Thursday, September 27, 2007

Growing a great Tea Tree

A favourite herb to grow indoors!

One of the most popular ‘exotic’ herbs offered at Sage Garden is the handsome Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). This variety is best know as the source of tea tree oil, highly valued for its antiseptic, antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. We use Tea Tree oil as an organic fungal control in our greenhouses, and frequently make use of the oil around the home for cleaning. Tea Tree oil is one of the more popular ingredients in natural mosquito sprays. The reference to ‘tea’ is often asked about; Tea Tree was once used as a healing tea, but these days it is not often brewed into a tea for consumption (very medicinal flavour & difficult to digest). Tea Tree plants are tropical to subtropical natives of Australia, where they thrive in swampy areas. Many types of Tea Tree exist, with gorgeous variations in needle and/or flower color.

Cold climate gardeners appreciate Tea Tree plants as attractive, fragrant specimens. Plants have a lot of character and personality, so it is fun to choose one with a ‘look’ that appeals to you (come in and see what we mean)! Bonsai growers have fun with Tea Trees because they can be pruned and develop a gorgeous trunk with papery bark, even when kept small.

While many tropicals are slow growers in the north, Tea Tree can grow several feet in one season. One of our customers grew a 20 foot specimen in her back yard greenhouse, and we have a beautiful 15 foot tree in our greenhouses (five years old). Of course, they do not have to get that big! Pruning the tops and limiting the container size will regulate height. Tea Tree plants are normally evergreen if wintered indoors, and can flower in summer once they are a few years old.

The main requirement of potted Tea Tree plants is lots of water. This is critical. While most potted herbs like to be quite dry between waterings,Tea Tree plants can never become dry to the point of wilting. If your gardening style is to leave plants until the last minute before watering, pot your Tea Tree into some kind of self-watering container (yes, these do exist!). On the other hand, Tea Tree plants are ideal for the over-waterer! The issue of adequate water tends to be of greatest concern if the plants are summering outdoors on a sunny patio, and in doors overwinter when hot dry air is coming from heat vents. The larger the container size, the more forgiving the plant will be. Also, using non-peat based potting mixes such as coco-earth can help to retain soil moisture while still breathing nicely. Finally, keep in mind that good drainage is still required - Tea Tree plants should not be soggy, just watered frequenly.

Tea Tree plants love warmth, and will be happiest if they can be wintered indoors in a sunny window. The brighter the window, the more rapid the growth. If heat vents or radiators are close to the window, place plants on a pebble tray (rocks placed in the saucer, with plant-pot sitting on top of rocks) - this generates extra humidity in the immediate area of the plant. In our greenhouses, we keep our large Tea Tree cooler than ideal, and this causes about half the needles to shed over winter. If shedding is occurring on your Tea Tree, check the following: Has the soil dried out, even once? Is hot, dry air from heat vents hitting your plant? Alternatively, is cold air from air conditioning hitting your plant? Is your plant in a very cool sun room (5-10 degrees Celsius)? Would you say the plant is getting full sun for several hours each day? Have you been fertilizing regularly with an organic fertilizer? Tea Tree plants can recover from some episodes of shedding, but your plant will look much better if shed-inducing stress can be avoided.

Because Tea Tree plants are evergreen, they do like fertilizer year round. Using an organic fertilizer will encourage the healthiest possible root system, resulting in a resilient, healthy plant. Organic fertilizers are safe to use year round, as they will not lead to salt buildup (non-organic fertilizers are very salty and build up in the soil - especially hard on long term potted plants such as Tea Tree). We use Total Nourish liquid concentrate on our plants, supplementing with Ocean Fish in summer months when growth is most rapid.

Pests are rarely an issue with Tea Tree plants, because the oils are so potent (crush a leaf, and you’ll immediately appreciate just how much oil is in the leaves - they smell wonderful fresh or dried). The one pest that customers have reported is mealy-bug, admittedly an ugly pest! Mealy-bugs like hiding in the papery bark of more mature Tea Tree plants, so if they are to occur it will be on the main trunk or larger branches. Mealy-bugs can be controlled by using a Q-Tip dipped in rubbing alcohol or 10% bleach/water solution, and touching the bugs. They turn bright pink when you do this, indicating that they will die. Once adult bugs have been treated, spraying with neem oil is helpful, being sure to focus on the trunk and branches. Finally, mealy-bugs spend part of their life cycle in the ring of soil around the perimeter of the container; wiping the inner and outer rim of the plant container with rubbing alcohol or bleach solution, then doing a soil drench with neem (just in the two inches around perimeter). This will bring effective control. As with all indoor plants, regular rinsing with fast flowing fresh water (not just misting) is the best way to reduce pest occurrence.

Finally, many people wonder if they can do anything with their Tea Trees, beyond enjoying them as interesting plants... absolutely! The leaves can be made into a simple infusion, either using oil or distilled water. The easiest method is to pack a clear jar with fresh leaves and fill jar with either water or carrier oil (olive or grape seed are nice). Seal the container, then place in a very sunny spot. After two weeks oils from the leaves will have infused into your carrier, which can then be used to create other projects.

Tea Tree plants are available from Sage Garden Herbs from later May through October. For additional information, please refer to our plant information pages at: . Pure Australian Tea Tree oil is also available for purchase from our greenhouses.

1 comment:

kaety j said...

I love your website, it has just the information I was looking for about tea trees, I am excited to pick out a nice "home" for my tree to live in...thanks! Kaety J.