LA CROSSE, Wis. – It’s an excellent-value specialty crop most growers don’t think about planting. But they could.

Growing ginger for markets in the northern climes is possible, says Melissa Driscoll of Seven Songs Organic Farm near Kenyon, Minnesota. Driscoll recently shared her expertise in growing ginger at the MOSES organic conference in La Crosse.

Primarily grown for its roots used in cooking, ginger is a tropical plant that’s tasty, sought-after and unique – and it can be profitable. Driscoll has been successful in growing it commercially with some experimentation and some tender loving care.

Seeds are ordered in the fall and arrive in late February or early March. Although seeds from a previous year’s harvest can be used, Driscoll recommends purchasing new seed to avoid plant diseases. When planning for seed, 1 pound of ginger seed – or pieces – will yield about 5 pounds of ginger root. An experienced grower should be able to grow quite a bit more.

Ginger needs plenty of nitrogen. In a normal year, grown in a high or low tunnel, it will need irrigation. That needs to be taken into consideration when picking a field for planting.

Something unique to ginger is that it needs to be sprouted in a warm moist environment for six weeks to bring it out of dormancy. Light isn’t desired during that time. Driscoll suggests the use of a dark closet. After experimenting with straw and peat moss, which lacked the proper moisture levels, she uses seed-starting-type potting soil in her flats.

In April the tender sprouts are ready for replanting in soil, about 2 inches apart. At that time they need temperatures of more than 55 degrees and good fertility, which is provided by cow-manure compost. The plants are set in flats and transferred to a plastic greenhouse inside a hoop house, with a remote thermometer to monitor temperature. Auxiliary heat is added as necessary.

The next step comes in May when Driscoll transplants into the ground. She puts the fledgling plants at a depth of 2 to 3 inches, in 4-foot-wide trenched beds and rows that are 9 inches apart. The plants are fertilized, drip tape for irrigation is set and paths between beds are planted with white clover.

A low tunnel is used to keep soil temperatures at more than 65 degrees. Soil temperature is important; Driscoll said to keep them warm. The low tunnel is used all summer because ginger likes shade and is sensitive to wind damage.

Driscoll evaluates her crop in August. She does her final marketing at that time, taking orders for specific quantities.

“I like to have a home for it before planting,” she said. “(It’s) really important to know who your buyer is.”

Part of selling the ginger is teaching people to use the whole plant. She prices her products by the pound as tops, seeds and baby bulbs. A little education is necessary because people don’t recognize the baby bulbs. They differ in looks from the fresh ginger sold in grocery stores.

Harvest starts in mid-September and ends a month later. The bulbs are dug with a garden fork and tops are cut with garden pruners. Cleaning is a big job because of the heavy silt-loam soil that tends to stick to the ginger. Once cleaned the ginger is put in wax-coated boxes that retain moisture. They’re then delivered to customers. Consumers will give the ginger a final wash; they can use it fresh or freeze it for later use.

Even though it takes 10 months to grow ginger, Driscoll said she finds a lot of satisfaction and profit in growing the tropical crop for local sales.

Visit mosesorganic.org for more information.

LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. She’s the author of the book “Haffa Huffy or All Huffey.”