The ginger family
Aug 18, 2021
Great warming flavours. Immune boosting. Inflammation reducing.
An easy to grow, very productive and hardy family of plants about 1-2m tall. Ginger, galangal and, particularly turmeric, all grow well here. All parts of the plants can be used for flavouring, not just the rhizomes we usually use, and in the case of turmeric, you can wrap your leftovers in the leaves and eat the lot. Take that, beeswax wraps!
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Ginger grows perfectly well in this area, but it’s not bombproof. It does tend to need a little bit of TLC, which is straightforward when you know what to do. This is a tropical to sub tropical rainforest understory plant. Recreate those conditions for it to thrive.
Ginger does best in shady or dappled light conditions. That can mean under fruit trees, below a pergola of pumpkin overhead, or with a bed of something tall to the north to provide shade. A block of corn (careful, this is hungry and thirsty) or cowpeas, or climbing beans, or a trellis wall of cucumbers. It can be grown in full sun, if you keep it watered with a lot of water. A LOT of water! (Thanks Shaun)
Ginger loves soil full of organic matter. Think deep leaf litter breaking down. That’s what it’s evolved for. Fill your soil with compost, animal manure, green manure, mulch. Commercially, the latest trials recommend cured compost, processed poultry pellets and slow release fertiliser. Commonly used commercial fertilisers for ginger include poultry manure, sawdust, urea, phosphate and potassium nitrate.
Ginger loves a rich soil. All those years of forest canopy breaking down make for a very well fertilised soil. Commercial growers fertilise as above when they build the bed or at planting time. And fertilise again after the first shoots have emerged. Lots of compost (and leaf litter) tends to make a soil acidic, and so as you might expect, ginger’s preference is for a pH range of 5.0–6.0.
Ginger loves humidity. Rainforests are usually humid. Their air is full of water. If you can create a microclimate of humidity, ginger will be very, very, very happy.
Ginger loves to drink. It is happiest in areas where rainfall averages 1500 mm annually. We average 1500mm in Kalang to 2100mm in the Promised Land (BOM Climate data), so that’s just perfect. In dry years, irrigation will be needed. All you need to remember is for productive growth, keep it happy, keep it hydrated.
Ginger needs well drained soil. It will not tolerate waterlogging.
Ginger thrives best in very loose soil and this is confirmed from most comments and conversations from local growers. All that forest litter is fluffy and lightweight and aerated. It’s not compacted. If you don’t already have beautifully friable soil, people have reported great results growing ginger in half sand, half compost. Or a trench backfilled with crusher dust. Or sawdust and compost. It will grow in clay soil, as long as it has enough food and water and shade however it really does best in a loose soil that lets it easily grow big ginger fingers without a fight.
Ginger does not tolerate frost. Being a sub/tropical rainforest plant, this is outside it’s experience. Make sure it has a frost free location, even if that’s just a microclimate spot in your garden.
Ginger does not have much tolerance for weeds. Mulch mulch mulch.
On to planting.
Last season’s harvest (yours or even the ginger you bought to eat) can be stored for planting next season somewhere cool and dry and dark, like the concrete floor at the back of a shed, or something similar. Sometime in September in this area they will begin to bud and sprout all by themselves.
Chop the ginger hands into pieces about 1 inch in length, or 80g in weight. Each piece needs to have a few buds. Let the cuts dry and heal (a few days at least) before you plant, to prevent them being an easy target for funguses. How much to plant? Each knob should result in a full hand of ginger, as big as your hand.
At this point you can put them in pots of sand in a shady spot for transplanting later, or plant them straight out in beds. If putting the pieces in moist sand, leave them to shoot 50 to 75mm high (several weeks/months) with just an occasional water to moisten sand a bit. When you plant them out, mix the sand in the pots with your amazing soil (or some compost) for the lovely soft soil conditions ginger prefers. (Thanks for the tip Alison!)
Recommendations for ginger planting beds are, funnily enough, either raised beds (for good drainage and easy harvesting) or a 30cm deep trench backfilled with a very loose soil mix, sand / compost, crusher dust, sawdust / compost (for good drainage and ensuring soft soil).
In either case, the biggest tip our local market growers emphasised is to plant ginger pieces with buds facing up. Apparently the traditional advice is to plant ginger ‘flat’, as it would lie on the ground. But it grows best with the shooting fingers and their buds pointing to the sky and means the roots will be deeper and cooler, which keeps the plant happy. Plant them about 5-7cm deep. (Gratitude to Camilla and Paul for this gem)
Keep your growing ginger well watered, fed and mulched.
Around February you can begin to bandicoot for ginger fingers, if you want. Ginger at this age is commercially harvested for confectionary as it is virtually fibreless. It also has very little heat and a rather mild flavour. Around May is when commercial harvesting first begins for mature ginger. This has flavour and heat. Around July is when commercial harvesting usually finishes for the most mature and robust flavoured ginger, although some growers do leave ginger in the ground for up to 18 months. The longer they leave it, the more prone to funguses it becomes.
In a back yard, you look for when the tops of the plant have fully died down, around July, and this is the sign to lift all your ginger and enjoy. Remember to save some for planting in a few months.
Should you plant back in the same spot? The large scale commercial advice is absolutely no. Ginger is subject to a range of soil funguses that can decimate up to 80% of a crop, as well as insect pests. Move them somewhere else each year. A 1-4 year rotation is recommended. Though it must be said, large scale commercial ginger growing in Australia seems to push the plants’ limits with growing in full sun and forcing it with large amounts of fertiliser. It’s not a surprise to me to hear these growers have troubles with their plants being prone to diseases and pests. I suspect home growers treating ginger with respect and care and supplying its preferences will have far less trouble.
Another tasty member of the ginger family that will grow well here. A lovely flavour in many asian dishes. Use the growing instructions for ginger. It’s also not bombproof, but will do just fine if you give it the conditions it likes.
You will probably be relieved to hear that turmeric is pretty bombproof. A triffid, even. This is one of those plants you can stick in the ground in a more or less suitable position and get a harvest even if you mostly forget about it.
Like ginger, it is a forest plant but it enjoys a lot more sun than ginger does. It too will also cope with full sun, given enough water. Turmeric also enjoys a compost rich soil, but unlike ginger, you will still get a harvest in so-so soil. Feed it well and it will go gangbusters. Turmeric does not insist on a light fluffy soil for growing. It will grow in clay. It’s preference is loamy or alluvial soils.
No one mentioned anything about turmeric needing humidity. As it’s from monsoonal forests I expect it doesn’t mind a bit, but it’s hardy enough to not require humidity. What it does require, same as ginger, is no waterlogging. The soil must have decent drainage.
No frost for turmeric either.
Water your turmeric regularly to get a fabulous crop. It does best in climates with 1-2m of annual rain, so again, we’re good. If you forget to water, you’ll still get something worthwhile. At least for the gold / yellow turmeric.
There is a red (deep orange) turmeric that contains more of the curcumin (active ingredient). This variety is sweeter in taste. It’s fingers are smaller and the plant is not as vigorous or productive. Side by side, about half as productive in the ground in my experience. It’s still well worth growing. The red turmeric apparently does better in pots than in the ground, where it can fussed over a bit, be kept watered and well fed. The pots should be far larger than the plant needs so it doesn’t dry out too easily, wide and shallowish. (Thanks Barefoot Veg Paul)
Planting and harvesting time for turmeric is the same as ginger. Plant around September when it has begun naturally to sprout. Plant fingers straight in the ground with a few buds each, buds facing upwards. Plant each finger 5-7cm deep, about 30cm apart.
Harvest when the leaves have died down. Expect turmeric to be much more productive than ginger. Expect a soccer ball of fingers from each planted finger, all going well.
Turmeric can be dug up for harvest every year, though the common wisdom in seed savers is that it does better here if it is harvested every other year. It doesn’t flower until it’s second year. The flowers are edible! It certainly should be dug up, divided and replanted every 3-4 years as it loses vigour after this amount of time.
There is a native Australian turmeric too, Curcuma australasica. (Thanks Pete)
This is common in the tropics of Australia particularly Cape York, but also growing in Papua New Guinea. The roots can be roasted and eaten. Native turmeric naturally grows on rainforest margins and in shaded areas, and the plant dies back in the dry season (that’s winter). It needs rich, well drained soil. This turmeric can be grown in temperate climates (that’s a bit cooler than us) in a protected, shady position. If it is knocked down by light frosts, it will resprout once warm weather comes. Apparently, often the exotic Indian species C. inodora is sold as the Australian species, however the Indian species is much faster growing with leaves larger than 1m, the leaves having red bands and colouring.
Eat the leaves
The leaves and stems of each of these are edible, though they are mostly too tough to be enjoyable and are better added to dishes as flavouring and fished out before eating.
The exception is turmeric. Turmeric leaves, nice and wide as they are, are not only ripped into strips to be used as flavouring as above, but whole leaves are soaked in water to soften them up for folding, and then wrapped around fish or rice based dishes before baking or steaming. Young turmeric leaves are soft enough as they are to be palatable as a leaf vegetable. And I have an (annoying undetailed) report of turmeric leaves being used to wrap leftover curry meals into portable parcels for lunches the next day, as an all in one edible package. If you have more details of this I’d love to know.
Big thanks for their local commercial growing wisdom to:
Paul of Barefoot Fruit & Veg – at the Bellingen Growers Market on Sundays
Camilla of Autarky Farm – at the Bellingen Growers Market on Sundays
Shaun of Thora Veg – outside Sourced in Hyde St on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning
Thanks to Charles Filet of Bellingen Seed Savers for the conversational advice.
And thanks to all who replied to my online callouts for local backyard growing experiences, in no particular order:
Pete Bufo, Corinne Sanford, Jen Tredinnick, Kris Heather, Alison Pope, Gillian Salvestro, Pat Wheeldon, Kathleen Hannah
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
I do need to make a point that I am not the holder of all the knowledge included in these articles. I patchwork the knowledge together based on interviews with local growers, both backyard and professional, and search online for information and advice given to farmers based on research, usually from state Department of Primary Industries or federal Department of Agriculture, and Agrifutures Australia. Basics and blanks are filled in with information from reputable local-ish seed and plant retailers. A lot of gardening advice is conflicting. My aim is to prioritise information based on repeatable (and preferably local) experience ie local commercial growers, over generic or hearsay advice ie Australia-wide gardening websites. Tips that are repeated across many types of sources are gold.
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1. Alpinia officinarum (Lesser Galangal) | Bamboo Land Nursery QLD Australia [Internet]. Bamboo Land. [cited 2021 Aug 18]. Available from: https://www.bambooland.com.au/alpinia-officinarum
2. Galangal – Alpinia galanga | ginger family [Internet]. Daleys Fruit. [cited 2021 Jul 26]. Available from: https://www.daleysfruit.com.au/fruit%20pages/galangal.htm
3. Galangal growing information [Internet]. Green Harvest. [cited 2021 Jul 26]. Available from: https://greenharvest.com.au/Plants/Information/Galangal.html