Ginseng Growing Basics -Growing Ginseng at Home
The picture above is of a second year ginseng garden in Ontario Canada. You don't have to invest in tens of thousands of dollars to grow ginseng though. Most folks can grow ginseng somewhere around their home.
Let me start by telling you a brief story.
I have been hunting and digging ginseng since I was 18. I had read all of the articles in the magazines. However, one thing I could not get over was why I had not been able to find ginseng in the woods. I suspected that I just did not know what to look for. Finally, asked an older friend if he would take me out and show me what real ginseng looked like. He did. I remember the thrill I felt when I first saw a plant that looked like it could be ginseng. I was even more thrilled when my friend confirmed that it actually was wild ginseng. From that point on I have tried to find a way to grow ginseng.
Since that experience, I have always been thrilled to see ginseng. Even if it is growing around my house and I see it every day!
You can grow ginseng at home! Shade and woodland gardens have seen a serious increase in recent years. Just like normal gardeners, shade and woodland gardeners like to see new and interesting things in their beds.
Without question ginseng is the queen of the woodland gardens. Being an endangered plant species, ginseng is a bit elusive to find, and is guarded by both state and federal laws regarding its harvest and possession. That means you simply don't go out into the woods and look for ginseng to bring home unless you know the local and federal laws regarding its harvest.
The first thing you need to be sure of is the best place to grow ginseng on your property. Ginseng needs from 70-85% shade to stay healthy. It requires loose, well-drained soil to keep it disease free. If such a place with suitable soil does not occur naturally, you can always make your own with raised beds.
Generally, a suitable place can be found on the north and east sides of most properties. If you have an area that is shaded by either trees or buildings, and you can maintain the shade requirement through out the day, you are in business. I've grown ginseng beside my porch in town with only cinnamon ferns to provide shade in the afternoons.
Additionally, I have grown ginseng along the north side of my home and near some shady bushes as well. In additon to natural shade, I've created simple natural shade structures with camouflage netting and common shade cloth.
You also should be aware that ginseng needs a change of seasons. Ginseng is native to the hardwoods of the eastern United States where the winters provide the necessary dormancy for the plants.
I have experimented with artificial shade with good results. I generally like military camouflage netting as a shade. For very small gardens. If you get much larger than about 20' x 12' you might need to start looking at commercially available shade netting. Most surplus stores, and, of course, Ebay, are good sources for camo netting. Camo netting will become brittle and harder to use after a few years, however. Shade cloth doesn't.
Commercially available shade cloths are the standard, but they can be expensive and not readily available to the average home gardener. You might check local greenhouses or greenhouse suppliers for commercial shade cloth.
Seeds or Roots?
There are advantages to both. Generally speaking roots cost more, but they give you a head start and are a little hardier. The first year is the most perilous for the young ginseng plant. If you don't have much experience or don't want to worry about all the things that can keep a seedling plant from coming back the following year -go with rootlets. The older the rootlets the more hardy and expensive they will generally be.
If you buy seeds, you will need to be sure you are buying from a reputable dealer and that the seeds you are buying are stratified. Stratified seeds are seeds that have been held in sand for approximately 12 months. Ginseng seeds take roughly 18 months to germinate. So, when you buy stratified seed, you plant them late in the fall and can expect to see healthy seedlings the next spring. There really are no shortcuts here short of adding chemicals which might and might not work. Additionally, ginseng has a very complex perennial dormancy and any number of things could cause the seeds to remain dormant for a second year and sometimes longer.
Buying roots gives you an advantage in that you have live plants to start with. Older roots tend to be stronger than seedlings and can take more stress than can seedlings. Seedlings seem to be more susceptible to diseases than older plants, although both are very susceptible to fungal type disease. Again, buy only from a reputable dealer. Often you will see ginseng seeds and roots offered for sale in the spring and often all summer long on Ebay. While seed that comes out of stratification in mid summer may be planted and might do fine, the chances of interferring with the seed's dormancy increases. Growers with experience will tell you not to plant before August and to get the seed in the ground as quickly as possible after it comes out of the stratification boxes in the fall. Whether you are going with roots or seeds,by all means avoid planting in the spring!
When to Plant
Like most woodland plants, ginseng is oriented to fall planting. Both seeds and roots should be planted in the fall. September and October offer the best planting conditions in my area of north central Ohio the best time in your area might differ depending on when winter sets in. Most commercial growers in the northern US and southern Canada plant in August.
Ginseng starts getting ready a year ahead of time. In the fall when roots are harvested, they have the bud for next spring's growth already in place. If they dry out completely, they will die, but surface drying might not completely kill the root. Seeds are similar, but we know now that the seed can handle drier conditions than can the roots. Play it safe and keep roots and seed from completely drying out (but never wet) and plant them as soon as possible.
The stratification period allows the seeds to mature and sometimes they begin to 'grin'. That is they split open the two halves of the seed shell and you can see the white embryo inside. The overall appearance is that of a smile or grin. The seed doesn't have to be grinning to be good seed. Seed that is stratified above ground is normally very dry when it comes out of the stratification box in the fall. Even though it might float, and it has no grinning seed, the germination tests are normally very good and disease issues are reduced.
Don't hold stratified seed in the refrigerator. We need to mimic natural conditions for the seed. Holding it in the refrigerator before planting in the fall could trigger a double dormancy. Also, if you hold ginseng seeds in the refrigerator over winter, they will have root sprouts before March. If anything happens to damage those shoots in the least, the seed will die. There are rumors in ginseng circles of dealers who offer spring seeds that are only grinning because they have been washed with sand to remove the small roots making the seeds appear plantable to the eye, but in reality they will soon die. In most areas it is too wet to get into the woods to plant until April at the earliest, and then it's a hit or miss proposition -and not a pleasant one at that. Stick to planting in the fall.
Water and Fertilizers
In one word, don't. There are exceptions of course. I water my ginseng beds (especially the raised beds) when it becomes especially dry. But do not soak them. Water standing around the roots of ginseng is a sure path to disaster. In fact, the raised beds and custom soil mix I arrived at initially was there specifically because water drained from my neighbor's lawn into my ginseng garden. That caused losses of nearly 50% in my beds. Some of the beds were a total loss from root rot caused by the wet ground. Additions of raised beds, a tile, and better soil mix solved those problems.
Fertilizer also tends to cause a higher than normal disease occurrence in ginseng. While small amounts of plant food may not hurt, too much can really cause problems. Fertilizing ginseng results in clearly cultivated roots. If you want a big healthy plant for your woodland garden, that is one thing. But, if you are growing wild simulated, they will look nothing like wild roots if you fertilize them at all.
How to Plant
Ginseng seeds are easy. Just poke them into the ground with your finger to a depth of 3/4 - 1 inch. If you want, rake up a small area and broadcast the seeds. Rake them into the soil and mulch them with an inch or two of shredded leaves or straw. Whole leaves are not a good idea because they tend to pack down and can keep the seedlings from emerging in the spring. Right after the seed is broadcast or planted and before mulching is an ideal time to apply fungicide if you are going to use chemical fungicides at all. For wild simulated plantings, chemical fungicides are usually a no no.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there is at least one seeder on the market that is designed just for planting ginseng in the woods without raking leaves. The only one I've found on the marked and handmade here in the United States -the ECF Seeder. You can see more about it by clicking this link and visiting our ECF Seeder page.
While ginseng plants may often grow close together in the wild, keeping them sparse will help curb disease should it occur. In production beds, I will use a mechanical seeder and my goal is one or two ginseng seeds in each square inch. That's close. Too close in fact for wild simulated stands. Ginseng will often thin themselves out if they are planted too closely. When there is a particularly heavy stand, it seems that fewer will reappear in subsequent years. I plant heavy in commercial production to conserve the amount of fungicide I must use, and to save time applying it. I know of one leading ginseng expert that advocates planting at 10-12 seeds per square foot. He indicates that this is very dense planting because he fully expects that the survival rate by the 3rd or 4th year to be only 15%.
Transplanting ginseng roots is a little different from seed planting. You can plant the root to be at a slight angle in the ground. As much as 45 degrees from vertical, or, you can simply lay the root flat (horizontal). Either way, the bud must be at least an inch and a half below the surface. Be aware, however, of the hard lesson that I have learned from planting too shallow. In tilled and loose beds, 3 inches is a better choice. After the fall rains, the soil will compact slightly around the roots and you may return to find your ginseng roots poking out of the ground! If this happens and your mulch is light or blown away all together, an especially cold winter can damage the roots of your ginseng plants. This is one reason why mulching can be so important to your ginseng.
Just be sure to lay the roots into the hole and be particularly careful to not curl up the fine roots. Make the hole big enough to spread the roots out flat. I used to dig a small trench and lay the roots against one side then backfill on top of them as I move down the bed. However, I now just lay them flat to be sure the roots are fully extended as I think this is the most important issue in transplanting roots.
Depending on the size and age of the roots, I would space them at least 6 inches apart and up to a foot or more apart for larger roots. Remember, an older, larger plant will have a top that has three or four prongs on it. That top could be as much as 16 to 18" across!
Pests and Disease
Now, a not-so-pleasant subject we must deal with when we talk about growing ginseng, pests and diseases.
By far the worst pest of ginseng (other than people and animals stepping on the plants) is a slug. Slugs seem to love to give you as much trouble as possible. You will read often about how ginseng will lie dormant for one or more years. I often suspect that is most likely caused by slugs eating the buds. I have had beautiful four-prong plants that simply did not show up any more because the slugs got to the bud during the winter and early spring.
There are several commercially available slug and snail baits on the market. I have used several and now use a brand called Sluggo exclusively. It is a bit expensive, but it outlasts the other brands that I have used because it is resistant to moderate amounts of rain. Sluggo is also an iron phosphate based product that is totally biodegradable and not toxic to wildlife. I understand that Deadline has come out with a similar iron phosphate product, but I've yet to try it.
Whether you go with a commercial slug product or a home remedy like a saucer of beer, make sure you deal with the slugs before they cause damage to your garden.
There are many different diseases to be aware of regarding ginseng. That alone is a topic for a whole book.
The susceptibility of ginseng to fungal diseases is the main reason why many would-be ginseng growers are unsuccessful. Fungal disease (along with theft) is the primary cause of concern among growers. I use fungicide sprays on my ginseng. I have had years where I did not have to spray at all after the first week of June. Then again, I have had years when I put off spraying aggressively in the early spring only to have a week of cool, wet weather in early May which gave rise to root rot. To keep my losses to a minimum I had to spray at least once a week until the plants went down in the fall. I've also avoided spraying some years. I am positive that actively engaging disease with fungicides allows me to grow more, and healthier plants.
Typically speaking, a shade or woodland gardener should not have to worry about spraying fungicides. Just plant your ginseng far enough apart so that there is plenty of room for air to circulate and dry the surface of the leafs. Also, make sure the soil is loose and drains well, and is not in a place that is frequently wet. That alone may be all you will ever need to do to avoid disease in your plants. After all, wild ginseng has been growing in the woods for thousands of years without any fungicide applications. If you start to see the tell tale signs of blight (Alternaria), you can always pick up a copper based fungicide at your local garden store and use that on your woodland flower bed ginseng.
Growing in Raised Beds
If you are having trouble locating a suitable place for ginseng on your property, you might be better off creating a suitable place. For woodland or shade gardeners, you might want to amend or replace native soil that is unsuitable with soil that is loose and drains easily.
If, on the other hand, you want to grow ginseng for your own consumption or for profit, you might want to invest in a raised bed system. By creating raised garden beds from pressure treated lumber and filling it with suitable soil, you might be able to grow ginseng and other medicinal plants productively in an area where you would otherwise have been unable to do so. I used to have a small area beside my vegetable garden where I had several raised beds of ginseng growing. I made the beds of treated 2x10s about 9' long and 4' wide to fit into the area. I filled 4 beds with one truckload of custom mixed soil. I also spread gravel between the beds for the walks.
The lumber, soil, fasteners (specially treated screws, not nails), cost about $200. The camo netting I use as shade was purchased for about $70 for a 12'x20' piece. I did have to use several pieces of netting to adequately shade the beds after watching to see where shade was needed as the sun moved across the sky. How much, if any, artificial shade needs to be created will depend entirely on where you locate your beds.
After some years, I now use 2x8 treated lumber and make the beds four feet by sixteen feet long. In a bed that size, I use nine bags of Canadian peat, 1/2 - 3/4 ton of sand, and four or five bags of hardwood mulch. I mix this together in the bed of a truck with a small tiller. I also lay plastic under the beds to avoid trouble with nematodes. The trade off is that in dry weather I must sometimes water the beds. Additionally, I've gone to exclusively commercially made shade cloth. Currently, were I to cost-out two 4'x16' beds, it would look like this:
- 5 pc 2x8x16' Bed sides and ends $100
- 4 pc 4x4x10 Posts for shade $50
- 1 box 1/4" x 3" Washer head exterior screws $20
- 18 bags 3cu ft Canadian peat $200
- 1 ton course sand $25
- 16' x 24' 80% black shade cloth w/grommets and edge tape $130
So, for two 4'x16' beds, soil mix and shade we are looking at about $550. This allows for a two foot walkway between the beds and also a one side and one end shade.
There are several advantages to raised beds. By filling them with a sandy, loose soil mix, the soil stays damp but never wet even after the hardest of downpours. By raising the beds, the temperature of the soil is increased over that of surrounding ground temperature. The treated frames of the beds and the gravel between them helps immensely with slug control in the ginseng garden. All of these features of the raised bed system aid in resisting disease in your ginseng garden. Loose soil that is higher than surrounding ground level drains well and never stays wet. This helps to prevent root diseases. Separate beds, separated by gravel, help prevent the spread of disease from one bed to the others as well.
If your goal is a small production of ginseng for personal use or for sale you might want to consider the following plan. If you were to implement a system on a 7-year cycle, you could set up 7 beds as described above. Your first fall, plant one bed with seeds, the second with one-year-old roots, the third with 2 year olds, and the fourth with 3-year-old roots. The following fall, plant seeds in the fifth bed and so on each year. Ginseng normally begins to produce seed in its 3rd year. By the end of the fifth year, you should be able to plant your own stratified seeds. By the fourth year, the three year olds you planted the first fall will now be 7 years old and ready to harvest if you decide to, and then you can plant seeds in that bed to start the whole process over again. However, because of replant failure a condition wherein ginseng doesn't grow after a previous harvest, it will be necessary to replace the soil mix in the beds. This is another advantage of raised beds in that you can replace the growing medium.
Of course if you stick to planting roots, you can shorten up the cycle considerably. If you use only four beds, and each year plant 3-year-old roots, you have the same effect and some spare seeds to boot.
A couple advantages to growing ginseng at home is that you know what has, or has not been sprayed or otherwise used on the plants. You know where they've been. Also, especially in raised beds, if you have a disease problem, you just empty the bed, disinfect it, and fill it with fresh soil and are back in business. And last but not least, you get to see your plants every day!
In conclusion, I have enjoyed every hour I have spent in the pursuit of successfully growing ginseng, both at home and commercially. It is true I might not have been enjoying it at the time when I was bent over for hours and hours pulling garlic mustard and jewelweed from my production beds, or lugging a deep cycle battery into the woods for the electric deer fence when it was too wet to drive. As I look back, I enjoy the result. I like to see ginseng! It really is a thrill each and every time I look at one of these majestic plants.
In fact, just today I was working in the beds and gave a tour to some people I know (and trust). As I walked past one of my beds I happened to notice a small patch of wild ginseng growing within 8 feet of the mature plants I had transplanted. The wild plants were small two and 3 prong plants that were likely 2 to 4 years old. They had gone unnoticed under a barberry bush for the past two years. They were not as large as the plants in the beds, but they were fascinating to me. They were absolutely beautiful to see. That is the thrill I get each time I see a wild plant. Each and every time! I get that same thrill seeing ginseng at home during the many phases of watching it grow. I get to see it come out of the ground bowed over, pulling into the air and the fully formed leaves complete with flower buds. I watch as it straightens up and unfolds, anxious to see if it will be the three prong plant it was last year or will it add a new fourth prong this year. I observe the seed heads as they mature into the classic example of ginseng that charges each ginseng hunter in the fall -as it has for centuries.
I wish you the best of luck in your path to growing ginseng.~Brad