We are very fortunate, living in Australia, especially all the way down the east coast, to have what is generally regarded as a ‘mild’ climate.
I say this seriously as, when compared to many European or American climates, it’s just lovely here if you are a gardener or if you just like to grow good food.
Many years ago I started to notice that the quality of cooking spices was declining and, rather than just accept inferior taste, I decided that if I could grow my own I could only blame myself if the taste of my food was not up to scratch.
Thanks to our developing cultural diversity, we now have access to many of the spices that had always been regarded as too exotic to contemplate having in the garden. Now, the possibilities are endless especially with the newest range of spices that we are being introduced to……Native Australian Spices! Who would have thought??? (More about them in another post)
The backyard garden is generally perfect to maintain a comprehensive spice garden.
Some spices require long term commitment to grow but many are so easy to keep and harvest that it is convenient to replace the flower garden with a beautiful, architectural, spice garden.
Let’s start with Ginger.
What a precious gem in any garden.
Ginger, Zingiber officinale is a tough plant and, once established will just continue to grow and spread, year after year, supplying a good steady supply of rhizome, in and out of season.
Ginger needs to have a well dug garden bed to start with and responds well to regular mulching but will do quite well anyway if you forget.
It responds really well to thunderstorms and rain and creates a lovely backdrop for a layered garden, looks great around a pool or verandah and, after a few years it will establish a wonderful screen.
During Autumn it will die back which is your cue to harvest some rhizome but there is no need to dig it all up at once, it keeps extremely well underground until you need it. Just take what you need and leave the rest to nature.
Turmeric, Curcuma domestica is similar in many ways in the garden.
It is a visually pleasing garden addition and different enough to Ginger to grow with it as a companion. It’s broad generous leaves are bright green and add a touch of opulence to the garden. Turmeric requires little attention apart from a regular watering and occasional mulching. Turmeric can be used straight out of the garden, fresh, or can be boiled and dried as it is treated this way to supply the powdered spice.
One more wonderful spice that shares many of the garden attributes of both ginger and turmeric is Galangal.
Galangal, Alpinia galanga has the same growth habit but with one advantage over the previous two in that it will stay green and active during winter in most areas of Australia.
If it is particularly cold and dry, it will adopt a dormant state, but generally it hangs around all year.
The wonderful rhizome can be dug as required but should be used sparingly as it is quite a potent spice. The dry root was once powdered and used extensively as a snuff.
Now that the background is achieved, your garden needs some lower spices to delight you.
One of the best and most luxuriant and impressive mid height spices to plant is Piper sarmentosum, often called ‘Betel Leaf Pepper’. This pepper will slow down during winter in most states but usually never becomes truly herbaceous. The leaves are it’s prize offering to your dinner plate and as a wrap for steaming it is unbeaten.
Betel Leaf Pepper requires a good loamy soil and thrives with constant mulching. It has large, generous glossy leaves that make you look like a great gardener at any time of the year.
It adds a very special peppery flavour to many seafood dishes and even though the fruit and the leaves will dry well for later use, there is rarely any need as fresh is almost always available.
While we are on the subject of peppers it is worth mentioning both Black Pepper, Piper nigrum and Long Pepper, Piper longum.
These pepper plants do require a reasonably controlled environment and do best where summers are hot. They both need cool roots during summer, so, as with Betel Leaf Pepper, regular mulching and watering are essential during summer.
Many suburban gardens are able to grow these plants as the nature of the micro climates created by the architecture of the suburbs, allows more control and protection from many of the damaging elements. As long as the soil is moist to dry during winter, they will survive well.
One more medium height spice that is so easy to grow and will continue to provide it’s much loved root for many years is Horseradish.
This old favourite needs a good wet Spring but apart from that is easy to grow and maintain.
It is suited to the Australian climate and necessary for the Euro-Australian diet.
For the lower levels of your spice garden there are some lovely Asian newcommers to the spice scene.
Firstly a very interesting and easy to grow spice is Kencur , Kaempferia galanga.
Kencur is perfect for the backyard, large patio pot or shadehouse and is always rewarding to grow. The low, ground-hugging leaves can get to the size of a dinner plate and then it produces stemless orchid like flowers directly from the root. It can be harvested at any time but is at it’s most pungent in Autumn and Winter.
The leaves die back and that is you cue to lift the plant and thin out the fleshy roots.
The plant can be re-planted, just leaving the knob slightly out of the ground, so that next year the process will repeat.
Another low growing Asian spice that is gaining popularity is Vap ca, Houttuynia cordata.
Vap ca is one of those spices that people either love or hate.
It’s slightly fish like aroma lends itself beautifully to seafood dishes and the leaves can be used raw or steamed in the dish.
Vap ca is a spreading groundcover that will occupy any space that you give it. It prefers only 3-4 hours of sun a day and will survive with much less as long as it is kept moist. Again, easy to grow and use all year through.
Another that comes to mind as an easy to grow spice is Krachai or Chinese Keys, Boesenbergia rotunda, which is best grown in a moist environment that is usually quite easy to achieve on the back porch.