The plant: Exotic ginger emerged long ago from its native Asia to become a centuries-old trade item between Europe and Asia.
Ginger’s pungent, spicy flavor became a favorite among the Greeks and Romans, who used it in baking and marinades. Because ginger’s roots (rhizomes) oddly resemble the shape of a human digestive tract, early healers assumed ginger was a remedy to cure what ails the stomach. Their assumption was spot-on. Early Greek sailors ate gingerbread cookies to calm their seasickness, and ginger is used by herbalists today to quell nausea, heal digestive systems and improve circulation. In the garden, this plant thrives in a hot, humid environment. Phoenix offers plenty of heat, but often not the moisture needed to mimic ginger’s tropical origins. In the ground, consider taking advantage of a “micro-climate” by planting ginger under or around other plants that will provide shade and protection, creating a more humid environment. If you thought ginger was only a garnish for your favorite sushi, I encourage you to branch out, plant some, and spice up your garden.
Growing guide: Partial shade
Culture: Select a partially sunny spot if planting in a container, or one in partial shade if planting in the ground. Plants grow 2 feet to 4 feet tall and require warmth, moisture and humidity to succeed in the garden. In the low desert, select a rhizome purchased from a nursery or farmers market and plant in late March and April. Fill a large pot, one with a volume at least four times the size of your rhizome, with rich, organic potting soil, and plant the rhizome lying flat, 2 inches deep. A soil temperature of 75 to 80 degrees is important to stimulate growth. Some gardeners recommend covering the pot with a plastic bag until sprouts appear. Water lightly at first, then increase moisture as foliage grows. Keep your plant away from direct sunlight, particularly our hot afternoon sun — filtered sun is best. Ginger is a heavy feeder, but if your potting soil is rich in organic matter, you should only need to fertilize lightly. Water regularly to keep the pot moist, but not soggy. It’s rare for ginger to bloom in cultivation. If it does bloom, you’d see yellowish green flowers in a cluster on top of a 3-foot-high stalk. Ginger will tolerate temperatures in the low 20s without serious damage in the ground, but if you’re growing in a pot, I’d consider moving the pot indoors when temperatures drop lower than 50 degrees. To harvest after about four to seven months of growth, let the soil dry a bit, then pull the plant from its pot or dig from the ground. The longer ginger stays in the ground, the more pungent and dry the root becomes. Remove the fibrous roots and cut off what you need. Replant a piece to start over again.
Maintenance: Cold winters can cause ginger to go dormant. During the short, cold days of winter, keep the soil dry. Some gardeners cut back their plants in late fall, allowing them to rest.
Barn Goddess tips: Alex from Tropica Mango Rare Fruit Nursery on Baseline Road in south Phoenix sells ginger plants. The variety he carries can produce beautiful white flowers during the summer, and he’s happy to share tips and advice for getting your ginger to grow.