Grow your own backyard tea party
By Rebecca Jepsen
For the Mercury News
June 18, 2010
There's nothing better than an ice-cold glass of tea to quench your summer thirst. And if you're a gardener, you can savor the flavors of a beverage made from herbs you grew yourself.
Making your own teas will allow you to experiment with interesting mixes and blends — and benefit from the nutritional value of herbs, grasses and flowers. And if that's not motivation enough, making homegrown teas can save you money.
There are almost as many variations of herb teas as there are herbs themselves. By growing your own tea garden, you can experiment with seasonal blends that perk you up, calm you down or just nurture your body and soul. Teas can be made from leaves, flowers, seeds and even roots of fresh or dried herbs.
Here's a guide to growing and using fresh herbs such as lemon verbena, lemon grass and spearmint. Other commonly used herbs that make great tea include cinnamon basil, chamomile, lavender, rosemary, pineapple sage, fennel, thyme and various varieties of mint (peppermint, orange, pineapple, chocolate).
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a native grass from India. It has a citrus-like flavor and is often used in Asian cuisine. Its leaves can be used fresh, dried or ground into a powder. Lemon grass can be grown in full sun to partial shade and does well when planted both in the ground and in containers. It grows to 3- to 4-feet tall and does best when given nitrogen fertilizer throughout the growing season.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a deciduous perennial shrub native to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru. Its lemony flavor is often used in fish and poultry dishes, salad dressings, jams, puddings and beverages. Lemon verbena prefers to be grown in full sun, but may tolerate light shade. Once established, it is very drought-tolerant and easy to care for. It is a very aromatic shrub that can grow to about 5 feet tall and wide. Because of its frost-tender nature, you may want to grow it in a container that can be moved indoors during the winter months. Leaves can be used fresh or dry. When dried, lemon verbena will retain its scent for years and can be used in recipes in place of lemon zest.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is a fast-growing perennial plant native to much of Europe and southwest Asia. Although it prefers partial shade, is will grow well almost anywhere. Spearmint is frequently dried and used to flavor toothpaste and is often added to shampoos and soaps. All mints can become invasive when planted in the ground, so growing it in a container is highly recommended.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) and is native to the tropical and subtropical regions from western North America to South America. It is grown for its sweet leaves, which are used as a natural sweetener and sugar substitute. Stevia extract has up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar; 1 teaspoon can be used in place of an entire cup of sugar. (The FDA has approved the use of refined stevia but has not given the green light to whole-leaf stevia or leaf extracts.)With proper conditions, stevia can be grown as a perennial. It prefers well drained, loamy soil. If, like most of us in the Bay Area, you have clay soil, amend generously with compost before you plant. Mulching around each plant will help keep its shallow roots from drying out.
Stevia doesn't do well with overwatering; it prefers frequent light watering. It can be frost-sensitive, so planting in a protected location or in a container that can be moved indoors is ideal. It will eventually grow to about 30 inches tall by 18 to 24 inches wide.
Leaves can be eaten raw, steeped or dried. To dry, cut off stems and strip off leaves, place on screen or net and sun-dry for approximately 12 hours or use a dehydrator. Dried leaves can be ground into a powder using a coffee grinder or food processor. To create a sweet concentrate, add a cup of warm water to one-quarter cup crushed leaves, let mixture set at room temperature for 24 hours, then refrigerate in closed container.
Using fresh herbs:
A general rule of thumb when using fresh herbs is to steep 3 teaspoons of leaves per one cup of boiling water for about three to five minutes. It's best to harvest fresh herbs early in the morning just after the dew has dried and while the temperature is still nice and cool. Try not to tear or bruise the leaves until just before you are ready to use them; this will preserve the essential oils, flavor and aroma for your tea.
Using dry herbs:
Use approximately 1 teaspoon of dry leaves and/or seeds per one cup of boiling water, and again steep for three to five minutes depending on your taste. Leaves, seeds and roots can be sun dried, dried in a dehydrator on baked in the oven on the lowest setting. To store dried herbs, crush them and save them in an airtight container.
Remember, your tea garden should not be just a place to grow your herbs. Hopefully, it will be a place for you to sit back, put your feet up and take a little time out to stop and smell the rosehips!
½ cup fresh spearmint leaves
½ cup fresh lemon verbena leaves
½ cup fresh lemon grass, chopped
3 cups water (hot, but not quite boiling)
Place herbs in large cup or pitcher and pour hot water over them. Let steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain into tea pots.
Master Gardener Joan Cloutier contributed to this column.
Have a question for the Master Gardeners? Call 408-282-3105 9:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. weekdays, www.mastergardeners.org.