by Tasha Greer
Fresh-harvested turmeric is nothing like the dried spice you get in containers. Even when you buy it “fresh” at the grocery store, that turmeric will have lost some of its luster and aromatic properties in transit. To truly experience turmeric’s immense power and potency as luxuriously fragrant spice, you must grow it at home.
For those of you gardening in colder climates, don’t be intimidated by turmeric’s tropical nature. It’s a perfectly well-behaved house or greenhouse plant. It will take a large container and a few square feet of floor space for good production, But, since the plant is so lovely, you likely won’t mind giving it a place of honor in your indoor garden.
If you do live in a warm climate, then you can easily grow turmeric outdoors in raised beds or well-prepared soil.
Here’s what you need to know to grow turmeric no matter where you live.
Turmeric Growing Condition Highlights
- Subtropical/Tropical perennial, often grown as an annual
- Mature plant temperature tolerance 35 – 105ºF
- Needs temperatures consistently above 65 ºF for ideal growth
- Outdoors light: Part shade to full sun outdoors
- Indoor light: Bright light from a south facing window or day-rated grow light indoors
- Fertile, well-draining soil; pH 5.5-6.5
- Start from rhizome “mother”
- 200+ days to harvest
Similar to root vegetables such as carrots or potatoes, turmeric needs loose, well-draining soil that is high in organic matter for best results. Bagged organic raised bed and potting mixes work well. But you may want to mix in some extra compost to increase soil fertility. Leaf mold is also a good soil amendment to use for turmeric if you have it.
Container Size and Spacing
Unless you live in warm climate (e.g., Hawaii), I recommend you grow turmeric in a large container that you keep entirely indoors, or only move outside when the weather is consistently warm.
Deep, wide containers will produce the best yields. Tree pots or indeterminate-sized tomato pots or bags will also work. I like growing turmeric in dark colored totes.
– Making a Tote Planter
To make your own tote planter, drill drainage holes in the bottom of 18-gallon rectangular rubber tote. Then, set that tote inside an identically-sized, undrilled, dark colored tote to collect run-off water. The double wall insulation of the two totes, and dark outer tote color, will help trap and warm insulative air around the soil zone.
Fill the inner tote ear to the top with soil. Plant 3 turmeric mothers in a V-formation, at least 4 inches from the outer edge of the tote. You can also plant 4 plants — one in each quadrant. But frankly the yields are the same either way, so I prefer to plant fewer mothers.
– Outdoor, In-Ground Spacing
If you do live in a climate where you can grow turmeric in the ground, spacing will depend on the depth of your soil and fertility. If your soil is over 12 inches deep and very loose and fertile, then planting mothers on one-foot centers will work well.
In shallower, or less fertile soil, give turmeric extra room between plants so the roots an access sufficient soil area for good growth. Also, top dress, or incorporate, extra compost prior to planting.
Turmeric responds well to weekly doses of vermicompost tea when watering. Other liquid organic fertilizers like fish emulsion also work.
Additionally, particularly for container grown turmeric, using a high-quality mycorrhizal inoculant at the time of planting can dramatically increase yields.
Turmeric requires regular watering. However, overwatering must be avoided too. The rhizome portion of turmeric that we plant and eat is an underground stem. So, just like stems grown above the soil, too much water will cause rot and encourage fungal pathogens.
For best results, target watering toward the roots found below the rhizome level. You can do this by watering more deeply, but with less frequency (e.g., only when top 2 inches of soil dry out). Or you can target watering by using an underground, on demand watering system like an olla in beds or clay watering stakes in containers.
As a side note, the instructions above also work well for ginger. Ginger produces more prolific rhizomes than turmeric. So, it will require more frequent watering. It’s also has a broader rhizome spread, so only plant 2 ginger cuttings in your tote and allow at least 2 feet of space for deep in ground beds. But otherwise, their needs are similar.
Unlike ginger, which can be grown from a 2-ounce portion of any part of a mature rhizome, starting turmeric from a mother is preferred. The mother is the large central body that the fingers of turmeric grow from.
Plant the mother about 2 inches under the soil. Then water deeply to help her settle in.
– Caring for Turmeric Mothers
Also note, turmeric mothers need roughly a 3-month break from the time of harvest to be ready to start growing again. Sellers will usually tell you when to expect the mothers to start developing nodes based on their harvest times or they will send you the mother only after nodes develop.
In my North Carolina greenhouse, my turmeric harvests range from late November to late December. My mothers have started putting out nodes as early as mid-February and as late as early April.
To encourage node development, place mothers in a warm, slightly humid spot under indirect light, in early February. For me, that’s near my kitchen sink. Once the mother forms a few nodes, she’s ready to plant.
Turmeric as a Perennial
Once you start growing turmeric, you can also perennialize it in a dedicated location. Simply, harvest your new rhizome growth in fall and leave the mother in the soil for her dormant period.
This only works if your soil stays above 45℉. You’ll also want to add a couple inches of fresh compost to your bed or container to prepare for the next growing season.
Additionally, you may run greater risks for critters eating your mother or fungal pathogen problems when left in the soil. The trade-off, though, is that those perennially planted mothers can break dormancy about a month earlier than mothers treated like annual seeds. They also tend to produce bigger harvests in my greenhouse.
Turmeric fingers can also be planted if a mother is not available. The fingers tend to node earlier than the mothers. So, you can plant them in the soil earlier. But despite the early start, my harvests from fingers are typically 20-40% smaller than my harvests from large mothers.
Planting Market Turmeric
Ideally, you’ll want to source your turmeric mothers from a seed seller. But if you can’t find any, you can try planting fresh turmeric from the market. Just look for turmeric in early winter so you know it will be ready to break dormancy for early spring planting. Also pick pieces that are as close to the size of your thumb as you can find.
Similar to garlic, turmeric is harvested post-senescence. With garlic, as day length increases roots form. When day length peaks, soil temperatures climb in summer, the plant sends nutrients to fatten the underground bulbs. When the bulbs are full, the leafy tops begin to die as the bulbs prepare to go dormant until the soil cools and day length decreases.
The process is similar for turmeric, except that most of the rhizome storage starts after soil temperature begins to decline in late summer and early fall. When you are growing these plants outdoors, the natural decline in daylight and soil temperature triggers this process. But when you grow turmeric indoors under lights and in artificially warm conditions, you may have to force senescence.
You can move the plant further from the light source and put in in a cooler location around mid-fall. You can also fold the leaf tops in half to reduce photosynthesis and signal the rhizomes to prepare for dormancy. Don’t do this though, until the plant has had about 6-7 months of growing time or your harvest will be small.
It’s time to harvest turmeric when the leaves are mostly yellow. To confirm the rhizomes are ready, move the soil aside down and see if the rhizome has formed a light skin that indicates its ready for dormancy. Like potatoes, the skin is still somewhat soft initially, but it thickens and hardens with exposure to air.
Turmeric Harvesting Aromatherapy
Now, don’t just ruthlessly dig up your turmeric when it’s ready. Instead, allow yourself some time to indulge in an incomparably fragrant aromatic experience.
When you first take the turmeric from the ground, before you dust it off, inhale its earthy aroma. Visions of lush, rich spring pasture will come to mind. Finish gently dusting away the dirt using a dry cloth until it is clean. Then inhale again. This time you are likely to pick up notes of just crushed creole garlic – sugary, spicy, roasted and spread on a wood-fired pizza — with a dose fresh basil.
As you carry your harvest to the kitchen, inhale one more time. Now, you might notice hints of its close relative ginger — crisp, crunchy, just slightly tangy, and warming to the core. The aromatic experience alone is mind-altering. I feel euphoric for hours after that interaction. Yet, that’s only the beginning of its benefits. The flavor of fresh-harvested turmeric is completely unlike anything you can buy at the store.
Grate some fresh into your salad dressings. Add it as a garnish to soups. Use it raw in smoothies.
You can even crunch on a bite of fresh turmeric. Just be careful, this stuff is potent! More than a nibble can leave your mouth dry and slightly numb for hours. The experience isn’t painful, but it does make you want to drink a lot of water.
Warning! Turmeric is a wonderful natural dye that will stain your fingers for a few washings if you process it with bare hands. Personally, I love to see my fingers painted golden yellow like a child playing with paints. But you can also wear gloves.
You can blanche, slice, dry, and powder turmeric for long-term storage. But it’s so inexpensive to buy powdered, that I recommend you use your homegrown turmeric fresh or freeze it while still fresh for later use.
For mothers that you want to save to plant — cure those in a warm, dry area out of direct light for a few days before storing like seed potatoes.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
As a gardener, I’d rate growing turmeric as having about the same difficulty level as growing potatoes or garlic, though it does have those special climate requirements mentioned earlier. But, once you learn to grow it, the thing that will quickly make turmeric one of your favorite crops is its utility to support your general good health.
I am not a medical expert so I can’t give you specific recommendations on how to use turmeric for its medicinal benefits. But numerous studies point to its cancer fighting power, it’s digestive health support, potential weight-loss benefits, and even utility to prevent headaches.
Personally, I’ve noted its benefits for digestive health. It’s also energy boosting when I’m feeling sluggish. Plus, turmeric works as a good mood moderator for me.
Also, turmeric has long been used as a natural treatment for many livestock conditions ranging from skin problems to parasite and digestive issues.
Personally, I don’t grow enough turmeric to share the rhizomes with my livestock. But I know my goats love the yellowing leaf tops left over after harvest. So, those turmeric tops (and my ginger tops) go to the goats rather than the compost pile.
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Grow Your Own Spices
If you want to learn more about 30+ spices that you can grow on your homestead, please check out my book Grow Your Own Spices: Harvest homegrown ginger, turmeric, saffron, wasabi, vanilla, cardamom, and other incredible spices — no matter where you live! You can also find more information at Simplestead with Tasha.
Finally, I’d like to extend a great big thanks to Deborah for letting me share this information with you! She’s been my go-to source for goat expertise for years. So, it’s been a real pleasure to be able to share some of my spice growing expertise in return.