Saturday, July 30, 2016

Who to take advice from on growing ginseng, or any crop, for that matter

The ginseng berries are ripening and that means it is about time to reserve seeds for your own ginseng gardens. Every year there are more and more people selling ginseng seeds and giving out advice on how to grow this very special plant. I have no doubt that some of these people are quite knowledgeable, but before taking advice from folks, be sure to check their credentials. They might not be quite as "expert" as you would like them to be.

Let me give you an example. Earlier this summer I was at a book signing sitting next to the author of a new book on another crop that I work with (I am going to protect her identity and not share what that crop is). It was a beautiful book with great photographs and an impressive layout. The author was very enthusiastic about the crop but as we got deeper into our discussion about it I was puzzled at some of the questions she couldn't answer. So I asked her how long she had been growing the crop, and she said two years. She had a total of two years of experience growing this crop and she wrote a book about it and was promoting herself on the speaking circuit as an expert! I was shocked to say the least.

The lesson is, anyone can call themselves an expert and anyone can write a book. So, before you go taking advice from someone on a crop as long-lived and valuable as ginseng, check them out. What is their background with ginseng? How long have they been growing it? Is there evidence to support their claims? What is their reputation? Do they have a website or a blog? How long have they been posting about it?
The same goes for ginseng seeds. Where did they come from? What region of the country are they from? Are they from artificial shade gardens or plants that grew in the woods? How were the seeds handled? Who stratified them? How have they been stored? Do they come with planting instructions? What is the expected germination percentage? What if none of them come up? Will you get a credit or a refund? Will the seller answer any questions you might have now, in a few weeks, or in a few months?

There are folks selling ginseng seed who have never grown or wild-harvested a ginseng plant in their life. They find a great deal on some ginseng seed "seconds" from a large producer somewhere, break it up into hundreds of packages, and sell them online. Many of these packages are bought by home gardeners who are thrilled if a few seeds germinate. But if you are a serious grower, you want a high germination rate and confidence that the seed are disease free and are the genus and species you ordered.
Here is an example of the kind of person I suggest you seek out for advice. My coauthor, Scott Persons, has been growing ginseng since 1979. He has supported his family all these years from his ginseng business. His seeds are shipped all over the world, he is considered by many to be the father of the wild-simulated ginseng growing method, and he is a popular speaker and consultant to growers in many countries. His first book, American Ginseng: Green Gold is a classic and highly prized by people who own an author signed copy. Without hesitation, I can say that few people know as much about ginseng as Scott Persons. Those are the kinds of credentials you should be looking for.

The Extension Service, university ginseng researchers, native plant and herb focused non-profits can also be great sources of information on how to grow ginseng. But they vary in their level and quality of expertise, too. Once in awhile I find a very authoratative looking ginseng bulletin online that was clearly written by someone who had never grown the plant before. They cut and pasted information from a variety of sources that they weren't qualified to evaluate. So even there, take a few minutes to look up the authors and see if they have grown ginseng in test plots or on-farm studies, or at least worked with ginseng growers for many years.

So, as we head into ginseng planting season and you start looking for seeds and someone to get growing advice from, take the time to check people out. Be suspicious if someone is selling seeds for much less than everyone else. And watch for those who advertise that you will make hundreds of thousands of dollars if you follow their advice, which they will gladly bill your credit card for.

I hope you all do plant some ginseng seeds this fall. Plant some for yourself to harvest in the future and some to give back to forest. Happy ginseng growing!!