The bounty of the tropics overflows from our pantries and spice cabinets. Vanilla, allspice, cocoa, pepper, coffee, cinnamon — riches we consume regularly with only the vaguest idea of how they were grown or even what their parent plants looked like.
Though many of these equatorial edibles are impossible to grow in gardens where frost traces its embroidery across leaves, it’s not impossible to grow two of my favorites: zippy common ginger (Zingiber officinale) and its spicy yellow cousin, turmeric (Curcuma longa). For both of these plants, the rhizome — an underground stem that puts out shoots and roots — is the edible part.
If you live in a warmer part of the United States, from Zone 8 and higher (and maybe in Zone 7 with mulch!), you can grow these must-have perennial spices right in the ground. Farther north, it’s still possible with a little work. Ready? Let’s grow our own curry and gingerbread!
How to Plant
Ginger is a perennial root crop. It doesn’t produce seeds, which is fine because all you need to grow ginger (and turmeric) are some fresh rhizomes with living “eyes” on them. The eyes are growth buds from which the green shoots grow. Chances are you won’t even have to buy rhizomes or starts from a seed company, as many grocery stores — particularly organic markets — stock fresh rhizomes right in the produce section. Just make sure the eyes aren’t cut off (as I’ve seen done on some imported Chinese ginger).
If you’re interested in growing ginger to sell, you’re better off buying clean seed rhizomes from a reputable source — though I’ve never had trouble with any of the plants I’ve started from the grocery store or farmers market.
Ginger rhizomes are quite a bit larger than turmeric rhizomes, so I break them up into a few pieces that each have at least three or four eyes on them. I usually plant the entire turmeric rhizome, unless they’re in a clump, and then I break them up. Don’t let the rhizomes sit around on your counter and dry out for too long or they won’t grow. Just take them and plant them right into the soil if you live in a warm area, or into a big pot if you don’t. Then, wait. It sometimes takes a long time for ginger to send up shoots. The timing depends on the warmth of the soil, so if you plant when conditions are warm, you might see ginger in a few weeks. If you plant in November, you might not see shoots until April. Plant in spring for the best production. I plant mine at about a 4-inch depth in loosened soil.
Care and Feeding
Despite being tropical, ginger and turmeric have both a growing season and a dormant season. In spring, shoots emerge from the ground when the weather is nice and warm. Ginger always pops up faster for me than turmeric. Turmeric is a slowpoke. The plants will wait until a couple of warm months pass, and then will really get started in summer. In my experience, turmeric waits about a month longer than ginger to emerge.
Ginger and turmeric don’t like high temperatures or harsh sunlight. In my North Florida garden, they sunburn badly if I don’t plant them in shade, so keep that in mind if your area has hot summers. I grew them in shade beneath the fruit trees in my food forest, where they produced quite happily, though I didn’t really follow the rules on feeding and watering. They can take a lot of neglect and still live, but they’ll produce much better — and faster — if you feed and water them regularly.
Ginger and turmeric will burn if you give them too much fertilizer and will grow more leaves instead of meatier rhizomes if they get too much nitrogen. My advice is to plant them in good soil and load the plants up with compost. Mulching is great. Commercial growers hill up ginger (much as you would potatoes) a few times over the growing season to ensure well-shaped rhizomes and plenty of growth. This hasn’t been necessary for me.
Ginger and turmeric like regular watering but don’t care to sit in water or constantly wet soil. The plants won’t do much when the weather is cool, below about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They also slow down when it gets hot (about 90 degrees and up). I have both conditions in North Florida, but keeping my plants in the shade moderates things quite a bit and keeps them going.
If your climate manages 10 frost-free months out of the year, you’re in a great place for growing ginger and turmeric. I have seven to eight months and they still do fine, but the shorter the season, the less time the rhizomes have to form.
Also, unless you grow ginger and turmeric in an area where they’re grown commercially, you’re not likely to have many (if any) pest or disease problems. A few leaves get gnawed now and again, but my plants have always taken care of themselves.
Cultivation in Colder Climates
Believe it or not, ginger has been grown on a small scale — in the ground — for farmers markets all the way up into New England and the Midwest, though I’m not sure whether any enterprising farmers are doing the same with turmeric. Where you can grow one, you can grow the other, so perhaps you can be the first in your area.
For northern gardeners, growing ginger in the ground is a matter of pre-sprouting it in a greenhouse under warm conditions, and then planting out after the last frost date. It’s vital to feed and water ginger well, as the clock will be ticking before the cold of fall arrives. Leave the rhizomes in the ground until just before the first frost hits, and then dig them for the table or to store in some slightly damp potting soil in a place that doesn’t freeze. If the ground freezes solid in your area, ginger won’t be a perennial outdoors. If you’re in a spot where the ground doesn’t freeze more than an inch or so deep, mulch away. New shoots should emerge in spring.
If you want to skip all that work of growing in the ground, plant ginger or turmeric in a large pot and bring it inside for winter. They’re quite forgiving and can take shade, but don’t overwater or let the pot dry all the way out.
In November, ginger and turmeric leaves will yellow and die back to the ground whether it freezes or not. All the aboveground growth is knocked down faster if it freezes, but even if it doesn’t freeze, they’ll still go dormant. This is usually when I harvest rhizomes for the table. A lot of the development takes place in the last few weeks before the plants die back, so don’t be too eager to harvest. If you live in a climate where you can grow ginger and turmeric outside without them dying a frosty death in winter, you might consider not harvesting them at all in the first year. I allow my plants to form clumps and don’t harvest until the second year. When I do finally harvest, I get plenty of rhizomes from each clump and will leave just a few pieces in the hole after harvesting so they’ll come back again in the spring. Ginger is more productive for me than turmeric, with much larger rhizomes. Sometimes I dig out a chunk of ginger from one of my clumps — any time of the year — when we need some for a recipe or an upset stomach. I usually harvest turmeric in one fell swoop after letting it grow for a couple of years into a respectable clump.
When you harvest, try to be gentle with the rhizomes. Earlier in the season, they’ll be more delicate because of the new growth. This is sometimes called “baby ginger.” If you pull them later, after the tops die in fall and winter, ginger and turmeric will be tougher.
Give ginger and turmeric a try and you’ll be growing them for life. Even if you grow them as an ornamental, you’ll be captivated by their beauty and spicy scent. As a bonus, you can use the leaves for tea or add them to soup, like you would bay leaves, for a little tropical zip. What are you waiting for? Go out and get growing!
• Botanical name: Zingiber officinale
• Native range: Tropical Asia
• Height: 2 to 4 feet
• Spread: 2 to 3 feet
• Growing conditions: Part shade; fertile, well-drained soil
• Winter hardy: Zones 8 to 12
• Botanical name: Curcuma longa
• Native range: India, Malaysia
• Height: 3 to 4 feet
• Spread: 3 to 4 feet
• Growing conditions: Full sun to part shade; moist, well-drained soil
• Winter hardy: Zones 8 to 11