Herbal Tea Gardens

By Doris Mae Oulton, Master Gardener in Training

Inspired by the presentation that Getty Stewart made at the Herb Society of Manitoba on herbal teas, I decided to turn part of my garden into an herbal tea garden. Of course, you can ‘just have some herbs’ in your garden but if you are going to be serious about this and take the herb growing to the next level, then you really must explore what kind of herbs you need to add to your garden so you can have a fully developed (for example) Tea Garden.

According to the herbal academy of New England there are many and varied choices of herb garden: examples include Culinary Garden, Lemon Garden, Dyers Garden and Medicinal Garden. I have no ambition to be a medicinal herbalist, but I really wanted to further develop my garden as a source of interesting teas of the ‘afternoon tea’ variety (with the advantage of both the summer fresh herb tea and the dried herbs for the winter months).

Planning:  when you are developing an herb garden, you need to do some planning.

  • Location: most herbs prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade. Some, like variegated mint are a little fussier and like a little shade or indirect sunlight.
  • Soils: herbs are a pretty forgiving lot; generally they thrive in light sandy soil that has been enriched with compost or leaf-mold and a moderate amount of fertilizer. But some, like echinacea will tolerate poor rocky soil, but will not grow in wet, mucky soil. A few, such as lavender need nutrient rich, well drained soil.
  • Selecting your plants: this takes a little more thought and needs to be planned for the long run. For example, mint will spread anywhere and can be quite invasive so you can end up with a mint garden rather than an herb garden, echinacea, on the other hand, does not like to be moved so settle it into a ‘well thought out’ home because it is going to want to stay there.

What I had not planned on, as part of this process, was the readjustment you must make about some plants with which you have had a long-time running battle. Turns out that stinging nettle (bladder issues and allergies), mullein (used as a remedy for earaches, eczema, and other skin conditions), and thistle, all of which have been previously declared ‘planta non grata’ in my garden, are valuable base plants for tea gardens. Most gardeners will have dealt, frequently unhappily, with the lowly nettle – it does have a voice and demands respect.  Many of you will have seen the somewhat prehistoric looking mullein invading corners of your garden and growing into really strange looking beasts – fuzzy bottoms and long necks with a few yellow flowers (the flowers add a little sweetness to a tea mix) dotted along the way. Thistles have a mixed reaction in gardens, they can be very beautiful. Milk thistle tea has a mild, slightly sweet flavour, rather earthy and is said to have fabulous medicinal qualities. It is invasive like Canada thistle, so I passed on introducing milk thistle.

I was fortunate that many useful plants (strawberry plants, raspberry/blackberry bushes, roses, lavender, monarda/bee balm/bergamot and echinacea) that were not really grown for their herbal qualities are well established in the garden.

Of course, my garden transition started with the planning stage: develop a plan based on where you are going to locate your garden, how accessible water is (I garden off the grid, so this is an important consideration), how big the garden will be and what type of soil you have. Most herbal garden planners will warn about checking with the doctor first before using herbal tinctures as medicine, but I was just looking for that wonderful tasting breakfast/afternoon tea, so it was much less of an issue. I also knew that I wanted certain flavours: mint (of course), lemon and ginger.

Build a Tea Garden Base
For low stress growing, I started with these resilient plants, none of which I had, so these were added to the garden.

Chamomile. Annual with cheerful daisy-like flowers is an herbal tea favorite with many claims of everything from prevention of cancer and heart disease to a sleep aid because of its calming effect. In some cases, chamomile will self seed, although I have not had this experience. There are two types of chamomile: Roman Chamomile and German Chamomile. German chamomile usually is the one that people grow when growing it for medicinal purposes. It has a higher concentration of essential oils, so it is a little bit stronger and usually will produce more than the Roman does.

Anise hyssop was rated as the Herb of the Year of 2019 by the International Herb Association. A hardy perennial with fragrant spikes of purple blossoms, it has a wide range of medicinal benefits, (healing burns, relieving stress and congestion, pains from excessive coughing and curing summer colds and diarrhea). A member of the mint family, it has a lovely sweetish, but definitely licorice, taste. It is a useful addition to a tea mixture, and it is ‘friendly’, blending well with other herbs. Unlike many other herbs, this one should be harvested when the flowers have just passed their full bloom. This is when the percentage of oil in the leaves is the highest; then you need to keep the dried leaves in the refrigerator in a plastic bag.

Borage from the forget-me-not, or Boraginaceae family is a star in an herb garden. It is easy to grow, although it likes drainage, grows both in direct sun and with a little shade, it is easily grown from seed and takes only eight weeks to mature. Pick some of those bright blue flowers and freeze them in ice cubes (one per cube) for a delightful addition to your summer drinks. It has a slight cucumber taste. You use both leaves and flowers in tea.

Classic Flavors
Once you get your basic tea garden planned, consider adding these herbs and flowers to match your ideals of scent and taste. Just grow, harvest, blend, steep and enjoy. Try your herb as a tea by itself first so you get a sense of its basic taste and then experiment – it is part of the fun you can enjoy with an herbal tea garden.

To get a citrus taste in your tea try lemon grass, lemon verbena, or lemon balm.

  • Lemon balm (stress, anxiety, insomnia and indigestion) likes a shady spot or a location where plants can be protected from midday sun, a fertile, moist soil in a cooler part of the garden. Plants grown in partial shade will be larger and more succulent than those exposed to full sun. It’s part of the mint family, and like peppermint, the leaves dry really well BUT they will lose flavour. It is one of the herbs you may want to freeze for a stronger flavour in the winter months.
  • Lemongrass use the stalks of the lemongrass plant to make tea. Plant lemongrass as a seedling in full sun, it needs lots of space. It forms a tall, grassy clump 3 to 5 feet tall and is a nice addition to an afternoon tea.
  • Lemon Verbena (stiff joints and overall body aches and pains) has a sweet smell and is easy to grow. It pairs well with other herbs for the perfect tea mix. Easy to grow from seed and likes well drained soil and prefers moderate to full sun.

Mint the choices are endless (even anise hyssop, bergamot and lemon balm are part of this family, but chocolate and pineapple mint are favourites in developing interesting teas) and it is an avid cross breeder – so you may inadvertently develop your own brand. Try, peppermint (M. x piperita), wild mint (M. arvensis), and Scotchmint (M. x gracilis). Although some experts include spearmint (M. spicata) as a choice, I would avoid that – I have found that it does not have the same fulsome flavour as do other Mentha. Mint likes an organically rich, well-draining soil and some protection from the hot afternoon sun. It is a notorious super spreader. There are numerous strategies for containing it such as pots or flashing surrounds. The best strategy is to locate it somewhere that you will not mind the spreading and then cut it back when required. It spreads through runners (stolons) above and below ground so is hard to deter. Ironically, it can be tricky to start from seed, so talk to a friend for a piece/runner. It is a great pollinator so leave some of the flowers BUT for the best, most intense taste, you want to pluck the fresh inner leaves and not let it flower. There is nothing like fresh mint tea, it tastes so different (fresh, almost grassy – but in a good way). And, of course, mint dries very well. Many sources will tell you 1 tsp. dried equals three tsps. of a fresh herb. This is not my experience. The flavour of fresh mint tea is just so different that I find fewer fresh leaves are needed.

Monarda the Earl Grey taste is often mistakenly attributed to Monarda. Past experts believed that monarda (beebalm, bergamot) tasted like the bergamot orange smells. The rind of the bergamot orange, a small tree with smooth oval leaves, is actually the source of the essential oil that flavours Earl Grey tea. The plants are unrelated. Monarda petals can taste citrusy or peppery depending on variety and where it is grown. It is attractive to pollinators, likes a little nitrogen in the spring, and needs to be monitored for powdery mildew. Cambridge scarlet bee balm has citrus-flavored leaves, with hints of orange and lemon. Lavender bee balm has a citrusy flavor similar to the bergamot orange. It likes a sunny spot, will tolerate some shade, and is a flower that benefits from deadheading – you usually will get a second blooming. It attracts pollinators.  Bee balm leaves have a very strong flavor and should be dried before use. Add the dried leaves to black tea to make your own Earl Grey: steep 2 tablespoons of dried monarda flowers with black tea for 5-7 minutes. Do not to boil the flowers because that can evaporate the oils which produce the flavor.

Holy Basil or Tulsi a strong clove flavour can be found from Holy Basil or Tulsi. This basil is known as the Zen herb (has claims to many curative powers – everything from keeping insects away to cancer prevention) and is a little fussy to grow -needs full sun, rich soil with good drainage, and regular moisture. It is worth the extra time to find true Tulsi and to pamper it because it has a distinctive smell and flavour. Pluck the leaves but the flowers are edible as well. It also takes extra time to dry so monitor it during the drying process to make such it does not mold. It is another herb that blends well and is lovely for experimenting.

Floral teas include lavender (a very distinctive) and rose (a rather glorious tasting tea)

  • Lavender
    Used to help with headaches, anxiety, and sleeplessness, lavender is an easy to grow perennial that, given proper care and choosing the right plant will come back (Superblue and Phenomenal are quite hardy – I have had luck overwintering them – with proper protection). It is also one of the more popular and widely used herbal tea. You need to use dried flower buds – leaves add no useful flavouring. Lavender tea tastes like it smells, and the taste can be overpowering so only steep it for about five minutes. It is best drunk with a little honey/sweetening. Plant in nutrient rich, well drained soil. Harvest once you see the small blooms start to open (best for drying if harvested before opening).
  • Rose
    There are books written on how to grow roses (the 2020 issue of The Prairie Garden is a good resource). Again, rose tea tastes like roses smell however it is a more subtle taste than lavender. Of course, this means that you should use an aromatic rose to make rose tea. Fresh petals are best and if you are going to dry the petals for later use, you need to spread the petals on a towel and let them dry. This is the ultimate floral tea that is well worth experimenting with and pairs well with green tea. An added advantage of using roses in tea is that you can also use rose hip, the fruit of the rose plant. They add vitamin C to your mixtures (reduces inflammation). You can use rose hips from all sorts of roses, giving you lots of choices with colors and shapes in your tea garden. You can harvest rose hips as soon as they are evident on the plant. (For those of you who are jam makers – you are better off leaving them until after the first frost).

Ginger definitely a taste that I wanted. Many people think of ginger as a root but it is classified as a spice or herb. Ginger has been relied on for hundreds of years for its medicinal benefits. You can grow ginger from an organic rhizome (root) from the grocery store or purchase plants from garden centers. Ginger can be grown in containers or in the ground. Space plants a good 6 inches from each other and make sure they enjoy moist soil that drains well. Ginger will do best in full sun, but can survive in moderate sun as well. I have grown ginger indoors, but it is a tender plant and really needs the indoor tending for outdoors success. Since this is not possible for my current gardening, I opted for purchasing the root. If you want to experiment with teas, ginger really extends your flavour options.

Some important things

Do not use chemicals on your herbs (that includes the roses) that you are to consume. If you look at the package directions for pesticides/herbicides they will give the time frame for which the use of the chemical is safe – it is not worth the risk.

Although many people believe that ‘if it is natural, it must be safe’ sadly that is not true. Check with your health professional before using an herbal remedy.

Making the Tea

Do try (for most teas) using the fresh herb so you can become familiar with the flavour of your herb. Shelley Walker, in her article in 2014, wrote about how to prepare a basic herbal tea mixture through
infusion (boiling/heating with water) and decoction (crushing seeds or roots). Sun Tea can also result in an interesting tea – the water heats but is below the boiling point so some oils and acids are not released and there is less of the acid taste.

Harvesting: how to dry your own herbs

You can also pick and dry your herbs so they are ready and available when you want them. Drying your own herbs is easy. All you really need is some string or twine and a warm, dry place with hooks or pegs for hanging. I use a retired clothes drying rack – works well and can be easily moved.

Step 1: Gather your herbs. The best time to do this is in the morning before the sun is shining on them but after the dew has dried. With some exceptions (e.g. lavender) it’s best to pick the herbs before the plants start to flower.

Step 2: Wash your herbs and pat them dry with a towel. At this point, I also pick off any leaves that are yellowed, spotted, or discolored.

Step 3: If your herbs have a lower moisture content (thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage.), air-dry them by tying them in bundles and hanging them in a place that is warm and dry with some air circulation.

If your herbs have a higher moisture content (like basil, lemon balm, mint), they could start to mold if they are not dried quickly enough. You can use an oven at the lowest setting possible. Just make sure you watch them.

Dry basil in the oven: I turn it on to 170 degrees and then shut it off and leave the door open until it feels just warm, but not hot. Put the herbs in and leave them there with the door shut until the oven has cooled down to the point where it’s back to room temperature again. Repeat until herbs are fully dry.

Step 4: Store your herbs. Once your herbs are completely dry (they should be able to crumble easily in your hands and have that crispy feel and sound like autumn leaves do), you can separate the leaves from the stems and put your dried herbs into old spice bottles, mason jars, etc.

The best place to store herbs is in a cool, dry place away from the light. This will keep the properties of the herbs as intact as possible and keep them fresh longer. Make sure you have airtight containers.
And then – experiment (make notes) and enjoy.

Herb Garden at Assiniboine Park and Monarda and Lemongrass: Shelley Walker