Growing Ginger: Building the Soil Foodweb

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Growing Ginger

Building the Soil Foodweb

Hugh Lovel

 

Ginger roots normally contain endophytes, which are microbes living in between the plant’s cells. This means there is no problem finding the right microbial cultures that are symbiotic with ginger. The piece of ginger root you plant brings in many desirable species with it. This is also true for garlic, potatoes and tumeric and even seeds like peanuts, pumpkins and maize. These endophytes are often yeasts and lactobacilli, but they may also include actinomycetes and nitrogen fixing species. Ginger is particularly good for hosting these last two. Virtually all of these endophytic microbes depend on the photosynthesis of the plant itself to provide their energy in the form of their carbon rich plant sap.

This means that the surplus sugars produced by the plant and exuded around its roots are the food these beneficial microbes, and ginger, which originated as a rainforest undergrowth plant, is very efficient at photosynthesis. In order to make the most of this feature of ginger, I have found it best to space my ginger root cuttings 15 to 20 centimetres (6 to 8 inches) apart in the row with three rows running parallel down a metre wide (40 inch wide), heavily mulched bed. I lay off shallow drills, press my root cuttings in, lightly cover with soil and lay on a thick layer of mulch—too easy. At that spacing I get enough root exudate overlap that the soil biology rivals the population density of an outdoors music festival and there is dense branching along the feeder roots. This close spacing also develops a canopy that—along with the mulch—excludes weeds and provides habitat for many digestive species living under the mulch.

The Way It Works

The whole arrangement is powered by the fact plants photosynthesize and share a portion of their energy as complex carbohydrates seasoned by proteins, hormones and enzymes given off along the roots. This provides plenty of energy for the mycorrhizae and actinomycetes that solubilize silicon and release calcium, and for the bacteria that solubilize phosphorous and fix nitrogen.

Of course, these fungi and bacteria do not sacrifice themselves and release their nutrients directly to the plant. Protozoa and other tiny soil animals eat and digest the silicon and nitrogen rich micro-organisms, releasing their nutrients as amino acids and mineral complexes. Mulching encourages this by providing habitat for the animals that feed around the roots where water and nutrient uptake occur. Because this is an on-going process around active roots,  such plants luxuriate in sucking up their nutrients as freshly digested amino acids and mineral complexes before they decay into such things as nitrates and salts.

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Happily, when plants take up nitrogen as amino acids instead of nitrates their assembly of complex proteins is direct and efficient, and is not watered down by having to process nitrates. Then photosynthesis is more efficient, which makes root exudation richer, which makes microbial activity more robust, which makes silica uptake, calcium release, nitrogen fixation and phosphorous solubilisation more abundant, which ramps up the digestive activity around the roots and feeds the plant a richer and richer stream of nutrition in a round robin the limit of which is unexplored. It is doubtful that any form of chemical fertilization can result in higher production, let alone attain the quality of this natural system. Between the plant giving sugars to soil microbes, and the soil food web feeding back complex minerals and amino acids, the plant is giving honey to the soil and the soil giving back milk to the plant.

I particularly like ginger because it gives a high proportion of the carbon it catches to the soil. It doesn’t waste its time growing massive tops, and it enjoys crowding—which results in an unusually high degree of root exudate overlap.

In the pictures that follow I mulched with my lawnmower clippings, which I used as thin applications, along with sugar cane mulch, round bales of grass hay or shredded tree bark. Since it was dry at planting, I irrigated along with occasional doses of liquid humic acid in a watering solution as a mycorrhizal booster. And I applied all the biodynamic preparations including horn manure, horn silica horn clay and cow pat pit (aka barrel compost). Not only did I stir and spray these; I also applied them 24/7/365 using a field broadcaster. After all, I was working with a nearly dead soil that had a long ways to go.

What Ginger Can Do

This first picture shows some of my original planting material from a biodynamic farm (Aracaria Farm) in Mullumbimby, NSW. It had unusually rich, fuzzy, actinomycetes growing out of its roots and extending through the soil. These microbes are particularly good at eating into the clay (aluminium silicate) in the soil to release silica, which is what makes their hairs such good transport vessels. They also have the virtue of unlocking calcium and other nutrients held on the colloidal clay/humus complexes in the soil, releasing a storehouse of minerals while growing a hairy forest teeming with bacteria and protozoa.

To my way of thinking, planting ginger seems like the simplest and best way of culturing the very microbes I want to see thriving abundantly in my soil—and I simply let the most vigorous strains for that soil and locality predominate.

Recipes and Pictures

Most of the pictures that follow show my crop at harvest—grown under mulch with occasional irrigation, biodynamic preparations and a few applications of humates along with a bit of kelp and fish on a soil that simply wasn’t cooking prior to this planting. See how dense the clusters of ginger corms are. The short distance between nodes indicates a rich silica content, which relates to both herbal potency and good keeping qualities. This is ginger of rare nip that makes quite a potent tea when boiled, or good, hot curries and stir fries.

I invested in a small deli slicer and pickled quite a bit as sushi ginger using a rice vinegar/apple cider vinegar, honey, salt, pickling spice and red shiso leaf recipe. At the rate I’ve tucked into it I wish I had put up three times as much—spicy, ginger hot and delicious. The rest of the crop has kept for four months in my garage without refrigeration. At the time of writing I am replanting in a new bed.

While the ginger was excellent, the big deal is what it did for the soil. I like to farm to improve my soils rather than depleting it, and ginger surely can do this.

I followed the ginger harvest with maize, which isn’t suited for winter. Yet the maize got off to a bang of a start, survived light frosts and is making a modest crop–which can only happen when corn roots are colonized by the best biology from root emergence onward.

All garden work in this series of pictures was done with hand tools on odd weekends. The ginger harvest and subsequent cultivation of the bed was done with a pitchfork rather than a shovel—that’s how workable this soil became.

 

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The ginger, dug and laid out View from the other end

 

 

 

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A couple close ups showing the ginger clump density, a result of superb silica uptake

 

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The soil afterward  Ginger roots with dense branching

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A couple close ups showing the ginger clump density, a result of superb silica uptake

 

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