Bello Food Gardening with Fi Morgan: The Daily Brew

This week Fi Morgan's Bello Food Gardening takes us on the journey of producing our own tea and coffee locally in Bellingen

On the theme of food resilience for our area, if the trucks stopped for a few weeks or more the shops would empty of essentials very quickly and I imagine we would miss our daily tea and coffee at least as much as we’d miss loo roll. It’s funny what was deemed important in March 2020.

For many regions they would simply have to give up their caffeinated habits once supplies were gone, but we would not. Tea, coffee, sugarcane and other sweeteners all grow very well here. And we have cows and goats for milk, and macadamias for a non dairy alternative. The effort goes into processing with a lot of these, not the growing.

 

Tea Camellia Sinensis

Did you know it’s a camellia? Our often acid soils around here suit camellia, (1) and indeed tea bushes grow really well all by themselves. As one grower remarked it’s, “tough as nails”. (2) That’s what we want! And the plant can last for up to 30 years! (3)

This week Fi Morgan's Bello Food Gardening takes us on the journey of producing our own tea and coffee locally in Bellingen

Camellia Sinensis

Buy a seedling or two, that will be enough for home use, or find someone who already has a tea plant. Tea strikes easily from cuttings. (3) Seeds take a while to germinate, as in weeks, and that happens in autumn, but they germinate well in shady conditions ie under the bush they fell off. (2) Tea bushes are carpeted underneath with tea seedlings. These are easily managed by grazing ducks (4) or a whipper snipper and don’t appear to be weedy despite being so prolific. You can plant seedlings out any time, though autumn and spring will be the best seasons to get them going. Tea can survive frost once it is established (5) but it will need protection while still a young soft plant.

Tea likes full sun and the growers I spoke to had it in well drained positions on a mound or gentle slope with decent moisture available via runoff from another garden area. No one bothered to do any fussing or care (2,4). It takes around three years to grow to full size, 1-2m in height and width, though you can begin making tea as soon as the plant is large enough to cope with losing a few leaves here and there.

Tea leaf growth here involves a spring and an autumn flush. You will need to prune to encourage leaf growth so you have plenty of the preferable young leaves to pick and drink. It responds well to pruning (2) which is code for it’s difficult to mess up the pruning of this plant. The recommendation is to prune after flowering (6) and to give some balanced fertiliser at this time too to support the next flush of growth. (3,6)

To Make Tea 
You can absolutely use fresh leaves to make tea. Choose the very youngest few leaves or bud tips and expect that the beverage may be more bitter and astringent than you are used to. Tea makers use multiple and varying steps of wilting, macerating, steaming, then heating or drying to reduce these qualities and bring out different flavours ie to accentuate sweetness or floral notes and allow them to use more leaves than just the very tips. It’s a matter of experimenting. Of course drying tea means it will keep for years. Fresh leaves only last a matter of days. (7)

ABC has some simple recipes for black and green tea processing to get you started (6):

Black Tea – Harvest and Process

  1. Harvest the youngest leaves and leaf buds
  2. Crush leaves until they begin to take on a reddish hue
  3. Wither the leaves by spreading them onto a tray, and leaving them in a cool, dry location for three days
  4. Dry leaves in 120-degree Celsius oven for 20 minutes
  5. Store in an air tight container, and use as for standard loose-leaf tea.

Green Tea – Harvest and Process

  1. Harvest the youngest leaves and leaf buds
  2. Using paper towel, blot excess moisture from leaves and dry in the shade for four hours
  3. Using a vegetable steamer, steam the leaves over a stove for 1-2 minutes
  4. Dry leaves in 120-degree Celsius oven for 20 minutes
  5. Store in an air tight container, and use as for standard loose-leaf tea.

For white tea, the leaves and buds are picked so early in the growing phase that the buds remain closed and the leaves are young and tender. The leaves are gently dried and that’s it. White tea is named for the fine silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds. (8)

 

Coffee Coffea arabica

Coffee grows really well all by itself in this area. So well, that it’s considered a sleeper weed.

This week Fi Morgan's Bello Food Gardening takes us on the journey of producing our own tea and coffee locally in Bellingen

Coffea Arabica

“Coffee (Coffea arabica) is spreading from cultivation and becoming an environmental weed in south-eastern and northern Queensland. It is also seen as a potential environmental [weed] in northern New South Wales and other parts of coastal Queensland. It was recently ranked among the 200 most invasive plant species in south-eastern Queensland, while in northern Queensland it has invaded undisturbed rainforest and rainforest margins on the Atherton Tableland.

This shade-tolerant species is considered to be particularly invasive because it will grow under intact forest canopies. It has often escaped from cultivation and invaded rainforests in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. In Hawaii, coffee (Coffea arabica) also invades valleys, streambeds, and vegetation along creeks (i.e. riparian areas).” (9)

The suggestion is to net trees while they are in fruit to prevent birds from spreading the seeds in the cherries which they are quite attracted to, and which then germinate and grow almost anywhere they land. If you give up on harvesting, do the right thing and remove the tree entirely. (10)

How many trees?

“A mature tree yields 1.5–4.0 kilograms of ripe fruit each year, which processed and dried results in about 250–600 grams of dry green beans.” (11) By that calculation I would need 5-12 trees to cover my single strong daily dose over a year.

Do you have the room?

Left to it’s own devices the coffee bush can grow to 6m, but is quite happy kept pruned to 2-3m which makes harvesting a lot easier. (11) Prune after you’ve finished harvesting, taking off dead and unproductive bits and upward growing ‘suckers’ from the main stem. Commercially, the bushes also have their height and width pruned by what looks like a circular saw on a tractor, so it’s safe to say you don’t need to be too fussy or exact. Bring it down to a manageable size. (12)

How long to a cuppa?

At least 4 years to maturity from seedling (10) and the tree should last 10-15 years. (11) It can also be grown from cuttings. Most dropped coffee cherries will germinate so there should be no trouble in replacing trees. Grazing ducks will take care of self sprouted seedlings under the mother plant. (4)

What it hates

Frost. “Even short periods below 0°C will defoliate the bush.” (11) That’s bad, really bad! They are a rainforest understory plant, quite happy in shade underneath other plants and this will also protect them from frost. Having said that, shade is not required for them to grow and coffee bean yields will be higher out of the shade. (11) If you can figure out a sunnier and frost protected placement, bingo.

Waterlogging. A well drained soil is essential. (11) They have no tolerance for soggy ground.

Wind. They’re a bit sensitive to wind damage. (11) Keep the bush protected with the bonus of also preventing the wind knocking off the flowers or cherries that would otherwise become your beans.

Which one? That’s easy.

“There are over 20 species of coffee trees. Due to climate requirements, C. arabica is the only species used for commercial coffee production in Australia.” (11)

Care for the best cuppa?
Although coffee bushes will grow here without any attention, to make the most coffee cherries and beans these are it’s preferences:

Coffee can be grown on many soil types, but the soil needs to be slightly acidic. (12) That’s ok, that’s us.

“It grows best in soils that are naturally fertile, high in organic matter, well drained (to 0.5–1 metre), well aerated and have a profile at least one metre deep. Coffee trees prefer a mild climate with mean temperatures between 15-25°C, and small variations in day and night temperatures. Temperatures below 7°C and above 33°C slow growth, reduce production and reduce bean size.” (11)

Coffee would like regular water to make nice fat beans so put it somewhere that’s well drained and receives regular water. Maybe next to your tea bushes!

“Commercially, planting is usually carried out at the start of the wet season, when trees are 20–30cm tall and 8–12 months old.” (11) This means planting out in the warmer frost free months with plenty of time to get established before the weather cools down. (12)
Phosphorus is important for root growth, especially in the first 12–18 months after planting. (11) So save your banana peels for a ‘tea’ or hold your nose when you add fish meal or blood and bone.

Fertilising is recommended after harvesting, after flowering, and after heavy prolonged rain. During  the peak growth time of summer and autumn, coffee bushes appreciate nitrogen and potassium. (11)

 

Home preparation of coffee beans to drink is a bit of a process. You might need a coffee to home-prepare coffee! The coffee bush will flower over a period of time and the cherries which contain the coffee beans (the seed) ripen throughout about August to October in this area. (11) This means they will need to be regularly picked over the season and can’t just be gathered in one session.

Once picked, they will need soaking, peeling off the fruit, soaking again, drying (unless you’re ready to roast immediately) and roasting. I hear a popcorn maker is goldilocks for roasting coffee beans. (4) I have seen green beans dry fried in a frypan over a flame, along with cardomum pods and fresh chopped ginger, before grinding. The coffee was amazing. There is also oven roasting.

 

Milks

I’m not going to dive into milks as this is beyond the scope of a gardening column, except to point out that for food security, thinking about your local access to cow or goat milk is a good idea if this is a non negotiable part of your diet.

For non dairy milks, macadamia milk is likely to be the best bet as it grows easily here and the nuts store well for up to two years in their shell after a period of drying. This makes all-year-round nut-milk making possible. (13) I’ll do an article in the future with details on nuts that grow well locally.

 

Supported by:

Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding

 

Notes

(1) In a post to Bellingen Organic Gardening Group (BOGG) 2 (Jun, 2021) K Evans, Glennifer, commented that “Our often acid soils here suit camellia so I would assume it would grow ok. They sell it at the monthly market but I haven’t tried it.”

(2) In a conversation with J Alcott of Bellingen Seed Savers, Coffs Harbour (2 Jun, 2021)

(3) Green tea | AgriFutures Australia [Internet]. AgriFutures Australia. 2021 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: http://www.agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/green-tea/

(4) In a conversation with S Lennox, Glennifer (3 Jun, 2021)

(5) Winter Frosts at the Nerada Tea Plantation: Everything You Need to Know [Internet]. Nereda Tea. 2021 [cited 6 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.neradatea.com.au/tea-production/winter-frosts-at-the-nerada-tea-plantation-everything-you-need-to-know

(6) Tipping Tea [Internet]. Gardening Australia. 2021 [cited 6 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/tipping-tea/11165550

(7) Do Tea Leaves Have To Be Dried? Reasons And The Alternative [Internet]. TeaSteeping. 2021 [cited 6 June 2021]. Available from: https://teasteeping.com/do-tea-leaves-need-to-be-dried/

(8) Truths about how your tea is made [Internet]. Nerada Tea. 2021 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.neradatea.com.au/tea-production/truths-about-how-your-tea-is-made

(9) Coffee | Weed Identification – Brisbane City Council [Internet]. Weeds.brisbane.qld.gov.au. 2021 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: https://weeds.brisbane.qld.gov.au/weeds/coffee

(10) Buy Coffee Trees – Dwarf Coffee Plant [Internet]. Daleysfruit.com.au. 2021 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.daleysfruit.com.au/fruit%20pages/coffee.htm

(11) Coffee | AgriFutures Australia [Internet]. AgriFutures Australia. 2021 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: https://agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/coffee/

(12)  Peasley D, Ashton D, Webber J, Woods R. Australian subtropical coffee grower’s manual [Internet]. Agrifutures.com.au. 2014 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/wp-content/uploads/publications/14-029.pdf

(13) Processing Macadamia Nuts – Macadamia Castle [Internet]. Macadamia Castle. 2021 [cited 7 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.macadamiacastle.com.au/processing-macadamia-nuts/

 

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