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Ginger – Gardening Tips from the Culinary View

Ginger – Gardening Tips from the Culinary View

as recommended by Michael Vidrine

We love to cook using Asian recipes.  That is especially true this time of year when we are harvesting lots of cool season vegetables that are so good in a stir fry or soup.  One of the essential ingredients in most Asian cooking is ginger. 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) originated in Southeast Asia and was domesticated and spread over 5000 years ago.  Early on, the plant was transported throughout the Pacific islands and even reached Hawaii.  It was one of the first spices imported from Asia to Europe. The spices turmeric and cardamom are in the same family as Ginger. Although there is a wild ginger relative, the spice we grow today does not exist in the wild making Zingiber officinale a true “cultigen” – a plant selected and improved by cultivation.

Ginger is a tropical herbaceous perennial which arises annually from an underground rhizome.  The rhizome is the ginger we most often use although the tough stems and leaves of the plant have the same flavor and can be used to spice soups and stews.  The rhizome sends up leafy stems and separate flower stalks to 3 feet tall. In tropical and sub-tropical areas, ginger is often grown as a landscape plant.  There are over 1,000 Species of ginger and many of these relatives have variegated leaves and showier flowers.

In the tropics and warm sub tropics, ginger can be grown as a true perennial.  In our zone 8 and colder however, the plant is more likely to be damaged or killed by cold winter conditions and will probably do best if treated as a long warm season annual – the same way we grow other tropical plants like tomatoes and sweet potatoes. 

The longer the plant is in leaf, the larger and more mature the edible rhizome will be, so it helps to start growing the plants indoors in late winter.  Start with seed pieces cut from the larger rhizome.  Each piece should have at least one eye – a bumpy protrusion – and be 1 to 2 ounces in size.  If the ginger is purchased from the grocery store, it may have been treated to inhibit sprouting.  Soaking the ginger overnight in water before taking seed pieces can help to improve sprouting.  Start the seed pieces 1 to 2 inches deep in a good potting mix and moisten whenever the soil dries out.  It may take 6 to 8 weeks for the ginger to sprout.

Set the plants out either in larger containers or in very well drained garden soil high in organic matter after the outside soil temperatures are above 50 degrees – about when we plant sweet corn.  Plant with the sprouts showing – generally no more than 2 inches deep and spaced 6 inches apart.  The plants will do best in full sun to part shade with some protection from hotter western exposure.  Ginger likes relatively high fertility and even moisture so regular watering and periodic light fertilization through the growing season is appropriate.  As the plants grow, keep the developing rhizome covered with soil or mulch as needed to prevent exposure to sunlight which would affect the flavor.  This is the same way we “hill” potatoes to keep developing tubers underground.  When the weather begins to cool in the fall, reduce watering to encourage the plant to put more energy into the rhizome.  After about 5 to 6 months of growth, the plant will have formed baby ginger which is generally milder and more tender than the full-grown rhizome.  Fully mature ginger with its characteristic tan outer skin can take 10 to 12 months and may require container growing or growing in a greenhouse.  The flesh may be white, yellow, or red depending on the variety – yellow being the dominant type available in grocery stores. 

Harvest the rhizomes by loosening the soil around the roots and pulling up the entire plant.  Wash off the soil and cut off any remaining leaf stalks.  Fresh ginger can be stored for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.  For longer storage, the rhizome can be frozen or dried.  The flavor of fresh ginger is noticeably stronger and somewhat different from the dried spice.

For some, ginger helps alleviate nausea and it is common to have candied ginger available on many cruise ships.  Ginger is also credited with having some anti-inflammatory effect as well as improving digestion. There is some evidence that regular consumption of ginger may help decrease weight and increase good cholesterol.  Even considering the possible beneficial effects, most ginger is consumed just because it tastes good. There are a few people however that perceive the taste of ginger as truly awful.  My son in law is one of those and for him ginger tastes like soap – yuck.   Before preparing a meal with lots of ginger, it might be best to check to see if any of the guests have a ginger aversion.

The spice is used in a wide variety of food items and is ubiquitous in Asian and South Asian dishes as well as many western sweets like ginger ale, gingerbread, and candied ginger.  The flavor of ginger gets milder the longer it is cooked so it should be added towards the end of cooking if a stronger flavor is desired.   Young ginger is often pickled in vinegar or alcohol and ginger makes a nice tea especially when sweetened with a bit of local honey.  Sushi is almost always served with pickled ginger as a plate cleanser.  In our area, ginger will usually be harvested in mid to late fall and will go well with lots of the fresh produce in the garden at the same time.  Stir fries, soups, stews, and curries spiced up with ginger and its favorite companion – garlic – can make a plethora of tasty and healthy meals. Carrots and winter squashes are particularly well paired with ginger as are fresh home-grown peaches.  I particularly like the spicy and refreshing Japanese ginger salad dressing.

Ginger is not the most common spice grown in our area but is still worth a bit of effort, especially to get baby ginger which can be quite expensive and very difficult to find.  If you are up for a bit of a challenge, give growing ginger a shot in your garden.

Michael Vidrine

Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor

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