If you pointed your finger smack dab in the middle of a Mobile city map, chances are high you’d land in the heart of Dauphin Acres, right in the dried-up bed of Wragg Swamp. It’s also likely that on these neighborhood streets you’d see Hunter the tomcat roving the roads. But not today. Today he’s mazing through bamboo and patting over pine straw in Betty and Robert McArthur’s yard. And it’s here, along a quiet little stretch of Primrose Avenue, that an unexpected tea garden awaits.
From the front, Robert follows a footpath past the deck, under sunshades and over wooden bridges before pausing round back. The feline skitters to the carport to tangle around Betty’s ankles. Robert smiles, then turns his gaze to the roughly 1,500 Camellia sinensis plants surrounding the home, a surprising sight anywhere, let alone in the midriff of Mobile.
Known as the tea plant, the evergreen Camellia sinensis sprouts leaves from which white, oolong, green and black teas can be produced. Although he does so now, making tea was not Robert’s original plan. He just wanted the plants. And plant the plants he did.
“You could drop a seed on the ground, and it would grow,” he says of the fertile soil. The lush sea of neatly ordered shrubs avers that fact. “Any spot where there’s sun is where they’re growing. Believe it or not, when we moved here, there was only the house and grass.”
With such success, coupled with the fact that both Robert and Betty enjoyed tea daily, it wasn’t long before they decided to try their hand at harvesting. It was a learning process, Robert admits. “Sometimes it was two steps forward, one step back.” Steadfast, he became sort of a soil scientist over the span of about 15 years, drilling down the tea plants’ favored balance of soil nutrients and harvesting conditions.
Now, with over a thousand thriving plants to show for their efforts, the McArthurs stay busy, especially during harvest season, mid-April through October. The plants produce new leaves about every three weeks, and each harvest requires around three hours of work. But no one’s complaining.
“It’s decompressing, coming out here and listening to the wind and the birds,” Robert says, readying for today’s pick-fest, a stainless-steel bowl at his side to catch leaves. As he works, he explains that tea connoisseurs aren’t the only ones sowing these hearty shrubs. The Camellia sinensis makes a great ornamental plant, flaunting white flowers in the winter, and is an excellent pollinator-friendly option. Honeybees “go nuts” over them, Robert snickers.
“They make perfectly good hedges, too,” Betty adds, busily preparing for her role in the harvest process. She places a bamboo basket filled with just-plucked leaves atop a pot of boiling water and watches steam percolate through the crevices, filling the carport with an earthy bouquet. “I never imagined we’d have so many plants. I’m pleasantly surprised by how beautiful it is. Our goal was to be able to produce enough for ourselves so that we wouldn’t have to buy any at the store.” They succeeded.
The couple hopes to one day sell their tea in limited quantities at farmers markets. For now, their focus is on perfecting the process. “It’s fun, but it’s still laborious,” Robert says, seated and rolling a ball of leaves around an oversized bowl. The work is worth it, though. “There is a world of difference between loose leaf and bag tea. It’s like instant coffee versus French press.”
Betty agrees. She pours two cups of freshly steeped tea, one green, one black, for sampling. Robert’s right. The smooth taste of each is something that can’t be bought. And neither can the feeling it gives the McArthurs. As Betty puts it, “There is nothing more romantic than picking tea in the morning, processing it and then having a cup at night.”
Tips for Growing
Mobile’s weather (thanks, humidity) and acidic soil (azaleas love this, too) are two of the Camellia sinensis’ favorite things. Microconditions, such as elements in the soil and availability of sunlight, are also imperative for tea plants’ growth. But exactly how many plants should you place in your garden? According to seasoned tea grower, Robert McArthur, a dozen plants would be plenty for two tea-drinkers. Sound like too many? It’s not. For every 4 pounds of harvested raw tea, a little less than 1 pound is yielded.
How to Harvest Tea
Step 1 — Pick the newly grown, topmost two leaves and bud. New growth feels soft and pliable; older leaves are waxy.
Step 2 — For green tea, skip to Step 4. For black tea, spread the leaves out on a flat surface and allow them to wither to about 70 percent of their original moisture level (or weight), anywhere from 10 – 20 hours, depending on conditions.
Step 3 — Gather enough leaves to form a manageable-sized ball. In a large bowl, using gentle pressure, roll the ball of leaves around the sides of the bowl to break down the leaves’ cell walls, about 30 minutes. When finished, the leaves will still be green. Spread the leaves out on a flat surface again and leave them loosely covered overnight (or about 9 hours) in a humid location (80 to 90 percent humidity is ideal). This process allows for oxidation, which gives the leaves and resulting tea a rust-like hue. Skip to Step 7.
Step 4 — For green tea, spread leaves out on a flat surface and allow a brief 1- to 2-hour withering period. Then, working with small batches, steam each batch for 3 minutes apiece using a bamboo steamer or your preferred method for steaming vegetables. Steaming stops the oxidation process, preserving the green color of the leaves.
Step 5 — Remove leaves from steamer and put them in a salad spinner. Use the spinner to remove excess moisture from the leaves. Take the spun leaves out and spread them on a flat surface to air dry, about 30 minutes.
Step 6 — Gather enough leaves to form a manageable-sized ball. In a large bowl, using gentle pressure, roll the ball of leaves around the sides of the bowl to break down the leaves’ cell walls, about 10 minutes. Because the oxidation process was halted by steaming, the leaves will remain green.
Step 7 — For both green and black teas, work in small batches, placing the rolled leaves on the shelves of a dehydrator heated to 185 to 210 degrees. Begin checking leaves after 30 minutes to ensure they are not burning. Continue dehydrating the leaves for 30 minutes, checking regularly. Leaves should be fully dry, not burnt. (You can also use an oven, heated to the same temperature, with the leaves placed on baking sheets.)
Step 8 — Remove leaves from the dehydrator (or oven) and place them in a bowl, uncovered, for a minimum of 2 hours. It is imperative the leaves be completely dry — no one wants a container of moldy leaves! Afterwards, put the dried leaves into an airtight container and store in a dark place.