Growing Edible Ginger
Most people new to ornamental gingers associate the term ginger only with the edible ginger they buy in grocery stores (Zingiber officinale). When they become aware of "ornamental" gingers the inevitable questions are asked: "Are all gingers edible?" and "How do I grow my own edible ginger." Of course there are several other questions that usually go along with these, and hopefully all are answered within this article. To answer the first question, No not all gingers are edible, and only one species out of over a thousand produces the rhizomes that are the tradition edible ginger (Zingiber officinale). Some people insist on trying anything and use various Hedychium spp and hybrids (Butterfly Gingers). These alternatives are nothing like the true edible ginger. Given the ease of growing edible ginger, I highly recommend getting and growing the real thing. Most people new to gingers in general are not sure how to go about starting their own gingers from store bought rhizomes, so hopefully this will make it easy for you.
Fresh ginger has become very popular and is available in most any grocery store. When selecting a rhizome (the "ginger root"), look for the largest and fullest piece available. Older rhizomes are often dehydrated and have a wrinkled appearance, avoid these. Often these rhizomes will actually already be sprouting, or have swollen "eyes" on them. This should be your first choice if available, if not any good looking piece will do.
Ginger is produced around the world and imported into the United States. One usually can’t be sure where their rhizome came from. This is important to understand in that the rhizome could have just gone dormant in its country of origin, or it may be at the end of its dormancy and be ready to sprout. Rhizomes that originate from the same hemisphere would be ready to plant and sprout in late spring, but rhizomes from the opposite hemisphere may take a few weeks longer than their counterparts to sprout. Once established they will adapt to your climate after the first season.
It is best to let your ginger grow for at least one full season before harvesting. I recommend that you buy at least a few rhizomes to insure that you have two clumps growing, and alternate which clump you harvest from at the end of the year.
Zingiber officinale is hardy to USDA Zone 8 and I recommend growing them in the ground for anyone that has space. For those that must grow in containers, a rich well drained potting soil will work fine. I recommend starting rhizomes in pots regardless, then planting them in the ground once they have sprouted. Rhizomes should be laid flat and covered with an inch of soil. The sprouting time varies tremendously, so just keep the soil slightly moist until you see growth. It is not uncommon for it to take several weeks for rhizomes to sprout, so be patient.
Zingiber officinale grows to about 3 feet tall in medium to full sun. It prefers a rich well drained soil and can be fertilized with an all purpose fertilizer such as a 20-20-20. They do prefer to be watered often. The blooms on this species are not very attractive, and it shouldn’t be grown solely as an ornamental given the other options available. Mature clumps will produce small green cones and cream colored flowers on a separate leafless stalk. As a spice plant it is very easy and productive
Once the cooler temps of late fall have arrived, let the plants dry out. Natural rain will not hurt them, but one should cut off hand watering to stimulate the natural dormancy process. Plants grown in the ground are of course the easiest to take care of. A layer of mulch over the bed is usually not even necessary in most areas, but certainly wouldn’t hurt. Plants grown in pots can be moved under cover and left to dry out and go dormant. Once dormant, the entire pot can be stored in a cool dry place over winter. The rhizomes can also be lifted, washed, dried, and stored indoors as well. One can dig plants from the ground and treat them the same way. Some people prefer to store everything inside and use the rhizomes as needed, replanting all of the leftovers in spring. Once a rhizome is cut for spice, the remaining piece should be refrigerated to prevent rotting (this is assuming that it will eventually be eaten). Rhizomes that are being stored for replanting should not be refrigerated.
Hopefully this article has covered the basics for growing your own edible ginger from store bought rhizomes. Despite its less than ornamental appearance, this species of ginger is a very easy and rewarding plant. Once a clump or two are established, you will have more fresh edible ginger than you most likely be able to use! I will be updating this article periodically, with some photos and other information coming on the next update.