I had the pleasure of visiting a tea garden in the Southeast part of the United States. I made some new friends and learned much about growing and processing tea.
The drive southeast of Jackson, Mississippi to the tea gardens was relatively easy. The Great Mississippi Tea Company is a few miles off the main highway, tucked into primarily pine wooded acreage. The company is a multifaceted company. They have a retail space, host workshops as well as Harvest Host campers, and have a successful plant nursery. I felt like a child anticipating an exciting event that I have been waiting to attend for a long time. As soon as I turned onto the gravel driveway and I saw the tea plants, I honestly thought my heart skipped a beat!
The Great Mississippi Tea Company has a footprint of thirty acres. Tea plants were first planted in 2013 in the gardens. Seven of those acres are planted with tea bushes. The company is in the process of planting another acre this year. Four more acres will be planted by the spring of 2023, bringing the total of cultivated area to twelve acres. We toured a fifth of an acre of original plantings in the front of the property that are eleven years old, with nine of those years in the ground. The other two years the plants were in pots above ground.
The company’s forte is providing nursery plants for their gardens as well as other locations that are pursuing a tea garden of their own. In fact, the Great Mississippi Tea Company is making a name for themselves as a tea plant nursery. People from various locations in the United States have contacted the gardens for their seedlings. On the day that I visited, the gardens had approximately 20,000 tea seedlings maturing in the green house and outside. If the plants are from seeds, they are only in pots for one year before planting in the ground. A plant from a cutting needs to mature in the pot for two years prior to being planted in the ground. I learned that tea plants don’t mind being left entirely in pots, but the plants will need to be root pruned from time to time. The plants, when mature, are planted in a 2.5 ft down the rows by 3 ft. apart side to side configuration. The spacing allows for plant growth and gives space to walk in between the rows.
The Great Mississippi Tea Garden has no tea plant pests in the Mississippi area. However, weeds can be an all consuming chore. A weed control is used the first few years between the rows to decrease and help eradicate the weeds that grow between the bushes. The Great Mississippi Tea Company takes one to two years to prep the land prior to planting tea bushes.
To help sustain the soil and provide shade for the tea plants, the company has planted locust trees. These trees are throughout the property, providing much needed shade while not robbing the soil of much needed nitrogen. Tea plants need lots of nitrogen and an acidic soil. Normal ph levels in tap water is a ph7. Tea plants thrive in an acidic soil of a range of 4.5 - 5.5 ph level. The soil acidity and water acidity at the gardens are both around 5; perfect for tea plants. If you are growing tea plants and need to change the acidity in your soil, or water, there is a simple fix. An easy, and cost effective tip I learned for increasing the acid content of the soil, is to water the plants with a lemon juice and water mixture.
Located in the back of the property are three beehives. The bees help fertilize the plants by carrying pollen from one plant to another plant. Bees don’t just pollinate the tea bushes and help them reproduce. They also pollinate wild flowers and native plants that are located on and around the gardens. The honey is later collected and sold in their retail shop. The tea flower blossom honey has a delicate floral taste and fragrant floral aroma.
The tea plants are kept at roughly thirty six inches in height for easy plucking. The company has a plucking machine (called a Plucking Harvester) that is new to the tea industry. It is an exclusive machine that, so far, the company they obtained the machine from, is the only company in the world that has designed this specific type of machine. The machine has a paddle that plucks off the top few leaves and buds from the tea plants. Hand picking of the leaves is not as cost effective as utilizing a machine to collect the new growth of leaves and buds. One acre of plants can produce one ton of tea. The company produced five hundred pounds of tea last year. The harvest projection this year will be higher due to increasing the acreage that will be harvested. Weather permitting, during harvest season, the company can pluck the same section of leaves approximately once every seven days. The harvest season for The Great Mississippi Tea Company starts in mid April and ends the last week of October.
We drove across the street from the gardens to the processing area. This is where the transformation from plucked leaf to what we have come to know as tea leaves occurs. The L-shaped building was broken into basically two wings; the drying area and oxidation and shaping of the leaf area. Each stage of the processing from the withering, to the oxidation, then shaping, and final drying of the leaves is closely monitored for moisture levels in the ambient air and in the leaves. When the tea is completely processed, the moisture content in the leaves is at three percent moisture level.
The wither room is kept at close to forty to forty five percent humidity level. The initial withering goal is to dry out the tea leaves slightly to decrease moisture in the leaf yet still leave the leaves pliable for shaping. For a black tea, the company has found that the withering process takes approximately sixteen hours in their withering room.
The tea is oxidized in big warmers that look like industrial food warmers. Depending on the tea, the oxidation process can take hours to a good part of a day. Black tea is the most oxidized tea, Oolong tea is less oxidized, and green and white tea are not oxidized. To stop the oxidation process from occurring in the green tea they are processing, the company steams their green tea. The exception is their Mississippi Pine Needles tea that they pan fire instead of steam, to stop the oxidation process.
In the processing plant, there is a leaf roller and a carding machine that are utilized to shape the tea leaves. The rolling machine slowly rolls the leaf into tightly twisted tea leaves. The leaves are gently shaped into long, needle-like leaves with the carding machine. This machine is used to make their exclusive Mississippi Pine Needles tea in August of every year. In the steam room of the processing building, on a stainless steel counter, were clear boxes with lids. Attached to the back of the boxes were electronic controls that registered temperature and moisture levels of tea leaves inside the box. These water immersion circulation boxes are used to make yellow tea. The tea is vacuum sealed into bags, then submerged in the water filled box and allowed to “sweat” in the box. This reaction is similar to a compost pile that generates its own heat due to the chemical changes occurring in the piles of composite. When the tea is sufficiently sweltered, the tea is removed from the boxes, and the final processing occurs. So far, there are only three countries that process yellow tea; China, Korea, and the United States. The Great Mississippi Tea Company makes a limited amount yearly of yellow tea.
The drying machine can be calibrated for different temperatures, depending on what tea is being processed at the time. For example, a black tea is dried at a higher temperature, approximately 194 F. An Oolong tea is dried at a lower temperature. The lower temperature, approximately 140 F, ensures that the delicate floral notes are not burned up during the drying process.
After the tea is completely processed, the tea is left alone for two weeks. During this two week time, the tea flavor notes become more established, more pronounced, and the tea flavors meld, or blend together. The processing of the tea is complete after this two week resting phase. After which, the tea is packaged and sent to wholesalers and customers.
The Tea And Things
The tour came to an end much too soon. I could have stayed all day. The gardens were beautiful, the temperature was mild and there were big puffy clouds in the sky. I felt as one with nature. Unfortunately, rain was forecasted for the next day and we needed to reach our final destination prior to the fast approaching deluge.
We left the processing area and stopped at the retail store. They had a great selection of tea infused soaps, tea infused honey from their hives, and my new found favorite southern style tea. The Southern Grilled Peach black tea is a classic and quintessential tea that captures the essence of southern fare! It is a new twist on, and reminiscent of a Lapsang Souchong tea but with a southern charm. I stocked up on some necessities for my road trip and for future enjoyment.
I left the tea garden wanting to return as soon as possible in order to learn even more with a day-long processing tour. In addition, I have found a new southern tradition in tea. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and look forward to going back to the gardens.
Have travel tea mug in hand...will travel,
If you are interested in touring the gardens please visit: info@greatmsteacompany or www.greatmsteacompany.com.
If you are interested in camping at the garden site, you will need to be a member of Harvest Host. Please visit: www.harvesthost.com
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!