Edible ginger is so easy to grow at home

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Ginger Root - Picture courtesy PixabayGinger Root - Picture courtesy PixabayEdible ginger is easy to grow and a popular spice worldwide with incredible health benefits. Here’s everything you need to know about growing and using it at home.

An excerpt from my e-book "Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa" Click here to read more...

This perennial plant is reed-like, bearing narrow green leaves on stems about one meter tall. The flowers of culinary ginger are lovely but not very showy like the spectacular flowering gingers available. They are in dense, cone-like spikes, composed of overlapping green bracts, which may be edged with yellow. Each bract encloses a single, small, yellow-green and purple flower. Also, unlike ornamental ginger varieties, which are evergreen in the tropics, culinary ginger goes dormant in winter. Because culinary ginger needs to be about two years old to flower, if you are harvesting regularly you will seldom see any flowers. Once established, ginger is very low-maintenance and little bits of the root can be removed as required, without adversely affecting the growth of the plant.

Ginger is one of the most powerful and popular spices in the world, with a fascinating history that is an integral part of a host of cultural traditions and beliefs, and boasting a wide variety of culinary uses. The story of ginger goes back over 5000 years, when the underground stem or ‘root’ of the wild ginger plant was first used by healers in Asia to treat indigestion and joint pain, and later was also incorporated into these cuisines.

Today, aromatic, pungent, and spicy ginger adds a special flavour and zest to many sweet and savoury dishes. Ginger wine, traditionally sold in green glass bottles, has been made commercially in The United Kingdom since 1740, and candied ginger remains a favourite snack which is used in many confectionaries. For many of us ginger stirs up childhood memories of ginger bread men and pumpkin or apple pie, but whatever memories it may stir up for you, don’t limit yourself when using this truly international spice, because ginger is good in so many classic cuisines.

Ginger is a warm spice belonging to the same family of plants as turmeric, cardamom, and galangal. Galangal looks so similar to ginger that you may mistake it for ginger, but galangal is a little bigger, and has a shinier, whiter skin than ginger’s soft brown coating. It also has a strong citrus scent and tastes different, imparting an earthy yet citrus note to curry pastes and other dishes. The flesh of the ginger rhizome can be yellow, white, or red in colour, depending upon the variety. It is covered with a brownish skin that may be thick or thin, depending upon when the plant was harvested. The flavour of ginger also varies, based on where it grows; Chinese and African ginger is very hot, while Jamaican and Hawaiian ginger tends to be milder and sweeter.

Where ginger originated cannot be proven, with some scholars stating China as its original home, while others claim it to be India or the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. What we do know is that ginger has a long history of being cultivated in countries like China and India, and first appeared in the writings of Confucius, the Chinese teacher, editor and politician in the 5th century BC; and Chinese mariners ate fresh ginger to ward off scurvy, which we now know is rich in vitamin C.

By the 1st century AD traders had taken ginger into the Mediterranean region, and in ancient Rome it was a symbol of wealth and fertility and used extensively, then almost disappeared when the Roman Empire fell, and the Arabs took control of the spice trade from the east.

By the 14th century ginger was well known in England and imported in a preserved form, but it was one of the heavily taxed spices on which the nobility made a few bucks. Next time you purchase ginger cheaply in the grocery store, remember that back in the 14th century a pound of ginger held a value equal to that of a whole live sheep! In the sixteenth century, Henry VIII was recommending ginger as a remedy for the plague, while his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I invented the gingerbread man, which remains a popular Christmas treat today.

In the 19th century, when ginger ale’s older brother, ginger beer was first made, one has to wonder if the inventor was simply curious, drunk, or merely unsatisfied with his beer, but he added powdered ginger to the brew and stirred it with a hot poker, creating ginger beer. Soon thousands of local taverns and breweries across the United Kingdom, Canada, and the US were brewing up their own varieties, with some having an alcohol content of up to 11%!

During the 13th and 14th centuries when the Arabs travelled to Africa and Zanzibar, they planted the rhizomes there, thus spreading the cultivation of this great spice. The Portuguese introduced it to West Africa, and the Spaniards brought it to the Americas, where it is now cultivated extensively in the West Indies.

The British also planted ginger in their New World colonies, where it could be cultivated for the domestic market at a cheaper price; and the best ginger still comes from Jamaica where it was first grown there on British plantations. Today ginger is cultivated throughout the tropics, but India remains the greatest producer of ginger in the world.

Ginger Tisane - Picture courtesy PixabayGinger Tisane - Picture courtesy PixabayHealth Benefits:

We now know that ginger is among the healthiest spices on the planet because it is loaded with nutrients and bioactive compounds which have powerful benefits for your body and brain. The unique fragrance and flavour of ginger comes from its natural oils, with gingerol being the most important bioactive compound found in ginger root, and responsible for much of its medicinal properties. Modern scientific research has revealed that ginger possesses numerous therapeutic properties including antioxidant effects, an ability to inhibit the formation of inflammatory compounds, and direct anti-inflammatory effects.

Traditionally, ginger has always been known as a pain killer, and it has also been shown to lower blood sugar levels, and to improve various heart disease risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes. In a study done in 2015, of 41 participants with type 2 diabetes, 2 grams of ginger powder per day lowered fasting blood sugar by 12%. These results are incredibly impressive, but they need to be confirmed in larger studies before any recommendations can be made. Studies also confirm that ginger extract can inhibit the growth of many different types of bacteria and this is especially effective against the oral bacteria linked to inflammatory diseases in the gums, such as gingivitis and periodontitis.

Ginger contains both vitamins B5 and B6 that are needed for the body’s energy production. In addition, it also contains potassium, magnesium, manganese and copper - many good reasons to add ginger liberally to dishes, or herbal teas.

Gingerbread House - Image by Adriana Macias from pixabayGingerbread House - Image by Adriana Macias from pixabayIn the Kitchen:

Ground ginger should generally not be considered a substitute for fresh ginger in recipes, but rather a sweetly hot and fragrant spice, more appropriate for baked goods. However, if a recipe calls for fresh ginger and you do not have any, ground ginger can be substituted, although the flavours are somewhat different.

Mature ginger rhizomes are more fibrous and dryer than young ones, but both are used for cooking. Mature rhizomes also have a sharper bite than the younger ones, which are juicy and fleshy, going well with raw dishes.

The young roots are often pickled in vinegar or sherry and eaten as a snack; and steeped in boiling water, they make a great ginger tisane, to which honey and sliced orange or lemon can be added.

The Chinese use ginger when cooking fish or meat, and perhaps its most famous use is to flavour the oil in stir-fried dishes. It is also used in soups, stews and marinades, or pickled in vinegar for sweet and sour dressings.

When preserved it is added to sweet syrups to provide a special tang. Candied ginger is also often a component of Chinese candy boxes.

In Indian cuisine, ginger is a key ingredient in many vegetarian and meat-based dishes and is one of the main spices used for making pulse and lentil curries. Together with garlic, ginger is crushed or ground to make ginger and garlic masala. It is also used in desserts and traditional cold or hot drinks like “Spiced Masala Chai” and “Sambharam” - a popular south Indian summer yogurt drink with ginger as its key ingredient, along with green chillies, salt and curry leaves.

In Burma fresh ginger is also widely used, and a popular salad dish called “Gyin-thot” consists of shredded ginger preserved in oil, together with a variety of nuts and seeds. In Thailand galangal is used in cooking, and it is usually added in large pieces to impart flavour to fish or chicken stock, or when making curry pastes. Fresh young ginger root can be substituted for galangal in Thai recipes, but you will not end up with quite the same flavour.

Ginger is also popular in the Philippines and Malaysia, where it is used in many kinds of dishes, especially soups; and “Tinolang Manok” (Ginger Chicken Soup) is a traditional Filipino soup that is very easy to prepare, and is said to be especially good to eat on a cold and rainy day, or when you are sick with a cold. Indonesia’s signature spices - garlic, ginger and galangal, cumin and coriander, are used in a traditional dish called “Opor Ayam” made of braised chicken in coconut milk. This dish remains a staple on tables around the end of Ramadan, when it’s served with packed rice cakes called “Ketupat.”

In Japan, ginger is used in countless recipes but is famous for two pickled ginger condiments called “Beni Shoga.” One is pink, with a sweet-and-sour flavour, and used almost exclusively for sushi; and the other one is red and sour, but not sweet. The red beni shoga is widely used as a condiment on top of many dishes like “Okonomiyaki” - a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients, and “Takoyaki” - a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special moulded pan. Ginger is also an essential ingredient in the making of the traditional Korean “Kimchi” - a spicy pickled or fermented mixture containing cabbage, onions, and sometimes fish; seasoned with garlic, horseradish, red peppers, and ginger.

Ginger spice features in many African spice powders like “Berbere,” an Ethiopian blend of allspice which is used to flavour soups and stews. It contains many spices like ajowain – the seeds of a plant (Trachyspermum ammi), which is especially beloved in South Asian cooking for its thyme-like flavour; as well as spices like garlic, chillies, cayenne, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, fenugreek, ginger, and black peppercorns. “La Kama” is a Moroccan blend of five to six spices. With warm notes and a golden brown colour, this ‘curry’ blend is popular in Tangiers where it is used for Tagine entrees, especially chicken or lamb, and also to flavour soups and stews.

“Ras-el-Hanout” is a Moroccan/North African blend of more than 15 ingredients including anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, galangal, garlic, ginger, lavender, mace, nigella, nutmeg, pepper, rosebuds, salt, and turmeric - some complex varieties can include about 30 ingredients! This spice mix is used to flavour couscous, tajines and rice.

For storage, ginger should be wrapped tightly in a paper towel and placed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where it can be kept for about three weeks. Fresh ginger may be frozen whole for up to three months to use in cooked dishes - when you require some, just slice off as much as you need from the frozen root and return the rest to the freezer.

Ginger grows well in potsGinger grows well in potsCultivation, Harvesting & Storing:

Fresh ginger root is easy to grow at home, provided you get a few basics right, and whether you are growing it in a pot or in the ground, its growth requirements remain the same. Ginger, like many other tropical plants loves a sheltered spot, filtered sunlight, warm weather, humidity, and rich, moist soil. What ginger can’t stand is frost, direct sun, strong winds, and soggy, waterlogged soil.

If you don’t live in the tropics, and even if you don’t have a garden, because ginger is one of those miraculous herbs that thrives in partial to full shade, and grows beautifully in pots, you can even grow it in your home year-round.

If you can purchase seed or a plant from a garden centre or seed catalogue, this is the best way to grow ginger. However, ginger can be hard to find from garden suppliers, so it may be worthwhile to try planting fresh ginger root purchased from your local grocery store or farmers market. It is best to purchase organically grown ginger, because store-bought rhizomes are often sprayed with a growth inhibitor to keep them from sprouting and thus extending their shelf life. Unfortunately, this may also prevent them from sprouting at home. Often, even if the rhizome does shoot it may produce spotty results, with some plants growing perfectly fine, while others just seem to sit in the pot, and never really take off.

Many gardeners recommend that store-bought roots be soaked in water overnight to remove as much growth inhibitor as possible. The root you select to plant should be plump with tight skin, not shrivelled and old. It should have several eye buds on it (bumps that look like potato eyes) and if they’re already a little green, this is a good sign. If your root has several eye buds, it can be cut and each bud placed in a separate pot.

If you are planting into pots, be sure to pick the right one, because ginger roots grow horizontally and the plant prefers shallow, wide pots. Ensure that the pot has sufficient drainage holes and never allow your potted specimen to stand directly in a drip tray full of water. Rather raise the pot on ‘pot feet’ or pebbles so it stands above the water in the tray.

Plant the ginger root with the eye buds pointing up, and five to ten centimetres deep. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. After a few weeks shoots should start popping up, and the plants will slowly form a dense clump. Established rhizomes don’t seem to mind if they become a bit crowded, and if you harvest regularly, this won’t become a problem.

While actively growing ginger needs a lot of moisture and the soil should never dry out completely. It also loves humidity, so if you have problems with dry air, regular spraying and misting might help. If you are growing ginger in the ground, mulch it thickly as this will help to keep the ground moist and suppress weeds.

If your ginger is in good, rich soil it shouldn’t need anything more than some fresh compost every year. If you don’t have good garden soil, or are growing in pots, you may have to feed regularly, or you can work in some organic slow release fertiliser into the soil at planting time. Later, apply liquid fertiliser, like a seaweed or fish emulsion every few weeks.

If you are growing ginger in pots you can harvest small pieces of what is called “green ginger” after 3 to 4 months. Green ginger has a much milder taste than mature ginger, and is harvested by gently scraping away some of the soil at the edges of the pot to find a root, and cutting the required amount off a ‘finger’ of the rhizome before replacing the soil. Ginger can be harvested in this way endlessly, and as long as the plant is well cared for, it will continue to produce roots. If you wish to harvest the entire crop all at once, remember, newly planted ginger will take about eight to ten months to reach a suitable size for harvesting.

No matter whether you are growing ginger on a larger scale in the garden, or in pots, towards the end of summer, as the weather starts cooling down, your ginger will start to die back. Slowly reduce the amount you water and allow the soil to almost totally dry out. This will encourage the ginger to form more roots, and once all the leaves have died down you can uproot the entire plant, replanting a few rhizomes straight away, to start the process all over again. Water well after planting and then keep the soil reasonably dry and cool, so the plant can go dormant through winter. If the roots do still receive water in the garden along with other plants, it won’t hurt them, as long as the soil has perfect drainage. In spring, slowly start watering once again and the plant will soon show signs of regrowth.

Ginger may be stored un-scraped, partly scraped, or scraped and peeled.

Immediately after harvesting, the rhizomes are scalded by placing them in boiling water for a few seconds. They can then be scraped lightly to prevent sprouting. You can also simply peel, chop, and freeze the whole lot.

Brandied ginger keeps like fresh, and is yet another great way to store it - simply cut it into small chunks and store in a bottle of brandy.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Commercially grown ginger is susceptible to many insect pests, fungal and bacterial diseases. However, if grown correctly in the garden it should remain relatively healthy. It is susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections like fusarium rhizome rot, and white fungus. Bacterial soft rot is the most destructive disease which is spread from infected seeds, rhizomes, or soil. It can cause the total loss of affected clumps, and shows itself by a yellowing of the tips of the lower leaves, spreading downwards to the leaf blades, followed by drooping, withering and drying. The rotting then spreads to the rhizomes. Most forms of root rot can be avoided by using proper drainage techniques.

The plant can succumb to spider mites, and watch out for aphids, mealybugs, scale insects, and cutworms. If the leaves appear folded, roller caterpillars may be feeding within.

Shoot borers are commonly controlled with insecticidal soaps, dips or sprays.

Caution:

Although ginger is considered safe, talk to your doctor before taking large amounts if you are pregnant. Some believe that large amounts can raise the risk of miscarriage, but there are currently no studies to support this. Patients with a bleeding disorder, or those on blood thinners should avoid ginger. Also, since ginger stimulates bile flow, care should be used if you are prone to gallstones.