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Tea Growing A Long-Term, But Paying Investment

by Joshua Kato
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There are three considerations in planning a tea estate – climate, soil acidity and labour availability. Suitable climate has a minimum annual rainfall of 45 to 50 inches (1,140mm to 1,270mm), with proper distribution.

“It is advisable that you plant during the beginning of the rainy season,” Edwin Bekunda says.

Tea is planted using seedlings. Bekunda is a tea farming ‘crusader’ in Uganda, with establishments in northern, west nile and western Uganda under his Edwin Foundation (EFOTI).

Tea soils must be acidic; tea cannot be grown in alkaline soils. A desirable pH value is 5.8 to 5.4 or less.
You can find out the pH after doing a soil test from Kawanda or Makerere University, among other places.

“These soils can be found across many parts of the country and not necessarily the south-west, west in Toro and Mityana,” Bekunda says.

He explains that parts of Luwero, Mukono, Busoga and the north carry similar soils too, hence can ably accommodate tea-growing. 

Bekunda says you should dig a hole that is three feet deep, with a spacing of four feet between rows and two and half feet between plants in the same row. “Tea trees grow expanding and as they do, they connect to each other,” Bekunda says.  

A crop of 1,650kgs of tea leaves per hectare requires 1.5 to 2 workers per acre (3.7 to 4.9 workers per hectare) to pluck the tea shoots and perform other fieldwork.

Mechanical plucking has been tried but, because of its lack of selectivity, cannot replace hand plucking.

Expenses
For starters, it is often better to acquire plants that have already grown. These can be got from nurseries ran by farmers like Bekunda.

Bekunda says a seedling costs sh500 each. This means that if one is planting an acre with 5,000trees, then they need sh2.5m for the seedlings. Digging holes may cost between sh200-sh500 each depending on where one is. Fertilisers for an acre cost sh130,000 per year.

Bekunda says farmers can produce their own seedlings if they wish. However, they need a mother shamba from which they can regularly get the cuttings for the seedlings.

Preparation of beds

According to a detailed tea growing manual developed by EFOTI, the ideal size of a bed should be about 1-metre-wide and could be of any convenient size of about 20 metres, with a path way of 60cm on either side for carrying out nursery operations. Beds are built north-south direction to receive sunlight throughout the day. The beds should be raised to about 15cm for helping drainage and avoid contamination of bags with nematodes subsequently through running water and to avoid possible operational drainages to the plants.

Soil selection  

The growth of nursery plants depends on the texture (the proportion of sand, silt and clay) of the soil. Loamy soils containing sufficient fine particles (clay and silt) to hold up water together with sand to facilitate excess water to drain out are suitable for nurseries. The pH of the soil should be within a range of 4.5 and 5.5, preferably 5 for successful rooting and growth. The soils chosen for bagging should be sieved using No. 4 mesh to remove stones, pebbles and large root particles. The sources of soil suitable for nurseries are as follows;

Jungle soil

This is the soil with suitable texture from natural jungles, eucalyptus or pinus plantations can be used. The surface organic matter (decaying leaves and twigs) should be removed prior to use.

Sub-soil

This is obtained from a depth beyond 30 cm from the soil surface. After sieving (with No.4 mesh), its texture should be improved by adding fine sand proportionately (one part of fine sand with four to six parts of soil depending on the clayines of the soil).

Soil treatment

Soil should not be collected for nursery when it is too wet or dry in order to preserve the desired structure. Soil collected should be heaped in an enclosed area and protected from rain by thatching/ covering until it is used.

Soils collected from tea growing areas should be first fumigated before use to eradicate nematodes pests in soil.

Pot Preparation

Polyethylene bags (12×18 cm) are used as pots. Several holes are needed in the bottom of the bag for drainage. First, soil mixed with compost (50%) is put into the bag to fill it one-third full. Then, fine soil (2/3) is added to fill the pot. The pots are placed firmly on the nursery bed.

Erecting the Roof

A roof should be set up 1.8-2m above the ground. Roofing material should be in pieces, the small enough for them to be removed easily to allow watering and exposure to sunlight.

Choose branches 6 months old, with a stem 4-6mm in diameter. Cut each branch into small pieces, each 3-4cm in length with a single leaf.

Planting of Cuttings

Irrigate the bag pots up to about 80-85% before planting the cuttings. One or two cuttings are planted in each pot.

Light Control

1-2 months: Remove the roof only on cloudy days.

3-4 months: Remove the roof for the whole length between 2 rows.

After 5 months: Remove1/3 of the roof.

From 6 months: Remove the whole.

Fertilisation

Fertiliser with urea, superphosphate (SP), kaliclorua (KC). Fertiliser should be applied only after the cuttings have been rooted which would be between 6-8 weeks or 10-12 weeks.

Disease control (if needed)

Spray 3 months after planting with methylparathion or padan.

Shade for nurseries

Cuttings should not be exposed to direct sunlight an diffused or indirect sunlight of about 20 – 25 % light is adequate.

After care operation

Watering:

In the early stages regular water two to three times a day is necessary and watering should regulated depending on the weather.

Hardening of plants

As more leaves are formed, plants need exposure more sunlight for better growth. This must be done gradually as sudden exposure may lead to leaf scorch. Between the 4th and 6 months based on the elevation, the side of coir matting should be raised and the plant must be exposed to direct sun until the shade is completely removed.

Encouraging early spread

For maximum gain plants should be encouraged to form a low spread at any early stage. The following operations would encourage the formation lateral branches from lower level of the main stem.

Disbudding: To induce effective lateral branching, the terminal bud should be removed at 4 – 5 leaf stage. This should be repeated from auxiliary shoots also as they grow.

Thumb nailing: At about seventh to eighth leaf stage, after the root system is well developed, terminal bud and the two leaves immediately below should be pinched off to induce growth of lateral branches.

Planting

About 13,000 plants are planted in one hectare following double hedge system of planting (spacing: 4 X 3 X 3 ft). One year old plants are planted in pits with a dimension of 30 X 45 cm. The selected plants for planting should have 6 to 12 healthy mature leaves and the root system should have reached the bottom end of the sleeves at the time of planting. The stem at the collar region should be about pencil thick and brown. Soil and water conservation measures must be adopted while new planting is taken up.

Pruning

By pruning, parts of a plant like the branches, or buds are selectively removed. In tea, young plants are pruned to achieve the following objectives;

Ø To maintain a convenient height of plucking table for easy harvesting

Ø To stimulate vegetative shoot growth for sustaining productivity

Ø To remove old decayed, pest infested and diseased branches for maintaining healthy frame.

Types of pruning

The criterion for determining the height of pruning should be the thickness of branches. Generally, a 4-year pruning cycle is followed in the mid elevation areas and 5-year cycle at high elevations.

1. Tipping: It is the first round of harvesting of young shoots. Good frames could be developed with correct tipping. The first plucking of recovering bushes is called tipping. The objective of tipping is to establish a level plucking surface, to provide adequate maintenance foliage for the quick production of secondary branches.

2. Collar Prune (CP): All above ground portion is cut leaving only up to a maximum of 10 cm when bush frame becomes unproductive and root system is still healthy.

3. Heavy Prune/Rejuvenation Prune (RP) : 40-45 cm above ground in plains and 15-37 cm above ground in hills for frame renewal.

4. Clean pruning : where all the branches are cut

5. Rim lung pruning: where only about 3-4 healthy branches are left at the time of pruning.

6. Skiffing: this is the slashing or leveling operation which smoothens the plucking surface and reduces its height.

The length of pruning cycle should be 2-3 years. In pruning youngish tea a 15 cm blade knife should be used for light pruning

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