One of the great joys of gardening (and among the most satisfying) is tasting the fruits of our labor, especially when those labors include adding herbs and spices to the garden mix. Even in climates such as ours with its short growing season and freezing winter weather, it's possible to grow tropical spices like ginger and turmeric (U.S. hardiness zones 8-10). You just need to grow them indoors.
Two spices, ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa), are easy to grow in containers and adapt well to living inside although they do benefit from time outside during the warm weather months. Indoors or out, both grow best at temperatures of at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit and should not be exposed to temperatures below 50.
Both ginger and turmeric grow from a rhizome (a fleshy root) that is the edible part of the plant. The rhizomes often can be purchased through a mail-order nursery or at a grocery store. Try an organic market if you can't find these in your local supermarket.
Select one that is firm (not shriveled), several inches long and with several buds or "eyes." Cut it into 2-3-inch pieces, making sure that each piece includes at least 2-3 buds.
Choose a pot at least 12 inches in diameter. Fill the pot almost to the top with a nutrient-rich soil that will drain well. Place the rhizome horizontally on the surface with the eyes facing up. Cover with about 2 inches of soil.
Water sparingly until sprouts appear. The soil should be moist, but never wet. Too much moisture may rot the rhizome.
Put the pot in a warm location (70-80 degrees Fahrenheit). If the room is cool, a heat mat such as those used for seed starting can be used to warm the soil. Remove from the heat mat once you see sprouts.
Now comes the most difficult part. Patience. It will take 3-8 weeks for sprouts to appear. Ginger will likely sprout sooner, turmeric later. When they do, move the pot to a sunny spot near a window. If necessary, supplement with a grow light. Water as needed to keep the soil moist (not wet), and mist often if the air is dry.
For the most part, ginger and turmeric plants are relatively care free with ginger growing 2-3 feet in height and turmeric 3-4 feet. As they mature, you'll get a lovely display of tropical foliage and perhaps a flower or two.
When the weather gets warmer, and after your plants have begun to leaf out, you can move your ginger and turmeric plants outside to benefit from the fresh air and sunshine. Daytime temperatures should be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit, with nighttime temperatures not below 50.
Gradually introduce the plants to sunlight over the course of several days to avoid burning the foliage. When the weather begins to turn colder, or temperatures drop below 50, bring them back inside.
After 8-10 months, the foliage will begin to fade. When the plant has yellowed and dried out, it's time to harvest. Simply dig up the entire plant, brush the soil away from the rhizomes, and cut the stalk off.
Save a piece or two of the rhizomes to replant. Rinse off the rest and allow to dry. The whole rhizome can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three months, or cut in pieces and stored in the freezer for up to six months.
Deborah J. Benoit is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from North Adams, Massachusetts, who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.