Ginger – The Herb of the Year 2023
Every year the International Herb Association declares one herb to be the ‘Herb of the Year’, and for 2023 that herb is Ginger, Zingiber officinale. I think ginger has for too long been relegated to a little bottle of ancient dried powder that only gets brought out every Thanksgiving and Christmas, but its value in the kitchen and medicine cabinet is huge. In many parts of California growing ginger is not that difficult as an annual crop, and it can be a beautiful shade grown plant in the culinary garden. With just a little extra soil prep and water, or in a container with high quality soil, you can grow your own edible Ginger.
Ginger is a member of the Zingiberaceae family, which includes other yummy members such as cardamom, turmeric and galangal. The edible portion of the ginger plant is the rhizome, which is the horizontal, underground fleshy stem. Above ground the plant has long narrow tropical leaves, and can produce blooms if grown in warm climates for extended periods. For most of us, the goal is to grow the plants for 7 to 8 months and then harvest the plants for the rhizomes, so most of us will never see the cones bloom. To grow ginger in a temperate climate, plan on growing it in an area that is protected from the blasting afternoon sun and has rich soil and access to adequate water. If you are growing in ground, this is the
time to spade in plenty of earthworm castings and extra compost, and good organic slow release fertilizer. You can start with plants to get a jump on the season, or you can buy rhizomes. If you are purchasing rhizomes from the store, purchasing from a farmers market or from an organic source assures that the rhizomes haven’t been sprayed to prevent sprouting.
Lay the rhizome flat with at least 3 to 4 ‘eyes’ (usually the piece will be at least 3-5 inches long) and dig it shallow under the soil – 2-4 inches. The soil should be mulched to keep soil temperatures moderate and soil should be kept slightly moist. If you are planting in containers, using either plant starts or rhizomes, this is a situation where super high quality soil such as EB Stone’s Recipe 420 will give excellent results. Shallow pots can be used
for ginger so long as you are able to water and fertilize on a regular schedule. Fertilize with an organic all purpose fertilizer every month. Generally you will want to harvest your plant, meaning the underground rhizomes, in the mid fall, cleaning them and keeping them in a cold refrigerator, or placing some fresh in vinegar, such as sherry vinegar, or processing by drying and powdering some, perhaps pickling some, and maybe even drying and crystallizing pieces.
You can always replant some of the rhizome, keeping it close to your house and protected during the winter during freezes, so you will always have your stock plant to start your next years ginger harvest. Ginger is native to the more tropical areas of India, South Central China and Eastern Himalaya, and is produced commercially throughout Malaysia, Eastern Australia, and central America. It is recorded in cooking in Asia and Greece at least 4500 years ago, making it one of the most ancient culinary herbs in use. It is used in a wide diversity of cultures – popular in Indian, Asian, Arabic, Greek, North African and Hispanic foods.
Fresh ginger has a wonderful presentation of part spicy and peppery, but with a slight sweetness and citrus undertone. It lends itself to both sweet and savory foods, making it great to use in all part of a meal. The rhizome can be prepared in a number of ways , making ginger one of the most versatile of herbs. Besides using powdered ginger for cookies and pie during the holidays, for many years I only used ginger pickled when I ate sushi. Once you start to experiment with fresh ginger, the possibilities are endless! Fresh ginger slices roasted along with other root vegetables change rutabagas and turnips into something with some real character.
Grate fresh ginger in soups or place slices under fish in the oven. Stir fry strips of ginger with other vegetables and noodles for a complete nutritious meal. Fresh grated ginger is terrific to add to fruit pies, or to pumpkin pie to punch up the flavor. Ginger in tea and bar drinks are quite common – the Moscow Mule is impossible to make without ginger beer! Two summers ago for Open Farm Days in July we featured herbal teas at the nursery, and the runaway favorite was our Iced Peach Ginger Tea. It was super refreshing, with a bit of caffeine, a bit of spiciness and the fruity taste of summer. And it was super easy to make.