In the 13th and 14th centuries, the value of one pound of ginger was equivalent to the cost of a sheep.
Photo by iStock/phanasitti
by Barbara Pleasant
Your first glimpse of “baby” ginger or turmeric probably took place at a farmers market. Pink-blushed knobs of ginger seemed to jump into your shopping bag, and you had to try a few dimpled turmeric roots, too. You marveled at the tender crispness of the young ginger, which needed no peeling, and what fun you had using grated bits of turmeric as if it were saffron! Now you are wondering about growing your own.
Yes, you can. Anyone can grow baby ginger or turmeric, which are less fibrous than their fully grown counterparts, by adapting methods used by farmers from Maine to Missouri, who use high tunnels to mimic the tropical growing conditions these crops require. But even without a greenhouse, you can expect success if you get an early start indoors and grow the plants in containers. As true tropical plants, ginger and turmeric actually like having their roots heat up in above-ground pots. Your reward will be a five- to eight-fold increase in the root weight at the end of the season, plus the summer company of these pest-free, heat-loving plants. (Note that seed-saving is difficult for some growers of ginger, because bacterial problems can eventually take hold.)
Know Your Roots
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) probably originated in India and Southern China, where it has been valued as a spice for thousands of years. Closely related turmeric (Curcuma longa) is native to Southern Asia, and it is essential in curry-based dishes throughout the world. A notable advantage to growing your own turmeric is that you can occasionally pick one or two of its large leaves to use as wrappers for delicate foods you want to grill.
Ginger and turmeric have similar cultural requirements, so you can plant a pot of each and give them the same basic care. In North America, roots of both plants must be pre-sprouted in spring, rather like sweet potatoes, and kept indoors until warm weather prevails. Outdoors, the plants crave heat and need plenty of water, but they also like a little shelter from blazing afternoon sun. When you grow ginger and turmeric in containers, you can easily move the plants around until you find the perfect spot.
Planting Ginger and Turmeric
You can mail-order ginger and turmeric for planting (try Hawaiian Organic Gingerand Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds). You can also work with roots purchased at your health-food store. In some parts of the country where growing baby ginger and turmeric has already caught on, you may be able to buy plants from a local farmer. Vegetable farmers who grow baby ginger and turmeric as cash crops often sell potted plants in spring, which are great buys, because the roots have already been coaxed out of dormancy and begun to grow.
If you are working with pieces of ginger and turmeric that have not yet sprouted, here’s how to pre-sprout little pieces yourself. Lay three-inch pieces that include one or two small fingers on their sides in a shallow bed of moist seed-starting mix, then sprinkle on more to cover them. Water until lightly moist, and move to a warm place where temperatures range between 70 and 80 degrees, such as atop your refrigerator. Warmth is more important than moisture during the pre-sprouting process, which takes three to six weeks.
When pointed buds appear at the surface of the soil mix, move your plants to dark-colored, three-gallon pots filled halfway with organic potting soil (dark containers accumulate more solar warmth than light ones). Cover the plants with only two inches of soil at first, and add more every couple of weeks as more shoots appear. Move plants outdoors when nighttime temperatures stay above 55 degrees. In early summer, you can gently transplant them to larger 5-gallon pots or square planters.
Providing Food and Water
Ginger and turmeric thrive on plenty of water, so plan to water your plants daily in midsummer. Every three weeks, top-dress them with a balanced organic fertilizer or a few handfuls of very rich compost, such as composted poultry manure. If your plants are growing slowly or showing yellowing leaves, they are not receiving sufficient nutrients.
Both ginger and turmeric grow into upright plants three to four feet tall. The stems and leaves of ginger are narrow and bamboo-like compared with turmeric, which has broader leaves and therefore grows into a lush, full plant worthy of consideration as an edible ornamental.
Ginger and turmeric are photoperiodic plants that concentrate on growing big roots when nights become longer in August. Fertilizer becomes less important as new growth subsides, but adding an inch of fresh soil to the tops of the pots helps keep root development on track. According to the Rodale Institute, ginger should also be hilled (raised), allowing the soil’s nutrients and air pockets to become more accessible.
Harvesting and Storage
Wait as late as you can to harvest your roots, but do it before freezing weather. Pull the entire plant, loosen soil around the roots with your fingers, and then clean the roots with a strong spray of water and clip off the upright stems. Baby ginger holds together in a clump until you break it apart, while turmeric roots readily detach from the mother clump.
Ginger and turmeric will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, but the best long-term storage method is freezing. When you want a small amount of either spice, simply take out a frozen piece, grate off what you want, and return it to the freezer. You can store baby ginger or turmeric in regular freezer containers, but freezing small amounts in vacuum-sealed bags works even better.