Here we'll attempt to cover what you need to know in order to produce a tea plant viable for making tea. This guide assumes you will be growing only 1 tree indoors and attempts to maximize yield. Outdoor growing will have slightly different times in terms of harvesting and pruning.
The first thing you should know is that a tea plant is not viable for harvest until 3-4 years old. So if you're looking to make some tea tomorrow, it's probably a better idea to buy some instead. As a grower and retailer, we sell some great oolong teas that are unmatched in price and quality. Sorry about that shameless self-promotion. We're running a business here too! Ahem ok so moving on.
Before you start anything, you'll need to make sure your soil quality is up to par.
Make sure the soil is loose and drains well. Over watering is the fastest way to kill your tea plant. Having small bits of gravel and rock mixed in with the dirt will help you immensely. You'll also want to aim for a soil pH of 5. Optimally, you'll take soil samples every 3 months.
Tea can tolerate between 70-310 cm of annual rainfall, a temperature of 50-86F, and a soil pH of 4.5-7. Tea will not grow well in the presence of frost and requires a warm climate; Chinese cultivars can withstand cooler temperatures. In the US, you'll have the easiest time if you live in Zone 8; Zone 7 or 9 will do ok too. If not, you can try growing your plant in a greenhouse or indoors. The following guide is best suited for indoor growing.
You probably got your seed at your local nursery or online at SeedRack.com. However you got it, it's now time to play the waiting game. Water your plant and check on your soil pH periodically.
When your tea tree finally starts growing, you'll be tempted to harvest it at the first sign of leaves. Don't. You want to wait until it's 3-4 years old before you do your first harvest.
Pruning has 3 main functions:
When your tea tree develops a sturdy trunk and branches (about as thick as your thumb), it's time for its first pruning. This should happen at around 8 months to 1 year of planting. If the branches aren't strong enough you'll have to wait until they are. At this point, you will prune it to a few inches above the soil. You can also allow the plant to grow for the first 3 years before pruning across leader and lateral branches at 45cm.
Every pruning cut must be 5-10cm above the previous height except for the 6th pruning cut which resets the plant to the original height.
Each pruning cycle has 5 harvests. The 1st harvest is ready 49 days after pruning. Subsequent harvests cycle 51 days. The following is a basic guide to fertilizing your plant during those cycles, you have the choice of using an organic or a chemical fertilizer:
1. On days 7-12 we can add compost (the Vietnamese usually use Sugar Cane compost, this is extremely cheap and has the added benefit of giving your tea a sugar cane flavor. Delicious! Whatever you use, understand that it will affect the flavor of your tea.)
2. On days 10-15 we can use a Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium (NPK) fertilizer. If you choose to use an organic fertilizer even better.
3. On days 25-30 we can use NPK or organic fertilizer again.
The amount of fertilizer required depends on many factors.
Chemical fertilizers can be compared to fast food. OK in small doses and is absorbed quickly.
Urea fertilizer makes the foliage greener but can burn the plant if used too much.
NPK - Nitrogen helps plant leaves and stems to grow strong by promoting protein and chlorophyll. Phosphorous helps roots, branches, and fruits/flowers grow and develop while helping plants resist certain diseases. Potassium thickens stems and leaves. For tea growing, you want a higher ratio of Nitrogen and Potassium to Phosphorus in order to maximize leaf yield.
Organic fertilizer is a nutritious healthy meal. It’s absorbed slowly, good for the soil, and makes great tea. The more used, the better.
Above soil fertilizer application can be used once every 6 months for healthy soil and once every harvest for unhealthy soil. It is absorbed more slowly than under ground applications.
Below soil application should be used once a year. It requires tilling and aerating the soil.
That's mostly it. Good luck!