Tea plants can grow in the wild by themselves with no human intervention whatsoever. To produce tea, that we enjoy so much, however, some level of human involvement is necessary: be it simply picking leaves from the tea plants or tending to the tea plants more rigorously. Here we will talk about the tea plant management throughout its life span as well as yearly tea farming activities common in modern day farming.
Tea Plant Management
If left be, tea plants can live for a long time – even over a thousand years (as some tea plants found in China). For commercial production in Japan, though, they are usually planted and replanted approximately about every 40-50 years. Within the lifespan of a tea plant tea farmers plant, maintain and replant the tea plants in their fields.
Tea plants can propagate and spread by themselves – simply by producing tea seeds. It is tea farmers these days that decide where the most optimal place for the new tea field is. In early days tea plants were simply propagated from the tea seeds – tea farmers would collect the tea seeds and would plant them in the new tea field.
Nowadays in Japan tea plants are mostly propagated from the cuttings. A cutting is a small part of a branch (normally a new shoot), that usually has one tea leaf on it. The branch is placed in soil and over time it starts to develop roots. When a cutting has developed some roots and branches (usually after 1-2 years) it is replanted into its permanent field.
Why to propagate tea plants from cuttings, you might say. These days most of the tea in Japan is produced from cultivars – tea plants selected by humans for some favorable qualities (harvest amount, flavor, resistance to natural dangers, etc.). When the tea plants are propagated from cuttings they carry forward 100% of information from their mother plant (essentially becoming a clone of their mother plant); and so keep the selected favorable qualities. When a tea plant is propagated from a seed, on the other hand, it only carries 50% of information from their mother plant (remaining 50% come from the pollen from another tea plant). Which means there is a high chance of the new tea plant propagated from a seed to lose the favorable qualities. That is why in Japan these days the tea plants are mostly propagated from cuttings.
Once the tea plants are planted in a new tea field, they need to be maintained through their life span. Some of the maintenance works will assist in the tea plant growth, some will keep it easily manageable.
One of the most important activities in tea plant management is trimming. Tea plants are trimmed routinely throughout the year to keep them at an easy to access height and to give space for new shoots to come out (more about in the section on yearly tea farming activities). Every three years or so, tea plants will experience a deeper trimming, where they are cut back to about to just about 30cm above the ground. What this does is it helps to reinvigorate a tea plant – it grows younger branches with more energy, that will result in a higher yield. The deeper trimming is usually performed after the spring harvest (that produces the most prized teas) and the tea plant is left to rest and regrow until the next spring.
After some time even deep trimmings will stop being effective and the tea plants will stop giving economically viable harvest. That is when the tea plants may be dug out and new cuttings will take their place. It has to be mentioned, though, that it will take about five years for a newly planted tea field to give a good harvest. Every year it will be trimmed and looked after until the new tea plants develop strong root and branch networks. Then tea production will begin again.
Yearly Tea Farming Activities
Every year there are many farming activities to make sure tea plants stay healthy and give a good yield. The one we usually care about the most is harvesting, – or collecting tea leaves for tea production. In addition to that, tea plants are also trimmed, fertilized to give some extra nutrition, shaded and so on.
Harvesting – Seasons
When we think about tea cultivation, harvesting is the most intensive tea farming activity. In Japan tea harvesting goes on from spring to autumn and depending on the area there are usually 3-4 harvesting seasons (as it takes about 1.5 months for the new shoots to grow).
Spring season (一番茶) is the most important in Japanese tea production, as that is when the most prized and highest in grade teas, such as Matcha, Gyokuro and Sencha are produced. Depending on the area it usually starts in the middle of April or beginning of May and goes until the end of May or beginning of June.
Summer season(二番茶) is next and it usually takes place from the beginning/middle of June to the middle/end of July. Teas produced in this season are lower in grade. The production of cooking grade Matcha and lower grades Sencha is common for this season.
In the late summer: middle of August to middle of September, tea can be harvested again (三番茶). It is only common in southern areas, though, not that much across Japan, as many tea farmers choose to give tea plants and themselves a break in the scorching summer heat.
Commonly tea is harvested again in Autumn, usually from the middle of September to the middle of October (秋番茶). Tea produced in this season is even lower in grade and is often used for teabags and ready to drink bottled teas.
Tea can be harvested again from the middle of October to the middle of November (秋冬番茶) or from the beginning to the end of March (春番茶). Tea farmers usually choose one or the other and it usually serves as the final trimming before the spring harvest. Tea leaves harvested in these seasons are more coarse and tougher to roll, so they are often produced in flat roasted teas, such as Hirabancha or Kyobancha.
Harvesting – Methods
It is also important to talk about methods used in tea harvesting. Back in the old days in Japan (though, still in many countries around the world today) tea leaves used to be picked by hand. It takes long hours and the amount is small.
Through time Japan modernized and mechanized and new methods for tea harvesting were introduced. The next step from harvesting by hand was to use tea cutting shears with a cotton bag attached to one side of it, so that the cut tea leaves could fall directly into it. That made it a bit more efficient, but still relied much on human labor.
After that we got the tea harvesting machine. It is held by two people from each side of the tea row (and is the reason for the beautiful stripy tea scenery in Japan). The machine itself consists of curved hedge trimmer with a long bag attached to it and tubes blowing air and pushing freshly cut leaves into the bag. The harvest amount of this machine in a day is equal to the work of 25-30 people. Because of its efficiency and maneuvering power it is still used today, especially in more mountainous areas of Japan.
In the flatlands another machine is common today – man-driven machine, where the machine hovers over the tea row and brings the harvested tea leaves into an attached bag or container. This machine is said to be able to harvest up to 1t of raw tea leaves a day.
Before we can harvest tea leaves, tea plants need to have enough nutrition to produce the new growth. While there is naturally some nutrition in the soil, that is not nearly enough for commercially produced tea and so the soil has to be enriched with additional materials for the tea plants to give a good harvest.
The most important nutrients in the tea plant (as well as many other plants) diet are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. The soil can be enriched with these components from natural or chemically designed materials. Among the common natural materials we find pressed canola seeds, animal bone mean, animal manure, even trimmed branches of those same tea plants. For the plants to absorbed these materials, they first need to be broken apart in the soil. A faster and more efficient way is to apply chemically distilled pure components. The choice on which to use will depend on the tea farmer and his/her tea farm management techniques.
The fertilizer is routinely applied through the year – usually 5-6 times a year. Higher and easier absorbable dozes are applied closer to harvesting seasons – a month or a few weeks before.
Pest and Weed Control
Tea plants feeding on the delicious nutrients and producing delicious tea leaves is an inviting signal to pests and weeds, which can take over nutrients from a tea plant and damage the new tea leaves. That is a big worry for the tea farmers, and they look for ways to fight it or event prevent it.
Because of highly developed chemical industry, the use of chemically designed materials (pesticides, herbicides) is common in the Japanese tea industry. There are strong regulations in place on which kind of materials and how much can be applied on the tea plants. However, many people still worry about the effect on human health and environment.
There are also natural ways to deal with pests and weed, though arguably, they are more labor intensive and less effective. Dealing with weeds without chemical input requires routine manual weeding, that is labor intensive, and rather costly in Japan.
Relying on natural ways to control pests involves relying on the beneficial predatory pests, such as spiders, lady bugs, praying mantis, that help to reduce harmful pest populations.
In production of higher-grade teas such as Matcha, Gyokuro, Kabuse Sencha, another technique – shading, can be used. What shading does is it helps to produce more umami-rich tea leaves. One of the key components in a tea leaf is Theanine, that is one of amino acids stemming directly from tea plant nutrition. Through the internal channels of the tea plant Theanine travels from the roots to the leaves. If exposed to sunlight, though, it breaks apart and transforms into Catechins (bitter and astringent components). If the access to the sunlight is prevented, this transformation is inhibited and Theanine remains in the tea leaves without transforming into Catechins. Shading does exactly this job.
Back in the old days, natural reeds would be placed over tea plants (originally to cover them form snow until this other beneficial effect was noticed). Nowadays, artificial but more durable materials such as black tarp, are more common. They can be applied directly on top of a tea plant or raised above in a shelf structure.
It is important to mention that the sunlight is not restricted completely (as the tea plant would not survive without it), but to about 85%-95%, letting a small amount of light to go through.
Routine trimming is another important tea farming activity. Trimming is basically cutting the tea leaves and branches, but instead of making them into tea returning them to the ground (as that kind of tea would normally be very cheap and not worth making).
Tea plant usually needs to be trimmed after each main harvest to help keep a manageable shape and give space for the new shoots to come in the next season. Trimmings after spring and summer seasons often become a lower grade tea – Bancha. Trimmings from late summer and autumn usually are returned to the ground, because the price for them is just too low.
We hope this information will give more insight into Japanese tea production, and will inspire more appreciation for Japanese tea. So much effort goes in farming and processing it, until it reaches your cup and becomes a delicious tea. Please remember this effort the next time you drink Japanese tea.