Seed to Tea:
Reinventing leaves into Revitalizing Teas
Hello, my name is Jax and I am a senior at the University of Georgia studying communication sciences and disorders. Sitting in my freshman biology class, a friend told me about the UGArden club that meets weekly and despite every intention to attend, I never made it out. UGArden did not cross my mind again until I picked up a minor in horticulture and was given the opportunity to become an herb intern. UGArden offers farm and herb internships that gives students like me the opportunity to get class credit, and learn about sustainable agriculture through hands-on experience. Through the internship, I learned an immense amount of information about herb processing and production. From seed to tea, the herb production process takes several steps that require great care and attention.
Before any planting occurs, planning out the plots and seeding times is the first step. A vast variety of herbs are grown at the UGArden, some of which differ in seeding requirements and times. So, careful planning is required. Some plants need to be sown in December but also need to be cold stratification beforehand. Others like lemon verbena, have their cuttings taken in August for the propagation season the following year. Noelle, the herb program manager, says that the key to this step in the process is planning as best you can but letting go of control. Sometimes, things like unpredictable weather, poor germination, pests, disease, and field mishaps occur. Though these are unfortunate, we have to adapt and be okay with the change.
In choosing what plants to grow, we select herbs that agree with our climate: ones that grow well in full-sun and extract well into a tea or oil. At the UGArden, it equates to about thirty herb varieties. When the seeds are ready to be planted, we carefully place the seeds in a flat tray and quietly cover them with potting soil. We patiently wait for the seeds to sprout, which can take anywhere from 2 days to 4 weeks. We tend to them daily in the greenhouse until their roots have filled out the tray, signaling they are ready to be transplanted. From the greenhouse, they are taken to a semi-protected area outside for a process called hardening off. There they will get acclimated to outside conditions for a few day and then get planted in the field. Each year, UGArden Herbs continues to scale production to meet the rising demand for our products in the community. For the 2020 growing season, we are estimating 5,000 herb plants will need to be seeded in the greenhouse and transplanted in the field.
Many steps occur before harvesting that require a mass of people willing and ready to work. Every plant needs soil nutrients in order to survive and grow: the most important one being nitrogen. An important tenant of organic agriculture is to build the health of the soil. One of the main ways that we do that is through a process called cover cropping. These are crops grown in-between cash crops and are tilled back into the soil at the end of the season. They are used to build organic matter in the soil, reduce erosion and break up weed cycles. Additionally, cover crops in the legume family can actually form a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil to fix atmospheric nitrogen and store it in nodules on the roots. Unfortunately, the use of cover crops is not enough to replenish all of the lost nutrients so we also apply organic fertilizers to the soil before planting. The main organic fertilizer we use at the UGArden is chicken feather meal which breaks down slowly to provide a continuous supply of nitrogen over the season. These sustainable practices are specifically practiced at the UGArden to maintain the health of the soil for current and future use.
Once the beds have been shaped and irrigation has been set in place, we carefully lay out fabric in between the rows. We place fabric down to prevent dirt from splashing on the leaves of the herbs. This is important so that we reduce our handling during the harvesting process. With a few exceptions, we mainly transplant our crops instead of direct seeding because it is easier to achieve consistency. Interns, volunteers and anyone willing to help gently pull the transplants from the comfort of their tray and tuck them into the prepared fields.
Though it may seem like the easiest part, watching over the new transplants is not. This is where a great amount of labor comes in. We constantly scout the rows of herbs for disease or pest issues. If there are no issues with disease or pests, then we weed. Weeding is extremely tedious but also important. The interns and volunteers at UGArden are an important force for defending the herbs against the attacks from weeds. Weeds compete against the herbs for both room in the soil and nutrients. Another way we help the herbs is by mulching. This is when we place pine straw over the exposed soil once we have transplanted the herbs into the field.
When our holy basil is looking spritely and has started to flower, the interns, volunteers and anyone else, take to the field with sterilized pruners and harvesting bins. Depending on how many volunteers we have in a given morning, we may be out in the fields harvesting for three hours! To preserve the essential oils as best we can, we are harvest our herbs in the morning after the dew has dried but before the heat of the day. With the use of mulch and fabric, our herbs are often clean enough to be immediately dried. Despite these efforts, some herbs are dirty when harvested. If this is the case, we double wash them before beginning the drying process to ensure all mud has been removed. The main goal of UGArden Herbs is to ensure the highest quality of herbal products. To achieve this goal, certain practices are in place to guarantee the herbs are minimally handled.
Once we cut the herbs and bring them to the processing area, we proceed to dry them with the use of screens. Using screens allows herbs to be spread out so air can reach all the products equally. Two things are vital to the herb drying process: a fan and dehumidifier. These two things maintain the ideal humidity level for the herbs, and keep air circulating. The dark is also another important aspect of the dry room. The lights are kept the lights off so the material does not brown while it dries. These dry room components help maintain the herbs high potency levels which is essential for all of UGArden Herbs products. With these methods, the herbs usually take about five days to completely dry through. We test how dry they are by snapping their stems. If the stems bend without snapping, there is still moisture left in the plant, indicating that it needs more time in the dry room.
While we wait for our newly harvested herbs to dry, we process other dried material. Processing is extremely meticulous work and requires many hands. Negligible amounts of essential oils are found in the stems of dried herbs, so for the highest quality product, we strip the leaves and flowers from the stems to use for our teas. Often times herb processing is done by students that are looking for opportunities to engage in service learning, and by the UGArden club members on Wednesday nights. Processing aromatic herbs with others is a unique opportunity to engage in philosophical conversations and is a great way to get to know people better. It is also a unique gateway for students who do not want work in the field, and allows you to connect to the source the teas you drink.
Making our herbal products is the final step to our seed to tea process. Our products range from tea to lip balm to soap to spice mixes. These are chosen to teach core herbal preparations to interns like me. Another advantage to making more than just tea is that there is always a product available for sale even if we sell out of certain ingredients. Highlighting the herbs in these products is Noelle’s motivation for her choice of herbal products. Lip balm sold by UGArden Herbs does not contain essential oil but instead uses infused oil to highlight the color and quality of the herbs by themselves. The UGArden Herbs main goal is to maximize the medicinal benefits with something that tastes delicious and is also visually appealing.
The mission of UGArden Herbs is to spark magic in local communities by growing medicinal herbs. Through the entire herb process, UGArden works to use sustainable growing practices to not only improve soil quality but also ensure safety for those consume them and work with them. Learning how to grow herbs from their seeds and transform into products that can add to the health and quality of my life has been an remarkable experience. Being an intern has opened up my eyes to the magnitude of what it takes to turn one seed into a herbal product. Now, every time I drink a tea from now, I will always think about the amount of work and time it takes to bring a seed into a tea.