You sort of feel as though you want to pinch baby ginger’s cheeks.
The infant analogy is apt. The growing season for immature ginger, roughly from March to October, is almost as long as the gestation period for a human newborn, and baby ginger might be just as difficult to raise. The plants require not only a long growing period (which, on a farm, can monopolize valuable real estate) but also ample amounts of water and just the right soil temperature. “They’re not an easy crop,” says Heinz Thomet, owner of Next Step Produce, an organic farm in Charles County, which was an early adopter of “fresh” ginger (as it’s often called) about five years ago.
Bill, 64, and India Cox, 59, a pair of former office professionals from Richmond and Annandale, respectively, are just discovering the unique challenges of growing a tropical plant in the Mid-Atlantic as they move forward with their second careers as small-scale farmers. The couple planted baby ginger for the first time this season to supplement their more common crops, including tomatoes, greens and carrots, and they’ve had to confront the limitations of central Virginia as a hub for ginger production.
The weather, of course, is the primary obstacle. Ginger is fussy; it prefers a warm environment — but not too warm. The plant generally requires soil between 50 and 90 degrees, which essentially means that the Mid-Atlantic can be a miserable place to grow the crop. The late winter and early spring months are too cold, and the summers too hot.
To deal with the climactic vagaries, the Coxes had to sprout their ginger seed — merely pieces of mature rhizomes — in a tented and heated area in their basement until temperatures in the hoop house were warm enough for replanting. In late April, the couple transferred the ginger to the hoop house, where it fared well until the heat of July turned some of the plants’ leaves brown. The farmers tried to comfort their stressed crops by keeping the space well ventilated and the plants well watered.
Like all beginners, the Coxes learned other tricks too late. They could have bought a screen that would have limited the sun’s ability to heat the hoop house like a toaster oven; they could have rotated the plants around the hoop house, giving each one equal time near the structure’s ventilated walls; they could have clumped the plants closer together, so that their own foliage would provide shade for the soil. Yes, they could have done any or all of those, but they didn’t have to. Instead, the weather finally cooled a little in August.