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Steeped in Tradition - An Herb Tea Garden

by Carole McCray

When summer temperatures reach a high note, I take a respite from garden chores and sip herbal iced tea in the shade of an apple tree or on the sun porch. Refreshing summer teas and soothing winter brews are easily made from fresh or dried herbs.

Herb plants have a connection to the past. When the British government taxed tea for export to the New World, the colonists turned to herbs to make tea.

 A Six-Step Plan

1. Choose a site—Locate your tea garden in a well-drained spot where it receives six to eight hours of full sun. A site with a west, south, or southwestern exposure is idea.

2. Preparation—Rid the site of all weed and grass roots. Using a rototiller or spade, loosen the soil to a depth of 12 inches, removing small stones, weeds, and other debris. Rake the area clean.

3. Know the soil—Herbs prefer soil with a pH factor between 7.0 and 7.5. A soil test kit will determine soil's acidity or alkalinity. Test results will recommend how soil can be corrected.

4. Planting—Set out plants once danger of frost has passed. Avoid planting during the hottest part of the day. Place plant in the hole with the top of the roots just below ground level. Add some bone meal, and pack soil gently around the plant. Water well, and keep plants moist until they are well established.

5. Caring for your plants—Mulch in between herb plants with grass clippings, straw, or peat moss to retard weeds. A light compost in the summer helps fertilize herbs and retain moisture. Over-fertilizing robs herbs of their fragrance and flavor. Add compost in the fall; cover with straw to prevent winter heaving.

6. Using and harvesting—Pick fresh leaves and flowers to make tea; it encourages fuller plants. Pick leaves frugally from young plants. Prune back established plants about half the amount of the current season's growth for healthy plants.

To harvest herbs, choose a dry day before noontime when the sun is least intense so essential oils in the leaves are not lost. Hang in bunches with blossoms end down to dry in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place. When herbs feel crisp, strip leaves and flowers from stems. Fill glass jars with dried herbs, label, and store in cool, dry cupboard.

 Tea garden plants

MINT (Mentha) is a rapid spreader which needs contained. Peppermint and spearmint are refreshing flavors; apple, orange, pineapple, and pennyroyal are other mint scents.

SCENTED GERANIUMS (Pelargonium) offer spicy, rose-scented, or fruit-like fragrant leaves. I move these tender perennials in for winter and like the fresh or dried leaves mingled with "short tea."

LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis) is a hardy perennial whose lemon-scented foliage and tiny white flowers attract bees. It makes an invigorating tea and is said to soothe a cold.

BEE BALM, BERGAMOT (Monarda didyman) belongs to the mint family and produce pink, purple, or scarlet flowers. Also, known as Oswego Tea, it grew rampant as a weed in Oswego Country, New York

State. Colonists used it as a tea substitute. Its scent resembles that of the tiny, bitter, Italian bergamot orange.

ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a tender perennial in northern regions where it winters indoors. Rosemay's pungent, ginger-like scent gives tea a taste to savor alone, or sweeten with honey.

HYSSOP (Hyssopus officinalis) another member of the mints, has aromatic, licorice-scented leaves which produce a bitter, minty tea. Summer through frost, it grows purple plumes.

SAGE (Salvia officinalis) has soft, gray-green leaves and spiky, lavender flowers. Sage's balsamic flavor and cinnamon make a tasty tea.

Experiment. Combine different herbs for tea. Try orange or lemon peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves in tea. Add herb flowers and leaves to "store tea." Some combinations are spice-scented geranium and whole cloves; orange mint and orange peel; rosemary, sage, and lemon peel.

Visit your Growise Center to find perennial herb plants with your favorite fragrances and flavors for a tea garden. Grow an herb tea garden, and you are linked to the past of patriots' protest and ingenuity, with herbs steeped in teapots today.

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