Growing an herb-tea garden

A small herb-tea garden can be a fun addition to the gardening season. Whether in a cluster of containers or a creatively designed garden bed, an herb-tea garden is simple and satisfying.

Herb tea is a bit of a misnomer. True tea comes only from the tea plant Camellia sinensis. These tea plants, of which there are four recognized varieties, are native to East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The nomenclature of tea goes far beyond black, white, or green and encompasses regions, altitudes, times of harvesting, first or second leaves, and so on.

Entire books have been written about the history, lore, and complexity of tea. Almost all tea is grown only in tropical or subtropical climates, although there is one tea plantation in the United States: the Charleston Tea Plantation was developed by Lipton on a former potato farm on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. A popular tourist destination, it provides a window into a little-known horticultural process that yields a product consumed worldwide.

An herb tea, on the other hand, is technically an infusion. In England and France, it’s called a tisane, and in Spain té de hierbas. All over the world, dried or fresh leaves, stems, roots, berries and barks are steeped in hot water to create aromatic, soothing or healing beverages.

Many herbs easily grown in Santa Fe can be used fresh or dried for herb tea. Mint is easy to grow in containers and is a familiar component of herb tea, alone or in combination with other herbs or flowers. In the ground, mint can become invasive, but in a container, it can be controlled. We now have multiple varieties of mint, from familiar spearmint or peppermint to chocolate, orange or strawberry mint.

A mint family perennial is lemon balm, which can stand alone quite nicely as an herb tea. Like mint, it is best grown in containers with extra water and afternoon shade. Both will need to be divided over time as they spread their roots vigorously.

In the ground try our native bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), which has stunning flowers. Other easy-to-grow perennial herbs for sunnier areas of your garden are chamomile, thyme, lavender, hyssop and fennel.

Some annuals also make wonderful additions to herb-tea blends. Popular basil varieties basil have differening flavor profiles as do scented geraniums. Rose geranium petals and lemon verbena leaves are common additions to herb tea blends. These grow best in containers with richer soil and more moisture than a typical Santa Fe garden provides.

Aromatic rose petals and pungent rose hips are delightful additions to many herb-tea blends as are calendula petals and raspberry leaves. The herbs and plants I have mentioned here also have culinary or medicinal benefits—there are plenty of books about both. Do keep in mind that it’s important to know exactly what a plant is before ingesting it.

Thoroughly dry your chosen leaves or flowers at the end of the gardening season. Dried citrus peels also add color and flavor. Some herbs have flavors that are fine by themselves; others are typically used in combinations, such as lemon balm and chamomile or lemon thyme and mint. Your taste and imagination are all you need to make some tasty choices. Kept cool and dry, your personal herb-tea blend will last until it’s time to plant a new medley of flavors.

Laurie McGrath is an Emeritus Master Gardener and has volunteered with the NMSU Extension in Santa Fe County for over 20 years. She is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP).

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