Gingering up the garden with Jackie French
I’m hooked on fresh ginger tea. It’s simple: thinly slice fresh ginger, place in a jug with a sliced lemon – peel and all – then pour over boiling water. Steep, then drink hot or cold. In winter, I drink it hot and, in summer, add a bit of ice.
Ginger mint isn’t a ginger, but one of the mint family. Sniff the pot of ginger mint in the garden centre before you buy it, as some cultivars are far more gingery than others, and a few may smell a bit like mothballs instead. You’ll also get a stronger mint and ginger flavour if you grow your plant in full sunlight, or even better, in a pot above hot sunny paving, though make sure you water it often — like most mints, ginger mint will die if it dries out. Ginger mint also dies back in winter but is far more cold-tolerant than true ginger.
Ginger mint makes an excellent “mint and ginger tea”, but don’t try to cook with it; both the ginger and the mint flavour fade and it can even taste vaguely unpleasant. If you want to use it to spice up a dish it’s best to chop the leaves finely and added them to the hot food just before serving; or keep them for salads and fruit salads; or place a leaf in the water for ice blocks before you freeze them, to give a tang to glasses of chilled water in midsummer.
The ginger rhizome you buy in supermarkets can be planted but is frost-sensitive, and in cold winters the plant will not just die down, but probably die completely. Ginger also needs heat to grow. I’ve tried growing it as an indoor plant and it does survive, but it won’t grow enough ginger to be worth digging up.
Ginger also needs extremely rich, very well-drained, moist soil and plenty of sunlight and water. Keep it well fed, mulched, watered and sheltered from cold winds and frost for as long as possible for a good yield. In areas that get light frosts but still have long, hot summers ginger can be started in a large pot and taken indoors on cold nights and then transplanted when the soil warms up.
Growing is easy. Simply place a hunk of the rhizome in well-prepared ground. If you want to hurry it up, plant it very shallowly in a small moist pot of soil, cover with a plastic bag and keep it on a sunny window sill. Remove the bag as soon as you see the first shoots. Leave ginger root in the open air for a few hours for any cuts to dry before planting it.
Harvest ginger root in autumn as soon as the leaves have died down. In areas that have only light or no frosts you can leave small pieces in the soil over winter — these should shoot again in the spring. In cold areas or where the soil isn’t perfectly drained the ginger can rot in the cooler months — keep some of the root to plant next spring. Ginger is usually sundried for about a week after harvesting to help preserve it.
Even though my attempts to grow culinary ginger have been a failure, native ginger (Alpinia caerulea) thrives at our place under the roses on a usually moist bank. The leaf tips do die back in a heavy frost, and the whole plant looks tatty after a few years of drought, but the fibrous, skinny roots are still deliciously gingerish, though they need soaking and scrubbing to remove the grit. I’ve used a blender to make a rich ginger paste with them, but for ginger tea it’s easier to just chop the roots and steep. The leaves also have a slight ginger flavour: try barbecuing ears of sweet corn wrapped in native ginger leaves.
Grow your native ginger in dappled shade or even full shade, especially in hot areas. It will take quite a bit of sun if kept moist. It definitely doesn’t like hot dry winds — the edges of the leaves turn brown. It grows about 60cm high at our place in southern NSW but is said to grow to two metres in Cape York. The roots, or rather rhizomes, of a two-metre plant are probably far more robust than ours.
The plants give insignificant white flowers in summer, followed by blue edible berries, though by “edible” I mean “can be munched and will be pleasantly spicy”. There’s a large amount of seed and very little pulp. The seeds will germinate if planted and kept moist for about two warm months, but it’s easier to dig up part of a plant. Our original small slip of native ginger is now a couple of square metres of native ginger covered bank. It’s trouble-free, delightfully green and always there when things need just a little spicing up.
Peel the ginger and slice it finely, then soak in a brine made of 1 cup of water to 1 cup of salt overnight. Drain and simmer in fresh water till just tender but not soft. Drain again.
Make a syrup of 1 cup of water to 4 cups of sugar and simmer the ginger root till it’s transparent. Leave on a tray or rack till perfectly dry, wrap in greaseproof paper and keep in a sealed jar in a cool place — not the fridge.
Ginger Spice Biscuits