Hopping for Joy

We’re taking a brief break from the string of hot pepper updates to diverge into the land of vining plants, specifically one that could be considered one of the most important plants cultivated by humans, humulus lupulus, the hop plant.  This humble flower is responsible for the beer we know and love today, as it’s bittering properties impart a distinctive flavor and aroma to the beverage. Its antiseptic properties allowed for the long distance transport of beer before refrigeration was commonplace. These plants are truly wondrous things. We will be paying tribute to the hop plant and all that its done for humanity by growing one ourselves this summer.  I’ve been a novice home brewer the last few years. As I’ve gained experience, found a better feel for the process, the ingredients, and how you get them all to fit together in a way that gives you the beer you want, I’ve started experimenting a bit more.  In the past few years, I have brewed almost exclusively from kits but have recently been growing out of them. My last batch was made from grain and it turned out pretty well.  It’ll be cool to give my own whole hops a spin and see how they impact the beer.  I might try and do a side by side with one batch made of hop pellets and the other of whole hop flowers.

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This year we are growing two varieties of hops purchased live from a producer in Michigan. Most healthy is the “Newport”, a variety I’ve never heard of much less tried. Second, we are growing considerably more popular “Cascade” hop.  The Cascade is a good all-purpose hop with a high alpha and beta acid content (alpha acid is what gives beer the bitter flavor and beta is used for aroma). As one of the most popular hops in the United States, it gives many of our pale ales and India pale ales their distinctive bite. They’re pretty easy to grow, just needing lots of sunlight and water and a trellis to grow on (they are what’s called a “bining” plant, which means the branches climb in a tight helix shape as opposed to using tendrils like a vining plant). We are hoping the vines will be loaded with hops by the fall.  Has anyone else given hops a chance in their garden? Aspiring brewers with some stories or recipes using whole hops?  I’d love to hear about them! Looking forward to home brewed pale ale this fall after bringing in another harvest from the garden. Cheers!

Hot Peppers Need Hot Temperatures To Grow – Troubleshooting Pepper Problems

In the world of starting vegetables from seeds, there is a whole host of things that can go wrong. Especially without the tools of a commercial garden. These problems can be difficult to troubleshoot. Unfortunately, I find myself having to do that now and hopefully we can take a slightly scientific approach while trying to fix the problem. All the inforgraphics in the world are not as helpful as photos and data. So the plan is to track it.

My once healthy ostry-cyklon seedlings have been looking a bit stunted, yellow and sad lately. After transplanting them to bigger containers from peat pellets, I found we no longer had room for them in our incubator, and off to the south facing windowsill they went. At the same time, this has been a miserable late March/ early April in Chicago. The weather has been constantly hovering in the low fifties during the day and low forties at night. The sun only poked out for the first time this weekend and promptly went back into hiding today. Sitting against an 1890’s single pane window sill, what once were sweet, vibrant green, happy looking seedlings, are now stunted, slightly yellowing seedlings. I worry about them daily. Growth has not been as quick and vigorous as I was hoping for — even for a hot pepper. Remember these hots are supposed to be mild.

Without any Photoshop filtering, here is a sad month long progress picture. With a lot of research and a bit of prayer to the pepper gods, we start our healing journey.

Troubleshooting pepper problems
One month without sufficient heat  (among other things)

After some internet reading, I have decided to be optimistic and diagnosis this as a light/ heat problem and not root rot. So with a heating mat to the rescue hopefully I can provide a happy update soon. My soil is currently hanging out at about 68 degrees during the day, and surely a bit less at night.  The seedling in question is four inches tall. And the leaves… well, you can see those.  There is five or six of them. They don’t look good.

Here is what I have learned about pepper growth and temperature along the way. Per a 1986 University of Arizona study, root temperatures of 25 – 30 Celsius (77 – 86 Fahrenheit) were optimal for pepper root growth. At 35 degrees (95 Fahrenheit), plant growth was adversely affected.

Chili Pepper and Temperature Growth Hot Pepper
Root Temperature Affects Pepper Growth Sarni Laibi, N. F. Oebker and M. H. Jensen College of Agriculture, University of
Arizona (Tucson,AZ)

Root growth is important for plants because roots absorb water and nutrients for the plant. Even more so, they provide growth regulators, such as cytokinins, which travel up the plant’s xylem and help top growth especially when a plant is experiencing adverse conditions (like perhaps too little light?).

On a final note, just as a precaution I am going to lay off on the watering till I see some slight wilt. I typically stick my fingertip in the dirt to check if the soil is dry, but I think maybe the sensors on my fingertips are off.

Hopefully, in a week or two I will have a happy update! How have you remedied stunted seedlings in the past?

Until then, I have to sacrifice some money to the gardening gods.

So Close You Can Almost Taste It

We had absolutely gorgeous weather this weekend in Chicago.  Maybe a bit blustery, but I’ll take some wind if it means I get clear skies and temperatures in the seventies.  We gave into temptation and even put a few seeds in the ground, mostly cold hardy plants like beets and radishes, filling in a few rows of our freshly prepared raised garden beds (more on those later this week). The weather was so great this weekend that it made us forget we were still only in mid-April and were getting ahead of ourselves thinking about where to place our prized pepper seedlings.  One look at the forecast later this weekend, back into the fifties with lots of clouds and rain, brought us back to reality though.  This was a wonderful taste of summer though and a reminder of just how close we are to gardening season getting into full swing.  Tonight was spent transplanting a few dozen seedlings from their starter pods into solo cups for the next stage of their maturation and their gradual introduction to the elements.  It was hard going, as evidenced by the need to keep a beer on hand.

hot pepper in the city

Seeing our pepper seedlings take flight in this weather awoke a bit of a frenzy in me.  Last night we were very close to ordering another half dozen varieties despite the fact we are probably too late in the year to have much success with many of the hotter varieties, as we would be talking about mid-June by the time they were ready to go into the ground.  I was a bit let down by this realization and may yet give in and buy a seedling (serranos are a favorite of mine and I’ve had my eye on Trinidad Scorpions) and maybe a few more varieties we’ll plan to grow in pots, at least for this year. A bit unfortunate to realize this now but these growing pains are to be expected as this is my first season of true dedication to horticultural pursuits.  ‘

I hope wherever you are you were all lucky enough to get outside the house and into the garden this weekend.  I’m sure you’re all as excited for spring as we are.  Until next time!

Capsicum likes it hot — cayenne peppers

The cayenne pepper is a classic. More hardy and disease tolerant than most hots, the cayenne is the perfect intro pepper for a gardener who is looking to start getting into hot peppers. I got a packet of five seeds in a seed exchange this winter and am lucky to have had four of them germinate.

I love learning where my food comes from and the history of the cayenne is rich and fascinating. These peppers come from the Cayenne region of French Guiana (currently an overseas department of France) in South America along the Caribbean coast. Their name comes from the word “kian” of the native Tupian people in the region. As a particularly old variety of pepper, it has been used for thousands of years in South America in both culinary and medicinal capacities. Given how tasty the pepper is, it is no wonder that the cayenne has spread across the world and is featured in many different cuisines. Most of its popularity around the world is due to the Portuguese traders who first came to northeastern South America in the 1500s and then the subsequent trade routes that they and other western empires established. No doubt it was a hit in the spice trade! cayenne_seedlings

Here are my little seedlings that connect me to history. Given how excited I am for them, and how relatively late I got the seeds going, I plan on keeping these guys in pots and overwintering them similar to my habanero plant. The weather in Chicago has been exceptionally grey, chilly and dreary these last two weeks so I have been coddling my cayennes under a grow light with my fish peppers and Capt.Capsicum’s beloved Basque pepper seedlings. I didn’t pre-soak my seeds in water (something I deeply regret) so even on a radiator, it took about a month for these peps to germinate. That is something I would have expected from a capsicum chinense cultivar, not capiscum annum. After such a long time for germination, I am pleasantly surprised at the rate of growth I am getting from these though and I admit they have been much more healthy and vigorous looking that my fish peppers.

As for my plans for these pretty long hot peppers? Decorating. Drying. Marinating. Eating. I am excited to thread my cayennes on a needle this fall and hang them in front of a window to dry  all the while pretending I live in some far off exotic hot climate instead of where week long stretches of subzero temperatures are not a rare occurrence. Between all my other house plants and my upstairs neighbor constantly blasting the radiators, I have created a very convincing tropical oasis for myself. I am excited to stick a few of these in some olive oil and use these to spice up our Sunday morning eggs. Of course, as always, eating. At 30k – 50k scoville units, these are just the right amount of heat to add to dishes without too much worry of being overpowering. Growing cayennes and other hot peppers in Chicago sure is a fun challenge.

Can’t wait for the next update. Till next time, hot peps!

You’re Going to Germinate So Much…

…you’ll be tired of germinating!  But then we’ll just germinate some more!

Truth be told, I started writing this post on Thursday night and was sidetracked before I finished.  On Friday, they were looking a little worse for wear and I was worried my excitement was premature.  We were out of town this weekend and with the absence of our tender care for thirty-six hours I was worried we would be coming back to a mass die off.  My fears were mostly misplaced as the majority of the seedlings have survived thus far.  The d’Esplette peppers are more finicky than I imagined they would be.  They germinated at a fairly high rate and faster than most of the other peppers we grew but life has not been kind to them.  Two look strong right now but the others have either died or look on their way to the grave.  I planted another couple of seeds just in case.  This was the variety of pepper that got me back into the garden this year and I would hate to miss out on making some of my own d’Esplette seasoning because I was too frugal to start a few more seeds.

This is what they looked like Thursday night:

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And here we are today:

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The pimente d’Esplette are in the container on the left in both pictures and the petite Marseillas are on the right.  As you can see, the petite Marseillas are doing great and I don’t think we’ll need to worry about starting anymore of them.  The pimente d’Esplette have not improved much over the last few days.  Hopefully between the few surviving seedlings in this first batch as well as the couple I planted today we’ll manage to get a few peppers.

I conducted my germination blind this year, pushing the seeds into the pods and hoping for the best.  I think next year I’ll do some more experimentation to see what leads the highest germination rates, best growth, and highest survival.  Super_C# has mentioned paper towels so maybe we’ll try that, but I’ll have to do some more research too.  Plants are growing out of the ground everywhere, after all, so it can’t be that hard!

Cactus from seed

In between all of the peppers we grow, sometimes I like to grow other plants. This year, after a drunk online purchase and much reading I am trying cactus from seed!

I have had luck propagating cacti, and of course succulents in general are very easy, but I have never attempted growing them from seed. Thinking about about the amount of seeds a cactus will spray out in the desert and then the subsequent survival rate really makes me appreciate the harsh beauty of that sort of landscape. Nothing like Chicago. Growing this stuff requires patience and warmth. Much like children, being too overbearing of a plant mom will destroy the tiny seedlings. They need time and distance to do their own thing. I started mine a month ago, and did not get germination until today.

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Here are the steps I took to get to germination.

  1. I bought a well draining cactus soil mix. I mixed it with sand my mother so kindly scooped up and sanitized from Lake Michigan (it runs in the family).
  2. Using two of those plastic salad containers, I punched lots of holes in the bottom of one and used the other as a sort of saucer.
  3. I moistened the soil, expecting it would be the last time I would water my experiment for several weeks. Perhaps maybe even months. I have not watered them again yet.
  4. Very lightly, I sprinkled the seedlings into the container.
  5. More sand. I sprinkled a few pinches of sand on top of the seeds. In hindsight, I’m not sure that this step was necessary.
  6. I sealed my container with the clear plastic top it came with and wrote down the date of the sowing on the container.
  7. When you consider the sorts of conditions cacti thrive in, it makes sense that heat would be important to encourage germination. After some research though, germination rates can be improved by a week long cold period of about 50 – 60 degrees. So onto a sill for a single-pane window they went.
  8. After a week, it was time to up the temperature for my seedlings. It’s still quite grey and chilly in Chicago and the radiators were still warm. I set them there.
  9. Peeked today, two weeks after moving them on the radiator, and I’ve finally got germination. This spot has pretty decent sunlight, so I don’t plan on moving them for at least two months. That lid will stay shut. Afterwords, there will be a period of time where I slowly acclimate my cacti seedlings.
  10. More updates when I figure out where to go from here in the summer! For now, I just have to be chill and not be too overbearing toward my seedlings.

I bought a seed mix of different cacti. As I understand it, different species germinate under different conditions. Some need longer to germinate than others. Some need more heat. Some less. It will be a long time before I can even identify what species of cacti I came up with because cacti grow so slowly. It will be a long time until I know my success rate with different species. This will probably be a zen experiment for me though. It’s not the cacti but the journey.

A Dream of Spring

This weekend was the beginning of the spring season here.  Sure, the official start was about two weeks ago, but for me spring doesn’t really get going until my eyes are itching and my nose is congested from allergies.  Fortunately, the outburst of tree pollen fades in short order and the increasing temperatures and sunlight persist for the coming months. Those who live in the north mark their lives through the coming and going of the seasons, an uncertain method matching the uncertainty of our lives.  Sometimes spring comes late, summer is unusually hot, or winter unusually harsh; people come and go, as does work, we move around.  Despite their variability the seasons lend our lives a comforting backdrop.  They happen in a regular order, spring always following winter, giving way to summer, and crisp fall days guide us gently (sometimes not so gently) back into winter.  A predictability all of us crave at times.

Of the four, winter is the most maligned.  It is often considered a period of dormancy for plants and animals alike.  The leaves have left the trees, plants have died, man and animal have either migrated or shifted into a period of relative inactivity, some more than others.  I am one of those who tries to stay active during the winter, picking up winter sports and trying to find the beauty in the outdoors when the weather is inhospitable even if it must happen underneath the protective layers of a thick jacket, hat, and mittens.  I would be lying if I said that the long winter nights and the sometimes unrelenting bleakness did not get to me, especially in those bitterly cold January nights and damp and chilly February days, where spring seems so close yet still so far away.

Taking part in the preparation for planting season this year has changed my opinion on winter being a time of inactivity where rejuvenation awaits the spring thaw.  Watching seeds come to life in mid-February, when the sky is still gray and snow is on the ground, was proof enough for me that winter is as much a time for life as the gentler seasons.  Late winter is when the birds start to come and sing their songs once again, filling the void they left when they went south the previous autumn.  Forest mammals begin to emerge from their winter homes.  Particularly ambitious plants poke up out of the ground. People begin to plan their spring and summer activities knowing that even though they may still seem far away they’ll be here soon enough, often sneaking up without warning. It is thoughts like these that keep me going on those days in the depth of winter and hoping for warmer days, tromping home from work when it’s dark at four in the afternoon or watching from underneath a blanket as my street is buried by yet another snowfall.  Even at its worst, spring is always right around the corner.  Soon these plants, which emerged at the end of winter, will take root in the garden in the spring, grow throughout the summer, and bear fruit in the fall before winter claims them.  Not long after it will be time to plant for another year.

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Petit Marseillais

Today we’ll be starting out a few seeds of a variety we received for free from our order containing the pimente d’Esplette which we started a few days ago.  I wasn’t able to find much information on this pepper, but from the little bit I was able to dig up it looks to be a heirloom pepper originating from southern France that grows to be a medium size and of relatively mild heat.  From what I’ve been able to find it looks like this particular strain is not widespread and can be hard to find, especially in the United States. The few seed websites that had this in stock looked to be sold out of it already, so it looks like we were lucky to have obtained this beautiful orange fruit ideal for culinary exploits: roasting, stuffing, and pickling.

(http://www.superhotchiles.com/images/petit/photo_001.jpg)

There’s nothing I love more than discovering the story behind something and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to grow the pimente d’Esplette so much.  It has a defined historical tradition and a real cultural tie to a people.  I hope to find more about the Petite Marseillas and disseminate that information in the coming days, even if it will make SuperC#_Gardener roll her eyes like when I start going on about the history behind a certain beer style we’re drinking or cheese we’re eating.  The pursuit of knowledge can provide as much sustenance as food and beverage.

Due to the volume of seeds we have been germinating, the remaining items we have on hand to aid us in the commencement of our horticultural endeavors are not nearly as beautiful as I like to think my previous sentiment about the pursuit of knowledge was, but they should still do the trick.  Keep in mind folks, it’s not about the size of your planter but the rate of germination.vsco-photo-1 (1).jpg

Until next time, hot peps!

Fish pepper. We’ve got germination!

It took twenty days, but we have our very first fish peppers finally germinating! My beautiful variegated African American heirloom hot pepper. So far, my germination rate has not been great. Out of maybe 20 seeds plants, I’ve only got four germinated. I am hoping that it is still just early.

As I mentioned before, I am growing these peppers in honor ofishpepper_seedlingsf my sister who introduced me to them. She went to college in Baltimore where these peppers originate. An offshoot of serrano or cayenne peppers (oral history makes these things blurry), these peppers pack a punch while maintaining a pale colored flesh. Popular in shellfish recipes for their ability to keep a white sauce white, they were often the secret ingredient to making a sauce extra special. I am looking forward to bringing these peppers to a shellfish boil my transplant friend from the South holds every year. Hopefully these peppers produce by then.

In terms of growing this pepper, I am starting a lot of seeds. Some seedlings tend so hard toward albinism that they are not able to even photosynthesize. I already had one tiny white seedling die and rot on me. I plan on over planting these and keeping the most vigorous growers. While the growing is slow, the rate increases with every leaf that pops up on the plant. The past few days in Chicago have been cloudy and dreary so these seedlings are getting moved under a light for an extra little bit of care.

 

Pimente d’Esplette

The pimente d’Esplette, also known as Ezpeletako biperra in euskara, the language of the Basque people, is an heirloom pepper grown mainly in and around Esplette, a village in the the northern reaches of the Basque region.  It is to the Basque what black pepper is to the rest of the world: a mild and earthy seasoning ubiquitous in recipes and tabletops across the area.  It is so intertwined with Basque cuisine it has achieved Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union, indicating strong historical and cultural ties to a specific place.  Our seeds, originating from a farm in Ohio and grown in Chicago, will not be receiving any sort of recognition from the EU anytime soon, but I do hope they will achieve the same smoky and delicate flavor in the sandy soil of the Windy City as they do in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  I’m looking forward to drying some this fall and trying it out in a traditional few recipes from the region.

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The pimente d’Esplette (or in our case, pimente d’Chicago) is a relatively low maintenance pepper and should be ready to transplant about a month after germination.  Until then, cheers! Or as the Basque say, topa!