Infuse tea garden with cafe comfort

By Josette Keelor

Do you have a tea kettle-shaped wall clock in your kitchen or framed art that speaks in quiet cursive, “latte,” “frappe” and “café”?

If your love of tea and coffee translates into a kitchen motif, then why not take it outdoors too? Growing herbs for tea and recycling coffee grinds into compost will turn a morning cup of java into a full circle outdoor cafe experience.

According to Billie Clifton, who runs the Shenandoah Herb Society from Sunflower Herb Cottage in Reliance, tea leaves and coffee grinds can add to any garden.

“A lot of people today are doing what you call lasagna gardening,” she said. “Instead of tilling up the garden each year, you just add to it.”

Layers of dried autumn leaves, lime and compost will all settle into each other with time, she said. The same goes for layers of coffee grounds and tea leaves.

Being run through hot water, she said, “They’ve already gone through that first stage of breaking down.” But adding lime to a garden with coffee grinds is a good idea, since both coffee and the soil in the Shenandoah Valley are acidic.

“You almost can’t put too much [lime] on it anyway,” Clifton said.

Judy Larkin, owner of The Larkin Tea Company in Martinsburg, W.Va., has held programs on using tea in gardening and recommended never throwing away any tea, used or unused — “Particularly with roses and acid loving plants,” she said.

Lay a two-to-three inch layer of tea leaves on top of the soil as a blanket that will slowly break down into the soil. But be careful not to let the tea leaves touch plant stems, since they can cause stems to rot. Tea leaves retain moisture, she explained, and each time they get wet, they’ll leach nutrients into the soil.

Larkin recommended planting rose bushes in a place where they will get good circulation of air and six to eight hours of sunlight a day. The soil should be loose, well drained and slightly acidic. The pH level needs to be between 6.2 and 6.8 for the plants to be able to accept the nutrients they require from the soil and to produce flowers.

Cooled brewed tea can be used to water rosebushes, but proper watering is also vital for roses — at least an inch of water a week, or two inches a week during the growing season. During hot spells, water roses every day.

To make tea for the garden, Larkin advised adding tea leaves to a bucket with boiling water and leaving it to brew for several hours or even days. Tea leaves can be reused three or four times. Pour cooled tea around the stems of plants or use it as a spray. Indoor plants that will benefit most from this process are vines, ficus and succulents.

Clifton, who also has held classes on growing tea gardens, said what you grow should depend on your tastes.

“The difference between tea and a soup, if you use chives it’s a soup or if you use lemongrass, it’s tea,” Clifton said, although she admitted lemongrass also can be added to soup.

For tea she suggested, “the obvious chamomile and the other obvious, mint. And then, as far as herbal teas, you really could use almost any herb to make a tea. The basil and thyme, those are nice flavors.”

Lavender, spearmint and sage are other options, she said.

But even without herbs grown for tea, decorative accents can redefine a garden as an outdoor cafe.

An old teapot can become a watering can or a coffee-themed trivet can become art on a garden wall.

At Sunflower Cottage, Clifton sells planters shaped like teacups on saucers, and Larkin, who traveled to Frederick County for last month’s Virginia Herb Festival at Sunflower Cottage, makes garden decor from teacups that can be used as bird feeders or just for show.

“It’s like a tea pot that looks like it’s pouring into a cup,” Larkin said.

Clifton hasn’t offered any tea garden programs for a couple of years, but she said the Shenandoah Herb Society is planning its “Preserving The Herbal Harvest” program for September. The program will continue on a theme Clifton has noticed increasing in recent years.

“People want tea,” she said. “If there’s tea, they want it.”

For more information about the Shenandoah Herb Society or Sunflower Cottage, call Billie Clifton at 540-869-8482 or visit sunflowercottage.net. For information about The Larkin Tea Company, call 304-707-0142.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com