The challenge of Scottish tea growing – Interview with Monica Griesbaum

Tea plants

Besides the Sahara and a block of ice floating around the Arctic with nothing but a polar bear on it, the last place you’d expect tea to grow is probably Scotland. It’s a challenge even Barney from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ wouldn’t say to: ‘Challenge accepted!’. Monica Griesbaum, together with her husband Andy and four kids, did take on the challenge and are close to their very first batch of Scottish grown tea from the Windy Hollow Farm. Monica was so very kind to share her story on their beginning tea farm in Scotland, for which I thank her greatly.

As with so many tea geeks who have someone or something that triggered them going into tea, the idea of growing tea trees in Scotland was planted as a seed in the head of Monica and Andy by a friend. The family had just purchased 23 acres of nature in Perthshire, Scotland (about an hour drive from Edinburgh), and were starting to plant Native Scottish Trees on the land, when the friend suggested to plant some tea trees as well.

Monica watering the tea seeds © @windyhollowfarm

Monica watering the tea seeds © @windyhollowfarm

‘First we thought this was quite a crazy idea since tea planting is not very common here in Scotland where barley fields, heather and sheep dominate the countryside’, Monica says. But the idea was too fascinating not to act on and so the family started to investigate and learn about the tea world. By reading books and gaining information from experts in tea and organic farming. ‘And we really liked it. We love the camellia sinensis plant, the care tea growers take over it the fascinating processes and methods used to make wonderful tea and also the tea community across the world who seem extremely excited and caring about the product of tea.’

The challenge was, indeed, accepted and 2500 tea seeds from Nepal arrived in boxes. But the seeds weren’t really what Monica expected them to be. ‘Each one looked much bigger… What on earth to do with them? So we learned an immense amount about tea in a fairly short period of time. About planting them, about nourishing them and we learned that they get frostbites just like humans in the winter months! The seeds turned into lovely baby plants and then into lush looking toddlers.’

The tea seeds from Nepal © @windyhollowfarm

The tea seeds from Nepal © @windyhollowfarm

Biggest challenges

‘Probably to work outdoors in all weather, to avoid planting tea in waterlogged Scottish soil and to keep believing in yourself and your project on those dark gray days. Maybe also the pH level was a worry for us initially. We were advised that it may be too high and that we needed a lot of sulphur to be added to our soil. However we were quite borderline with our soil and the pH wasn’t too high but still on an upper level suitable for camellia sinensis. We therefore have experimented very much with plant based liquids to very gently lower pH in soil. This is important for the plant, otherwise it will find it harder to use and benefit from the nutrition in the soil. This has been a challenge, much work and energy has gone into this. However, it is very fascinating to learn about the chemistry of the soil and plant and then work with this knowledge using natural methods. That of course sounds like we have built a lot of tea knowledge already, but we know that there is so much much more to learn day after day.’

Growing is one thing. Making a good tea out of your plants is another. The Windy Hollow Farm is currently at the stage of figuring out which tea would be best to produce. Most likely the choice will be between black (red) tea or oolong. ‘It’s important to us that we don’t just attempt to copy the traditional and wonderful processes used in tea making for thousands of years in Asia’, Monica says. ‘But instead to learn from this and find our own way that suits tea plants grown in our climate and ways of tea processing that makes sense here in Scotland and on our farm. So it’s about exploring and adaption to our situation here.’

 

A few #tealeaves from 2016 these were plucked for experimenting. Such fun! #teafarm #tea #tealover

Een bericht gedeeld door Monica (@windyhollowfarm_) op

Where do Monica’s own preferences as a tea lover lie? ‘There are many teas I haven’t tried and would love the include like the intriguing frost tea and the tea bitten by bugs. Of those tried, I love oolong tea from Taiwan and my present favourite is tea from wild tea trees. I think they have an added taste of nature and individual flavour.’

No wild trees to be found in Scotland, but the first batch of processed tea of the Windy Hollow Farm is not far away. ‘This year our seedlings will be planted outside and each Spring time more seedling plants are added. We now have a mix of seedling tea plants from Nepal and Georgia, all camellia sinensis var sinensis.’

Monica invites people to join in on the adventure the family is on. ‘Anyone interested in visiting our tea farm, drinking our tea or working together on gaining tea knowledge, do get in touch. We would love to hear from you.’ Monica can be contacted on Instagram @windyhollowfarm, Twitter @windyhollowfarm and via the website of, you guessed it, the Windy Hollow Farm.

Little helpers © @windyhollowfarm

Little helpers © @windyhollowfarm

Organic farming

‘Integral to our work here is using the organic method. Our land has not received any pesticides or herbicides for many years and we have now started the conversion process with the Soil Association. This will last 20 months and we are then officially a fully recognized organic tea farm in about autumn 2018. For us organic means to try and support our tea plants in a natural way, with healthy and strong soil and making and using plant based homemade nutrition.

Instead of pesticides we encourage wildlife like spiders and toads which help to eat up all the creepy crawlers that want to nibble on our plants. Of course it is a lot of work to go the organic way, and picking up slugs by hand isn’t a very pleasant task. However, when you see the thriving tea plants it’s all worthwhile. In terms of watering we are very fortunate to have a Natural Spring on our farm that can be seen on an old historical map of 1867 already. We use this Spring water to water and nourish our plants and also of course for preparing tea. Much nicer taste without all that chlorine in tap water. 

We also are very keen to use renewable energy generation for the electricity needed for processing. So for example, we are keen to use solar and wind energy to power the heating appliances we need for processing. Exciting to put it all together.’

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