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Grow Your Own Ginger!

Q. A couple of weeks ago, Mike mentioned that you could take a piece of ginger from the market, stick it in dirt and it would grow. I tried this, but have had no luck. Am I overlooking something?
    ---Deborah in Oaks, PA
I have always wanted to grow my own ginger. I have an old root that is sending out a shoot. Is this something I can plant and grow in a pot indoors over the winter?
    ---Lori in Princeton, NJ
A. Several years ago, I was helping a friend move his tender plants inside before frost hit. One was in a pot that was badly split (from, it turned out, pressure caused by the enormous amount of plant matter under the soil), and it's simple green leaves and shoots looked pretty ordinary. So I asked him: 1) do you really want to keep this? And 2) should we repot it?

Instead of answering, he banged the contents loose on his big outdoor potting bench. Out came an almost impossibly small amount of soil and two or three huge dark irregularly shaped clumps, that when rinsed off, showed themselves to be the same ginger "roots" (they're actually rhizomes) I was buying in Asian grocery stores in Philadelphia's Chinatown.

He dryly said, "looks like it got a little root bound", and gave me the biggest clump. Then he showed me the little 'eye buds'—the sprouts-to-be—on some of the fingers of the clump. "Break off a piece that has one of these little buds," he instructed, "plant it, and use the rest. That little piece will grow you a new plant that you can harvest in about a year. Or let it grow for a few years and you'll get bigger clumps. Just make sure it's the last plant you take outside in the Spring and the first one you bring inside in the fall. It's really tropical, and doesn't like any kind of chill."

That was about eight years ago, and despite my overwatering, underwatering, and benign neglect, I still have a direct descendent of that original clump. Ginger just loves to grow.

So get a nice fresh piece of ginger from a market. Make sure it's plump and moist and has a couple of those 'bud eyes' visible, not a dried and leathery chunk that's been sitting around too long. A lot of sources suggest soaking the rhizome in water for a day before planting, and that seems like a good idea. Then find a pot that provides excellent drainage and lots of room for the underground ginger to grow, and fill it about three-quarters of the way with a combination of the loosest, lightest potting soil (aka soil-free mix) you can find, and high-quality compost or worm castings. Make it about a 50/50 mix; ginger grows best in a naturally rich soil that drains exceptionally well.

Then break off a chunk of rhizome and place it on top of the soil mixture with the bud eye (or the already-out green sprout) facing up, and gently fill the pot the rest of the way with your mix. Sit the pot in a few inches of water for an hour or so to let the soil get completely saturated, then let it drain and place the pot in a warm spot in your house; around 75 degrees F would be ideal.

Don't water it again until the pot feels light, and even then, have a light hand with the water. When the first green shoots appear, move the plant into bright light, and make sure the area stays warm at night. Mist the green shoots daily and continue to water whenever the pot begins to feel light. Take it outside in the Spring about two weeks after your nights start staying in the mid-fifties or above; don't rush! And make sure it sits on a surface that allows good drainage.

At the end of the season, the green growth may die back. Don't panic—that just means it's time to harvest. Take some of the rhizome to use in the kitchen and replant the rest. If it doesn't die back and you want to see what you got, empty the pot out about 11 months after you started the plant. If it's too tiny to harvest, repot and grow it out for another year.

Q. I have a tropical Ginger plant in a big pot in my house next to a window that faces southeast. No matter what I do, the leaf tips appear singed. I water it almost every day as I have read that it likes its soil wet—and when I don't water this often, whole stalks die. So I keep up the watering, but the leaf tips remain crispy.
    ---Amanda in Duluth, MN
A. You don't say if you have edible ginger or one of its ornamental flowering cousins, but no plant should need to be watered every day, especially in the winter time! You might want to increase the humidity in your house; I suspect that your home is so dry sweater-wearing people can shuffle their feet and then shoot electrical charges at you like a comic-book super-villain from November through March.

Whatever else you do, begin daily misting of the leaves; tropical plants tend to love high humidity at their leaf tips.

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