You are familiar with the gnarly ginger root, a supermarket staple. But have you ever tasted new, pale, and tender fresh ginger, its aromatic skin so thin that it needs no peeling? And have you ever cooked with fragrant turmeric leaves? Or smelled the incense-like aroma that is released when you run your hands through a clump of green cardamom foliage? Growing these evocative spices is easier than you might think.
Two years ago the combination of a gift of two large gardening troughs, a problem shady spot near the house, and some sprouting ginger rhizomes languishing in the fruit bowl led to my first ginger-growing experiments. A writing assignment for Better Homes and Gardens magazine encouraged me to delve deeper, and my tropical spice gardening adventures began.
Read on to learn how to grow these tropical herbs and spices at home.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Zingiber officinale is a herbaceous perennial native to tropical Asia (think: warmth, humidity, water), but can deliver an annual crop in the warm months of our growing year. It is hardy in USDA growing zones 9 to 11, where it will re-sprout every season if planted in the ground or in ample pots with enough consistent moisture. But in my Brooklyn zone of 7b, with hard freezes, I plant the rhizomes out only when nights are reliably above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I harvest the ginger crop anywhere between late September and November, the plants’ yellowing leaves indicating that the new rhizomes have fattened up.
While there are online sources for ginger starts, I always use store-bought ginger to grow my own. Each piece of the rhizome is cut into roughly 3-inch lengths, with from one to three pale, rounded buds beginning to form on each segment. They do not have to show any green shoots. Allow the cuts to dry for a day before planting.
Plant the pieces shallowly, in a roomy pot that is 12 inches or more deep. Water well. The plants are slow to get going in mild springs outside their comfort hardiness zones, so be patient. After they sprout, make sure they never dry out. This is one of the plants that you really can water a lot as long as the water drains very well.
The grassy stems are juicy and aromatic, and the leaves themselves are very fragrant—not as intense as the rhizome, at all, but wonderful when used as a bed for roasting vegetables or meats or stuffed into the cavity of a Thai-inspired roast chicken. You can also use them, bruised, to infuse drinks like vodka, or to make a herbed water. The stems are instant, scented swizzle sticks and can be chopped very finely to add to marinades and herb salts.
Ginger is positively speedy, by comparison. Turmeric rhizomes planted and harvested at the same time as ginger will be significantly smaller (but still flavorful) and need more months of maturation to reach a good size. If you are growing this spice at home for its bright orange tubers, start it indoors in winter, and bring it out when nights are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It needs consistent moisture, and keep a beady eye out for red spider mites, indoors (quirt them with soapy water, if detected).
Cardamom is Elettaria cardamomum, whose famous seeds we know from curry-making and Middle Eastern spice mixes. It also belongs to the ginger family and is native to tropical southern Asia, where monsoon conditions deliver boatloads of rain to the plants. It is able to grow in USDA zones 10 to 12, but requires tropical, humid conditions, with a lot of daily water in order to produce the flowers and those famous fruit.
In Brooklyn, despite our humid summers, I am not expecting either. I love the leaves, and anything else would be a very surprising bonus. Cardamom needs room; mine grows in a 16-inch pot, well mulched with cedar. The plants like full shade, and a lot of water. More cold sensitive than ginger, cardamom is best brought in when nights dip below 60 degrees Fahrenheit; leaf damage will occur with temperatures below 50 degrees.
If you can bring the plants indoors to a bright bathroom in winter, they will happy with the additional steam. The second best option is a bright room, where you mist them daily in the driest cold months. The handsome leaves have a wonderful perfume, something between scented rose petals and incense, but not cloying, They offer a delicate but distinctive flavor to sauces and roasts, as long as they do not dry out in the oven. Tuck them under or inside a chicken or duck, or allow them to infuse pan juices before removing. They also infuse drinks and teas, and make a delightfully scented sugar (whizz up in a food processor).
Just because winter is coming does not mean you have to stop edible gardening. Now is actually a very good time to start.
N.B.: See more from Marie’s garden (and foraging adventures):