how to plant a tea garden from scratch

In previous blogs, we've discussed how to irrigate tea gardens with bamboo or how to harvest kyobancha. Today is about planting. tea seedlings and the methods taught to me while in Japan. Interestingly enough these techniques were foreign even to my forestry trained and tree nursery working self. Imagine that.

You start with holes. Lots and lots of holes.

You start with holes. Lots and lots of holes.

Aside from the ancient and antiquated tools, we were using (...it makes the tea grow better?) this field was lined with brand new fencing. While you're probably in no way interested to hear that tidbit of information, it's actually an interesting fact. You see, newly planted tea seedlings are essentially babies. And these babies like to be eaten by the local fauna, especially deer. That's right. Japan has baby eating deer roaming the hills. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Too cool for school. Literally...this was during my entire final semester of college.

Too cool for school. Literally...this was during my entire final semester of college.

Most farmers will tell you that the day starts early. This day was no exception. We hopped into the truck and were soon on the road. For over thirty minutes. Thirty minutes in the back of a tiny truck, going to a tea field to plant tea seedlings. This may not sound scary but when you see how narrow Japanese roads are you'll understand the terror I was feeling upon arriving at the field.

Now when it comes to planting tea seedlings you have to be forward thinking. A quick Google search will show you that there can be a large difference between a beautifully cultivated row of tea bushes and fields of wild growing feral beasts. To achieve that handcrafted look, you need to measure twice and plant once.

Again, antiquated tools. Can't knock their effectiveness.

Again, antiquated tools. Can't knock their effectiveness.

Each seedling should be just over a foot apart from the seedling adjacent and the seedling across from it. Fun fact, bamboo grows in roughly 6" segments so they are easy to measure with. 

The holes should be deep enough to cover the roots but not so much as to go above where the root meets the trunk. Doing this can adversely affect the growth of the plant. When planting you'll also want to make sure that the roots do not curl up along the walls of the hole. This is called "j-rooting" and again is a cause for poor plant growth. But this is tricky as you can see just how large the roots of a tea seedling can get.

Over six inches long and growing!

Over six inches long and growing!

Of course, sometimes you get lucky and you get a small bundle. Or, if you're smart, you grab the short-rooted plants first. Usually what happened is a three-person tea team would be comprised of a digger, a planters, and a filler. Say what you want about being a jack-of-all-trades, specialization can be mighty efficient.

Someone didn't measure. Then again it was raining. 

Someone didn't measure. Then again it was raining. 

This specific field took a whole day to complete. The soil was interesting in that in changed from a rocky-sandy- clay loam into a clay loam rather frequently. This may sound a bit odd but keep in mind that a tea's taste is the sum of its terroir. More simply put, a tea will taste different depending on where it is planted. Being able to travel to several tea fields and see the different types of soils is a treat to the trained tea eye. You gain an appreciation for the individual tea grown there.

Oh, and we burned a lot of stuff. Also, more old tools.

Oh, and we burned a lot of stuff. Also, more old tools.

This wouldn't be the only tea garden we planted that year, but this one was one of the more beautiful ones to be in. I can't recall what type of tea was planted in the garden though I want to say one that was destined for sencha as no shading canopies were erected. Perhaps I'll contact the  farmer sometime soon and see how the tea is growing. Having been nearly five years since I was last there, the tea shoudl be ready for harvest.