How to Grow an Herbal Tea Garden
Written and Photographed by Mary Plantwalker
I will never forget the first time I drank herbal tea. I was in college and was over at a friend’s house when my stomach started hurting. She kindly asked, “Would you like some tea?” I told her I didn’t like tea, thinking she meant iced sweet tea, which was the only tea I knew existed. She said, “It’s chamomile tea, like what Peter Rabbit’s mother gives him after his stressful day in Mr. McGregor’s garden.” I said, okay, I’d try it. So, she brought me a mug with a Celestial Seasonings Sleepy Time tea bag in it, and I immediately found relief. From that moment on, I was hooked! I bought the Celestial Seasonings variety box and thus began my journey with herbal tea. I would have never imagined at the time that one day I would be writing articles on plants and how to grow an herbal tea garden, but the herbs started talking to me and they haven’t stopped!
Grow Your Own Herbal Tea Garden
Do you already love drinking herbal tea? Are you getting most or all of your herbs from the store or online? Then maybe it’s time to call in your own herbal tea garden! You don’t need a big yard or even a yard at all. Windows and patios can work if that’s what you have. One of my first herbal tea gardens was a window sill in a second-story apartment building. What you do need is a desire to grow some tea herbs and a willingness to care for them. Once established, they take very little maintenance, and in exchange will yield fresh herbs for drinking!
Packaged vs. Homegrown Herbal Tea
The difference between boxed tea bag herbs and the ones you harvest fresh from your garden is astounding! Even if you only grow one herb that you like to drink, you’ll find its vibrancy echoing through the cells of your body in a way that dried, packaged tea bags cannot. Boxed tea bags have their place, and some are definitely higher quality than others. I love Traditional Medicinals and Yogi Tea especially, and always have a few boxes like Throat Coat, Detox, and Stress Relief on hand. But growing your own herbal tea garden elevates your ability to understand and appreciate the wide world of tea possibilities.
Just like food these days, your herbs could come from anywhere, and may very likely be produced on a mass scale. Knowing where our tea comes from—exactly where and how the plants are grown, and how and when they are harvested—adds nutrition and value that we cannot get from a manufacturer. Visit our Sustainable Herbalism Hub to learn more.
Easy-to-Grow Herbal Tea Favorites
In a previous Chestnut blog article, Herbal Tea Ceremonies, I shared some herbs that are popular favorites for making tea. Below are some cultivation elaborations on these tea herbs so that you can have easy access to info that (hopefully) gives you the confidence to grow them yourself! All of the herbs mentioned in this article, unless otherwise indicated, do well in average soil. And if you are wanting to go deeper with the medicinal properties of these herbs, consider enrolling in Chestnut’s Online Herbal Immersion Program.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, Lamiaceae)
This is a great one to start with because holy basil, aka tulsi, is so easy to grow, you won’t be let down! You will need a steady warm, sunny spot though. Holy basil is easy to direct sow, and Strictly Medicinals has several varieties to choose from. Ocimum africanum, or temperate tulsi, is the variety that reseeds itself in temperate climates and has that popular and familiar bubble gum flavor. The other tulsis can be strongly smelling of clove, as they have a higher eugenol content. Temperate tulsi is also going to germinate well, whereas the Amrita, Krishna, and Vana varieties call for a more experienced gardener’s hand.
Direct sow seed after the last frost date in your zone. Full sun and average to moist soil will produce hearty plants. The more shade tulsi has, the leggier it gets. Space plants 1 to 1.5 feet (30–45 cm) apart. They will grow 1 to 2 feet tall (30–60 cm). If you are located in zone 10 or warmer, your tulsi will grow into a bush! Otherwise, your tulsi plants will be annuals who will more than likely self-sow. Average watering will do. Harvest all summer long up to the first frost.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita, Lamiaceae)
You may notice several of these beloved tea herbs are in the mint family (Lamiaceae). Mints vary widely in tastes and habits, and are the most popular herbs used for culinary and flavoring purposes. In general, they’re easy to grow. I think of mints as the comfort herbs. Peppermint lends a potent olfactory experience, and is such a familiar flavor, it might take you back to a childhood memory. A wonderful after-dinner herbal tea to drink, fresh or dried, peppermint’s smell warms up the room like it does our digestive system.
This herb is easy to propagate from a division of a parent patch. I am amazed at how rough and unpampered I can be with the Menthas and they will still grow back heartily, which brings up a very important note: Plant peppermint in a pot or in a spot where you truly don't mind it spreading, because it will!
Peppermint prefers a lot of water and sun, and will die back in the winter in temperate zones but rise again come spring. It gets about 1-foot tall (30 cm) at most, and can be harvested all season long. The leaves change flavor as it flowers. Taste it throughout the season to see which flavor you prefer!
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum, Lamiaceae)
If you want to get your kids interested in growing plants to drink, then plant anise hyssop! It’s super easy to germinate from seed, grows quickly once the last frost date has passed, is easy to harvest, and has a sweet combo flavor of minty-anise-licorice. Not only that, it brings beauty to your herbal tea garden! Anise hyssop produces purple flower stalks that are like magnets to honeybees, painted lady and monarch butterflies, and hummingbirds. It makes a superb iced tea—add a little honey and you’ve got a healthy treat to offer children (and yourself, of course) on a hot summer’s day!
Germination will improve if you stratify your anise hyssop seed. For many of the seeds we sow, we put them in flats of individual cells to germinate. But this one does best just sowing in an open flat by sprinkling the seeds on the surface of the soil then lightly tamping them in. Plant out the babies after the last frost date, in a sunny locale.
They will reach a height of about 1 to 2 feet (30–60 cm) and can be planted fairly close together—I plant ours about 8 inches (20 cm) apart. Anise hyssop is an annual that self-sows and will also come back as a short-lived herbaceous perennial. Harvest all season long, and pinch off the tips in early summer to keep the plant producing tender leaves for tea.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae)
Another mint family perennial that makes hearty patches—lemon balm—as its name suggests, has a lemony flavor that’s balanced out by earthy tones of grounding sweetness. All year long, in the Appalachian Mountains where I reside, lemon balm produces leaves. In winter, the leaves are very tiny, but extra strong in lemon flavor, which means we can brew fresh, yummy tea even when it’s freezing outside! Lemon balm is a cheerful ally that brings both honeybees and fairies to your garden. Plant it close to your house so you can rub the leaves frequently and smell the fresh fragrance on your fingertips.
You can start lemon balm from seed, but because it’s so easy to divide and grows quickly into more plants, I recommend getting a plant from someone who needs to edge back their own patch. I’ve grown lemon balm in full sun, part shade, and full shade and from my observations it seems to like full morning sun the best with some shady rest in the afternoon. In late winter, cut back the old flowering stalks to the base of the plant to admire the new growth of spring.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, Asteraceae)
Little daisy-like flowers seem to float atop feathery, slender stems when chamomile is blooming. All kinds of small insects come to mate and rest and feed on the flowers of chamomile—it has its own little social club! Give yourself time and space to harvest the flowers because it goes more slowly than harvesting leafy herbs or other flower harvests like calendula (Calendula officinalis) or borage (Borago officinalis).
August 2021 Safety Update: Borage contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can be harmful to the liver over time when ingested internally. We recommend avoiding the use of borage in pregnancy and nursing. Additionally, children under twelve years of age and those with known liver disease should avoid the internal use. Others who wish to ingest borage internally (after researching the potential of PA toxicity on the liver) should use in moderation or limit the internal use to no more than one week, and preferably ingest the herb in a formula with other herbs (to limit the dosage).
Start seeds a month before the last frost date or buy plant starts from a local nursery. Transplant in full sun about 1-foot (30 cm) apart. Chamomile is an annual that grows to be about 1.5 feet (45 cm) tall, and can self-sow. If you take the seed heads when ripe and rub them between your fingers over the garden bed, you’ll increase the number of babies the following year. Some chamomile will sprout later in the season and overwinter, thus giving them a head start. And if that’s the case, you can harvest chamomile flowers by Mother’s Day!
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus, Poaceae)
More than once, I have had well-meaning people weed this plant thinking it was a grass growing in my garden, which it was, btw—but not a grass I wanted weeded! It’s a good reminder to always ask before helping in someone else’s garden without knowing what they may have planted. The lemongrass species I am familiar with growing is the West Indian lemongrass (C. citratus), which is typically grown from divisions. You may have eaten it in Thai food; and, as an herbal tisane, it is truly refreshing!
Lemongrass is an annual in temperate climates and needs full sun. I have experimented with a few ways to keep the same plant going year after year and the only thing that has worked is to plant it in a container I can easily bring inside when it gets cold. I have mulched it heavily in hopes it would survive the winters here, but have had no success. And when I plant it in the garden and try to dig it up to bring back inside before the first frost, the plant and root system are so ginormous that I don’t have a pot or space in my house big enough to dedicate to the lemongrass! The good news is that even though it’s a tender annual, it can grow a lot in one year if you water it frequently and plant it in a sunny, warm location. Take cuttings for tea all summer long. Right before the first frost, harvest the whole plant back to the ground and dry it for imbibing tropical sensations in the winter months.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae)
Often wildcrafted, red clover is also easy to grow if you’d like to harvest more than you can freely find. It begins to flower in May if it’s directly sown as soon as the ground warms in early spring. If you religiously pick the flowers, the harvest can continue up until the first frost. However, every few feet, leave some flowers so the red clovers can reseed into the next year.
With a root system like a densely-fingered, gripping hand, red clover needs allowance to grow freely where it is wanted, as it can strangle other herbs if you’re trying to companion plant. Red clover makes a great groundcover and cover crop. Direct sow a bed of it and let it do its thing for a few years, then when it dwindles, plant vegetables or other herbs there, while starting a new area of red clover somewhere else. It’ll be like having a living manure that does the work of fertilizing and aerating a garden bed for you, while giving you tea at the same time!
Elderberry (Sambucus spp., Adoxaceae)
The first time I tried to grow elder, I made the mistake of putting it on a dry, north-facing bank. It quickly shriveled up and died. But once elder has found a place it likes, it will form a grove, so plant it mindfully! It also spreads with underground roots, popping up some distance from a mother shrub. Fresh elderberry tea is a beautiful dark Byzantium purple beverage—wow! The flowers can be harvested for tea as well, so you get both spring and summer herbal tea gifts from this plant friend.
Elder’s happy place is rooted in damp soil, with full sun, or on a soggy, sunny creek bank where it can spread. The grove I have in my herb garden is from cuttings of a volunteer elder that appeared near our pond. I took 12-inch (30 cm) cuttings in February and literally just stuck them in the ground, about 3 feet (1 meter) apart, and by the end of the growing season they were full grown at 8 feet (2.5 meters), bearing loads of fruit! Every three to four years in February, I cut the entire area of elder shrubs back to 6 inches (15 cm) from the ground to keep the grove young and fresh for bearing fruit. It grows back in one season!
How Does Your Tea Garden Grow?
Once you start growing plant friends, it’ll most often lead to a deepening desire to grow even more herbal companions! If you would like to explore other articles to support this craving, Juliet writes vivacious profiles in her articles on The Top Ten Medicinal Herbs for the Garden and 7 Medicinal Herbs for Urban Gardeners. To quench our continual thirst for growing herbs that we can drink, Juliet and Meghan inspire us, this time with How to Grow and Use Healing Plants. And Medicinal Herb Gardening for Beginners gets more involved with step-by-step planning if you’re new to the delicious world of growing green things.
Drink Your Weeds!
While growing your herbal tea garden, you will probably have weeds arrive of their own accord that will also make good herbal tea. Sometimes, it’s worth it to let them stay! After all, it’s free herbal tea you don’t have to cultivate. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), plantain (Plantago spp.), violet (Viola spp.), and mullein (Verbascum thapsus) are a few … just planting some seeds in you for drinking your weeds too!
Note: Be 150% sure of your identification before ingesting any plant or mushroom. If in doubt, do NOT harvest! There are non-edible, poisonous look-alikes for many common medicinal herbs. Only gather plants from clean places, and avoid areas that may have been sprayed with chemical pesticides or herbicides. If you'd like to forage wild herbs and weeds, please read the Chestnut School's guide on Safe and Sustainable Gathering Practices.
… And the Added Bonuses of Growing Your Own Herbal Tea Garden
Once you have established an herbal tea garden, your connection with the plants you imbibe will deepen significantly. You’ll actually be in relationship with your tea. Connection is priceless for it nourishes your soul—and maybe the most exciting thing about growing your own herbal tea garden is that you can now host your own tea ceremonies there! Herbal Cheers!
Looking for more blog articles about medicinal herb cultivation?
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MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) is a devotee of the plants and healing path. Steeping herself in the plant world for almost 30 years, she has also woven in yoga, meditation and prayer as acts of daily life. She is a mother, writer, avid gardener, ceremonialist and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to create sanctuary wherever they are on the planet. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.
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