Some ginseng diggers harvest ginseng after the fifth year of germinating from seed but quality improves as the plant ages. A new federal CITES regulation now puts a 10 year legal harvest age on ginseng roots collected for export. Harvesting at an earlier age can be done in many states but only for domestic use. Virtually none of the remaining ginseng plants in the wild are 10 years old.
The roots are dug in the fall and vigorously washed to remove surface soil. It is important to handle the roots carefully to keep the branching forks intact and maintain the natural color and circular markings.
The above photo shows a seedling that is too small for harvest. This ginseng plant is 10" tall with only one prong. Leave it for as long as practicable (10 years if sold for export). The metal tool is also not appropriate as it could damage the root. Professional hunters actually use sharpened and flattened sticks to gently "grub" up the entire root.
Start your digging several inches away from the base of the ginseng stem. Try to work your stick under the root to gradually loosen the soil. W. Scott Persons, in "American Ginseng, Green Gold", suggests you follow these four rules when digging: (1) only dig mature plants (2) only dig after the seeds turn dark red (3) dig carefully (4) Plant back some of the seeds.