Ginger on the Way

   Now that summer-y weather has blown in and is here to stay, it’s time to plant the greenhouse. Plant the greenhouse?! This time of year? Yes. No reason to let all that real estate go to waste through summer.
    Ginger plants that I started from supermarket tubers a couple of months ago were crying out to be released from the confines of their 4-inch pots. Warming their bottoms on the seed-starting heating mat pushed them along even when early spring skies were overcast and the greenhouse relatively cool. Ginger is a tropical plant that shivers even when temperatures drop below 55°F.Planting ginger
    I never could see the rationale for the current interest in growing ginger in northern regions. That is, until I tasted freshly harvested, baby ginger. This far north, ginger rarely has time to develop the mature, tan-skinned roots you see in supermarkets. No matter, because immature, or “baby,” ginger, which is ginger harvested before it matures, is better — a white, tender, tasty tuber. It doesn’t keep or ship as well as mature ginger, which is no problem for backyard growing or local sales.
    So 4 ginger plants went into two greenhouse beds. I’ll dig up the ginger in September, freeing up space for lettuce, celery, kale, and other cool weather salad makings that will inhabit the winter greenhouse.

Early Curcurbits

    One can eat only just so much ginger. (We’re still using last year’s harvest which, for long term storage, was sliced thin and put into jars with vinegar.) What about other greenhouse beds that are being vacated as the last of winter’s lettuce, celery, kale, and chard get harvested and cleared away?
 Greenhouse in June   Cucumbers and melons love heat, so a few extra plants that I started back in early May went into beds.
    The permanent fixtures in the greenhouse, the plants that really help the greenhouse earn its keep, are the four fig trees — Bethlehem Black, San Piero, Brown Turkey, and Rabbi Samuel — planted right in the ground. The largest of these has a trunk 7 inches in diameter. All yield bountiful crops daily in August and September, and less bountiful ones going into October.Figs growing, last of greenhouse lettuces

Tropicals and Subtropicals Summer Vacation

    In a reversal of fall, tropical and subtropical plants that had been moved into the greenhouse and house are now lined up outdoors, ready to offer fresh black mulberries, Pakistan mulberries, pineapple guavas, pomegranates, Golden Nugget mandarins, olives, dwarf Cavendish bananas (probably no fruit from this one, just a very tropical look), and a few other varieties of figs, in pots.
    (My black mulberry is the species Morus nigra, one of the best-tasting of all fruits, but is not cold hardy here. Black-colored mulberries that grow all over the place outdoors here are, despite black fruits, species of red or white mulberries, or their hybrids.)
    Any of my tropical and subtropical plants, given their druthers, would reach 8 feet, 10 feet, or even more feet skyward, and spread their roots many feet in all directions. Here, they can’t do that or they would be too big to move or to house in winter.
    So I mixed up a batch of potting soil, and started root pruning. It sounds brutal, and it is, but plants recover nicely and then happily have new soil to explore. Basically, I slide a plant out of its pot, stand it upright, and then start slicing off the outer edges of the root ball. Pruning shears take care of any roots too large to slice with a knife.
    The finished root ball is an inch or two smaller in diameter than it started out. How much to remove depends on the initial size of the root ball — larger plants get more removed — and, to a lesser degree, the kind of plant. Figs, for instance, tolerate especially brutal treatment.
 Root pruning   So much for the roots. To keep it manageable, the plant also needs stem reduction. Some stems get shortened, some are removed in toto, and some are left untouched. Who gets what treatment depends, for fruiting plants, on their fruiting habit — just where and how they bear fruit. Figs that bear on new shoots can be pruned rather severely; pineapple guavas bear on new shoots growing off older stems, so only moderate pruning is tolerated so that some older stems are preserved, etc.
    After root and shoot pruning a thorough watering, plants are ready for a year or two of good growth before they will again feel constrained.

Luxuriating in my Greenhouse

How Cool is That (Greenhouse)?

    Having a greenhouse is a much-appreciated luxury. To avoid being profligate, I eke all that I can from its every square inch in every season.
    For starters, it’s a cool greenhouse — temperature-wise “cool,” not “ain’t this a cool greenhouse” cool. Winter temperatures are permitted inside drop to 35°F. before the propane heater kicks on. And in summer, roll-up sidewalls let in plenty of cooler, outside air to save energy (and noise) in running the cooling fan. Demands on the cooling fan are also minimized by letting summer temperatures reach almost 100°F. before the fan awakens.
    I have to choose my plants carefully for them to tolerate such conditions.Grennhouse beds in October
    Right now, lettuce, arugula, mâche, celery, parsley, kale, and Swiss chard seedlings and small transplants trace green lines up and down ground beds in the greenhouse. I sowed seed of most of these cold-loving vegetables about a month ago. They’re too small to harvest now. No matter: The outdoor vegetable garden is still replete with greenery available for harvest through November and, probably, on into December. By then, greenhouse greenery will have grown to harvest size, then continue to do so very slowly through the dark, cold days.
    And the 100° summers in the greenhouse? Above the beds spread the branches of three large fig trees, planted right into the ground (rather than pots). From those branches dangle ripe and ripening figs, as they have since July. Figs originated in the searing heat of summers in Western Asia; they can take the 100° heat of my greenhouse. Soon, cooler temperatures and lowering sun will drive the trees to stop ripening fruits, and lose their leaves and enter dormancy. (Figs are subtropical, rather than tropical, trees, so enjoy a cool — but not frigid — winter rest.) The few, leafless branches, most of them pruned back, will cast little shade to let the cool weather greenery in the ground beds below bask in what little sunlight fall and winter have to offer.
    Starting in February, my greenhouse does triple duty, becoming also a home for transplants for the upcoming season’s vegetable and flower gardens. I plant the first seeds — onions, lettuce, celery, and leek — in early February, sowing them in seed flats on the narrow bench along the greenhouse’s north wall.

(Hot) Beds in Summer

    As each spring morphs into summer in the greenhouse, fig growth begins anew and winter’s cool weather vegetables wane and are cleared away.
    How about putting the ground beds beneath the awakening fig trees to some good use? In the past, I’ve tried growing melons and cucumbers, all of which originated in hot regions of Africa and Asia, in those beds. Neither the melons nor the cucumbers did particularly well — yet.

Ginger Loved the Heat

    Which brings us to this week’s ginger harvest. Greenhouse beds this summer provide a warm, moist home in which to grow ginger, a plant indigenous to the hot, muggy climate of south China. Ginger would be hardly worth growing if all I wanted was the khaki-skinned rhizomes that I could pick off a supermarket shelf. Those tough-hided roots are mature ginger, which has a fibrous flesh.
 Digging up ginger   What I was shooting for was baby ginger, whose pink-tinged, white skin, encloses flesh that is tender, lily-white, and free of fibre.  The flavor is a little different than mature ginger, cleaner. This tropical plant I figured could — and it did — thrive in my hot greenhouse all summer.
    To get started, way back in March, I purchased a single root of mature ginger at the supermarket, broke it into four sections, and potted each section into a 4 inch pot. As I said, the plant needs heat, so I set the pots on my seed-starting mat to maintain a temperature of about 70°F. Still, it took awhile for green sprouts to show.
    The potted ginger plants were ready to plant out in a greenhouse bed just as the last of winter’s vegetables were being cleared away there. After planting, I refurbished the soil with a mulch of compost. Cool soil got the plants off to a slow start but once summer heat kicked in outdoors, and then really kicked in within the greenhouse, the ginger thrived.Harvested ginger
    The goal was to let ginger linger to eke maximum yield but not so long that the rhizome would begin to mature. I also needed space for this winter’s plantings. As it turns out, the first objective, maximum yield, was moot. Yields were prodigious, four plants yielding much more than we could possibly eat.

Pickle It

    The first order of business with the harvested baby ginger was to pickle it. All that was needed was to slice it thinly with a carrot peeler then pour boiling vinegar sweetened with a bit of maple syrup over it.


Spring Coming? Might As Well Go For Something(s) Tropical

   Do I smell spring in the air? Must be. And the calendar confirms that it’s just around the corner. These hints finally stir longings for that season — even for a skiier. And what better way to welcome spring in than with attention to some tropical plants.
    My banana plants have weathered winter very well this year, indoors, of course. Last year I was proud that my one plant survived. After all, banana is a truly tropical plant. It shivers at temperatures below 50° F. and enjoys 80° days and nights as its broad, satiny leaves drink in year ‘round bright sunlight, occasional rains, and humid air. Even if my house was warm, which it is not, only a relative paltry amount of sunlight streams through even a south-facing window, and the air is bone-dry. Hence my pride.Indoor banana, this winter
    My philosophy last year was to send my banana tree into a state of suspended animation by withholding water and keeping the plant on the cool side. It did survive winter, barely. Once the weather warmed outdoors, it took a few weeks before the plant fully awakened. Actually the mother plant never did awaken, but two of its pups did. Pups are small plants that arise at the base of the mother plant, and are one of the ways in which new banana plants are propagated. (You no doubt noticed that cultivated bananas do not have seeds).
    Once the pups were growing strongly, I tipped the plant out of the pot and cut off each pup to pot up separately.
    This fall my approach was to keep the banana plants happy. Even if they couldn’t have steamy conditions of the tropics, I would at least provide their roots with plenty of water. And happy they are: New leaves have unfurled all winter, with few of the older ones drying out. By the end of May, the weather outdoors will be ready to receive the plants, which should grow exuberantly, as bananas are wont to do with good conditions.
    Bananas bear quickly so at this rate I may sometime be harvesting fresh fruit. If not, I can always use the leaves to make Indonesian pepes.

Banana (Not) Trees

    Notice, above, that I never referred to a banana “tree.” Banana plants might look tree-like and grow to the proportions of trees, but they are not actually trees. They are giant, perennial herbs. The “trunk” is composed of a sheath of tightly-wrapped leaf stalks. Each vertical stalk successively unfurls into a broad leaf which then splays its blade out horizontally.
 Banana outdoors in summer   All new growth is pushed up from the corm at the base of the leaf stalks.
    Musa basjoo is a banana that’s cold-hardy to about zero degrees F. The top will die to the ground in winter but the corm, if mulched for further protection in the ground, survives winter. Nothing worth eating from this banana plant, although it makes a bold, tropical statement in summer.

Immature Ginger, Mmmmm

    I could never understand the current commercial interest in growing ginger, a tropical plant, in cold winter regions, such as here. Until last year, that is, when I tasted freshly harvested, immature ginger I got from a gardening friend. The roots had a smooth flavor and fiber-free flesh as compared with the mature roots usually sold.
    So this year, of course, I’ll be growing ginger, and the time to begin is now. To that end, I “harvested” some mature rhizomes from the grocer’s shelves, broke them into pieces each with 3 to 4 eyes, and planted them. Not outdoors, but indoors. And not just any place indoors, but somewhere especially warm. Planting ginger rhizome
    The goal is to get just the beginnings of shoots and roots growing. Each rhizome piece went into a bed of potting soil in a 4 inch pot, covered with another half to 3/4 inch of soil, and watered. Best growth is at about 80°F., no problem when the sun beams down on the greenhouse. On cloudy days and at night, though, temperatures can drop into the 30s. So I placed the pots on a large heating mat in the greenhouse that I use to warms seedling flats to get seeds started. (Seeds need warmer temperatures to germinate than seedlings need to grow.)
    Ideally, roots and shoots will have filled those pots by the time the greenhouse has been cleared of lettuce, arugula, and other cool weather greens and the soil temperature is above 55°F. That’s when the ginger can be planted in the ground; I figure on the end of May. Ginger is a heavy feeder, so each plant will go into a mound of pure compost that I’ll add to as the plants grow.
    Come September, I’ll pull the roots. They won’t yet be mature. That’s a good thing.

Corms, Cormels, Rhizomes, and More

    Banana and ginger both grow from underground structures, a corm and a rhizome, respectively, each providing energy storage and buds for new plants. Corms and rhizomes are modified, underground stems.
 Ginger on a windowsill   A corm is an upright, fleshy, thickened stem having a protective tunic of modified leaves. Baby cormels arise near the base of the corm. The cormels sprout leaves and become pups like the two that grew at the base of my mother plant.
    A rhizome is a horizontal-growing, underground stem. New plants can be made by breaking off pieces of rhizome and planting them, as I did with the ginger and as is done with potatoes.
    Sometimes banana corms, like ginger rhizomes, are eaten. I won’t be eating my corms.

And The Winner Is . . .

Wendy, who commented on March 19 about her travails in fruit growing, is the winner, by random drawing, of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Congratulations Wendy.

New Video, Seed Starting . . .

Check out my video page for my timely, new video about seed starting.