How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Turmeric
For more than 4,000 years, turmeric has been cultivated as a culinary spice and used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has roots in India, but is now grown in warmer areas around the world. It also makes a fantastic garden plant with its large leaves and tropical feel. Let’s explore this useful plant in more depth.
Turmeric is found in many kitchens, but usually comes dried and finely ground to add to the taste of curry, potatoes, egg dishes or to color rice and even for dyeing fabric bright yellow. Fresh turmeric has far better flavor and you can really get the health benefits of the root by buying it whole or growing it yourself.
In a shady position in the garden, with just a little care, Curcuma longa is very easy to grow and well worth the effort. Not only for its medicinal and culinary uses but for the spectacular blooms – the Asian tulips of the plant world – that appear from July to August.
Freshly grated turmeric root contains a well-known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory curcumin which is believed to aid in a number of ailments including arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. It is also known to assist those with depression and to help remove toxic metals from the body. With benefits like that, this plant deserves a place in your diet and in your garden.
Turmeric Plant Overview
Plant Type Herbaceaous Perennial
Species Curcuma longa
Native Area India and Southeast Asia
Hardiness Zone USDA 8-11
Exposure Partial Shade
Maturity Date 8-10 Months
Growth Rate Slow
Plant Spacing 12 inches
Planting Depth 4 inches
Height 3 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Leaf Spot, Rhizome Rot, Leaf Blotch
Soil Type Rich, Well-draining
Plant With Bush and Pole Beans, Peppers
Don’t Plant With Tomatoes
Along with black pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom, turmeric has been used in cooking and for its health benefits in Southeast Asia for over 4,000 years. Its Indian origin is clear in the cuisine of the region today as it forms the flavor foundation, together with other spices for curry powder and masala mixes.
As with most good spices, turmeric was also grown in China around 700 AD and then moved to East Africa, West Africa, and Jamaica by the eighteenth century. The spice hunter Marco Polo described turmeric in 1280 as being similar to saffron in taste and color. It has since become known as ‘Indian saffron.”
Today, turmeric is widely cultivated in tropical zones around the world. Modern medicine has realized the significance of the health benefits of turmeric, mentioned in over 3000 publications in the last 25 years.
As a member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), turmeric has a similar growth pattern. It is considered a perennial herb growing to 3 feet high with underground rhizomes and very striking flower spikes in July and August. It is treated usually as an annual, lifted, and replanted every year.
The flowers are funnel-shaped and bloom white, yellow, or pink between pale green bracts. The conical-shaped flower structures are nearly 5” long with a pervasive fragrance.
Turmeric leaves are lanceolate in shape, around 35 inches in length and 15 inches in width. The light green leaves are produced around a thick green stem that is connected to the rhizome. The leaves are harvested in spring to be used in cooking or as wrappers for sweet and savory ingredients. They have a tart, bitter taste with a gingery flavor.
The rhizomes lie just beneath the soil and are harvested in the fall when the leaves wilt and die. The young rhizomes are pale yellow to light brown in color. Older rhizomes can appear brown and scaly.
Save some of the rhizomes for planting the next season. Choose fresh-looking rhizomes and discard any moldy, blemished, or rotting ones. Wash all the dirt off and store it in a dark, cool, and dry place until late winter or early spring.
You will see new sprouts appearing on the rhizomes. Cut the rhizomes into sections so that each piece has a bud or eye. Prepare the soil and plant.
You can purchase turmeric plants from a nursery, or you can use turmeric rhizomes brought from a grocery store. If the latter is your choice, lay them in a seed tray filled with germination mix, water well, and cover with a plastic bag. This makes a mini-ecosystem that keeps the soil moist until the roots sprout. Once the buds appear they can then be planted as described.
Although it is possible to grow turmeric from seed, it’s not the best way to propagate this plant. The flowers from your crop may fail to produce seed and if you do find seed, the germination rates are spotty and could result in a very lengthy process to get a plant to reach its full potential and produce a decent harvest.
If you have some decent seeds, sow them on a layer of germinating medium or on a moist paper towel and keep them in a dark place to germinate. Seeds should germinate in about 20 days.
The seedlings must be transplanted into pots or larger trays once they reach 10 inches tall, in well-draining sandy soil that has been sterilized. After 2-3 weeks they can be planted into the ground or into a permanent container to grow to maturity.
Typically speaking, there are two different types of planting Tumeric. You can plant it in the garden, or in containers. Let’s take a deeper look at what you can expect when planting by either method.
In the Garden
Plant turmeric in spring into warm, fertile soil. Once the ground has been prepared, add materials like coconut coir to improve drainage and ensure the soil is slightly acidic medium.
Rhizomes can be planted 3 inches deep with the buds facing upwards. Leave at least 10 inches between plants and 20 inches between rows.
A common way to grow turmeric is in containers. The foliage is attractive and has an upright habit which makes it an ideal plant for a patio. In containers, the plants can also be covered or moved into a warmer position if there is a chance of frost. They can also be grown indoors in a position with bright light but not direct sunlight.
Choose a container that is at least a foot deep and a foot wide in order to allow enough space for the roots to grow and mature. The rhizomes, after all, are the best part of the plants (unless you are just growing them for their flowers).
How to Grow
There are many different factors that you’ll need to properly plant a successful tumeric harvest. You’ll need to make sure you have proper growing conditions, adequate light, water, the right soil, and the right fertilizer mix. Let’s take a look at all the important factors to consider when growing Tumeric.
Similar to how rosemary needs morning sun and afternoon shade, turmeric is best grown in a position that will get the same. In full sun it may get scorched, so filtered sun is preferred.
Turmeric requires regular watering, but will not do well in waterlogged soil, hence the need for good drainage when preparing for planting.
By incorporating plenty of organic material, you can overcome the need for excess water due to its water-retaining qualities. Ensure the plants do not become stressed due to lack of water either as this will affect their growth and development, encouraging pests and diseases.
A layer of organic mulch will also help with water retention and keep the roots cool in the heat of the day.
To prepare the area for planting turmeric, dig and break up the soil to a depth of at least 12 inches. Add in plenty of organic matter and make sure the area has plenty of drainage.
Turmeric prefers slightly acidic soil and will not do well in soil that has poor drainage or is too alkaline. To make the soil more acidic, add an inch or two of sphagnum peat to the topsoil before planting.
Drainage can be enhanced by building up ridges of soil and planting into the ridge. Add plenty of well-rotted manure or compost to the area to improve the soil fertility before planting.
At this stage, you can also add a few handfuls of general-purpose slow-release fertilizer to give the plants a boost at the beginning of planting.
If planting in containers, add a layer of stone at the bottom to improve drainage. Make sure you have plenty of drainage holes and top up with good quality commercial potting soil mixed with compost or organic matter for additional nutrition for the plants, and coir to improve drainage and aid water retention.
Climate and Temperature
A climate that has humid weather and significant rainfall is ideal for growing turmeric – in other words, a tropical climate. If you are in any zone higher than Zone 8, you are good to grow turmeric.
You can grow in Zone 7 at a push, but ensure the plants are well mulched to protect the roots. Temperatures need to be 68°F before any planting can commence and, in general, temperatures between 68°F and 86°F are preferable.
If you don’t live in these regions, you can always grow your turmeric in containers. This allows you to easily protect the plant from any potential frost and bring it indoors over winter to continue growth.
When planting, use a balanced fertilizer such as a 5-5-5 and apply using the instructions on the packaging.
As the plants start to grow, feed with a fertilizer rich in nitrogen to support leafy growth. When the rhizomes are forming in the fall, include a fertilizer rich in potassium for healthier root growth.
Indoor turmeric plants planted in containers will benefit from a dose of liquid fertilizer once a month.
Keep well-watered during the growing season. If you have planted in containers, place in a spot with high humidity or use a humidifier and never allow the soil in the container to dry out completely.
Remove weeds regularly as they compete for nutrients that turmeric needs to thrive.
Depending on the specific variety and climatic conditions, turmeric will be ready to harvest 6 – 9 months after planting.
Harvest turmeric roots by lifting with a garden fork once the leaves have wilted and died down. Cut off the stems and wash the roots very well with water, making sure all the dirt is removed. Use some of the rhizomes for cooking and keep some for planting the following season.
Harvesting usually occurs in late September to November. Harvest early to enjoy the fresh roots before it develops thick skin.
While turmeric isn’t incredibly pest or disease-prone, these are some of the problems to look out for when growing turmeric in your backyard.
Summer brings the possibility of red spider mites. They breed and spread rapidly, are difficult to detect, and require perseverance and persistence to control once they have established themselves. Look out for telltale signs of infestation – discoloration of the upper leaf surface, lack of new growth, and plants looking dull.
An easy way to test for red spider and other mites is to place a sheet of plain white paper on a clipboard. Hold this in place below the foliage of a plant and shake the leaves vigorously. Tiny specks of dust and other debris appear on the paper.
Study these carefully with the naked eye, or better still, with a magnifying glass. If you can see the tiny specks walking around, the plant is infested with mites. These pests suck the sap from the leaves, causing plants to deteriorate rapidly.
To remove the mites, spray the leaves with a suitable organic product and remove them with a cloth.
Slugs and Snails
These common pests can wreak havoc with your plants. They emerge under the cover of darkness to feast on a large range of plant material, leaving ragged edges and holes in leaves.
The easiest way to control them is to hunt them at night by torchlight and drop them into a bowl of soapy water.
Alternatively, build your own snail trap using a bucket and some beer. Dig the bucket into the ground till the opening is at soil level and fill with beer. The snails are attracted to the beer and head towards the bucket, far away from your plants.
Mealybugs are tiny oval-shaped insects that feed on plant material and will infect most of the plant if not controlled. You will usually find the tiny insects on the underside of leaves and stems and they can be identified by the white powdery coating they leave.
Mealybugs suck on the plant juices and excrete a honeydew substance that ants are attracted to, so look out for ants too. Once infection sets in, the leaves of the plant usually turn yellow and wilt. If not controlled, the plant will eventually die.
Mealybugs are more often found in warmer growing climates. Natural predators include ladybirds and lacewing.
To control, prune any light infestations and destroy. For bigger infestations, it is best to destroy the plant, or quarantine the plants and use an appropriate insecticide immediately.
One of the most common and easily identifiable garden insect pests is aphids. There are many different color variations amongst the numerous species, from black to green and white.
Aphids attack most garden plants and are usually found in large colonies on new growth tips, flower buds, or on foliage. They are particularly prevalent during early spring and into the summer season, sucking the sap from plants and causing malformed flowers and foliage. Many other plant diseases are transmitted by these little creatures, too.
Control aphids with an application of neem oil or a homemade insecticide. Alternatively, encourage good bugs like ladybugs into your garden to feed on the aphids and control the infestation for you.
Tumeric is prone to a few different types of diseases. There are specific ways to both prevent and treat each of them, depending on how your plant was planted. Let’s take a look at each and how to prevent them.
Root rot is perhaps the most important disease to look out for in turmeric, as this could destroy your entire crop.
Look out for browning of the leaves or the loss of leaves on the stem. You may need to dig up the plant and inspect the rhizome. Cut it open – if you find brown flesh with white specks, the plant probably has a fungal infection. Cut off any of the infected parts. Don’t compost these as they will spread the disease to the rest of your garden.
Use an organic, food-safe fungicide to dust the remainder of the plant and replant in a different location. Avoid this problem by watering correctly, mulching, and practicing good garden hygiene.
Leaf spot is a common fungal disease affecting the foliage of plants grown in semi or full shade. This disease produces spots that are most often brown but can also be beige or black.
Dark rings often appear around the spots too. Over time, the spots may combine into larger blotches. This often causes the leaves to yellow and die off.
In the early stages of infection, remove infected leaves and dispose of them. Keep an eye on the plant for signs of spread and prune accordingly, ensuring you clean your tools after each use.
Starting as spots along the veins of the leaves, leaf blotch merges into irregular lesions, pale yellow in color, becoming a mustard yellow as it grows. The leaves become distorted and turn brown. Infected leaves need to be removed and discarded or burnt.
Plants that are too far gone may have to be removed completely. It is advisable to follow crop rotation rules to avoid any new crops succumbing to the same fate.
Fresh turmeric root will keep for 3-4 weeks refrigerated. They can also be cut into pieces and frozen for use later.
To dry turmeric root, it must be boiled to cure the rhizomes and remove the rawness. Dry for 5-7 days in sunlight, or use a dehydrator. Once dried, grind into a powder for use. The flavor of this freshly ground powder will be far superior to any store-bought turmeric powder, ideal for a myriad of uses.
Tumeric has many different uses. It can be used for health purposes, in commercial goods, and also in food and beverages. In the following section, let’s take a look at the different uses of this useful little plant.
Turmeric is a useful yellow dye that works well on natural fabrics like cotton and silk. It will fade over time, so you will need to re-dye annually to preserve the color.
To make your own dye, grate ¾ cup of fresh turmeric and add it to 12 cups of water in a large cooking pot. Add a few teaspoons of vinegar to make the color a bit brighter, stir well and bring to a boil. Cool down the dye and add your fabric, covering completely with the liquid. Let it steep for an hour and stir occasionally to make sure the dye is permeating evenly.
A little less or more time will change the tone of the final color. Experiment with different color variations or patterns until you achieve the effect you’re looking for. Rinse the fabric in cold water until it runs clear and then dry.
One of the most common reasons to consume turmeric is for its health benefits.
The major component of turmeric, curcumin, has long been associated with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The damage to DNA and proteins associated with free radicals are linked to a number of ailments including cancers and inflammatory disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and heart disease.
Curcumin can play a vital role treatment and prevention of these diseases. It has also been linked to brain-related diseases, stress, and even to weigh-loss.
When using turmeric in cooking, it’s best to use the fresh root, finely grated as it has a milder and more fragrant taste than commercially made powder. Sauté in oil or butter to release the flavor before adding other ingredients.
Add dried or fresh turmeric to scrambled eggs, frittatas, roasted vegetables, rice, stir-fried greens like cabbage and kale, soups, and teas.
The flowers can also be used as edible decoration, added to salads or cooked with rice to give the dish an aromatic fragrance. Once picked, they need to be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for the day before use. The flowers have a far milder flavor, with faint notes of turmeric.
Turmeric leaves are used fresh for wrapping fish, rice, or traditional sweet dumplings made from coconut, sugar, rice flour, and cardamom.
The leaves are also pounded to a paste and used in curries, soups, and stews. They are removed from the stems and soaked in water to remove the bitterness. The water from this process is also used in cooking.
The leaves can even be pickled and dried to preserve them for later use in chutneys, curries, and dishes like pickled fish.
Fresh leaves will keep for about a week refrigerated; dried and pickled leaves will last several months.
A combination of milk (dairy or non-dairy) and spices like ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric are whisked together and heated to produce a very popular turmeric latte known as ‘Golden Milk’.
This warming, relaxing beverage has been used traditionally in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, but has become popular globally for its soothing nature, tastiness, and health benefits.
Turmeric smoothies are also a way to include the spice in a health drink. Blend together plant-based milk like almond milk and tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes, and pineapple with a ½ teaspoon of ground or fresh turmeric.
Turmeric is approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), European Parliament (EP), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive.
In food manufacturing, it is often used to flavor and color mustards, butters, and cheeses. Its most common use is in curry powders.
Turmeric is also used in smaller amounts in canned beverages, dairy products, ice cream, yellow cakes, yogurt, orange juice, biscuits, sweets, and cereals.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are turmeric leaves edible?
Turmeric is a very useful plant as all the parts of the plant are edible. While the root is the most used part, the leaves are also used by pounding into a paste and using in curries and sweet dishes. In India, the leaves are called haldi and are used extensively in cooking. The leaves are also dried and saved for times when the plants are dormant. They are simply soaked in water to reconstitute and use.
The leaves have a bitter, astringent flavor. A common sweet dish called Patholi – a sweet dumpling with with rice and coconut – is made using fresh turmeric leaves as wraps. The leaves impart their fragrant taste into the dumplings, which gives them their traditional flavor. The leaves are also commonly used in India to aid in digestion.
Is turmeric safe for pets?
In small doses, turmeric is safe for pets. In fact, it is believed to be beneficial as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever, although there are too few official studies of the effects of turmeric on pets to definitively recommend it.
You may find that the dog food you buy, for example, already includes turmeric as a flavor and colorant. Use with caution and ask for advice from your vet before giving your animals any turmeric. If your pet eats your turmeric plants, they are unlikely to experience any side effects in some doses.
What can I plant with turmeric?
Turmeric likes plants that can provide some shade in the afternoons like bush or pole beans, squashes, and gourds. As it has a similar growth pattern, turmeric can also be grown with ginger.
Will turmeric grow in containers?
Yes, turmeric grows well in containers. Choose a large enough container to hold the growing rhizomes to make sure they don’t outgrow the pot. Repot every year as you would with other garden plants. Keep containers well-watered.
Indoors, place the container in a well-lit area away from direct sunlight. Patio containers may need to be taken indoors or placed in a greenhouse in winter to avoid frost damage. Or you can wrap them in frost cover fabric or even bubble wrap.
Can I grow turmeric from a store-bought root?
Yes, you can grow turmeric purchased from a grocery store. Choose roots that are fresh-looking and firm to the touch. Avoid any dried-looking roots. Place on a tray filled with moist germination mix and cover with plastic. When buds or eyes appear, they can be cut into pieces with at least one eye per piece and planted as normal.
With just a little care, turmeric is an easy plant to grow, harvest, and use. Fresh turmeric has a superior flavor than the more common ground powder and will enhance any dish it is used in. It is definitely worth growing some in the garden or in containers, not only for its use in the kitchen but as an attractive plant with spectacular flowers.