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Winter at the Tea Gardens

by Lydia Kung

Happy February!

The lunar new year falls on February 5th on our 2019 calendar. We may not feel the celebratory anticipation but definitely feel the long holidays’ effects. Few shipments will be leaving from China in February, and the window for booking vessels began to narrow in January. Even though office workers return after just one week off, factory workers use their longer holiday to return to home villages, sometimes quite distant.

(For a society that places so much importance on the family, the movement of parents to city jobs, leaving behind grandparents and children in villages for extended periods, is a jarring cultural shift and makes the new year trek home all the more weighty and momentous.)

Below: a tea garden in Hunan, January

This annual journey home calls for arriving with presents. Frenzied shopping in China includes teas, so this is an important “Black Friday” period for tea vendors.

Below: Nepal tea garden in January. Low temperatures and drier days stress the tea plants, resulting in exceptionally fine 1st flush teas.

At the tea gardens, the picture is much calmer during these winter months. Pruning, composting, and weeding continue as does the preparation of seedlings.

The latest batch of tea from 2018 we received is the True Cream Golden Buds oolong, which was made in early December. The creamy aroma and buttery notes of this distinctive unflavored tea depend on fine weather when the tea is being processed. An earlier batch from late November from the very same garden offered a much fainter flavor, attributed to wetter days. In this case, waiting a bit longer was worthwhile.

An experienced tea farmer is able to judge when to put in seedlings. If a garden has been well maintained, the tea plant’s life cycle usually covers about 30 years. The growth period is from seeds, to seedlings (immature or in infancy), to the “adult” stage, and then the tea bush enters the senescent stage, when the plant is metabolically active but no longer as robust.

Little wonder that the “ancient” tea trees in Yunnan and old bushes in Wuyi garner so much acclaim, as these are 100 years or older. By and large, the Yunnan tea trees are left to grow “wild,” with little watering or fertilizers added. Many are organic, producing especially fine black teas in the spring and lesser known green teas along with the better know Puerh types.

Regular pruning maintains normal growth, and experienced farmers know when to apply shallow cuts, medium or deep cuts. But when the plant enters the senescent phase and the aging tea bush cannot be restored by pruning, then they must be replaced, all the while managing planting operations, garden reclamation, weed control, and water supply.

Come spring, eyes turn upward towards the skies hopeful for good weather, and farmers and factories face the challenge of finding enough workers for those few short weeks when the first growth appears.

February 1, 2019