I probably shouldn’t admit this, but at times I get bored with vegetable gardening. I love growing food for my table, but anything can become repetitious after a while. I felt like I was in a rut until I came across a recent NPR article titled “Americans Love Spices. So Why Don’t We Grow Them?” I think I have found a way out of my rut.
I have two requirements for anything I grow. First, it must be something I eat, and second, it must be fairly easy to grow and not require coddling. Researching online, I quickly found several spices that will grow in Napa’s USDA Zone 9 climate.
Ginger and its cousin, turmeric, are both headed for my garden. Both are perennial plants that put out shoots and underground stems called rhizomes, which are the parts we eat. Both require a location with shade to partial sun and rich, loose soil.
You can plant fresh ginger that you buy at the grocery store or farmers markets. However, to be certain of planting disease-free rhizomes, I ordered mine from an online supplier. Turmeric rhizomes are difficult to find locally so I ordered mine from the same source.
Ginger rhizomes are quite a bit larger than turmeric rhizomes. Before planting, break the ginger rhizomes into pieces that are one to two inches long, with at least three eyes on each piece. Plant the turmeric rhizomes whole unless they’re in a clump, in which case you can break them up.
Plant these rhizomes in the early spring, after all chance of frost has passed. To help prevent rot, allow cut pieces to dry for a day or two in a warm place before planting. Prior to planting amend your soil with a healthy amount of compost. A three- to four-inch layer of compost worked into the soil will provide necessary nutrients, keep the soil loose and provide better drainage. Plant the rhizomes about four inches deep and cover with a layer of mulch to protect them from cold and maintain soil moisture.
Ginger and turmeric both like regular watering. Keep the soil moist but not wet; wet soil can cause the rhizomes to rot. You should not need to fertilize if you added compost before planting. Don’t expect any shoots to pop up until the weather warms. Ginger will be the first to appear. It may take turmeric a month longer.
In late fall, ginger and turmeric leaves will yellow and die back to the ground. Once this happens, it’s time to harvest. Ginger tends to be more productive than turmeric, so don’t be surprised if there is a significant difference in your yield. Leave a few rhizomes in the soil if you want them to grow back again next year.
To make dried ginger or turmeric, start by peeling the rhizome, then cutting it into slices about 1/8-inch thick. Dry the slices in a dehydrator or your oven. Store dried slices in an airtight container. For the best flavor and aroma, grind them into a powder only as you need them.
Saffron is the most expensive spice that I buy, so I was elated to learn that I could grow it at home. It comes from the saffron crocus, a fall-blooming bulb. The part we use is the red stigma. Each bulb produces only one flower, and each flower produces only three stigmas. I’m beginning to understand why saffron is so expensive.
September is the best time to plant saffron bulbs. In fact, they aren’t available for purchase until then. These bulbs do not store well so plant them as soon as you get them.
Saffron bulbs need well-draining soil and lots of sun. Like ginger and turmeric, they appreciate compost-enriched soil and mulch on top. Plant bulbs three to five inches deep and at least six inches apart. It takes 50 to 60 saffron flowers to produce 1 tablespoon of saffron threads, so keep this in mind when deciding how many bulbs to plant. Saffron crocus multiply rapidly, so in a few years’ time you should have more than enough.
Saffron crocus need little care after planting. You can fertilize them once a year, although they grow fine without fertilizer. Keep the soil moist while the plants are growing and don’t water when plants are dormant.
When the flower blooms, pluck the elongated, orange-red stigmas. The flowers are small, and the stigmas are like threads, so harvesting large quantities is time-consuming. Spread the stigmas on a cookie sheet to dry in a warm room until they easily crumble. Once dry, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Once I have mastered ginger, turmeric and saffron, I’ll be ready for allspice, cardamom and maybe nutmeg.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Smart Fruit Tree Pruning” on Saturday, Feb. 3, from 9:30-11:30 a.m., at the UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. Discover the importance of the sun’s magic when it comes to fruit trees. Invite that magic into your tree with good pruning technique. Master Gardeners will review winter pruning and annual tree care to help you learn why the sun and size matters when it comes to fruit trees. Online registration is coming soon.
Mail-in or walk-in registration (cash or check only).