With its enticing aroma and explosion of flavor, herbal tea has become the beverage of choice in many homes from coast to coast. Served hot or cold, a cup of tea made with herbs from your own garden is tea at its finest.
Herbal teas are a delicious way to enjoy the refreshing flavor of herbs already growing in your own garden. Common culinary herbs such as rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme, and basil are more than just aromatic and ornamental garden plants—they also blend beautifully in tea.
Leaves from blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries make tasty additions. Rose hips—the tangy-sweet fruits of the rose bush—add a wonderful citrus accent. You’ll find the largest, sweetest, fleshiest hips from Rosa rugosa or R. villosa. Even flower petals from your favorite hibiscus or rose can be tossed into the teapot. As for me, I count myself blessed because blackberries, lemon balm, and roses grow wild on my country property and are mine for the taking.
Herbs not only make terrific teas, they provide intriguing texture, shape, and color in the garden as well. Tea herbs play nicely in mixed borders and beds or featured together in a theme bed of their own. If your growing space is limited, they can be grown in pots on the patio.
A sunny location is best for most tea herbs. Those that prefer partial sun—mints, bee balm, and lemon balm, for instance—can be grown in the afternoon shade of taller tea herbs such as lemon verbena, fennel, goldenrod, and licorice. An annual mulch of compost applied in spring will provide all the nutrients needed for most herbs. Add complete organic fertilizer or well-aged manure to herbs that prefer a richer soil, such as basil or licorice. Also, group moisture-loving herbs together. The moisture needed for bee balm will likely create an unhappy environment for more drought-tolerant plants such as lavender and rosemary. Above all, never spray herbs that will be used for culinary purposes with any type of pesticide.
Once new plantings become established, you’ll have a steady supply that you can harvest anytime during the growing season. Ideally, the best time to harvest herbs for peak flavor is on a sunny morning after the dew has dried off the leaves—though I tend to harvest anytime I’m in the mood for a cup of herbal tea.
There are two ways to harvest during the growing season: with small, frequent harvests, or by harvesting large amounts (about two-thirds of the plant’s growth) several times. Both methods will keep plants bushy and productive.
The last harvest of the season will provide you with herbal tea through winter. Only take up to one-third of the plant’s growth for perennials. Since annual herbs will die out anyway, you can harvest the entire plant. Preserve your herbs by drying them—either by hanging upside down in bundles or spread out on drying racks or screens—until the leaves crush easily between your fingers.
Tea herbs can be used fresh or dried. Add one teaspoon of crushed, dried herbs or one tablespoon of bruised fresh herbs for each cup of hot water. Tea infusers are a wonderful convenience and come in all sizes and shapes to accommodate large pots or individual cups. Simply place tea herbs inside the infuser and set it in a cup or pot, pour boiling water over, and let steep, covered, for four to six minutes. For a stronger tea you can add more herbs, as a longer brewing time can make the tea taste bitter.
There’s one last tip to making the perfect cup of herbal tea—discover exactly what your cup of tea is. With your own tea garden right at hand, you can experiment and come up with a favorite personal blend. Not sure where to start? Combinations to help get you started are listed at left. Discover your favorite blend, and then sit, relax, and enjoy a cup of homemade herbal tea.
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