You don’t have to go to the mountains of China to find tea plants. There is a tea farm within the city limits of Black Mountain that has at least 100 tea trees pushing out of the farm’s three acres.
Gavin Dillard, a writer, poet, playwright and horticulturist, said he needed a hobby to justify the purchase of the farm when he moved back to Black Mountain five years ago.
“I have always been a gardener,” Dillard said. “My dad was an organic gardener way back in the ’60s. We had a fairly substantial orchard up on Sunset Mountain (in Black Mountain). Everyone said I should grow hops, but I’m not a beer drinker. I am very much a tea drinker, so that became my choice. The first (tea) plants went in the first year, and some were two-year-old plants, which makes my oldest trees seven years old.”
All of Dillard’s plants are of the Camellia Sinensis variety (the Sinensis Assamica plants are from India, not China, and will not survive local winters. The area’s climate is not ideal for growing tea plants, but Dillard said the last three winters haven’t hurt his plants.
“My plants may never do what they would do at a Charleston plantation, but they look pretty good, even in winter,” he said. “I started out with five cultivars (varieties) and have narrowed it down to one that is my best performer. I am replacing some and propagating more of the ‘Sochi’ variety.” He got those from the Camellia Forest Nursery near Chapel Hill.
“The first purchases from the nursery were pricey, but now I’m propagating my own (plants),” Dillard said. “I was fortunate to have a neighbor cut down a giant row of failing hemlocks, and the chippers were happy to dump the chips on my property (for mulch). I’ve also regularly fed the plants organic coffee grounds from Dynamite Coffee.”
Tea plants are not high maintenance but require attention every season.
“For commercial use, one generally keeps them as shrubs, and rounded (in shape) for both easy picking and maximum production,” Dillard said. “I have some in my back acres that I may just let go wild, but the rest are in rows and will be kept tailored for picking. I harvest seeds from the plants in the fall, and plant some in the ground and some in beds in the greenhouse. In both cases they don’t tend to sprout until about now (early spring).
“Mine take all winter to germinate. I also do cuttings which are best managed in the spring. They tend to rot over the winter, even in the greenhouse, as the daylight hours are too short to tell them to grow.”
Growing tea plants to produce and sell tea is a slow process.
“Just the top three leaves or the ‘bud’ are harvested for tea making,” Dillard said. “I do a certain amount of pinching every spring and autumn, but there will be no commercial crop for another few years, and even then it will be minimal. I grow tea plants because as a horticulturist I love growing things, especially pretty and useful things.
Dillard considers himself “first and foremost” a poet whose specialty is ancient Asian poetry. “So tea is an appropriate passion, frequent metaphor and an aesthetic,” he said. “Even if I never harvested the stuff, I would love to host a tea farm. It makes me happy looking down the rows and watching the season bring on the beautiful flowers and eventual seeds.”
Along with tea trees, Dillard grows Chinese chrysanthemums and stinging nettles as herbal tea crops. He grows aronia as a berry crop and has planted an acre of American/Chinese hybrid chestnut trees.
Dillard said he will probably always produce only green tea because the processing for different teas requires machinery that would not make sense for his small farm.
“Green tea is the most simple to produce,” he said. “I may do some admixtures like elderberry flowers, which I have in abundance on the property. Green tea is the simplest and dries quickly in a giant wok to bring out the flavor and to prevent any fermentation.”
Selling tea has become more exciting to Dillard since Dobra Tea opened in Black Mountain. Owner Andrew Snavely will take all the tea Dillard can produce, Dillard said. “A few restaurants want some as well. In any case I’m still a few years away from a viable commercial crop.”
“I first met Gavin years ago in our downtown Asheville tearoom, and he was very excited about tea and botany,” Snavely said. “He became a regular customer for the past few years and was always excited to learn more about the tea plant and harvest. I look forward to hopefully showing him some techniques I have learned in Asian countries to support the local harvest in Black Mountain. It would be incredible to offer locally harvested tea from Black Mountain on our tea menu.”
If a gardener wants only one or two tea tree plants, Dillard recommends buying locally from BB Barnes and Jesse Israel nurseries. More serious gardeners should consider Camellia Forest Nursery (camforest.com), he said.