Ginseng has been used for medicinal purposes for many years. Science today has recognized that particular varieties of ginseng may have numerous health benefits. There are three main varieties of ginseng: Asian (or Oriental), Siberian and American, but the one most commonly grown in the United States is the American variety. Growing ginseng requires a very particular environment and a lot of patience; it can take up to 10 years to harvest your first mature crop.
Before You Plant
- A license or permit may be required to grow ginseng. State regulations vary and you need to check with your State Department of Agriculture before you do any planting.
- Ginseng is not a crop that can be planted in the average backyard garden. Ginseng requires a heavily shaded area and primarily does well in mature hardwood forests (especially among poplar, maple, beech, hickory and walnut trees).
- Ginseng is a cool weather crop and will not grow well in southern states, unless planted in the cooler mountainous regions.
- Ginseng requires soil that is generally moist and loamy (loose, fertile soil consisting of clay, sand and silt), without an overly heavy concentration of clay. If you are serious about the success of your ginseng crop, make sure you test the soil in the area where you are planting. It should be on the acidic side (pH around 4.5 to 5.5), and the calcium levels should be around 4000 pounds per acre. To encourage larger roots (the medicinal part of the plant), phosphorus should be present in the soil in concentrations of at least 95 pounds per acre. You can use commercial fertilizers to adjust the composition of your soil.
- Make sure you choose a spot for growing that is out of the public eye. Ginseng poaching is a problem because of the commercial value of the plant.
Ginseng Planting, Growing & Harvesting
What You Will Need:
- Ginseng seeds (stratified* is recommended)
- Knife with a blade at least 2 inches long.
- Garden trowel
- Gardening gloves
*Ginseng seeds don’t sprout the year after they are produced as you might expect. Instead, they need a year of stratification, where the seed will lose the outer flesh and garner the energy to sprout. You can purchase seeds that have already been ‘stratified.’ They are more expensive but you will save yourself the extra year of waiting for the plant to sprout.
Steps to Take:
- Ginseng seeds should be sown in the late fall or early winter, after the leaves have fallen from the trees and the ground is moist (i.e. after a rainfall or even a light snowfall, so long as the ground is not frozen).
- With your gardening gloves on, clear the leaf debris in the area you are going to plant. It is recommended that you stir the leaves with a stick before putting your hands in, in case there are any critters hiding within.
- Insert your knife blade into the ground where you intend to plant the seed to make sure there is at least 2 inches of soil before you hit rock or roots.
- Dig a small hole, about 1/4 inch deep, drop the seed in the hole, and push soil back into the hole to cover seed, patting it down firmly. Cover the area with about 3 inches of damp leaves.
- Mark your area so that you will remember where you planted your seeds. Try to mark it inconspicuously so that you will not attract ginseng poachers.
- Ginseng will develop into a mature, harvestable crop in about 7 to 10 years. It requires very little maintenance. Check it periodically for fungus or pests. If you spaced the seeds properly, there shouldn’t be much risk of fungus or other disease. The only pests that may harm your crop are deer and digging mammals. You may also want to have your soil tested every 2 to 3 years to make sure it is still amenable to optimal ginseng growth.
- Ginseng will grow to about a foot tall with light green flowers that appear in the summer. The plant ripens in the fall and produces red berries, each containing two seeds.
- Your plants should be harvested in the fall, after the berries and seeds have fallen away. The root should be thick, fleshy and yellowish white in color and should be about 3 to 4 inches long.
- Store ginseng roots on a flat rack, keeping them dry and in the shade. Don’t place the roots in direct sunlight. Depending on the size, it can take up to a month to dry completely.
Additional Tips and Advice
- When entering a wooded area for planting, always exercise caution and stay aware of your environment. Wear long pants, long sleeves and hard-toe hiking boots. Make sure to use bug repellant to discourage mosquitoes and ticks. Carry a phone or other communication device and make sure someone is either with you, or knows where you are.
- Even before your ginseng plants reach maturity, the leaves can be harvested and dried to make tea.
- Use a GPS device to help you locate your planted seeds. Forested areas change over the course of years, and it is easy to lose track of where you planted your ginseng. Plugging the location into your GPS can help.
- Make sure you buy your ginseng seeds from a reputable supplier. If ginseng seeds are allowed to dry out, they will die and be useless. To check if your seeds are okay, drop them in a dish of water. If the seeds float to the top, they are dried out and dead.
- Ginseng poaching is a huge problem, and there are individuals out there who are quite adept at hunting down ginseng crops. To avoid attracting poachers, make sure your ginseng crop is well hidden on private property. Never try to confront poachers yourself. Contact local law enforcement and let them handle the situation.
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