Growing herbs is a popular way to bring a little homegrown flavor to the table. But not as many people try their hand at growing spices, possibly because it seems like a more challenging task. Many of the seasonings found in your spice rack are surprisingly easy-to-grow plants – even in pots! Spice plants add an exotic touch to your landscape and an international flair to your recipes.
Here are six popular spices you can grow in containers or in the garden, along with an outline of the conditions each plant needs to thrive.
(Pimenta officinalis, syn. P. dioica)
Allspice takes its name from its blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, juniper and clove flavors, making it a one-stop spice for both savory and sweet foods. Traditionally used to preserve meat, it’s now a common spice in homemade pickles and other preserves.
The spice itself is made from the dried and crushed berries of the female plant. You can use the same berries to grow your own allspice plants, but they must be freshly picked, as dried seeds usually fail to germinate.
To grow your own allspice:
- Needs warmth and sun, hardiness zones 10-11.
- Can be grown under cover or indoors in cooler areas.
- Water well, around half an inch (1-2cm) per week for young plants.
- Mature trees can reach 20 feet (6m) or higher but growing in pots will limit the size.
- Need both male and female plants for fruiting.
(Cinnamomum zeylanicum, syn. C. verum)
Cinnamon is produced from the dried bark of a tree native to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Its distinctive warming flavor is great for desserts, although it’s also useful in winter meat stews. Reproducing the warm, humid conditions of the jungle is key to growing cinnamon at home, so for most people, this means keeping the plant indoors.
To grow your own cinnamon:
- Full or partial sun, high humidity.
- Light soil, frequent watering.
- Hardiness zones 9-11.
- Mature size 20 feet (6m) outdoors, or 3-8 feet (1-2.5m) in a large pot.
Harvest the spice starting around three years. Cut off an individual branch, pare away the hard outer bark, then peel off strips of the yellowish layer underneath. Dry for around a week before using.
3. Ginger Root
Ginger is a classic warming spice widely used in both sweet and savory dishes. And although it’s native to tropical and subtropical areas, it can be grown easily at home in most climates. All you need is a warm, sunny spot and a piece of fresh ginger root from the store.
To grow your own ginger root:
- Grows as an annual in zones 7 and above, surviving winter in zone 10.
- Moist, fertile soil.
- Two to five hours of sun per day.
- Don’t allow the soil to dry out but avoid waterlogging.
To grow, simply plant a 1-inch (2.5cm) piece of fresh root from the grocery store, ensuring the root has at least one ‘eye’ or nodule to sprout from. Growth is more reliable if the root is soaked for 24 hours to remove any anti-sprouting chemicals added before sale. To harvest, dig up the entire plant after around eight months, or before the first winter frosts.
Turmeric is related to ginger, and as with its relative, it’s the underground root that’s valued as a spice. Most often used for its bright yellow color, it also adds earthy warmth to foods and has many reputed health benefits. As with ginger, planting a section of fresh root will often produce a new plant, but many store-bought roots are treated with a growth retardant. For best results, buy a root or young plant from a nursery.
To grow your own turmeric root:
- Full sun, with afternoon shade protection in hotter areas.
- Zones 8 and higher as a perennial, 7 as an annual.
- Well-draining soil, frequent watering.
- To harvest, dig up the whole plant when the leaves begin to wilt before winter.
Turmeric plants will go dormant over winter, but in frost-free areas will return in spring. In cooler climates, try growing in pots that can be moved indoors before any risk of frost.
5. Sweet Bay
Bay is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean and is widely used as a flavoring for soups and stews of the region. Left to grow outdoors it can reach 50 feet (15m) in height, although it will happily grow in a pot with regular pruning. Bay trees can be grown from cuttings, although buying a young plant to transplant is more reliable.
To grow your own sweet bay:
- Grows outdoors in zones 8-10.
- Full sun to part shade.
- Water regularly but allow the soil to dry in between to avoid root rot.
- Pick individual leaves at any time to use fresh. Or, hang pruned branches to dry, concentrating the flavor of the leaves.
6. Black Peppercorn
Native to the jungles of India and Sri Lanka, black peppercorn is one of the most challenging spices to grow outside of its natural areas. But, it can find a home in a large greenhouse or even indoors, so long as it has plenty of water and sunlight.
To grow your own black peppercorn:
- Hardiness zone 12, will stop growing entirely under 50°F (10°C).
- Rich, well-draining soil, daily watering.
- Full sun and high humidity.
- If grown in a pot, prune hard to keep it in shape. Outdoors, mature plants can reach up to 30 feet (9m).
Peppercorns can be picked while young, green and mildly flavored. If picked when starting to turn red and then allowed to dry, they provide the familiar black peppercorn. If the berries are allowed to turn completely red before picking, the outer seed husk can be removed, leaving a pale kernel to grind into white pepper.
How to Preserve Fresh Homegrown Spices
Here are some tips for preparing and storing your spice harvests:
Always wash your freshly harvested spices thoroughly before use.
Spices can be air-dried, placed in a food dehydrator, or dried in the oven at the lowest oven temperature (about 100°F, 37°C) for 2-4 hours. Air drying is the simplest and most efficient way to dry spices but may not give good results if you live in a humid climate.
Small fruits such as allspice and peppercorns can be ground using a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or even a coffee grinder.
Dried bark can be ground to a powder using a handheld grater or food processor. Small quantities can be placed in a coffee grinder.
Roots, such as ginger and turmeric, can be peeled, then sliced or grated for fresh use. They can also be dried and ground into a powder for later use.
Leaves can be used fresh or dried for later.
Store your spices in airtight containers in a cool, dry, dark space such as a drawer, pantry or cabinet (away from the oven where they might get too warm). Freshly ground roots can be stored in containers and placed in a freezer.
All these spices will add a depth of flavor to your cooking, and all can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. An assortment of fresh herbs is the perfect complement to your homegrown spices. In Choosing Container Garden Herbs we have a list of herbs that are easy to grow in a pot or a garden, so you can keep the homegrown theme at every step of your meal prep.