower during our visits this past October.

As with growing any perennial crop, whether nut or fruit trees or blueberry bushes, tea plants require several years to attain a size sufficient for harvesting. And it would take many more plants than I have room for to produce enough tea leaves to keep me supplied year-round with my favorite beverage. However, as with growing any special food crop, even a few cups annually of tea produced by my own plants are treats worth savoring as I bask in my tea-growing accomplishments.

Tea Growing in the Piedmont Region of NC

I’ve known about tea camellias for some time, because of a well-known nursery that’s just a fifteen-minute drive from my house: Camellia Forest Nursery. This nursery has been in business for over 40 years and is well known as the finest source of camellias on the US East Coast. Peruse their catalog of options at your own risk; they are intoxicatingly tempting. Even to this native-centric Piedmont gardener, these evergreen Asian beauties are hard to resist.

Fall-blooming field of tea camellias.

I have not succumbed to temptation mostly because the ornamental species require protection from deer munching, and because even with five acres, I’ve only got room for a finite number of plants. Tea camellias, I’ve recently learned, are more deer-resistant, because of the bitter compounds like caffeine in their leaves, compounds not present in their ornamental cousins. I’ve always known that Camellia Forest Nursery owner, David Parks, offered a few tea camellias, but I had missed the development of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens within the grounds of the nursery.

Camellia Forest Tea Gardens

One of the nursery’s greenhouses full of tea camellias

As the name implies, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens offers an astonishing array of tea plant options – overwhelming is the word that comes to mind when you stand among the rows of blooming tea bushes on an autumn morning as I did this past October. Wonder Spouse and I attended a tea-planting workshop in early October to learn tea-planting methods first-hand from David Parks’ spouse, Christine Parks, the owner and energetic force behind the Tea Gardens. Christine is gainfully employed full time by a company in the Research Triangle Park. The Tea Gardens operation is her weekend job/passion/obsession.

With the help of equally passionate volunteers and two part-time employees, Christine continues to expand her tea fields. A new building being erected beside the fields will house tea-processing equipment on the lower level and a tea-tasting/sales/display area on the upper level. Even without that equipment, Christine and her team have been processing small batches of tea from the leaves harvested there. Throughout the year, she offers workshops on tea and also tea-tasting events, many of which are free. Visit their web site for more details.

Christine has literally written the book on tea growing. She and a friend and fellow tea fanatic, Susan M. Walcott, co-authored a book published by Timber Press, which you can order from them here

Wonder Spouse practices his newly learned tea-planting skills.

In the workshop, we learned that if your land grows blueberries well, you can successfully grow tea camellias. In fact, the planting process that Christine demonstrated that day resembled the same process I use for planting blueberries and native azaleas. The keys are excellent drainage and somewhat acidic soils. Her biggest growing challenges are the occasional very cold winters we still get here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and voles, which tunnel into root systems and damage the bushes.

To deal with the occasional cold spells, she recommends C. sinensis var. sinensis, which handles most random freezes with no more than a few cold-damaged leaves. C. sinensis var. assamica is more cold-sensitive and has been killed to the roots more than once at the Tea Gardens. They do re-sprout from the roots, but that’s an erratic way to try to create a harvestable plant.

Christine Parks demonstrating planting technique using Permatill in the bottom of the hole.

To deal with voles, Christine and her team add a manufactured sterile product called Permatill to their planting holes. In my area, gardeners add this mix to planting holes for spring bulbs like tulips and lilies for the same reason the Tea Gardens staff add it to their planting holes. Voles do not like tunneling through the rock-like bits of PermatillPermatill also improves soil drainage.

Our Tea Plant Acquisitions

Christine Parks demonstrating how to plant tea camellia seeds.

Christine Parks is constantly testing new tea varieties – results of cross-pollination between the plants in her field. Tea plants bloom in the fall. When Wonder Spouse and I were there in October, the field was buzzing with industrious honeybees and other pollinators collecting (and depositing) pollen. The fertilized flowers produce abundant seeds. Christine and her team trial many seeds, because, she told us, you never know when you might get an extraordinary tea plant from such crosses. At the end of the workshop, she gave out handfuls of seeds to class attendees and showed us how to plant them. I am proud to say that all of the seeds she gave me have germinated. I’m not quite sure where I’m going to eventually plant all the seedlings, but I’ll be growing them in pots for at least a year, so I have time to think about it.

Recently germinated tea camellia seedlings in our greenhouse.

Meanwhile, Wonder Spouse and I also purchased three tea plants from the nursery – two different varieties of C. sinensis var. sinensis, and because I like a challenge, one C. sinensis var. assamica. All three are planted inside an empty bed inside my vegetable garden, where the soil is rich and well-drained, water is easily accessible, and a sturdy deer fence protects the plants within from most plant nibblers. I picked varieties that Christine says make excellent green tea – my daily tea of choice. It will be a couple of years before the plants attain harvestable size, and then the key will be to prune them attentively to maintain the bushes for maximum productivity. It’s all explained in her book.

Tea-tasting attendees toasting to our delicious good fortune.

At the tea-planting workshop, Christine provided samples of one of her tea blends. It was the most delicate, wonderfully complex tea I’ve ever enjoyed. When we learned she was offering a bigger tea-tasting open house event a few weeks later, we returned and enjoyed several additional wonderful teas harvested and prepared by Christine and her team. We also met a lovely British couple who were in town visiting their daughter. They saw an advertisement for the open house and could not resist sampling American-made versions of their country’s signature beverage. They were kind enough to allow me to photograph them for this article.

That day, I also wandered among the blooming tea plants buzzing with pollinators. In addition to the pollen collectors, I encountered a healthy Asian Praying Mantis lurking among the bushes, hoping to snag a pollinator snack, and in an area beside the bushes planted with zinnias to attract pollinators, I spotted a late-flying Monarch butterfly – on October 30!

Christine and her team offer workshops on tea-planting several times a year. They also hold open tea-tasting events, and have two scheduled for the last two Saturdays of this month from 3:00-4:00 p.m. In the email she sends to subscribers, this is how she describes these last two events of the year:

  • Saturday, December 17: Sunny Day Oolong: a smooth and easy oolong, withered in the Carolina sun
  • Saturday, December 24 (Christmas Eve): Summer Garden Green: warm, flavorful, fukamushi style green

Tea samples, plants, and her wonderful book will all be available for sale at these events. And if you buy three tea sample packages, you’ll get a fourth one for free!

Note that Camellia Forest Nursery (where the Tea Gardens are located) will be open on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4:00 p.m. If you live near Chapel Hill, NC or plan to be in the area, and you’ve got tea lovers and/or plant lovers on your holiday shopping list, you might want to stop by.

A tasting sample of one of Christine’s green tea blends.

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Gifts for Experienced Gardeners

Snow-covered Royal Star Magnolia flower bud

Tis the season of gift buying for many, so I thought I’d offer a few suggestions to you folks buying gifts for gardeners. In today’s installment, I’m focusing on gifts for experienced gardeners. We are the obsessed green-thumbed, dirty-fingernailed bunch you see puttering in our yards in all kinds of weather.

First, if you love us, please don’t buy us a plant — or even a package of seeds. We know you mean well, but odds are you have not been paying close enough attention to us to know which perfect plant we still want to squeeze into our landscapes. Exceptions do occur. A few years back, my mother-in-law caught me sighing over a catalog that featured a bearded iris called ‘Batik.’  She remembered the iris and the catalog, and ordered it for me for my birthday. I still think of her fondly every spring when it blooms.

Bulbs and their relatives (rhizomes, corms, tubers, etc.) are safe to buy if you know exactly which variety your Obsessed Gardener desires. For anything else, I suggest gift certificates.  To hard-core gardeners like me, a gift certificate to one of my favorite nurseries is not an impersonal cop-out gift. To me, such a gift is permission to indulge in a fantasy I had not yet found room for in my budget. It is permission to splurge.

In my part of the Piedmont of North Carolina, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by many wonderful speciality nurseries. Whenever I can, I buy from one of these local sources, and if you know which local nurseries the gardener on your list favors, go forth and buy a gift certificate from one of those.

However, the nurseries I favor also operate mail-order services. So to help you southeastern Piedmonters who may not live near local speciality nurseries, here’s my short list of favorites with links to their sites in alphabetical order (so as not to play favorites).

  • Camellia Forest Nursery — As you might guess, they specialize in the most spectacular camellia varieties you will ever lay eyes on. But their inventory goes far beyond camellias to many other exquisite plants. Peruse their site; you’ll see what I mean.
  • Niche Gardens — This nursery emphasizes native perennials and woodies, but also features a number of choice non-native plants. Niche Gardens is the closest nursery to my house, and when they offer sales, I have great difficulty resisting temptation.
  • Plant Delights Nursery — Tony Avent is the plant-obsessed genius behind this nursery. If a choice plant well-adapted to the southeastern Piedmont is out there — anywhere in the world — Tony will find it, test it in his garden, and propagate and sell it if it passes muster. If the gardener on your list loves hostas — or any of a gazillion other choice treasures — a gift certificate from this establishment will make you a hero.
  • Woodlanders — This nursery is in South Carolina, but it is the best place I know of to buy small woody shrubs and trees that are hard to find elsewhere. Woodlanders sells most of our native trees and shrubs. They usually offer the straight species, and if they like some named cultivars of those species, they grow and offer those too. These folks ship small, bare-rooted plants, so I recommend this place only to seasoned gardeners. We know how to treat bare-rooted new arrivals, and how to nurture small plants into giants. I love this place because I can get small, less-expensive specimens that fit within my budget. I’m willing to be patient with them, knowing that magnificent trees and shrubs will adorn my yard after a few years.  If you know a gardener like me who is willing to patiently nurture small special plants, consider giving a gift certificate from Woodlanders.

Seasoned gardeners are also usually obsessive readers of garden-related literature. However, most of us already subscribe to the magazines we prefer, so I don’t recommend subscriptions as gifts for experienced gardeners, unless they have explicitly told you this is what they want.

Likewise, buying equipment for us is problematic. We are picky. We know what we like and what works. But if you’ve seen us eyeing our favorite garden equipment catalogs, a gift certificate from one of those will always be appreciated.

Perhaps you have a seasoned gardener on your list who is cutting back on his gardening for health or time reasons. Trust me, such folks still love gardens, even if they can’t be active in their own personal Edens anymore. Most gardeners in this category enthusiastically support one or more public garden, usually one in their region. If you know which public garden your less-active seasoned gardener supports, consider giving a donation in his name to that organization.

Even those of us who still actively garden appreciate it when our friends and family donate to our favorite public garden in our names. Personally, I am always delighted when one of my friends or family members honors me with a donation to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC.

That should be more than enough to help anyone seeking gift ideas for the serious gardeners on your list. Next time, I”ll offer gift suggestions for less-experienced gardeners.

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Signs multiply daily. Reddening leaves:

Cornus florida

Cornus florida

Virginia Creeper vine

Virginia Creeper vine

Fruits swelling.

Big-leaf Magnolia cone

Bigleaf Magnolia cone

Carmen Bull's Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Carmen Bull’s Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

I first heard about it from the flock of American Robins that blew in about three weeks ago. As they stripped purple Pokeweed berries from magenta stems and gobbled elderberries, branches bent from their weight, they muttered among themselves: “Autumn’s on its way.”

Pokeweed berries

Pokeweed berries

Raucous cries of Pileated Woodpeckers echo through the forest as they argue with greedy robins and complain about magnolia cones ripening too slowly. A few mornings ago just after sunrise, three of these crow-sized woodpeckers called and flew in circles over my head for a minute or so. Two were chasing a third, making it clear that the interloper was not welcome.

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Ash Magnolia cone

Ashe Magnolia cone

And today, as Wonder Spouse and I walked beside the creek, we startled Wild Turkeys on the other side. They squawked once, then ran silently to the blackberry thicket, where they disappeared amid its prickly greenness.

We were down by the creek so that Wonder Spouse could photograph this beauty for me:

Franklinia alatamaha

Franklinia alatamaha

Our wonderfully wet, mild summer made our two Franklin Trees very happy. Both grew several feet higher, and the mature specimen produced more flower buds than I have ever seen before. Spent snowy blossoms littered the ground beneath it, still faintly emitting their gentle rose-like scent. I held down the branch, so that Wonder Spouse could take the shot. You can see its close kinship to camellias by the form of its breath-taking bloom. The leaves of our smaller tree are already sporting garnet hues. But the flower-producing tree remains green-leaved.

Every time I think the record numbers of swallowtail butterflies are waning, another wave of fresh-winged beauties descends on every bloom in the yard. The Chinese Abelia still plays host to dozens, even though its sweet white flower clusters are beginning to diminish, but that’s OK, because the Seven-Son Flower Tree is in full, fragrant bloom, attracting every pollinator in the neighborhood, from butterflies to bumblebees, mason bees, and hawk moths. I cannot use my front walk without getting bumped into by a floating winged beauty.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Tree.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Flower Tree.

The abundance of butterflies has been a bonanza for predators as well. Myriad dragonflies pick off the lazy flutterers in mid-air, scattering severed wings of gold and black along the walk.

And the most certain early sign of autumn abounds: spider webs. As fast as I knock one down walking anywhere in my yard, the industrious weavers rebuild. A particularly clever female Writing Spider has declared her domain over the water feature in our front garden. The abundant blooming spires of Cardinal Flowers are irresistible to butterflies, and this fattening weaver is taking full advantage of that fact, even bending the top of one spire to anchor her web.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver's sticky trap.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver’s sticky trap.

Yesterday, I saw her trap and devour at least two large butterflies. Today, she seems to have doubled in size.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Perhaps in response to her rapid growth, today a male Writing Spider has built a modest web adjacent to this queen, even using a corner of her web as an anchor. Much smaller than the female he lusts for, he will wait for just the right moment to woo her. It won’t be long, I predict. Usually the females deposit their egg sacs in thick, winter-proof webs well before the leaves begin to fall in earnest.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That's mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That’s mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Cricket songs now rule nights and mornings, replacing the steady thrum of summer cicadas. Occasional cold fronts rush in behind lines of thunderstorms, freshening our air for a day or two before summer reasserts itself, cloaked in humidity.

Autumn will dominate soon enough, that we know for sure. For now, we can revel in the transitions, as plants and animals shift from growth to fruit to sleep.

It’s a transitional time of year for many people too. Schools start, and birthdays occur in bunches, as those born under the sign of Virgo celebrate another dance around the sun. I send best birthday wishes to all my Virgo kin and friends, and most especially to my favorite nephew, AJR, who celebrates what many consider a milestone moment tomorrow. Happy Birthday, sir. May your journey lead you everywhere you want to go.

Happy Birthday, Virgos!

Happy Birthday, Virgos!


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Tips for Planting Understory Piedmont Trees

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

It’s that time of year again — planting time for trees, shrubs, and perennials in the southeastern Piedmont. As I’ve stated before, autumn planting gives plants time to focus on root growth while the soil is cool but unfrozen and deciduous plants don’t have to expend energy on leaf production.

I’ve offered advice on tree planting before here. But in that post, I was emphasizing issues related to trees that eventually attain canopy status. Today, my focus is on the more diminutive trees — occupants of the forest understory. Many of our native southeastern trees in this category comprise some of our better known ornamental trees: dogwoods, redbuds, sourwoods, fringe trees, Carolina silverbells, deciduous magnolias. The list is long, and depending on how you define the height of your understory, it may include large shrubs, such as our native deciduous azaleas, viburnums, and vacciniums. All of these woodies produce gorgeous flowers, most in spring through early summer.

I fully understand why Piedmonters fall in love with these beauties and want to add them to their home landscapes. And they absolutely should, but I would like to suggest that, before you plant, you consider the environmental context of the tree/shrub you want to add.

Understory trees and shrubs, by definition, dwell beneath the forest canopy giants — oaks, hickories, sycamores, ashes, beeches, maples, sweet gums, tulip poplars, pines. If you look carefully at a Piedmont forest, you’ll see that the understory dwellers grow along forest edges and within clearings, places where they have access to sunlight, but are still shielded by nearby forest giants. By growing along forest edges, smaller understory plants are protected from strong winds, and they are shaded for part of the day.

In my yard, I’ve tried to plant new understory beauties in spots where they are sheltered by canopy giants, but will still receive enough sunlight to bloom and prosper. Here in the southeastern US, our afternoon summer sun is brutal, so I’ve sited new trees so they are shaded from that searing heat by nearby larger trees. I didn’t plant the mature dogwood in the top photo, but I suspect it is thriving because it is protected from western sun by the nearby southern red oak you can just see on the left of the picture, and the mature pine trees further back.

Pine trees are especially good at protecting evergreen understory trees, like camellias, and early bloomers, like Royal Star Magnolias.  My Royal Star Magnolia is nestled beneath tall loblolly pines that protect it from harsh north winds and late freezes. Winter-blooming camellias benefit from a similar location.

Try to resist the urge to plant a single dogwood, redbud, magnolia — insert your favorite small blooming tree here — in the middle of your front lawn, where it will be bombarded by sunlight all day; shallow roots will be damaged by any chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides) you add to the lawn. And the watering regime applied to most suburban lawns will encourage shallow root growth, meaning your tree will be susceptible to toppling in strong winds and dying from drought when you can’t water.

Instead, plant your understory tree in the front of a “natural area” with larger trees. If you have no larger trees, buildings can be used the same way. Trees planted near the east- or north-facing sides of your house will be protected from the harshest winter winds and hot summer sun. Your house becomes a substitute forest canopy giant for your small tree.

Understory beauties can help each other if you plant several near each other. Create a large planting bed by removing a patch of lawn, tilling the soil to a depth of at least a foot, and adding some organic matter like decomposed leaves to create a fluffy planting bed more akin to the forest duff such plants naturally grow in. Plant your trees far enough apart to account for their eventual mature size. Don’t add any fertilizers when you plant. This only stresses the roots. Add an inch or two of organic mulch (shredded wood lasts several years) and water well.

By providing a more natural planting area and combining several plants in one space, you’ll create a much better growing environment for your additions, and the visual appearance of your landscape will be much more appealing. Also, when you group plants, you create appealing habitat for native wildlife, and as your trees mature, you’ll be able to add native wildflowers and ferns to fill in open spots.

Working with living plants is always a dynamic adventure. Every day of the year, your trees and shrubs will look different as blooms and fruits come and go, birds feed and nest, squirrels squabble, and the sun highlights different angles as it treks across the sky through the seasons.

If you provide understory trees and shrubs with what they need, the beauty you receive in return will multiply every year. Fall is for planting, and I’ll bet that almost any home landscape could be enhanced by the addition of at least one new special tree.

Get thee to a local nursery; most are holding sales. Seize this autumnal opportunity while you can!

A thirty-foot tall kousa dogwood thrives in our backyard, where the house shades it from searing afternoon summer sun.

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More Spring-blooming Goodness: Little Epaulettetree

Pterostyrax corymbosa flowers

For many years, Wonder Spouse and I owned a pick-up truck. In the early years of taming our five acres, it was handy for hauling all sorts of landscaping materials. And for a plant-obsessed gardener like me, the truck was very handy — maybe too handy — for hauling oversized plants from local nurseries.

My plant obsession is compounded by the fact that quite a number of small, outstanding speciality nurseries are within driving distance of my home. One such nearby nursery specializes in camellias and other rare and unusual, mostly Asian, ornamental trees and shrubs. Every fall to reduce their inventory, they hold a sale on their largest potted trees and shrubs. In the years when we owned our truck, I never missed a sale, which is how we came by the lovely tree currently blooming in our front yard.

Little Epaulettetree (Pterostyrax corymbosa) is from Japan, and, according to Michael A. Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition) it’s supposed to be more shrub-like than the other member of the genus, Fragrant Epaulettetree (Pterostyrax hispida). I would never be so foolhardy as to dispute Dirr’s assertions on any botanical topic, but in my yard, our tree (not shrub) is between 25 and 30 feet tall and still growing.

I’d show you a picture of the entire tree if I could, but because I thought this plant was going to be a shrub, I tucked it into a corner where many other trees were already growing. The truth is you have to be standing practically under my specimen to appreciate the impact of it in full bloom. Imagine the flower clusters you see in the photo above covering every branch — top to bottom — of a 25-foot tall, 15-foot wide tree.

The flower color is subtle, and most years I first notice either the fragrance — a subtle sweetness that never overpowers, or the sounds. When it is blooming, this tree literally hums with pollinator activity. Honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, tiny solitary bees, assorted flies and beetles — all are drawn irresistibly to these flowers. Spent flowers carpet the ground beneath the tree, looking like spring snow.

All those pollinators insure excellent seed production, and I routinely pull seedlings from beneath the tree. The seeds don’t seem to travel; I don’t think the birds like them, and the seedlings pull up easily.

Unless I see evidence, or read about, this species having invasive potential, I’ll continue to enjoy its delightful fragrance every late April, as will the bees.



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