Trying to grow tea on a Yorkshire allotment

Tea plants may grow well in Sri Lanka but any chance of trying to grow them in the UK was soon to be thwarted.

Tea plants may grow well in Sri Lanka but any chance of trying to grow them in the UK was soon to be thwarted.

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Yorkshire is famous for its tea, so when I read that you can grow the stuff in England and that there was even a plantation growing in Scotland I thought that I might have spotted a gap in the market and I ordered some bushes to put onto the allotment.

Many years ago I took a trip by train through Sri Lanka and saw mile after mile of tea plants growing in the highlands. Despite being in the tropics I was going through country which is high enough to be quite cold, especially at night. This meant that I didn’t have too many worries about the bushes prospering in the Yorkshire climate. The nursery claimed they were hardy to minus five centigrade.

Their need for sunshine felt like a bit more of a problem. The best Ceylon tea grows where the sun beats down vertically for much of the year through thin mountain air. My allotment isn’t exactly noted for the quantity of burning sunshine coming down from directly overhead, but the website I was buying from promised me that the plants would grow and prosper in a sunny spot so I thought it was worth the risk.

Besides all that tea I saw in Sri Lanka, it wasn’t a native plant of that country either. The first Ceylon tea wasn’t grown until the 1850s after Robert Fortune smuggled the plants out of China and the Darjeeling plantations got going. Plants can sometimes do remarkably well in new and unfamiliar locations.

I was, however, under no illusions. I knew that it was highly unlikely that I’d ever have the patience, the skill or the necessary equipment and temperature controls to ferment the leaves properly.

There was no chance of me producing a fermented black leaf to go into a brew that would taste anything like the builders’ tea I normally favour.

I did, though, think I had a chance of picking a couple of handfuls of green leaves and drying them for long enough to give me an interesting variety of Chinese style green tea.

I thought that if I experimented a bit then after a while I would be able to produce a palatable result and it might make for an interesting offering for guests at the end of a dinner party. They could spend the first part of the night wrecking their health with rich food and a surfeit of alcohol and then, with a bit of luck, the health giving restorative powers of green tea would undo the damage.

This might sound like a triumph of hope over reason but it is nothing compared with what I found on the internet. I didn’t have to look very far to find claims that camillia senensis is capable of curing hardened arteries, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, bowel disease and bad breath. Evidence for the claims was a little thinner on the ground.

Nevertheless I was looking forward to the arrival of my bushes in the confident expectation that I would soon be underway with producing a particularly fine and delicate variety of anti-toxic green tea to tempt the palates and ease the health problems of my friends and neighbours.

Then the packet arrived. I say packet because it wasn’t big enough to count as a parcel. There were three bushes in the one packet. Not one of them measured more than six inches in height. I had made the oldest mistake in the book.

I looked at the picture of what the plant would look like in the fullness of time and didn’t bother to read too closely the details that were quite clearly provided about the size of the plants I was actually ordering.

At this point I decided that it might not be a bad idea to read the rest of these details a little more carefully. Apparently tea plants like moist rich soil that dries out thoroughly periodically.

The allotment has a very nice layer of solid clay just a foot below the surface. Perhaps that will do?