Ginger is the root – pun intended! – of so many great recipes from curries and stir-fries to gingerbread and more. Like everything else, the cost of store-bought ginger has shot up recently, so you stand to save money by growing it at home. But more than that – it’s exceptionally flavourful when harvested fresh from the garden.
This is one of those wonderful plants where, if you’re careful, you’ll be able to harvest what you need, replant the rest, and keep your ginger going year after year. And you can start your own ginger plant easily using sections of ginger root bought from the grocery store!
Growing Ginger From Rhizomes (Roots)
There are more than a thousand different types of ginger – some edible, and some not. While gingers vary a lot in appearance, they have one thing in common: they spread by chunky roots or, more accurately, rhizomes. A rhizome is just a sort of modified stem that creeps along just below the soil surface, sending out roots and stems as it goes. It’s an ingenious and very efficient way for plants to spread out.
To start a new ginger plant you need a healthy piece of ginger rhizome. A big, chunky section will give you a bigger plant from the start, reducing the time to harvest.
The rhizome should have some stubby, white, horn-like nodules on its surface. These are the ‘eyes’ of the rhizome from where the shoots will sprout. Ideally, each chunk of ginger should have at least two of these – and the more the merrier, because that will mean more growth from the off.
There’s no reason you can’t just buy and plant ginger bought from the supermarket. Buy organic if you can and look for firm, healthy sections. Avoid any shrivelled-up pieces. If the ginger is sold loose, you should have plenty to pick through, but some stores sell it prebagged, often as smaller sections. If you can’t find decent ginger then source rhizomes sold specifically for planting online, or check your local garden center.
Once you have your ginger, soak it in tepid water overnight. This removes any growth inhibitor that may have been applied to prevent the ginger from sprouting prematurely.
How to Plant Ginger
Planting ginger is as simple as popping your rhizome into some potting mix and watering it in. But for ginger to thrive it’s important to mimic the conditions it enjoys in its native southeast Asia, where it grows in open, spongy soil amongst leaf litter in the steamy, shaded humidity of the forest floor.
Mix together some sieved garden compost and composted bark, about half and half. The compost will be beautifully rich, while the bark should help keep things light and well-drained.
The rhizomes spread out in the soil, so you need to give them enough room to do that to prevent them from butting up against the sides of the pots in next to no time. Your container doesn’t need to be deep, but make sure it is wide, and of course that it has drainage holes in the bottom.
Fill the container almost to the top with your compost-bark potting mix, then place the ginger rhizome on top in the middle. Cover over just barely, because these rhizomes prefer to sit at the surface, rather than be buried deeper down, where they might just rot away. To finish, give it a good water to thoroughly moisten the potting mix.
The best time to plant ginger is in spring so the plant will have a full growing season of warmer weather and good daylength to help power growth, but if you can provide somewhere warm over the winter, then even autumn-planted ginger should do just fine.
Where to Grow Ginger
In the wild, ginger grows in the forest understory where it won’t get much, if any, direct sunshine in. In my temperate climate you can get away with a bit of sunshine, but even here it’s worth shielding plants from very strong sun. I learnt this the hard way when my ginger basically shrivelled up during last year’s exceptionally hot summer.
I keep my other gingers in a corner of my greenhouse where it gets morning sunshine but is shaded for most of the afternoon, and this setup has worked really well for them this summer. Ginger likes very warm conditions, so in cooler climates it will grow best in a greenhouse, or perhaps a sun room or a tall cold frame. If you’re in a hot climate, make doubly sure to keep plants shaded.
How to Water and Feed Ginger
We need to go easy on the watering while the ginger is yet to sprout otherwise the rhizome could rot. But once it has started to grow, it’ll need regular watering to mimic the frequent rain showers of its natural habitat. Because the growing medium is very well-draining, keep a close eye to ensure it doesn’t dry out. I find I need to water every day in warmer weather. If you happen to see the edges of the leaves turning brown during the growing season, that indicates that your plants are water-stressed and could do with a drop more of the wet stuff. Ginger is also used to high levels of humidity, and regular watering and misting in hot weather can help with this.
Ginger is a hungry plant that benefits from extra feeding. You could mix a slow-release fertiliser into your compost-bark chippings mix, but I just water on an occasional liquid seaweed feed during the growing season. Pull out any weeds that pop up in the pot. If the plants look like they are reaching the edges of the container, transplant them into a larger one so they can keep spreading out, because this will give you a bigger harvest.
Ginger may go dormant as temperatures and light levels drop. I’ll explain how to successfully overwinter plants and keep them going season after season shortly but first, let’s head over to the mind-blowing ginger collection at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Growing Ginger: Expert Tips!
I spoke to Simon Allan, horticulturist working on the Living Collection at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. He has just over 1000 ginger family plants under his care, 250 of which are named species. 130 species have yet to be determined, so there’s the possibility that there are more new species just waiting to be discovered – exciting stuff!
Simon introduced me to some of the interesting relatives of the commonly grown edible ginger, such as Orchidantha which smells rather pungently of carrion, and some gingers which have extremely tasty flowers – spicy, yet sweet!
He also showed me a turmeric plant (Curcuma longa). With its yellow roots, turmeric is a really important plant in lots of traditional cuisines from around the world. “It’s meant to be an antioxidant; like other gingers it’s thought to be a digestive aid,’ said Simon. “It’s a little bit of a hipster fad – having turmeric shots and adding turmeric to different things – but people have been eating these for at least 5000 years. It’s a cornerstone of many cultures’ cuisines.”
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is the common type of edible ginger you can buy in the supermarket. Fresh ginger has a much warmer, spicier flavour, and the skin brushes off really easily. Simon recommends dividing and repotting ginger regularly – ideally every winter, once it has become dormant – to prevent the pot from becoming congested and hampering growth.
You should also ease back on the watering at this point, but keep humidity high – don’t let it dry out completely. Keeping your ginger in a warm, steamy bathroom is ideal. In Simon’s glasshouses he maintains temperatures around 70ºF (22ºC), with 80% humidity, although that’s unlikely to be possible in most homes.
How to Overwinter Ginger
As Simon suggests, it’s worth bringing plants into the warm indoors for the colder months unless you live in a tropical climate. Ginger doesn’t like the cold and will turn to mush below about 40ºF (5ºC), so an unheated greenhouse just won’t cut it if you experience cold weather – and with energy costs these days who wants to heat a greenhouse!
As light levels are lower in the winter there’s no risk of strong sunshine, so a sunny windowsill is fine. Keep your plants away from heat sources such as radiators, which can dry out the air – something ginger hates!
Any dead or damaged parts or yellow leaves can be cut off right down to just above soil level. As daylength increases next spring, your ginger plant should send up fresh shoots and, once frost is no longer a threat, it can be moved back into the greenhouse or outside if you get nice warm summers.
How to Harvest and Use Ginger
Ginger root is typically harvested towards the end of the growing season. Either scrape away the growing medium and snap off a section, or remove the plant from the pot, shake off that compost-chippings mix to expose the roots, then break off the ginger root before replanting a good chunk of it to continue growing for the next crop. This way you can keep your ginger going indefinitely.
Many recipes call for grated ginger, but I find that the root’s stringiness can make it tricky to grate. However, you can make it much easier to grate by freezing the chunk of ginger root first. And once you’ve taken what you need, simply pop it back into the freezer!
The other option is to slice it nice and thinly, dehydrate it til crisp, then blitz it up into a powder in a spice grinder to make your own ground ginger. This is particularly good for those delicious gingerbreads and cookies. (This works with turmeric root and garlic too.) Let me know if you’ll be growing ginger in the comments below!