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Last winter I was doing some research on the best herbs for container gardening, and the deeper I dove into the subject, the more I noticed that many of the herbs mentioned were also my favorites for making herbal teas. Mint, for example, is an excellent plant for teas, but its rambunctious, spreading roots make it a no-no for the garden (unless you have a whole lot of room!). Lemon balm came up repeatedly, too; I love it for the lemony zing it adds to teas, but it will easily overrun the garden. My takeaway from all that research was that most tea herbs are perfect plants for growing in containers. So, I added planting a spring herb garden to grow herbal teas in containers to my to-do list last March. Then, when planting time arrived a few weeks later, I came up with an awesome idea for creating a container herb garden that uses a unique repurposed container: an umbrella!
Why grow your own herbal teas?
While true teas, like black, green, and oolong teas, contain caffeine and come from the tropically grown evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis, herbal teas are caffeine-free and are made from a variety of other plant materials, many of which are easily grown in almost any backyard. If you love herbal teas and are interested in growing your own, planting a spring herb garden for homegrown herbal teas is a perfect project for you.
As is true of many commercially grown crops, unless you buy herbal teas labeled as organic, those tea bags you purchase at the grocery store could contain herbs grown with any number of pesticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers. For that reason, I grow, dry, and blend my own herbal tea combinations every year. Thankfully, with the proper care, most herbal tea plants are a snap to grow and harvest.
Related post: The cost savings of growing herbs in the garden
Container choice for an herbal tea garden
Though any large container with a drainage hole is suitable for planting a spring herb garden for teas, I wanted to be a little more creative. As I was thinking about what container to use for my herbal tea garden, I considered using a plastic beer tub or an old galvanized wash trough. But, then I happened to see an old golf umbrella in our garage, and I decided have a little herb garden fun and repurpose it into a planter!
The mixture of herbs I included in my umbrella planter can be used in various combinations to create delicious herbal tea blends. They can also be used for other culinary purposes, too; in fact, you’ll find all of these herbs to be surprisingly useful in the kitchen.
Let me walk you through the planting process, and then tell you how I dry these herbs and use them in my homegrown herbal teas.
What plants to include when planting a spring herb garden for homegrown herbal teas
There are many excellent tea herbs available to the home gardener. Here are some of my favorites:
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens)
Pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora)
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) for sweetening the tea
Roman chamomile (Chamaemlum nobile)
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)
Purple basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Osmin’)
Holy basil or Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)
Lemon basil (Ocimum x africanum)
Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or L. officinalis)
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Wild bergamont (Monarda fistula)
Signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia)
Related post: Tea-growing inspiration
How to make an umbrella herb garden
Begin by fully opening the umbrella, inverting it, and placing it in a sunny area. Most herbs require a minimum of six hours of full sun per day. The base of the inverted umbrella will probably not sit flat on the ground, so you can angle it either to give you the best view of the plants growing in it or face it toward the south or west to maximize sun exposure. When planting a spring herb garden like this one, it doesn’t matter whether the umbrella is sitting on the ground or on a patio, deck, or balcony.
Use a scissors to cut three or four drainage holes through the fabric a few inches out from the stem of the umbrella. Make them in the shape of an X and fold the flaps to the outside of the umbrella, creating a small, square hole that won’t get clogged.
Fill the umbrella to within a few inches of the top edge with the 50/50 blend of potting soil and compost.
Think about how you’d like to arrange the tea plants in the umbrella. My design has the tallest plants in the back because the planting is only viewed from one side, but you can choose a different design style, if you’d prefer. Begin by planting the tallest plant first. For this container, I used a lemongrass plant as the background plant for the design. It’s positioned to the back and slightly off center. Because it was pot-bound, the roots were gently loosened prior to planting.
Next, set the pots of remaining herbs on top of the soil, carefully rearranging them until you have a layout you’re happy with. Pay careful attention to the mature height of each of the tea herbs to ensure the lowest plants are toward the outer edge of the umbrella.
Once you’re happy with the placement of all the plants, tilt them out of their nursery pots and plant.
Water in your new herbal tea umbrella garden. Be sure to continue to water your umbrella garden regularly throughout the growing season to ensure the plants receive ample moisture. If desired, you can use an organic liquid fertilizer every three to four weeks, though if you planted in quality potting soil this isn’t necessary.
Related post: A cup of chamomile
How to harvest and preserve tea herbs
Planting a spring herb garden is a fun task, but you need to harvest the herbs regularly to encourage them to generate more growth and to keep them from going to flower (flowering sometimes alters the flavor of certain herbs).
To harvest, I use my best pair of Felco pruners or my favorite herb snips to remove tender, new herb shoots or leaves for drying. If you harvest whole shoots, tie them into small bundles and hang them up to dry in a cool, dry room for several weeks. If you harvest individual leaves, they can be dried in a food dehydrator for one to three hours. You can also dry individual leaves in a multi-tiered hanging food dryer. Or, if you’re harvesting chamomile, harvest the small white and yellow flowers by plucking them off with your fingers in a rake-like fashion, then dry them by spreading them out in a dry room on a cloth and turning them over once a day for ten to twenty days.
Dried herbs are best stored in air-tight plastic bins or glass herb-storage containers, and kept away from direct sunlight.
When you create your herbal tea blends, feel free to add extra ingredients such as dried orange and lemon peels, dried pomegranate, cinnamon bark, dried rose hips, and ginger root. Experiment at home with herbal combinations, and invite friends over for a tea-tasting and ask them to vote on their favorites.
Planting a spring herb garden for homegrown herbal teas is a project that will pay off for months to come. Whether served hot or cold, a daily cup of tea is a great way to enjoy your garden’s bounty all year long!
Related post: Drying oregano: Step-by-step instructions
Do you grow your own herbal tea? We’d love to hear about your favorite plants and herb blends for homegrown herbal tea in the comment section below.