Ginger in a RealFood Garden
Ginger in a RealFood Garden
About an 8 minute read
6th December, 2021
Ginger has thrived at our place since I learned to think about what it gives and what it needs in terms of its connections to the other plants around it, to me as the ginger-grower, and to me and my family as the ginger-users.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a super useful plant. But no matter how potentially useful a plant is, its usefulness is only actualized when you learn to use it consistently. The more consistently you use a plant the more useful it becomes, and the more you come to rely on it, the better care you take of it.
I’ve been keen on ginger for a long time, but I’ve neglected and lost a lot of ginger plants because I kept putting them in places where I'd forget to take care of them and use them.
... to the kitchen
I use ginger in salad dressings and its also a key ingredient in my sauerkraut. I’m not very good (yet) at using it in other culinary ways, but there’s always hope. (If you have easy tips for adding fresh ginger to meals that don’t involve taking classes in Asian Cookery, please share in the comments down the bottom!)
We make ginger tea regularly. Cooled ginger tea quenches thirst much more effectively than water.
And a cup of ginger tea before a meal helps digestion and may provide a raft of other benefits from reduced inflammation to helping keep cholesterol levels balanced. Which leads us to the next kind of connection.
... to the “medicine cabinet”
I use ginger tea (pour boiling water over fresh or powdered ginger) for upset tummies, to soothe coughs, and to help with sinus congestion (which also helps prevent earaches for my formerly earache-prone son).
I’ve recently learned that ginger is antibacterial and can slow down the growth of the unfriendly bugs that cause gum disease – maybe I’ll try adding powdered ginger to my tooth powder recipe.
And I’ve also recently read that ginger can help support healthy circulation – I’ll be looking into that more on behalf of my elderly Dad who suffers from poor circulation to his feet.
Ginger is a plant with a truly ancient and amazing history of medicinal uses, some of which are touched on in this article.
... within the garden
I’ll go into the details on what ginger needs in the section below on growing ginger, but on the topic of connections I like to think of plants in relationship with other plants and even more importantly, in relationship with my daily movements and needs.
Why? Because if it fits in well with my already-existing habits, I won’t have to form new habits in order to successfully take care of it.
Enough on connections. How can you store your harvest of ginger rhizomes? Here are four ways:
- In the soil, if your climate is frost free.
- In the freezer as whole, unpeeled rhizomes. Wrap them well to avoid freezer burn. When you need some ginger, scrape the skin away and grate or slice finely while still frozen or only slightly softened; put the rest of the rhizome back for next time.
- In vinegar (use the vinegar to make salad dressing after you've eaten the ginger) or in alcohol. Peel and slice the ginger, put it in a jar with a plastic lid (to avoid corrosion), cover with your chosen liquid, label, and store in cool spot out of direct sunlight for probably a year or more, definitely until the next harvest of fresh ginger.
- Dried - mince or grate the ginger, spread it out on trays and dry it on a low setting in a dehydrator or no hotter than about 65 degrees Celsius in an oven. If you have an electric grinder, you can grind the dry ginger into powder. (Don't dry slices or chunks of ginger - they become rock hard and almost impossible to use.)
What does ginger need?
- Shade and shelter - ginger is an understory plant so it needs shade, especially from fierce midday and early afternoon sun, and shelter from drying winds.
- Company – it it’s connections we’re after, the shade would come from other, complimentary or like-minded plants.
Like-minded plants could, for example, be arrowroot and turmeric that need similar conditions. In the image above, ginger (circled in red) is coming up in between clumps of arrowroot. The arrowroot shades and protects the ginger, and they both appreciate consistent moisture and lots of mulch.
Complimentary plants could be fruit trees that provide shade and can share their nutrient rich mulch with the ginger, or pigeon pea that provides dappled shade and nitrogen and self-seeds to replace itself so it’s not threatened by a bit of root disturbance when you harvest your ginger.
In the image below, I’ve circled some ginger so you can spot it growing under a mulberry tree among lots of other plants.
- Moisture – ginger needs consistent moisture to thrive. Besides regular rain or watering during its growing season, dappled shade, shelter, and deep mulch are all important for maintaining the moist, rainforest-like environment that ginger needs.
- Nutrients – like any understory plant, ginger needs its mulch topped up consistently. Well-rotted animal manures or compost placed on top of the soil and then covered with mulch will feed the soil organisms that will keep your ginger thriving.
- Warmth – ginger comes alive in the tropics as the weather warms up, increases its foliage and puts energy into developing underground rhizomes all summer, and then dies down completely through the winter months. When yours disappears in about May or June (Southern Hemisphere) it doesn’t mean it’s dead. If you want to grow it as a perennial, just mulch it thickly, allow it to dry out a bit, and mark where it is so you don’t accidentally dig it up!
In the image below, I’ve brushed aside the mulch so you can see ginger’s winter rhizomes at the soil surface, waiting for the warmth to come again.
If you get frosts, you may need to dig your ginger up and bring it indoors for the winter and plant it out again after all danger of frosts has passed. Read this article for more on growing ginger (Z. officinale), and its many relatives, in cooler climates.
The image above of the winter rhizomes was taken in September ’21. The one below, taken two months later in November, is of the same little patch of ginger coming alive for the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Harvest & maintenance
If you’re keeping your ginger as a perennial and you don’t want to disturb it, you can just carefully take a rhizome from it when you need one, leaving the rest of it to keep growing and producing.
You can do that at any time of the year. In the green and growing season, the rhizomes will have a thin skin and won’t store well; the winter rhizomes pictured above have a tough skin and are best for storing. They’ll also be spicier. (The image way up at the very top of this post is of a green and growing rhizome cut away from the mother plant.)
In the image below, I’m in the process of digging up a clump of ginger so I can subdivide it and grow more ginger.
Here (below) is what that little ginger clump yielded when it was all divided up.
The older, darker rhizomes will go back in the garden to grow more ginger in other locations. The paler ones will go to the kitchen.
Below is a close up of what a rhizome looks like with new ginger plants growing from it. Each of these can be carefully broken off (their roots will come with them) to make a new plant that can be potted up to give to friends, or planted somewhere else for more ginger. And then the rhizome can be eaten. Or, you could plant this whole thing without breaking it up at all and you'd have a larger, stronger ginger plant, sooner.
To divide or not to divide?
I've only been growing ginger successfully for about three years, so I'm probably not the best person to answer this question. It seems to me that if you live in a frost free area, it's not necessary to dig your ginger clumps up and divide them. I think if you only ever took a rhizome here and there and kept your clump well mulched and protected, it would probably grow indefinitely, expanding a little in size each year.
But, the middle of your ginger clump would become crowded and congested, and many rhizomes that form under there would not be used and would just decompose there, which (although it would contribute to soil health and help feed your clump) is a bit of a wasted resource.
An ancient relationship
Is it greedy, to dig up the ginger and make use of every last rhizome either for food and medicine, or to grow more ginger? I don't think so. I think that so long as we do so with due respect and reverence and in sustainable ways, making full use of all that a plant offers is a good thing to do. It honors the relationship between plant and human.
Ginger does not grow in the wild. It's known as a "cultigen," a plant that is a result of careful breeding and selection by humans. Its origins before its relationship with humans are uncertain. To me, this suggests that ginger and humans have an ancient relationship, and we need each other.
We divide, spread, feed and protect the ginger; in return, it provides for us generously, both food and medicine. Leaving excess rhizomes under the clump to rot away rather than using them seems more than a waste. It seems a bit disrespectful to me.
Food and healthcare sovereignty
In the “connections” section at the top of this article, there was one kind of connection I didn't list which may be the most important one of all. It would be called something like, “connections to sovereignty.”
If ginger is just an ornament, under-utilized because it's in an out-of-the way corner and it lacks connections to my kitchen and my family’s healthcare needs, then it's just “nice ginger.”
Nice ginger is all very well, but it doesn't help me reduce my reliance on the supermarket and pharmacy, lighten my footprint, or connect myself more snugly into the web of life.
"Useful ginger," ginger you've come to rely on because you like knowing you don't have to go to the pharmacy for cough medicine, can help you do that.
Do you grow ginger? Have any tips for integrating it into a food garden, using it (cooking tips especially welcome!), or preserving it? Please share your comments below the Endnotes.