TEA GARDENS OF SCOTLAND - in Perthshire
Perthshire's fertile soil is renowned for growing soft fruit and historically apples. Wine growers talk a lot about the importance of 'terroir', the unique mix of climate, soil and aspect. In Perthshire's case, the soil is fertile and also slightly acidic, which it turns out tea plants (camelia sinensis) love. Rolling countryside provides south facing slopes to make the most of the summer sunshine, walled gardens and woodland provide shelter from the wind and the waters run crystal clear. Although tea growing is not yet a tradition, the need for farmers and landowners to diversify and seek new ways to make a living is as old as the hills.
Human energy and effort also help to give any pioneering venture its own identity. Nature and climate are ever changing - especially at the moment - which is a challenge for all growers and producers when experimenting with a new crop. Getting the plants in the ground has been quite a journey, we are all working slightly differently to overcome the challenges which northern climes pose for young tea plants. Our aim has been to use natural methods as much as possible - from clearing the ground with pigs to using sheep's fleece for mulch, and being pesticide free. Some growers plan to work towards organic certification within the next few years. We are all trying to be environmentally aware wherever possible and this is a huge learning curve for all of us.
TGS growers in Perthshire have a wide variety of skills and experience, and their gardens are equally diverse, not just in height above sea level (which ranges from 40m / 132ft to only 98m / 321ft above sea level), but in almost every other aspect too. In the north of the county two walled gardens have now been planted out. One had weeds up to the waist and had been unused for more than half a century and another has now been re-established with Scottish apples as well as tea. Elsewhere, down in lowland Strathearn a tea maze is being designed in a parkland setting, and nearby tea has been planted in rich alluvial soil a stones throw from the Earn itself. All this endeavour with one goal - to create their own unique Scottish tea.
We are already experimenting with tea making, using our own leaf to find the best flavours, and to decide what kind of tea each garden is best suited for. Some gardeners are passionate about green tea, in particular for its health benefits, we are also experimenting with a range of white, oolong and smoked teas. Our experiments are on a micro scale as the tea plants mature, and these trials are being conducted alongside an expert tea consultant, so that we can produce 'the best of the best Scottish tea' when the plants are ready in approx four years time.
The project started in Jan 2016 - what have we been doing? - In brief:
- 14 months propagating seedlings from cold hardy tolerant seed imported from Nepal and Georgia (ex Soviet)
- 6 months ground clearance over the winter
- 1 month hardening off camellia sinensis tea plants
- 1 month ground prep - deep hole digging and back filling
- 1 month planting and staking
- Natural pest control using nematodes
- Fertiliser regimes (organic and non organic), wind and winter protection research
- Irrigation system installation
- Fencing and deer protection
- Tea processing experiments
- Micro tea processing equipment research
- Learning about tea! - tea tasting and tea making
- Tea and food pairing - with locally grown Perthshire / Scottish produce
- Tea tour planning
- Tea tourism outreach
What comes next?
Our tea plants will require careful formative pruning over the next four years in order to ensure the best possible yield. This is essential given that we are working against the elements to some extent here in Scotland. Tea made from immature plants is great for experimenting but does not produce the best quality tea - however conducting experiments will be key to our success. We are really excited and committed to create unique teas that relate to our Scottish terroir. Even within Perthshire we have different micro climates and growing conditions.
We have have taken expert advice from around the world and we understand that intensively plucking immature tea plants will reduce future productivity and the life span of the plants which we expect to last with over 100 years with the right care.
We estimate our yields to be:
Year 4 to yield between 20-70g of made tea per bush per year.
Tea growing in Scotland is still experimental as it takes 4-5 years for the plants to mature and for us to create a plucking table. We are hoping that 1000 bushes will produce in the region of 50 kilos of made tea per season, however we hope that some of tea will be handmade and for this we will only use a fraction of the crop, using only the best fine leaf.