The rebirth of a tea garden, part one: The death of the previous one.

the tea garden shredder in action

For those of you who landed here attracted by our tongue in cheek Halloween themed promotion of this post, you may be disappointed not to hear us reveal stories of Taiwanese haunted tea gardens or evil spirits lurking along the rows of bushes in our tea growing town, although I am sure the local folklore must have a full repertoire of them. Rest assured, our post remains entertaining and reveals not often seen images of how tea gardens die, cruelly we admit, but sometimes, get a new lease on life like in the case of this one. The element of surprise is present, horror is also there but not through primal emotions. The story we are telling today exemplifies the consequences of the prevailing conventional ways of tea farming that rely heavily and systematically on fertilizers and pesticides and, in a soon to be published second part, how new approaches to tea farming are making their way with practices that have a good foothold in tradition but also consider new ideas like sustainability as a guiding factor. This is a story that we’ve followed closely for the last year as it concerns one of our family’s newly leased tea gardens.

Before we go any further, it is important to state that what is presented here is not representative of what is practiced all throughout the tea producing areas of Taiwan, nor is it isolated to our area, or to Taiwan alone. We’ve had the heartbreaking opportunity, for instance, to witness first hand how mythical tea growing areas of much larger scale are in a far more alarming state in a country not too far from Taiwan… In essence, what we show you today is a reality that is common place everywhere where tea is grown, and we dare say in all spheres of agricultural activity.
This garden had to be torn down. The “tea shredder” we sent through the rows of bushes did not kill the garden. It was already dead. At least, from a tea producing stand point it was. To the untrained eye that still sees a perfect canopy of seemingly healthy green leaves on its top surface it is a statement that is hard to comprehend. I certainly didn’t want to believe it. I challenged everyone around me to find a way to salvage the garden. Surely, when there is appearance of life like this, there must be hope! Patiently, each of my observations and questions were met with factual information that led to conclude that the tea garden, in its present configuration, was doomed. Drastic measures were necessary. We needed to start anew, so in came the “shredder”.



The shrubs you see being mulched down to small particles in a matter of seconds were not quite 25 years old, according to the land owner who planted this garden in the early 90’s. For tea gardens that are managed the same way, 25 years is now considered old. The shrubs were simply no longer yielding a profitable crop since a few years so the grower stopped investing in fertilizer on this particular garden. How is that so, you may ask? The key word here is profitability. Conventional agriculture that relies on chemical fertilizers requires more and more as years go by. A combined effect of the soil being depleted from nutrients at the same time as the plant requires more through growth has a bearing on the quantity that is required. This is compounded by the constant increase in price of fertilizers over the years. In parallel, the price of finished tea in bulk virtually remained the same due to market dynamics (we will explain this further in part 2). So, it’s not hard to understand that production costs, at one point, match the revenues generated by the garden, making it unfeasible to continue exploiting it. I was also told that 20 years back, the gardens that were renovated like this one is today were twice that old (30 – 40 years old). The lifespan of tea gardens tends to be shorter with time putting additional pressure on the prospects of profitability over the years.

Ok, that is an accountant’s point of view based on pursuing the same model of agriculture. What if we changed our ways and turned things around regarding our practices? Well, apparently, despite this, irreparable damage was done on the plant stock. Damage that could simply not be turned around in a short period of time. Let me explain. At this point we must bring in another factor: this gardens leaves were mechanically plucked, or trimmed if you prefer, instead of hand picked. You can see the technique here. This is not a bad technique as such and one should not demonize it as it can be used respectfully in a well-managed tea growing strategy. But, in the case of this garden, it had contributed to shorten the life-span of it. If you refer to the picture of the cross section of the tea row you see below, you can see how there is a profusion of small branches on the outer perimeter of the canopy, and only those tiny branches have leaves. The canopy is nice and even and very full, due to the constant roundness given by the trimmer. A hand picked bush, is less perfect with a more natural and uneven top branch pattern. Leaves are present not only at the very tip of the branches and there are less shoots than on a mechanically trimmed tree. More shoots means more requirements in nutrients and water. More requirements means more stress on the plant to meet its needs. After many years of being pushed to its limits, the humble tea bush becomes more prone to many ailments and pest infestation. This is where the endless spiral of multiplying human interventions starts escalating. Here, we could easily branch out and discuss many “solutions” proposed by the agrochemical sector, like foliar fertilizers, but we will refrain for now. We will make it a topic to explore thoroughly later on.

Notice also on the same picture that the main trunk and branches reaching to the canopy are fairly skinny and extremely elongated for their diameter. The bush seems frail, and it is! At one point, it has difficulty bringing all the required food and water to the canopy. Eventually, the canopy dries up and becomes patchy. The first signs of this is the slow growth of new shoots which this garden was experiencing for a few years now. When running you hand through the canopy branches would easily snap, proving that the damage was indeed done.

Obviously, if one’s objective was to salvage this garden for ornamental reasons, not for producing tea, there would be hope for these bushes. But, in this case, starting afresh was the only logical step to take.

Very soon, in our second instalment, find out how we gave a new lease on life to this tea garden and follow its progress since its rebirth nearly one year ago. In the meantime, if you have comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to react in the comments below. We love reading you and will reply to all entries.


Important note: Taiwan Tea Crafts does not source teas from any grower or producer that practices tea farming as it is described above.  


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