Late winter is the perfect time to start growing a spice that might surprise you: ginger (Zingiber officinale). Ginger’s fleshy roots, called rhizomes, are harvested and used in many ethnic cuisines. The spicy, crisp flavor of ginger adds a zing to many different dishes, and although it’s a tropical plant, growing ginger root is surprisingly easy.
Finding Ginger “Seed”
Ginger plants are grown from pieces of rhizomes, so to start your adventure in growing ginger root, head to a specialty or ethnic grocer that carries fresh, organic ginger rhizomes. Skip the roots you find at traditional grocery stores, as they’ve probably been treated with a growth inhibitor to keep them from sprouting new growth. Organic ginger is not treated with growth inhibitors.
Look for rhizomes with thick, fleshy roots. Ones with lots of nubby growth nodes are even better. These growth nodes look like small nodules and will eventually grow into leaves. If you happen to come across any rhizomes that are already starting to sprout green from these nodules, that’s even better.
Planting Ginger Root
When you get the rhizomes home, cut or break them into pieces about 2 inches long. Let the cut pieces rest on the kitchen counter for a few days, so the wounds can callous over before planting (otherwise you risk having the rhizomes rot soon after planting).
Before you’re ready to plant the rhizomes, soak them in tepid water for a few hours. Then plant the rhizome pieces horizontally, 2 to 3 inches deep in a pot of sterile, high-quality potting soil. If any of the growth nodes are sprouting green, make sure the green sprouts are facing up. Plant three to four rhizome pieces in an 8-inch-diameter pot; four to six rhizomes in a 12-inch-diameter pot; etc. The rhizomes should not touch each other in the pot. That way, if once piece should develop rot, it won’t spread to the others.
After watering in the pots, put them on a seedling heat mat to raise the soil temperature and speed growth. Put the pots under grow lights or in a bright window if you don’t have a grow light system.
The ginger roots should sprout new growth within a week or two. Keep them watered, but not constantly saturated, which could lead to rot. When the sprouting leaves reach an inch in height, remove the heat mat.
Transplanting Your Starts
When growing ginger root, you can leave your ginger plants in their pots, or transplant them into the garden. In the spring, when the danger of frost has passed, the pots can be moved outdoors and placed in a partially shaded spot in the garden. Choose a spot with full sun in the morning and dappled shade later in the day.
Every few weeks, use an organic liquid fertilizer to feed your growing ginger plants. They’ll put out lots of lush, new leaves all summer long, each of which will reach about two to three feet in height.
Ginger plants are really quite lovely. Their tropical foliage adds a lot of interest to the garden. If your ginger is planted in the ground, water it whenever you water the rest of the garden. If your ginger is growing in pots, avoid allowing the plants to dry out.
Harvesting takes place in late summer or early fall, before the arrival of the first frost. To harvest homegrown ginger, dig up the plant, brush off all the soil, cut off the foliage, and crack the roots into pieces. Larger rhizomes can be used for cooking, but save the smaller ones for replanting next year. You can store them in a dark, cool place for the winter (much like you’d store a harvested potato).
Ginger plants have a growth cycle of 10 months (meaning the plants shift into a natural dormancy at that time). If you’d prefer to delay your harvest by a few months, move any pots of ginger you have into the house before they’re touched by frost and grow them as a houseplant. In mid-winter, the leaves will yellow and die back, signaling that it’s time for you to harvest their roots.
Growing ginger root of your own is a fun and delicious project. And, if you want another great project, try growing your own turmeric, too.