Growing Good Medicine
Though I’m as big a sucker as anyone for the hottest, coolest, latest new plants, I’ve always grown a lot of traditional cottage charmers as well. In all my former gardens, borders were laced with self-sown columbines and poppies, fennel and foxgloves, infant ornamental grasses and patches of baby bulbs. Hellebores and toad lilies spread under trees and around shrubs and hardy cyclamen pooled in pink and purple puddles, nestled into silver splashed leaves. I respect nature’s generosity in producing replacements for annuals and short lived perennials, so most seedlings are safe with me. Yes, they may be coaxed to thrive in a new spot, but I hate to waste wonderful plants. If I can’t make a home for them, I’ll pot them up and pass them along to someone with more soil than plants.
Years ago, when my garden was open for a tour, a haughty hort-head scornfully mocked my golden feverfew, saying, “I can’t believe you’re still growing THAT old thing.” It made me even more fond of “that old thing,” which pops up in many an odd spot, bringing a little shaft of gold to set off some dusky beauty’s charms. I grow regular feverfew as well, in several forms; quilled, balled, doubled and plain. It’s one of the longest bloomers, never a showboat but nearly always offering a little spray or two of bright little daisies for an out-of-season tussy-mussy. I’l always grow this willing worker, especially since I read a report from an English medical journal reporting on research that found feverfew foliage (a sprig a day) to be as or more effective than drugs for relieving migraines.
Instead of growing healing herbs in lonely isolation, I like to weave them through both ornamental and edible beds. Indeed, once you start investigating, it’s hard to decide which plant is or isn’t a healer. From garlic and rosemary to chamomile and calendula to thyme and turmeric, it’s amazing how many traditional garden plants have some healthy benefits. Ever since I sold my home, most of my treasured plants have been farmed out to friends or tucked into new homes at the library. I have to fight off some of the other Friday Tidy volunteers there who can’t pass a mint or fennel plant without ripping it out, but many of my helpful plant pals are growing happily amongst the ornamentals.
One I’ll never be without again is ginger (Zingiber officinale), which I’ve kept going in a large (3 cubic foot) tub. I started growing ginger years ago, when Log house Plants first offered organic tubers. Grocery store ginger is often treated with growth retardants to keep it from sprouting, so it’s a lot easier to get good results from untreated roots. Like its canna cousins, edible ginger needs full sun, shelter from chilly winds, and great drainage. Here in the Maritime Northwest, ginger needs shelter in a greenhouse or sunroom during the cooler months, but it sure has enjoyed the hotter-than-usual summers in the past few years!
Easy To Please
I use a lot of ginger in teas and broths as well as in cooking, but one large tubful produces enough to last most of the year. It’s easy to please ginger; it likes good potting soil fortified with some compost, and needs good drainage as well as some protection from cold winds. Like many tropical plants, ginger likes full sun up North (I’m on an island off Seattle) and filtered sun in the hotter South. Mine succeeded in the ground only when planted on a deep berm of sandy loam topped with improved soil, but it grows very happily in the large tub, where the enriched soil is replaced after each annual harvest. Ginger roots grow fairly near the surface, spreading widely but not very deeply, so the width of the pot is more important than the depth. However, more soil holds heat longer when temperatures drop, so I fill the bottom of a deep pot with sand.
Before planting, rinse the ginger rhizomes well and soak them in cool water for an hour or so if they seem dried out. You don’t need a lot to get started; a few smallish pieces will size up nicely over time. Set the pieces 6-8 inches apart, with the buds facing up; they’ll sprout into grassy stems that look a bit like a small bamboo. Cover the rhizomes with an inch or two of moist soil and gently firm them in with your hands. The grassy shoots will appear more quickly in a warm, sheltered location, so if you can’t provide reliable frost protection, you’d do better to plant in spring. After planting, all you need to do is wait. In mild and warm winter areas, ginger can sit outside all year round, needing enough water to keep in in active growth. Indoors, growth will be slower but steady; don’t over-water or fertilize or you risk rotting the rhizomes.
Ginger matures in around a year in my cool Northwestern garden, but as quickly as 8-9 months in warmer places. Many permaculture folks expect one annual harvest, though commercial growers speed the process for greater production. My big tub produces enough for my needs for about a year, and harvest is very simple; when the leaves begin to turn brown, dump out everything, replenish the tub with fresh soil and compost, and choose a few of the outermost rhizomes with plump eye buds for the next crop.
The rest goes to the kitchen, where half is stored fresh in mesh bags on an open shelf in the refrigerator. The rest-mostly the older, tougher pieces-is sliced thickly and frozen by the half cup for teas and infusions. Here are some current favorite recipes, ideal for gingering up our flagging spirits in this merciless political disaster. Onward, or even excelsior, as in onward and upward. To the light!
Powerhouse Ginger Tea
1/4 cup sliced and chopped ginger root
4 cups water
Bring to a boil, then cover pan and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Strain (save the sliced ginger to add to soup stock and broth) and add honey to taste. Drink as hot as you can stand it. Store extra in glass in the refrigerator for up to a week. Excellent for coughs, sore throats, and low spirits.
This spicy, milky tea is full of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and other beneficial phytonutrients and is pleasantly soothing to boot. Don’t leave out the pepper; it potentiates the turmeric!
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger root
1 tablespoon finely grated turmeric root
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon honey
2 cups milk (or coconut milk or almond milk)
Combine all ingredients, bring to a simmer and simmer, covered, over very low heat, for 10-15 minutes. Strain and serve warm. Serves 2.