Country Lore: Homegrown Tea

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Harvest leaves from your Camelia sinensis shrub for truly local tea.
Photo by Kathleen Bucher

Homegrown Tea

The past couple of years, I’ve experimented with making tea using leaves from my own Camellia sinensis shrub, and I’ve been rewarded with lovely, fragrant brews. The process is quite simple. I begin by pinching off all of my shrub’s new, tender tips with my fingers, and placing the leaves in a sieve. Over the next several days, whenever the strainer catches my eye, I pick it up and toss the leaves to even out their exposure to air. (Tea leaves need to be oxidized, meaning exposed to oxygen and humidity.) After the leaves have darkened to my satisfaction — usually after just a few days — I spread them out on a work surface to dry thoroughly, and then they’re ready to infuse in hot water. My homebrewed tea tastes just as good as the imported stuff!

I live in northern Alabama, but C. sinensis will prosper anywhere its popular cousins C. japonica or C. sasanqua grow. Camellias thrive in rich, moderately moist, loamy soil in part shade, and they’re hardy in Zones 7 to 9. If you live in a colder climate, you can try growing C. sinensis in a container, or in a protected location. My shrub thrives in barely improved clay and rarely gets watered, even during our summer droughts. I think of it as a sturdy plant that delivers a fragrant, satisfying crop with little effort on my part.

In fall, I clean up all the remaining flowers and debris on the shrub and the soil beneath it, and I apply new mulch to help prevent pests from overwintering. Removing all the twig tips after the shrub flowers in fall will yield me more leaves to harvest in spring. I’ve begun to prune my camellia into a more upright form; it’s easy to maintain at 6 feet in height and width. Because I currently have one small camellia shrub, I can only produce about a cup of dried leaves per harvest. I’ll plant another shrub or two this fall to increase my yield, and I’ll try harvesting more than once a year for even more delicious homegrown brews.

Kathleen Bucher
Huntsville, Alabama

You can easily turn old T-shirts into handy and inexpensive plant ties for your garden.
Photo by Shelly Strohm

Down to a Tee

Gardeners need a constant supply of soft cord for tying up plants and for other projects. I’ve discovered a steady source in my pile of worn T-shirts. An old tee can be easily cut into a continuous length of strong but soft cording that won’t damage tender plants. Here’s how to do it: With scissors, cut across the width of the shirt, just below the sleeves, to leave a tube of fabric. Starting at the ragged edge of the tube, begin cutting at an angle toward the hem in a 1-inch-wide spiral. When you’ve reached the end of the tube, roll the cording into a ball for easy storage until you need it.

You can also cut the shirt’s yoke and sleeves into short ties; cut these straight across (instead of in a spiral) for short ties. If you use 100 percent cotton T-shirts, you can toss the ties into the compost pile after you’re finished with them.

Shelley Strohm
Bridgeport, Connecticut

Mudroom Alternative

Not every farmer or gardener has a mudroom where their boots can be left to dry each evening. Instead, those of us without mudrooms place our boots near a heat source, or on the floor in a kitchen corner. The next day, after we’ve pulled the boots back on, it’s aggravating to find a pile of dirt in their place, or see that we’ve left a trail of clods on the way to the door.

I’ve solved this problem by taking a cheap rubber mallet, available at any hardware store, and tapping the bottom of my boots a dozen times before heading into the house. The vibrations dislodge the dirt from the tread and pop it out onto the ground. This method may not be suited to Colorado red clay, but it definitely works on Missouri mud.

Arne Ahlstedt
Norwood, Missouri

Take a Leaf Out of This Reader’s Book

Although I prefer to let our poultry range freely, that’s currently not an option since we’ve moved to town. Our chickens have to be cooped up while we save money for a permanent and watertight fencing solution.

With the hens under lock and key, I knew I had to provide some sort of bedding for them. At first, I considered wood shavings or sand. But I eventually settled on a simple solution — dry leaves, a resource I have in abundance thanks to a hedge next to our property.

Using dry leaves for chicken coop bedding has numerous advantages. Leaves are free, plentiful, and readily available. And leaves will entertain your chickens. A bag of leaves always contains tidbits of seeds, grass stalks, bugs, and other edibles the birds enjoy unearthing.

Choose a dry day to collect fallen leaves from your yard or local park. Often, your neighbors will be happy to let you pick up their leaves, and they might even bag them for you.

Make the leaf bedding deep. Don’t bother with spreading the leaves evenly, because the birds will take care of it as they scratch. We overhaul the bedding every few months.

Anna Twitto
Afula, Israel


Old doors and windows can be upcycled into cold frames for season extension.
Photo by Tammy Korolis

A Warm Idea for Cold Seasons

I enjoy gardening and spending time outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, and I also enjoy reusing unwanted items. I built a cold frame with a recycled glass door that had been offered for sale on our local Facebook Marketplace. This cold frame extends the growing season and can also be used to harden off seedlings I start indoors in late winter.

Tammy Korolis
Redmond, Washington


Photos by Terry Platz

Hosing Down the High Spots

Our log-style home in Wisconsin needs a good exterior cleaning each summer. I’ve tried different spray devices over the years, but could never reach the high points on our home with any of them.

Now, I use two 6-foot-long aluminum fishing poles that telescope together. I’ve added a wire frame on one end, to which I’ve attached a hose nozzle at a 45-degree angle. Then, I cut a lightweight garden hose and slid it through the aluminum poles. I removed the internal locking pin and inserted a short 1⁄4-inch screw from the outside, and duct tape in the hole, to keep the poles extended.

These adjustments pump up the water psi, and the device is easy to control when spraying around windows and the like.

Terry Platz
McHenry, Illinois

Necessity was the mother of Jon’s invention.

Photos by Jon Womack

Creative Fixes

If you need a small section of hose but don’t have any on hand, a 90-degree electrical conduit elbow will work great for getting liquid into a vertical hole.

A 1/2-inch conduit elbow also works well on the end of a gas can for directing fuel into a small opening with precision. The elbow can be turned to create a slower flow.

Also, a top from an old plastic ketchup bottle works perfectly to replace a broken gas can vent. The replacement works better than the original.

Jon Womack
Pomona, Illinois

Short and Sweet

My new favorite weeding tool is a putty knife. Find a size you like, and try it in your garden.

Steve Bremer
Brooklyn, Wisconsin

Blackberry Bonanza

I wanted to expand our blackberry and raspberry patches, but didn’t want to spend a lot of money on nursery plants. Here’s how I managed it.

I gathered up pots and filled them with soil. Then, I stuck the tips of growing canes from my existing plants into the pots, one cane per pot. Within a month, all had rooted and grown strong enough that I could cut them away from the mother plant. If the canes were still long enough after cutting them loose, I again pushed the cut tips into new pots. Every month, I checked the pots for healthy root systems, and transplanted the canes as soon as I could. In a few months, my raspberry patch grew from three plants to 48. The blackberries multiplied from twelve plants to 96. This process has saved me much money, and the extra berries taste great.

Danielle Justus
Yellville, Arkansas

Photo by DeeAnn Engen

Netting Some Nettles

Soon, it will be nettle harvest time here in Minnesota. The young shoots are popping up, and I’m looking forward to how my harvest will warm me in the form of tea on cold days next winter.

The tops of storage bins are perfect for the job of gathering herbs. They’re lightweight and easy to carry. I gather up my harvest and place the nettle stems facing in the same direction inside the lids. Then, I put the trays in a cool, dark spot to air-dry. Nettle is fully dried when the leaves crumble off the stem. I store dried leaves in an airtight container away from light.

DeeAnn Engen
Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota

Photo by Ed Warn

Praiseworthy Raised Beds

The older I get, the more I love the raised garden beds I built about 10 years ago!

The construction technique is pretty basic, using three 8-foot-long panels of upcycled pole barn steel, four treated 4x4s, and six 8-foot-long treated 2x4s. The treated wood forms the skeleton, and the pole barn steel is the only thing touching soil. The raised bed structures sit on top of the ground, no digging required, but I did level the 4x4s.

The only thing I’d change would be to add a couple of interior supports using chain or cable with turnbuckles; I’ve had to add fence posts to some of the 2x4s because of buckling. You could build similar beds completely out of cedar using 4x4s and 2x6s, with interior supports to eliminate buckling. My son and I built six like this at his home in Boston.

The many upsides to these raised beds include no kneeling on the ground, earlier planting, easy and earlier harvesting (we were eating baseball-sized potatoes by the end of June), no ground-based garden pests, and almost no weeding, especially if you plant intensively and mulch. The only real downside is that raised beds need to be watered every couple of days when rainfall is scarce.

Each fall or spring, I remove the top 6 to 8 inches of soil from my raised beds and use it elsewhere in the garden or on the lawn. Then, I replenish the beds with compost — mostly cow or chicken manure with grass clippings.

I hope this helps readers as much as I’ve been helped over the years by the many good articles and ideas shared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS!

Ed Warn
Howard Lake, Minnesota

Photo by Margo Farrin

Wildlife-Friendly Domes

After losing a whole row of pea seedlings to some birds, we discovered a great use for leftover lengths of wire fencing material. We folded remnants of wire fence over on themselves for strength, and shaped them into rounded domes.

Wild animals and birds are drawn to our vegetable garden, herb garden, and flower beds in the foothills of Southern California. After that first bird incident, we discovered that skunks, raccoons, and other diggers simply avoided the domes, so we didn’t have our new plantings destroyed by critters looking for grubs and worms.

The domes can be made in different sizes to accommodate almost any area that needs protection. Standard garden pins work well to hold the domes in place, and are easy to remove for use again for future plantings. We’ve made a collection of these homemade domes in various sizes, and we’ve used them many times without causing harm to our precious wildlife.

Margo Farrin
Glendora, California

Photo by Candy Curran

Tote It Up

I’m enjoying fresh, organic lettuce from seeds I planted in a 10-gallon tote — easy, and very handy!

Candy Curran
Stewartville, Minnesota

Photo by Karen Dawson

Recycled Plant Markers

For cheap, durable plant markers, I use empty yogurt cups. Many brands now have a paper label that’s easy to remove and recycle, leaving behind a beautiful, blank plastic pot. I simply cut strips from the pot, and trim the strips to a point at the bottom. Then, with a wax pencil from an art supply store, I write the plant name at the top of the strip. These markers last, and they’re easy to replace when they get lost or broken.

Karen Dawson
Santa Rosa, California

Soothing Slime

While slicing okra, I wiped my hand across a yellow fly bite on my face. Immediately, the itchiness stopped. Okra worked better for me than aloe vera!

Peggy Percifield
Palatka, Florida

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