There's nothing like a steaming cup of tea to warm you up and lift your spirits — especially during the cold winter months! And that's just one of the many reasons we encourage gardeners to keep an herb garden going year-round. After all, these flavor-packed plants are good for more than just seasoning your food; as long as you have a few herbs growing on your windowsill, a freshly-brewed cup of herbal tea is never far from reach. Just put on the kettle, snip off a few sprigs of your favorite herbs, and you'll be sipping tea in no time.
Fresh vs. Dried Herbs
Both fresh and dried herbs can be used to brew tea, and while fresh is our personal favorite, dry herbs have their own distinct benefits. Fresh herbs are wonderful for creating mild, light teas, whereas dried herbs are great for capturing a more intense flavor. Drying your own herbs also allows you to enjoy a wider range of herbs as teas outside of the primary growing season, which is the case for annual herbs or herbs grown for their flowers, such as chamomile or lavender. If you enjoy drinking these teas during the winter months, you'll want to plan ahead so that you have a dried stash once your plants have stopped flowering for the year.
For fresh herbs, muddle the leaves or flowers soon after harvesting. Generally, one tablespoon of muddled leaves will make one cup of tea. Pour hot water over the leaves and steep to the desired strength.
For dry herbs, a food dehydrator can help you quickly attain the perfect result, but air drying the old fashioned way will also do the trick! Whether you choose to space herbs out on a tray or bundle and hang them, the important thing is to ensure good air circulation around your cut herbs to make sure they dry properly. Once dried, you can brew home-grown herbs just as you would a regular loose-leaf tea.
Grow Your Own Herbal Tea Blend
Virtually any culinary herb can be used to make tea, but one of the easiest places to start is with mints. Spearmint, chocolate mint, and orange mint are just a few of the many varieties we regularly carry, and while each has a distinctive taste, they all lend themselves well to tea. Mints have a bit of a bad reputation for spreading aggressively in the ground, but don't let that scare you off from growing them. They make for well-behaved (and incredibly low-maintenance) container herbs, which also makes them easy to move indoors when temperatures begin to drop in order to extend the harvest.
Interestingly, many herbs — including sage, rosemary, and thyme — are in the mint family, as well, and can be used in making a variety of herbal teas. Your personal palate will be your guide in knowing which herbs you enjoy brewed into tea, but lemon balm is one standout that makes for a lovely, aromatic tea with notes of citrus that is said to have a calming effect.
While different herbal teas may be touted as remedies for a variety of ailments, it is a good idea to read up on the herbs you plan to use before brewing them into a tea. Always check with more than one source before consuming any plant you don't know to be safe — especially those touted as "medicinal herbs!" While many plants have uses in traditional medicine, not every plant with medicinal value is brewed into tea, and even those that are may only use a certain part of the plant, so exercise caution and common sense when deciding what to put in your own body.
True Tea Leaves
If you're not a fan of herbal teas, you can still grow and brew your very own tea at home. You might be surprised to hear that the plant behind the global tea industry is actually a type of camellia! Much like its ornamental cousins that boast bright winter blossoms, Camellia sinensis hails from Southeast Asia and is perfectly hardy in our Zone 8 gardens here in Western Oregon.
The best time to harvest leaves from your tea camellia is in early spring when it begins to push out bright green new growth. Traditionally, tea growers pinch off two immature leaves with a terminal bud, and this would be our recommendation, too; however, the important thing is to simply use only tender new growth, as mature leaves are too tough to effectively process. It may take your tea camellia several years to reach a size adequate to harvest enough leaves to brew very much tea at all, but it's still a fun experiment regardless.
To let tea develop its strong, natural flavor, the leaves you harvest must undergo a process known as oxidation to release the flavorful tannins locked within. White tea is the least oxidized and therefore yields the mildest tea, whereas black tea is highly oxidized, giving it a more robust flavor. Commercial growers have precise methods of processing the leaves to oxidize them the proper amount for the desired style of tea they are making. On a home scale, though, there's a bit more trial-and-error involved, and it will take a bit of practice to get down a method that works for you and your taste buds. We recommend starting out with trying to make green tea, which takes a bit more effort to process than white tea, but gives a more satisfying and flavorful result. This will look like wilting the leaves, rolling them, and baking them at a low temperature in the oven.
After harvesting your tea leaves, spread them out flat in an area with good ventilation to let them begin to wilt. After a couple of hours, the leaves can be "fixed" so that they're ready to roll. This is accomplished by placing them in a 300°F oven for 7 minutes until they are soft and smell like freshly cut grass — but be careful not to overdo it, because once the leaves get crunchy, they can no longer be rolled! From there, the process of rolling your tea leaves is fairly simple: Simply place a few leaves at a time between your hands and rub them together so that they curl over themselves. At this point, you can arrange your rolled tea leaves on a sheet pan and heat them in a 250°F oven for 40 minutes until they are nice and crunchy. Then, you can either store them in an airtight container or go ahead and brew them into a nice cup of tea right away.
Good luck, and happy brewing!
At Cornell Farm, we carry a wide variety of herbs year-round that can be used to brew your own herbal tea at home — plus tea camellias for your Kitchen Garden! If you would like help planning a garden for brewing your own tea, feel free to stop by our Kitchen Garden Greenhouse for a few ideas. Our team is always happy to help you pick out the perfect plants.