I’m Growing My Own Tea!

I adore tea.  Black, White, Green or even Oolong.  Offer me a cup of tea and I will be your friend forever!

I enjoy drinking herbal teas also, but nothing can beat a cold glass of lemon balm leaves steeped in white tea on a hot summer day.  Ahhhhh  🙂

I thought I was doomed to continuously spending lots of money on my tea habit until I found out that I can actually grow my own tea plants.  Happy Dance!

Until a few months ago, I thought all tea plants were tropical!  Nope!  Shows how much I don’t know. In fact, a lot of tea plant varieties can withstand freezing temperatures down to 0 degrees and grow well in zones 7 – 9.  Seriously!

One Green World, Korean TeaThen I saw these Camilla Sinensus v. Sinensus (that’s the official name of a tea plant that comes from eastern and northern Asia. Camilla Sinensus Assamica comes from India and regions surrounding it) plants for sale on a website called One Green World, and I just couldn’t resist.  The Sochi variety and the Korean Mountain variety of tea can both withstand the coldest temperatures that we get here on our homestead, so that means I can grow tea!         Oh Joy!

So, I bought two tea plants, one Sochi and one Korean Mountain, and they arrived a few weeks ago.

How to grow camellia sinensus

This is how the tea plants arrived. They were so well packed that I don’t think any leaves were harmed! Thank you, One Green World, for sending me such beautiful plants!

Can you believe the size of these plants?  From root tip to leaf tip, about three feet tall!  I certainly wasn’t expecting them to look so good!  Now, I am not a spokesperson for this plant nursery, nor have I been compensated in any way for saying this.  I just think that when a business makes a happy customer, they should be commended.  Kudos!

Growing green tea

Here is how the tea plants came from the nursery.

The plants came in plastic pots, where they had to stay for a few days while I went into town to get some newer, larger ones.  I took them out of the box and set them upright, but kept the plastic sleeve over the pot so the roots wouldn’t dry out.

Because I want to plant these into the ground near our new home, for now they will have to live in pots until most of the building is done.  The plants like to get some sun and enjoy partial shade, but harsh summer afternoon sunshine is not their “cup of tea”.

Yes, I just said that.  😉

How I am growing camellia sinensus

Look at the root system of these plants – very well established. I just teased the roots a bit before planting in the new pots.

I can’t wait to harvest some tea and try it, but I am going to wait until the plants are better established in the pots.  They both have some new growth already, but it is still early and I would assume they have some shock to go through from shipping, so I am going to let the roots “steep” (holy cow, 🙂 I am on a roll) in their new soil for a while first. After a few weeks, once the spring temperatures are more stable, I will give them some of my homebrewed kelp fertilizer.

I did some research on how to grow the tea plants, and apparently these plants like a fairly acidic soil that well drained and can be kept moist, which is what we have. They also like to have part shade if your afternoons are hot, which is just the kind of conditions that my new elderberry plants wanted – so I may end up putting them next to the elderberry bushes.  Mmmmmmmm… elderberry green tea sweetened with stevia…

Speaking of my elderberry plants – they are already beginning to leaf out!

How to grow camellia sinensus v sinesus

The elderberries are starting to get leaves. This is a branch of one of the larger plants. All four plants did well through the winter, so I hope to harvest more elderberries this year and dry some just for my tea!

Once the tea plants are established, I will harvest some of the growth tips and try my hand at preparing the tea leaves into either white or green tea, depending on how the leaves are processed. Maybe even oolong or black tea. I hope to post that process soon, but I don’t want to shock the poor plants right now any more than the shipping may have.

How to grow Tea

These plants have plenty of room to spread their roots, and I hope to be able to plant them in the ground next fall, when (hopefully) there won’t be as much construction traffic going on.

However, I have read that it is necessary to harvest the new tea leaves as soon as they appear, before they get too big and not useful. Harvesting also helps to prune the plant and keep it at a reasonable height, as some can grow more than 15 feet tall, and I certainly do not want to climb a ladder for my tea!  After doing more research, I found that harvesting the tea leaves four times a year would not be unreasonable, starting with what the Chinese call the “first flush” n the spring, and ending sometime in August, so that I don’t disturb the fall flowers too much.  I think my honey bees will just adore the tea leaves!

In the meantime, I am dreaming of all the types of tea add-ins – rose hips, madrone berries, dried elderberries, lavender flowers, dehydrated orange peel, dried mint and or lemon balm leaves…  the possibilities are endless!  Of course, to sweeten the tea, I have my faithful stevia plant or my yummy honey from our bees!  I think I am going to collect a bunch of beautiful jars with the bail top lids so I can store the tea and all these flavorings.  Won’t that look pretty on an open shelf in my kitchen?

This is going to be so much fun!

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Tea of Immortality

In my quest to find a healthier, more self reliant lifestyle, I came across a beverage that has been called the “tea of immortality”, otherwise known as kombucha.  My husband and I are trying to completely kick the soda pop habit, and since kombucha has a natural fizziness to it after it’s second ferment, I thought we would see if this would be a viable alternative.

The history of kombucha is long and varies from country to country, but the truth is that kombucha has found it’s way around the world.  In Germany it is called heldenpilz, in Russia it is known as kvas, and in China they call it cha Ju.  I thought that anything known by so many different names and passed down by so many different cultures must be worth investigating. Kombucha is supposed to be one of the best probiotics around, and as we all know, good gut health means everything!

I got my Kombucha starter from Cultures for Health.  What you get is a dehydrated SCOBY, which is actually an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.  You can also call it a tea mushroom, Manchu fungus, tea mushroom, etc., but for purposes of clarity, I will call it a SCOBY.  The SCOBY is what turns sweetened tea into kombucha.

how to brew kombucha

I started out with black tea, since this is generally the most recommended type of tea to use for kombucha.

The instructions for re-hydrating your SCOBY are clear and simple. For full instructions or if you want to order a dehydrated SCOBY, you can visit Cultures of Health.  I am not an affiliate of theirs, but I think their website gives out all the information you might ever need on fermented foods.  I used black tea for my first try, which is the recommended tea. You should not use tea that has added oils in it for flavoring, such as Earl Grey, and herbal teas don’t work unless they are used along with regular tea and a mature SCOBY. The sweetened tea, with vinegar and the dehydrated SCOBY is then covered with a coffee filter or clean cloth, placed where it can breathe in room temperature (not in a closed cupboard), out of direct sunlight and where it won’t be moved or vibrated for 30 days.

Brewing Kombucha

A rehydrated kombucha SCOBY, ready to make some kombucha.

After one month, I took the now rehydrated SCOBY out of the jar and, following instructions, placed it in a freshly prepared tea, sugar and vinegar solution.  Did I try the kombucha from the first batch? You bet!  Did I like it?  NO!  It was very, very vinegary!  I could easily swallow a tablespoon per day if this is what I needed to do for good health (I have done this with apple cider vinegar and fire cider), but drink it as a beverage?  Absolutely not!

The good thing is that I knew from reading about kombucha that the longer the sweet tea is allowed to ferment, the more acidic and vinegary it will become, and this batch had fermented for 30 days.  No wonder it was so vinegary!

With the second batch, which is really the first drinkable batch, I let it ferment for the suggested 14 days.  It was apparent that the SCOBY was very happy, because I could see the trail of yeast and bacteria descending from the SCOBY, and a new scoby was forming just under the first scoby!

Brewing kombucha

Look closely at this kombucha brewing. The SCOBY is the thin white layer on the top of the tea, with a new SCOBY developing underneath. You can see tendrils of the SCOBY reaching down into the tea/sugar/vinegar mixture. Looks kinda creepy, doesn’t it?

I will be honest with you.  Looking at this made my stomach a bit queasy!  All my life I have thrown out foods that were moldy.  I know, I know, mushrooms are a fungus.  And cheese, well, cheese is also made from mold, which is a type of fungus.  But seeing the trailing mold running through something I am supposed to drink?  Well, let’s just say I was a bit…  um…   repulsed.  The SCOBY itself looks like something out of science fiction. Everytime I held one, I kept waiting for it to start breathing!

But, you know me.  I am willing to try something if it means better health, frugality or even self-reliant living.  (Doesn’t that all pretty much mean the same thing? 😀 )  Since I was trying to find an alternative to commercial soda-pop, I was willing to give it a good try.

Brewing Tea of Immortality

When you buy a dehydrated SCOBY from Cultures for Health, they include a package of pH testing strips. These strips ensure that you kombucha is ready to drink by being acidic enough.

After the 14 days of brewing, I tested the kombucha to make sure it was acidic enough to drink.  It was.  Then I tasted it and…

drum roll…

it was still vinegary.

Not as strong as the 30 day vinegar taste, but vinegary just the same.  I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.  I wondered if perhaps this kombucha culture had a bacteria and/or yeast that made a particularly vinegary and acidic tasting tea, because most SCOBY cultures aren’t exactly the same as the next.  Some have more of this yeast and some have more of that bacteria.  I had read that you can start a kombucha SCOBY from store bought kombucha, and since the store bought kombucha didn’t taste as vinegary to me as the ones that I had home brewed, I wanted to see if I could get a SCOBY started with the store bought stuff.

How to brew kombucha

You can see the scoby starting to develop on the top of the sweet tea/vinegar mixture. By golly, you CAN get your own scoby from a bottle of raw, unfiltered, unflavored kombucha!

I bought a bottle of kombucha from our local health food store and, sure enough, there was a glob of “stuff” at the bottom.  I followed the instructions just the same as I did for the rehydrated batch of SCOBY, but instead of adding a rehydrated scoby, I added the entire bottle of purchased kombucha with the glob SCOBY in it.

Yes, I know.  It does look like something you would blow into a tissue!  In fact, I enjoy showing the kombucha to everyone who comes to our home.  Their first reaction is “what do you do with it?” and when I tell them I drink it, their second reaction is always “eeewwwww”.

I get a kick out of it every time!  😀

How to brew kombucha

Two layers of kombucha SCOBY the newest is always on the bottom.

My experiment with the store bought kombucha worked!  Within one week I could see a new SCOBY growing on the top of the tea!  In fact, it seemed like this SCOBY grew a lot faster than the dehydrated one I had purchased.

So now I had two SCOBYs.  I decided to let both of these ferment in new sweetened tea/vinegar solution for just 10 days and then try it.  At Cultures for Health, they don’t recommend fermenting for less than 10 days or the brew may not be acidic enough to kill off all the bad bacteria and such.

The result after 10 days?  Not bad.  Not really good, but not really bad either.

The next step is to try a second ferment to get the natural effervescence like a soda-pop, and also add some flavoring to hopefully mask the taste. 😉Home brewed kombucha

After perusing several blogs on the internet, I decided to try two different flavors:  cherry vanilla (supposed to be reminiscent of Dr. Pepper) and blueberry lemon.  I had one growler (a bottle commonly used by beer brewers with a flip-top “bail type” stopper) from a long extinct craft brewery in Sonora, California, and purchased two more at Ikea for only $3.99 each.

Brewing Fermented Sweet Tea

The kombucha is allowed to ferment a second time with flavorings, so that it will get that “soda pop” fizz and taste better.

I poured the kombucha into each bottle and using a funnel added a handful of blueberries and a few lemon slices to one bottle, and a 1″ piece of split vanilla bean with a handful of dried cherries to another.

After one day I tested the bottles kombucha by opening them and ♪♫♪♪ pfffttt-plunk ♪♫♫♪  they had fizz!  In fact, the blueberries quickly rose to the top of the bottle carried by wings of little bubble angels.  However, I knew from reading other blogs that it was imperative that I let it go through at least 3 days of a second ferment – just to get that really good fizz.

 

Three days later, I put the bottles in the refrigerator in anticipation of drinking the now flavored and fizzy kombucha with dinner.

Fermented Sweet Tea

A cold glass of the Tea of Immortality!

How did it taste?  Well, let’s say it isn’t my favorite.  It isn’t good, but it isn’t bad either.  I think I can easily drink about 2-4 ounces a day, just for it’s health benefit. At first we thought we liked the blueberry/lemon best, but then the cherry vanilla ended up the clear winner. However, this won’t be gracing my table anytime soon to serve alongside dinner.  My husband’s palate is even more sensitive to the vinegary taste than mine is, so no, this won’t be a sodapop substitute for us.

Not yet.

If you know me, you know that I don’t give up so easily!

I want to try a few more rounds of brew using Oolong tea, green tea and white tea and see how that tastes.  I also want to try brewing the kombucha with a little less vinegar to start with, and see if that makes a difference.  So, stay tuned – there will be more to post soon!

If anyone has any suggestions or blog posts about kombucha and flavored kombucha, please leave a comment below!

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Good Night, Sweet (stevia) Prince

Good night, sweet prince”  (Forgive me, I love Shakespeare.)

What I am referring to is the death of my stevia plant.  I killed him.  On purpose.

how to grow stevia

He was a beautiful plant, except where I kept cannibalizing him!  😀

Why?  Because for it to survive, he must live inside my house, as he did last winter, and that’s not going to happen this year.  Why?  Well, for one reason, we are in the early stages of selling our home in the valley so we can move up to our future homestead and build our new house. (It’s about time!!) The garden where the stevia was planted (before I potted it up last winter) has long since been turned back into lawn – which according to our real estate agent is what most potential buyers want to see. So, my poor sweet prince has had to live in his pot on my front porch. 🙁

But more importantly, I don’t want to have the stevia in the house because last winter he became infested with an itty bitty critter called scale.  I’m not sure where the scale came from, and though I think I finally got rid of that pesky pest, but I don’t want to chance infecting my other house plants, either here or up on our future homestead.

Salad in the window

Here is my sweet prince in my windowsill last winter. The plant thrived and even bloomed in that south facing, warm window!

He served me well.  Very well. ” And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

Well, don’t be silly.  I know plants don’t go to heaven.  But I will tell you, this plant was heavenly!  Next spring I hope to start at least four stevia plants, and I will use what I have learned about growing this plant so my future sweet leaf plants thrive as well as, or even better!  What did I learn?

First – they like water, but don’t like wet feet.  In other words, keep their soil moist but not wet.

Second – they love sunshine – sort of.  When my stevia seedlings were first planted in the spring, they actually did quite well.  That is until the zucchini horned in on their space and shut out their direct sunlight!  Once I pulled out the zucchini (it got squash mosaic virus), the stevia started growing like wildfire!  Well, not really like wildfire, but certainly faster than it did when it was partially shaded by the big bad zucchini! Of course, that was in the spring.  Once the hot days of summer set in, the stevia seemed to suffer a bit in the strong sunlight!  I think they would have done better with a bit more afternoon shade.  Lessons learned.

One of two stevia seedlings in the garden.  Can you see how that squash leaf is starting to encroach in the stevia's sunlight?

One of two stevia seedlings in the garden. Can you see how that squash leaf is starting to encroach in the stevia’s sunlight?

Third – humans aren’t the only critters who like the stevia leaves.  I don’t know if bugs can taste sweetness (I am sure they can’t), but it seemed like every aphid, white fly and eventually scale wanted to munch on my stevia.  The white fly and aphids were easy enough to control with a spray made of water and just a drop of olive oil steeped in rosemary.  The scale seemed a bit more resistant.  I discovered, however, if I examined the plant every day and scraped off each scale as I found it, then continued to spray on my organic pest concoction, the scale was at least controlled (I haven’t seen an adult scale in about three months now) or completely eradicated!

Since I knew I wasn’t taking the stevia with me up to the future homestead and I couldn’t bring her into the house, I decided to harvest the last of her sweet leaves.  The simplest way to preserve the leaves is to just dry them in open air out of direct sunlight.  They dry to crunchy status within a day or two.  Store them in a jar or some other air-tight container and they can be used for at least a year.

how to grow stevia and what to do with it

Air drying stevia. It only takes a few days – then store in an airtight container.

How to I use my dried stevia leaves?  I drop some crushed leaves into my herbal teas. The heat from the water produces a lovely, natural sweetness.  Or, soak in very warm water for about 15-30 minutes (until soft and pliable and cooled off), crushing leaves against the side of the container every 5 minutes or so, then strain water into a pitcher of a cool beverage that you want to sweeten.  Lemon balm and stevia is refreshing on a hot summer day!

I have also made a tincture with stevia, which works great.  See this post HERE.

how to grow and use stevia

Store stevia syrup and/or tincture in dark glass bottles in a cool dark place.

As I throw the stevia carcass on the compost pile, I can only dream of next year’s crop.  I hope to be able to keep the new plants in the ground year-round, but we’ll see if that’s possible on the future homestead.  Being a semi-tropical plant, stevia does not like frost, and freezing temperatures are a death sentence.  However, with careful tenting and heavy mulching, I am hopeful.

how to grow and use stevia

Stevia flowers are beautiful and the plant usually blooms in the fall (November in my area). However, the blossoms can make your stevia leaves a bit bitter, so harvest as soon as you see the first blossom…      In other words, do as I say, not as I do!  😉

Do you have a stevia plant?  If you do, do you leave it in the ground for the winter or pot it up and bring it inside?  Also, do you have any special recipes you use your stevia in? If you do, please  share your recipe in the comments below, or add your post url containing the recipe!

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Elderberry Tonic and Fire Cider

The hubby and I recently attended a class on Herbal Medicine for the Cold and Flu Season at our local Community Center.  The class was given by Kim, who is a Master Gardener and has studied herbal medicines including teas, tinctures, infusions and decoctions. It is so true that the “old ways” are sometimes best and many people can avoid costly visits to their doctor if they were to try some of these “recipes”.

I recently have been reading Jean Auel’s series of books “Clan of the Cave Bear” and have been fascinated by the descriptions of the plants and herbs used by the ancient people  depicted in these books.  I have always known that most of our modern day medicines have been derived from plants, including aspirin, digitalis and morphine.  But, being a novice at herbalism, I have no real clue which plants to use for what, why and how!  That’s why this class was so interesting, knowing that we can grow many of our own medicines in our own backyard!

Roots and Rhizomes used as medicine

Roots and rhizomes used in healthful tonics and tinctures that can be grown in your own backyard – USDA zone permitting. I can grow these in my zone as long as I protect the ginger and tumeric rhizomes from freezing.

During the class we were introduced to Elderberry syrup, which is an antiviral/antimicrobial and therefore is good for immunity, colds and cough.  It keeps well in the refrigerator for several months.  Kim uses dried elderberry, elderberry flowers, cinnamon, ginger and honey to make the syrup.  She passed around samples of the syrup, and it actually tastes very good!  We also got to take home a cute little bottle of the syrup, which is now waiting in my fridge for that first sniffle!  When we went back to our future homestead after the class, Ray spied this little plant with blue/black berries.  Is it a baby elderberry bush? Right on our own property?

Baby elderberry bush

Does anyone know if this is a baby elderberry bush?

Next we got to taste her Fire Cider, which is a decongesting tonic, supports immunity and aids digestion.  This recipe starts with apple cider vinegar (with the mother), adding horseradish, garlic, onion, ginger, tumeric, rosemary and cayenne, all deconcocting in a quart mason jar in a dark cupboard for four weeks.  The infused vinegar is then strained.  You can add a touch of honey to taste, then store the Fire Cider in a dark jar or bottle on the shelf.  Let me tell you, when she passed around the sample to taste, I can certainly see how this would be a decongestant!  Hoo-wee!  But, add a little bit of olive oil, and this would certainly make a wonderful salad dressing with a bit of a kick! After the class I went home and googled for this decongesting tonic and found that there are quite a few variations of this tonic.  Some include this and others include that, but this is the recipe that was given to me at the class:Fire Cider Tonic

The two hour class also covered herbal teas, and she gave us a recipe (and another sample to take home) of Lemon Mint tea sweetened with Stevia.  This tea is heavenly, hot or cold!  It included lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, lemongrass, peppermint and stevia.  The pitcher containing the sample of this tea went around the classroom several times (it was that good) and I think we drained it! 😀

The last section of the class covered bath salts.  Bath salts not only smell good (aromatherapy is a very strong component of natural health remedies), but also warm the body.  Kim suggested that you soak in the tub of hot water infused with her recipe for bath salts and fresh ginger for 20-30 minutes.  Once you dry yourself off, wrap up in a warm robe or blanket for another 30 minutes.  She explained that the salts along with the ginger and hot water will bring greater circulation to the skin, giving a warmth that will probably make you sweat, which is good for the body.  Her recipe included fresh slices of ginger, along with the epsom salts that have been infused with eucalyptus oil, thyme oil, tea tree oil, and lemon oil.  The sample she gave each of us smelled out of this world heavenly!

Elderberry tonic and Fire Cider

Our three samples from class:   On the left is the heavenly Bath Salts, in the middle is the Elderberry Tonic and on the right is Lemon Mint Herbal Tea.

I know it sounds strange, but I am almost looking forward to that first sign of a cold!  I will take a hot bath with the bath salts, then afterward, while snuggled in a nice warm blanket, sip some hot, freshly brewed Lemon Mint tea!  Later, I will have a nice kale salad dressed with Fire Cider and olive oil!

Here is a picture of my Fire Cider just after I made it.  In about four weeks, I’ll let you know how it tastes! You can see the orange shreds of the tumeric and the green is the rosemary.

Fire Cider Tonic

Thanks for the class, Kim – I am looking forward to the next one!

PS:   Is the plant in the picture above an elderberry?  Leave a comment if you have an opinion, or even if you don’t! 😀

 

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