The tea garden — a typically modest plot dedicated to the growing of herbs and flowers for steeping — has its roots in ancient herbalist traditions and helped lay the foundation for modern botany. According to “The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants,” a 2016 guide to home remedies, the study of herbal medicine can be traced back 5,000 years, to the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, who listed the names of hundreds of plants — including fennel, mint, thyme, sage, myrtle and marjoram — on clay tablets that were later rediscovered in what is now Iraq. Modern scholars believe that the Sumerians used what they grew in medicinal preparations such as tea infusions that were intended to treat ailments from toothache to inflammation. And in England, says Timothy d’Offay, a tea importer and the founder of Postcard Teas in London, tea gardens have their origins in the work of 17th-century apothecaries such as Nicholas Culpeper, a botanist and physician whose encyclopedia of herbs, “The English Physician,” has remained in print since it was first published in 1653. “The apothecaries’ focus was on the use of herbs in healing,” explains d’Offay. “It was really the beginnings of modern medicine. We often think that drinking anything without caffeine is innocuous, but herbal tea has power.”
Now, in this time of uncertainty, as we cleave to small, controllable comforts, the idea of the medicinal tea garden is taking root once again. Easy to cultivate on a windowsill or balcony, or in any garden bed, and yielding ingredients more potent than typical store-bought equivalents (specimens cultivated in artificial terrains tend to produce less flavor), these plots of herbs and edible flowers offer a chance to reconnect with nature, and a soothing balm for our collective anxieties. “Herbalists have long talked about the value of growing your own plants,” says Karen Rose of Sacred Vibes Apothecary in Brooklyn, “and with a tea garden you can propagate plants that will actively improve your health.” Since the pandemic hit the U.S. in March, she has seen a dramatic rise in homegrown plants, such as lemon balm, mint and chamomile, which are thought to relieve stress and help regulate disrupted sleep patterns.
For the writer and editor Deborah Needleman, formerly of T, the joy of the tea garden is at once horticultural and aromatic. “Growing and blending teas extends the gardening season in that it allows me to be with my plants all through the year,” says Needleman, who nurtures herbs in her garden in New York’s Hudson Valley. “And the smells are so wonderful. Opening a jar of dried lavender during winter is heavenly.” Last year, she developed her first small-batch dried blend, Summer Tea, and this fall, her loose Garden Tea mix of mint, lemon verbena, rose and other fragrant herbs will be available at the florist and soap-maker Sarah Ryhanen’s World’s End farm and online store, Saipua. Here, Needleman shares her tips for establishing and harvesting your own tea garden — and she, Rose and a few other growers and herbalists share their ideas for putting your bounty to use.
How to Plant
While it is possible to grow your own black tea (camellia sinensis) in northern climates, without the warmth and abundant sunlight the plant needs to thrive, the effort is unlikely to be worth the negligible yield. A herbal tea garden, by comparison, is far more resilient and manageable, especially if you’re in a city apartment. “Use whatever space you have,” says Rose, who suggests starting with individual pots of lemon balm, lavender and chamomile — ingredients you can blend for a relaxing bedtime infusion. “Just a few sprigs can create an effective blend that you can use all winter.”
Where you position your plants is crucial, though. “Many herbs are Mediterranean, and so they need at least six hours of sunlight a day and they want to be dry,” says Needleman. If you’re planting in pots, make sure they have drainage holes or stones at the base and, if they’re outdoors, she advises moving them to a sunny windowsill inside during the colder months. For those planting directly into the ground, she suggests using a corner of a vegetable plot. And approach the planting, or placing of pots, much like you would a floral display, juxtaposing the various colors, shapes and textures of different species. Low-lying plants such as lemon thyme look nice along a border, while the chartreuse tones of lemon verbena create a vivid contrast against dark leaves.
How to Harvest
“The more you cut, the more they grow,” says Needleman, who recommends investing in a pair of sharp scissors for trimming (she likes Joyce Chen’s Original Unlimited Scissors). Aim to harvest leafy varieties (mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, thyme) before they flower: “once a plant blooms, the leaves lose freshness and become bitter.” By contrast, gather the floral herbs you’d like to dry (rose, lavender or chamomile) as soon as they start to bloom and before the blossom starts to decline. The time of day can play a part, too: “It’s good to harvest in the mornings, after the dew has dried, but before the plants get stressed by the sun — that’s when they’re at their most fragrant,” Needleman says. The rule of thumb is to collect around 5 percent of a plant’s total volume each time you trim and, she advises, “you want to make a clean cut for the health of the plant, cutting down to the next set of leaves and removing any damaged ones.” Wash your harvest under the tap carefully and then gently dry the herbs and flowers with paper towels, otherwise you risk bruising them and leaching out their essential oils.
How to Dry
In the spring and summer you can snip plants from your garden and put them straight into your teapot, but as the colder nights draw in, it’s worth shoring up supplies by drying what you collect. To dry, store your crop in a cool place with good air circulation and away from sunlight. Needleman likes to gather her herbs into small bunches and hang them upside down. To preserve flower heads such as chamomile, she spreads them out in wicker trays or baskets. “You have to rustle them up a bit to get the air into them,” she says of the dehydration process, which can take up to a few weeks. “When it’s really crumbly, it’s ready.” Once your ingredients are completely dry, the meditative process of destemming can begin: Strip the leaves or flowers from their stalks before storing them in airtight glass jars. It’s a task that Needleman likes to carry out at the kitchen table after supper. “It’s just so mindless and relaxing,” she says.
What to Make
Now that you know how to plant, harvest and dry your herbs, here are a few recipes — and a couple of less expected uses — to try. Unless otherwise specified, each of the drinkable blends makes one pot and can be made with either dry or fresh ingredients (loose or enclosed in a bag) in ratios according to taste. Use hot rather than boiling water to best preserve the potency of the plants and keep your pot covered during steeping.
Deborah Needleman’s Uplifting Aromatic Blend
“The chamomile in this tea is crisp and bright like a fresh apple,” says Needleman of her custom infusion, “while the mint and lemon balm are earthy and grounding, and the lemon verbena brightens everything up. It’s a balance between sharp and earthier tastes and scents.”
Ingredients (in equal parts):
Steep for 4-6 minutes.
Karen Rose’s Immune-Boosting Garden Blend
“I love this blend because it’s so accessible,” says Rose. “Echinacea blossoms are believed to have antimicrobial and immune-stimulating properties, lemon verbena is an antibacterial known for its nervous system and gut support and calendula blossoms can also help enhance the immune system. The fact that we can all grow these plants means that wherever we are we can have access to a form of medicine that has the potential to help keep us well through the cold and flu season.”
Ingredients (per cup):
A couple of echinacea blossoms
A few calendula blossoms
1 teaspoon lemon verbena
Steep for 20 minutes.
Heidi Johannsen Stewart’s Le Hammeau Blend
“Herbal tea is such a cathartic companion,” says Bellocq tea atelier’s Heidi Johannsen Stewart, whose own Park Slope, Brooklyn, tea garden features lemon balm, rosemary, mint and sage. “This hydrating blend — one of the first I ever infused from my garden — provides an overwhelming sense of well-being. Although the flavor profile is complex, the effect is both calming and uplifting, and it particularly supports the digestive and nervous systems.”
1 tablespoon lavender
1 tablespoon rose petals
1 tablespoon chamomile
1 tablespoon lemongrass
Steep for 6-10 minutes.
Deborah Hanekamp’s Bath-Time Soak
For Deborah Hanekamp, the founder of the wellness company Mama Medicine and author of the book “Ritual Baths” (2020), the windowsill tea garden in her Brooklyn apartment provides plants for both brewing and bathing. To create her soothing tea-inspired bath soak, steep a quarter of a cup each of dried lavender and calendula, along with a small handful of dried rose buds, in a teapot for a minimum of 20 minutes — or, for a more potent blend, up to 8 hours — before pouring the brew into a warm bath together with a handful of sea salt, a spoonful of honey and a few drops of organic cold-pressed olive or almond oil. Light some candles and enjoy. “It can be beautiful to have a few flowers in the water, too,” she suggests. “Let some roses float on the surface; it’s soothing for the skin and a healing visual meditation.”
Joshua Werber’s Edible Flower and Herbal Tea Ensemble
Herbs and edible flowers can be as pleasing to the eye as they are therapeutic for the body, and overgrowth and surplus cuttings can provide material for dramatic table decorations. “Homegrown herbs have these really beautiful, wispy shapes,” says the Brooklyn-based floral artist Joshua Werber, who fashioned the sculptural arrangement above out of rugosa roses, orange and hyssop, as well as mint harvested from his own city garden — all ingredients selected in homage to his grandmother’s blend of choice: Celestial Seasonings’s Raspberry Zinger Herbal Tea.
To recreate his arrangement, take a favorite teapot (Werber used one by the English studio potter Seth Cardew) and start with a base of rose-hip branches, which will give the piece its structure. Next, introduce a few of the rugosa rose flowers, making sure you remove any foliage that obscures the blooms and position them in a way that allows the deep fuchsia petals to play off the bright orange of the rose hips. Then, tuck in a few sprigs of mint to create flow and movement, and accent with a couple of flowering hyssop tips. For a final touch of whimsy, take a citrus zester and peel off strips of orange rind before wrapping them around a chopstick and placing them in the freezer; after 20 minutes, uncoil and drape them throughout the arrangement. “I wanted to show the cycles and the processes behind the plant materials used in herbal teas,” says Werber of the piece. “Even though they can be shared, making these infusions is often a personal ritual. There’s an intimacy to them.”