Saffron, the bright red stigmas of Crocus sativus, is frequently overlooked as a candidate for the home herb garden.
If, like many of us, you have been trying to eat more locally produced food lately, no doubt you have already learned how to keep the produce bin stocked with beans, tomatoes, lettuce and corn by growing them at home or visiting the local farmers’ market. Nothing beats local produce for flavor and nutrition, and eating close to home helps conserve the fuel that would have been used to transport the food across the country. But what about those wonderful, exotic flavors like ginger? They will always have to come from far away, right?
Not necessarily. Spotting a basket of really high quality organic ginger labeled “Product of Alabama” in a local store suggested to me that many tropical and subtropical seasoning plants might not be that out of reach for the average gardener. In October 2010, the Knoxville News-Sentinel published a story about Roger Kane, a Knoxvillian who successfully grows bananas, figs, citrus fruits, even pomegranates, in pots that he moves into his garage for the winter. That cinched it.
This year, with a little luck, my ginger will come from the garden, along with some other flavors most gardeners seldom consider. If you want to try growing your own, here are some tips and techniques.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) grows from the fleshy rhizome sold in grocery markets as “ginger root.” Choose a plump, healthy looking specimen with numerous “eyes” like potatoes. The best time to plant is in spring, but you can grow ginger any time if you can protect it from frost. Purchase the rhizomes in quantity when they are on sale and store them dry and cool until you need them. Soak the rhizome in a bowl of lukewarm water overnight before planting if it has become shriveled.
A ginger rhizome is ready to plant when the eyes begin to show signs of development.
Select a container at least four times larger than the piece of rhizome you are planting. A 12-14 inch azalea pot works well. This will allow for the development of an extensive root system. Fill the container three quarters full with a good, well-drained potting mix containing plenty of compost. Place the soaked rhizome on top of the mix with the eyes pointing upward. Cover with more potting mix and water well. Place the container in a plastic bag in indirect light until green shoots appear. Then remove the bag and water well. Keep the plant in bright, indirect light and never allow the soil to dry out. Growing plants need protection from wind and should be brought indoors any time the temperature is headed below 50 F. The ideal growing temperature is 75 F to 85 F.
It can take as long as a year for a container-grown ginger plant to reach its mature height of 2 to 4 feet. Plants started indoors in February will nevertheless produce a harvestable crop by the following September. You can achieve more robust growth by transplanting a container-grown specimen to the garden when nighttime temperatures are reliably above 50 F. Select a spot with good drainage, partial sun and rich soil. Dig in plenty of compost and sand if your soil is heavy clay. After transplanting, feed the plants every three weeks with a soluble organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion or liquefied seaweed. Ginger thrives in hot, humid weather and thus adapts quite well to muggy Southern summers. If you are the impatient type, you can carefully harvest a few tender shoots from the outside edge of the clump for use during the summer months. This “baby” ginger is not as pungent as the later mature crop will become.
When the leaves begin to turn yellow late in the season, it is time to harvest. Dig up the rhizomes, and immediately replant the ones you want to grow next season. If you keep the containers cool and dry, they probably will not sprout again until mid winter.
Fresh ginger freezes well. Just peel, chop and place in suitable containers. You can also store chunks or slices of fresh ginger in a jar, covered with brandy. Either way, the fresh ginger taste is preserved.
Lemon grass grows rapidly in full sun and rich, moist soil.
Essential to Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines, and a good source of lemon flavor, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a tropical perennial that can be grown outdoors in very mild winter regions, but must be wintered indoors or started anew each season in most parts of the South. Because it needs a large container for its prodigious root system, starting over each year is the best technique. Visit the grocery store in early spring to buy new starts. Lemon grass is sold in bunches of several stems with most of the foliage removed. Each stem has a bulbous base. You may see tiny roots or root buds sticking out from the base. When planted, the basal portion quickly roots and grows into a clump a yard or more in height and about as wide. Insert the stem about an inch into a small pot of damp soil mix, and roots will quickly form. When new roots protrude from the drain hole in the pot, you are ready to transplant outside, but wait until all danger of frost has passed and the weather is warm.
If sited in full sun and rich, moist soil, lemon grass grows with amazing rapidity. Plants should be fertilized regularly. Add compost to the bottom of the planting hole, and side dress monthly with additional compost, fish emulsion or seaweed extract. The ideal growing temperature is 75 F during the day and 60 F at night.
The leaves of lemon grass have sharp, serrated edges that can deliver a nasty cut. Wear heavy gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when working with them. To harvest, select stems with bases is about half an inch in diameter. Remove foliage with clippers, and trim to 8 or 10 inches in length. Stems will keep well under refrigeration for a week or two, or you can chop and freeze them. Lemon grass can also be dried and used to season herbal teas. Lemon grass grown outdoors often takes on a reddish cast, enhancing its decorative value in the landscape. You could even use it as a protective, although temporary, hedge.
Lemon tree in a terra-cotta container.
Citrus trees have a lot to offer: lustrous green foliage, richly fragrant flowers, and of course, their delicious fruits. Unfortunately, they are not hardy and must be grown in containers in all but the frost-free areas of the country. Choosing appropriate cultivars for container culture, however, will enable anyone to grow citrus, if you can provide them with a cool, well-lighted space during the coldest weather. Fruit production begins in the second year after transplanting, and increases as the tree gets larger. Therefore, as the tree grows, choose the largest pot that you consider portable enough to be moved inside when necessary. Younger trees, however, should not be “overpotted.”Any good potting mixture is suitable for citrus trees, as long as it drains well, although commercial mixes intended specifically for citrus are widely available and recommended. Several authorities suggest avoiding both peat moss and pine bark in mixes intended for citrus. Water when the top 1 inch of growing mix feels dry. Feed once when the plants move outdoors, and again about three months later, using a good, balanced organic fertilizer. Glossy, dark green leaves indicate that the plant is receiving adequate nutrition. Err on the side of less food and less water. Too much of either will result in leggy, unsightly growth and poor fruit production.
Commercially-produced citrus tree cultivars are grafted to one of two rootstocks: sour orange or trifoliate orange. Try to locate stock grafted to trifoliate orange, as this rootstock is both smaller and more cold tolerant than the sour orange. The smaller size will adapt better to a container, and greater cold tolerance means you can wait longer to bring plants inside in autumn and take them back outdoors earlier in spring.
Nothing is quite like the unique, indescribable flavor of saffron. The dried stigmas of an autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, saffron is seldom considered a choice for the home herb garden. Nevertheless, saffron crocus is as easy to grow as its spring-blooming cousins, and will repay your efforts many times. A few pinches of dried saffron can set you back 10 dollars in the grocery store.
Saffron grows well in Zones 6 through 9, and prefers good, well-drained soil in full sun. A patch of 10 square feet, enough to accommodate about 50 corms, will provide an increasing abundance of spice as the plants mature and multiply. Set them out in summer, while they are dormant, 6 inches apart and 3 inches deep. You can overplant, if you wish, with annual flowers or summer herbs such as basil. Pull up the annuals when the weather turns cold, or when you see the new green shoots of saffron poking through the soil in autumn. When the lovely lavender-blue flowers open a few weeks later, harvest by picking the bright red stigmas by hand. You can use them immediately in such Mediterranean dishes as paella, bouillabaisse and risotto, or dry them for a few days before storing in an airtight container for later use.
With a little ingenuity and close attention to choosing the proper cultivars, gardeners anywhere can enjoy exotic flavors from a backyard plot.
A version of this article appeared in a February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of istockphoto.com/askintulayover, John Tullock, istockphoto.com/szefei, istockphoto.com/romaoslo.