How to Grow Spices At Home
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When I first learned that there was someone successfully growing spices like ginger, turmeric, cumin and vanilla at home in North Carolina, my mind was honestly blown. I had honestly never considered it could even be possible to grow “exotic” spices like these at home in North America. But Tasha Greer, author of the brand new book Grow Your Own Spices is here to prove that it’s not just possible to grow spices at home in most gardening zones, but that you can actually improve your garden and sharpen your skills
Whether you’re a new gardener or you already have a bit of experience, growing a few spices at home can help you increase your harvests and expand your gardening skills for all of your crops. Here’s how…
The 3 types of spices, and how to grow them at home
Seed spices like dill, fennel, fenugreek, nigella, cumin, sesame, mustard, and caraway are excellent for boosting overall crop production and learning seed saving skills.
Seed spices must flower to produce abundant seeds. Those flowers are not only critical to spice production but also perfect for attracting beneficial pollinators to your garden.
The more pollinators you attract, the more fruitful your other pollinator-dependent plants like cucumbers, squash, apples, peaches, etc. will be.
Also, growing and harvesting seed spices employs the same basic skills as saving seeds to plant in the garden. You must plan for pollination, identify the perfect time to harvest, and store those spices like you would heirloom and open pollinated garden seeds.
Once you know how to grow and harvest seed spices, you’ll be ready to save seeds for your vegetables too.
Growing spices like ginger, turmeric, garlic, wasabi, and horseradish for their harvestable underground parts is also a great gateway to expand your understanding of soil amendments and good watering practices.
Spices harvested for their rhizomes, roots, enlarged stems, and bulbs require deeper, more fertile soil than many of the shallow-rooted annuals grown in a typical vegetable garden.
To achieve that kind of soil, you must become skilled at making soilless potting mixes or amending your native soil with aged compost and other aerators like leaf mold or coconut coir to promote drainage. You will also need to maintain soil fertility using liquid fertilizers like homemade compost tea to get the best yields.
Learning to make your own potting soil mixes, improving native soil, and maintaining soil fertility to grow underground spices are key skills that will also make a big difference when applied to your vegetable production.
You’ll also need to master the art of deep watering to ensure moisture and nutrients are available in the root zone for those spices.
Deep watering takes longer at first as you need to slow soak your beds and containers to allow the water to penetrate and saturate fully. Yet, after a few deep waterings, your soil will begin to hold moisture longer so you can water less frequently going forward.
By trading the habit of watering shallow soil daily, for watering fertile soil deeply and only as needed, you drive roots, organic matter, and soil life further underground where it’s easier for nutrients and moisture to remain stable and available to plants. Also, plants with deeper roots are naturally more drought and disease resistant.
Practicing these skills while growing underground spices, then applying them to your other crops, can dramatically improve your yields throughout your vegetable garden.
Perennial spices such as cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, and peppercorns require a long-term commitment to care. Yet for those of us who don’t live in a tropical climate, they are also fantastic teachers that can help us learn to create our own microclimates for growing plants outside their native habitat. Plus, you can keep them indoors part, or all of the year, to add stunning beauty to your indoor home space.
Creating microclimates for growing spices
Microclimate creation can seem daunting at first. But really, it’s just a matter of adapting the skills you already use to keep your home comfortable for the health of your plants.
Your home is a microclimate!
As an example, most of us like to cool our homes to about 78℉. Yet we may only heat our homes to 68℉ degrees. This is because our tolerance for heat increases in summer just as our comfort zone for cold expands in winter. So, we adjust our thermostats seasonally to accommodate our tolerances.
For perennial spices, it’s the same. They need more heat during their active growing season but can tolerate cooler conditions when daylight diminishes. In some cases, our comfort preferences coincide directly with our plants’ needs.
As such, our homes are often the perfect environment for many spice plants too. To grow spices indoors, though, you may need to make a few adjustments to your indoor conditions with respect to the following.
Tropical and subtropical spices like more humidity than humans typically do. Keep a bowl of water near your plants or run a small humidifier in their vicinity. Or mist the plants with a gentle spray of water regularly to increase humidity.
Additionally, grow several humidity loving plants close together. They will work together to create a humid mini-ecosystem.
Spice plants also have specific light requirements for peak productivity. For example, black pepper and vanilla like bright, filtered sunlight such as through the leaves of a taller plant. Young cinnamon likes part shade but mature cinnamon likes full sun.
Cardamom is adaptable to anything from full sun to part shade while growing. But it needs full sun once it is mature enough to start flowering.
To achieve the right light for perennial spices at home, start them on the outer perimeter of the light radius of your sunny side windows. Then move them closer to the window every few days until you find the light level they love. Also the shade side of the plant toward the sun every few days so you get equal sun all around.
Spices are quite responsive to changes in light quantity. When you get it right their leaves will appear more supple, glossy, and perky. When you get it wrong, they’ll look lackluster and depleted. It’s kind of like us in bad lighting!
Keep in mind, you’ll also need to adjust plant position throughout the year as the sun angle changes. Also note, areas around windows can be cooler than the rest of your house in winter. So, you may need to make environmental adjustments to keep plants tropical warm near cool window areas. Alternatively, use indoor grow lights if you don’t have a warm, sunny window available.
There is so much to learn from growing a variety of spices for seeds, underground parts, or perennial harvests. Moreover, all the skills you use to keep those spices healthy are directly applicable to your annual vegetable garden and perennial food plots. So, why not pick a few and get started?
3 exotic spices to try growingat home
Here are three of my favorite spices that are fun, relatively easy to grow, and highly rewarding for beginner and advanced gardeners alike!
(Full sun, cool season annual, grown for seed)
Fenugreek is a nitrogen fixing legume that grows great outdoors in the ground or in pots. It takes 3-4 months from planting seeds to when you’ll harvest seeds. You can find seeds online through various herb and heirloom seed sellers.
Fenugreek is self-fertile which means you can get seeds with just one plant. However, you’ll want to plant several together to harvest for spice and attract pollinators with its incredibly fragrant aroma.
- In early spring, after risk of frost, soak seeds for a few hours immediately prior to planting. Then plant about ¼ inch deep in prepared garden soil.
- Grow 3 plants together in a 2-gallon pot. Or grow 4 plants together per square foot in your beds.
- Otherwise grow fenugreek as you would bush-type spring peas.
- Allow the fine, narrow pods to dry on the plant.
- Shell small batches like tiny dried beans or thresh/winnow larger batches.
(Part to full sun, tropical, perennial grown as an annual)
Turmeric is grown much like ginger. However, its large wide leaves, resembling banana leaves, make for a more impactful house or patio plant.
Turmeric grows best when temperatures are above 70℉. It’s stressed by temperatures below 55℉. Grow it indoors in cold weather and move it outdoors in warm weather. Alternatively, in areas with warm fall conditions and late first frosts, you can start it indoors and transplant it outside when your tomatoes go out.
- Order a turmeric “mother” from a reputable supplier online. These are usually delivered pre-sprouted for early spring planting.
- Plant the mother 2 inches deep in a 3-gallon pot filled with a compost rich potting mix.
- Grow in a sunny window, indoors until you put your tomatoes out. Then move the pot to a wind protected, full or part sun location outdoors. Or continue to grow indoors in a very warm, sunny location.
- If transplanting to outdoor garden beds, start indoors in a 1-gallon pot of aged compost. Then, transplant the entire contents of the pot into beds with deep, rich soil once temperatures are consistently above 55℉.
- Fertilize turmeric weekly while watering using compost tea or organic liquid vegetable fertilizer.
- Harvest rhizomes starting in late summer once they are of sufficient size for fresh use.
- For drying, long-term storage, or to save and replant next year — wait until the leaves begin to die naturally in fall to harvest.
- Use the fingers that grow from the side of the mother as spice. Save the mother (central body of the rhizome) to plant again in spring.
- To dry, boil the fingers to soften then dehydrate and powder.
(Filtered-light-loving, tropical perennial)
Vanilla is a vining orchid that grows in forest litter. It’s also an epiphyte that attaches to (but doesn’t harm) taller plants using aerial roots.
- Buy vine cuttings or pre-started plants online.
- Start it, or pot up, in a 2-gallon pot of orchid soil mix.
- As it grows, give it trellising to support its length. The vine must grow up 3-5 feet then grow back down to flower. Lattice type trellises, or a wide board, will allow the plant to zig zag up and down in small spaces.
- Vanilla feeds on decaying bark and leaf matter. Top off your pot with fresh orchid soil mix as needed to keep it nourished. Also, use orchid plant food or compost tea one monthly to feed the microorganisms that help decay the soil mix.
- For happy vanilla, keep the growing medium constantly moist but never boggy.
- Aim for relative humidity above 60%. Mist the vines in dry conditions.
- Keep it above 60℉ in winter and as close to 80℉ as you can get it from mid-spring to fall.
- When it begins to flower, in about 3-4 years, hand pollinate new flowers each morning using a toothpick. Here’s a wonderful video tutorial that shows you how.
–> Check out this video to learn how to pollinate vanilla flowers.
A world of spices to discover
These three examples are just the beginning of all the amazing spices you can grow at home. There’s a whole world of spices out there to explore.
Let the adventure begin!
P.S. Want more? The October 2020 issue of Modern Homesteading Magazine is all about spices: from their fascinating history to how to grow and use them at home. Subscribe now for FREE and get the latest issue delivered straight to your inbox!
P.P.S. Click here to preorder Tasha’s book, Grow Your Own Spices and get it as soon as it’s available this December!
Tasha Greer is a self-proclaimed “epicurean homesteader” and writer focused on simple, sustainable living. She’s also the author of the book Grow Your Own Spices: Harvest homegrown ginger, turmeric, saffron, wasabi, vanilla, cardamom and other incredible spices, no matter where you live. When she’s not growing food, cooking, or composting, she’s likely rocking on the garden swing with her partner surrounded by dogs, cats, ducks, dairy goats, chickens, a pet turkey, worms, and (occasionally) pigs.