I scape by with a little help from my friends — Garlic Scape Time

This weekend in Chicago is hot. Hot. Hot. Hot. After a lot of traveling around the country, we are finally back in Chicago and doing some much needed maintenance on the garden. It seems like everything is finally starting to take off and we are grateful for this truly hot week for the sake of the peppers.

In the meantime though, let’s talk about garlic. I’m in love with garlic. It is another plant that tastes remarkably different from what you would buy in the store. As hardneck types, these are the varieties waxed poetically about subtle differences that reflect regional soil and climate differences. Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon) are closer to wild garlic and only keep for a few (8 – 10) months compared to the year plus softneck garlic you might see in a store. We planted several rows of cloves in two varieties (Sinnamahone and  Estonian Red) in late October 2016, and this week the scapes finally popped out.

Garlic Scapes Freshly Cut
Garlic Scapes Freshly Cut

Sinnamahone garlic is a variety we ordered off Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.  According to their description they got this garlic from an area near the Sinnamahone River in rural Pennsylvania, where a farmer said he got the seed from a Sannamahone Indian who lived in the backwoods near there. Supposedly,  because it is a beautiful Rocambole type, the flavor is supposed to be incredible. Rocambole garlic is renowned for its complex and full flavor. These hardneck types are often referred to as “true garlic flavor.”

Estonian Red garlic is a more mild variety from — you guessed it. Estonia. Although it is popular enough to often be grown in other Scandinavian countries as well. It is occasionally mistaken for elephant garlic (which is actually a type of leek), this has five or six huge cloves and is a hardneck purple stripe variety.

Because these are both hardneck varieties, they grow scapes. These spirals are the garlic flowers, and in order to encourage greater bulb size, we cut them off using a sterile knife every time we see them.  Cutting off the flower cues the plant to divert its energy from growing flowers  and producing seed, into creating a bigger bulb.  The sooner you cut them, the more tender they are.  And that’s great because the nice part about scapes is that you can also eat them.  Scapes taste mild and sweet, like chives or scallions, but with a hit of unmistakable garlicky flavor. I like to use a food processor and make a pesto out of them. Although I am not a pickler, friends who are have given me jars of scapes which I would add to bloody marys on game days in the fall.

Do you grow hardneck garlic? What varieties? What do you do with your scapes?

Sigaretta di Bergamo — Sweet and Skinny

We only have one of these seedlings this year because this is a pretty obscure sweet pepper and we do not want to invest our precious real estate until we know the sweet pepper is as delicious as it looks.  These peppers have a beautiful resemblance  to the pepperoncini type. They are very long, curled thin peppers that mature to a bright red color. Fruits are usually about 0.75″ in diameter and can grow up to 12″ or maybe even longer. The flesh is said to be thin. I am excited because because they are early maturing, compact, and very prolific. Great for our northern urban garden!

The name of this pepper translates to “Cigarette of Bergamo” or “Bergamo Cigar”. Bergamo is a small city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. It is not too far north of Milan.

Italian food itself is more regional than national, with people from different provinces eating vastly different food. What someone eats in Lombardy may be very different than what they eat in Sicily. Because there is a lot of cattle rearing in Lombardy, people tend to eat more more beef compared to Sicily’s seafood. Also, possibly because of the higher number of cows, dairy consumption of butter, cream, and cheese is higher than what you would find in other parts of Italy.

As for these peppers, because they tend to be rather small and sweet with a tiny kick, I plan on using them in salads and just pan fried or grilled whole. Because this pepper is supposed to be similar to a pepperoncini, and I cannot find much info on it, I think I will also have to adapt some pepperoncini recipes and see how those go!

Sigaretta di Bergamo Seedling
Sigaretta di Bergamo Seedling Enjoying Some Sun

As for the seedling itself, it looks unique compared to our other peppers. Although small, it is incredibly busy already with several branches shooting off in different directions. The roots are now busting out of the bottom of the holes I drilled in the red plastic cups. The plant is begging to be put in the dirt, and I plan on obliging this weekend! I have scaled back on watering my peppers until their leaves begin to wilt and have been using a very diluted fish/seaweed based fertilizer. It seems to have had a great affect on the plants, all things considered. They are making quite the comeback and the root systems seem much more robust.

I cannot wait till harvest time late this summer, when we can start posting and experimenting with new recipes for these little known heirloom peppers. Do you guys have any ideas for how to eat these Sigaretta di Bergamo peppers? Maybe some old family recipes?

Until next time, Ciao peppers!

Fish Pepper Seedling Update. Things are looking fishy!

Well, it has been now been a month and a half since our initial fish pepper germination and twenty days since we first sowed the seeds. The seedlings are coming along nicely, the leaves are getting bigger, and finally showing signs of variegation. As mentioned in my previous post on these guys, fish peppers are an African American heirloom pepper from the Chesapeake Bay Area popular in seafood thought to be from the Caribbean.

Fish pepper seedling one month
A month and a half of growth and a week after first topping.

I am growing these at the recommendation of my sister and while I am primarily excited about all the fun history of the plant (food history is the best kind of history), something else that I love about it is its variegation. Some of our seedlings were so white that the amount of albinism they had meant an inability to photosynthesize and they died almost immediately after popping out of the ground.  The splashes of white on the leaves make the plant beautiful and on top of being tasty, a great ornamental addition to the garden.

So where does variegation come from and why is this the only pepper we have heard of to have it? Well, it’s just a wonderful freaky mutation and we don’t get out much! The white spots on its leaves arise because of a lack of the green pigment chlorophyll in a blotch of the plant cell. Those white patches cannot photosynthesize. Since green is still the dominant color of the plant, it survives and thrives. This variegation is usually the result of a cell mutation, and in fish peppers is apparently genetic (it has also been chimeric in other plants).  I imagine what happened is that a hundred fifty years ago the mutation occurred in the plant and as can happen, the characteristic stabilized in the plant’s offspring. From some reading, it seems that a season’s climatic condition can affect when leaf variegation and fruit stripe appears.  It can sometimes appear at first or second set of true leaves, but sometimes not till a bit later in the season for a plant. Anecdotally, mine have been all over the place  in terms of pepper variegation. Since these peppers cross pollinate so easily, I would be interested in setting out my fish peppers near some sweet peppers and seeing if I could come up with some sort of hybrid!  As for why this is the only pepper I’ve heard about for variegation, it seems like I simply have not done my research! There are plenty of other variegated hot pepper varieties such as Trifetti, Variegata, Filius Blue, and Golden Nugget. These are going to have to be a few varieties I consider for next season.

Fish Pepper Variegation
First signs of variegation

But for this summer, I am super excited about these fish peppers. They are a great ornamental addition in the garden, and unlike all my squash, I don’t think all the Chicago critters will be able to chomp down on these too much!

Track the growth with us:

  1. Early March: Sowing the seeds.
  2. Late March: Germination!

Espelette pepper — A basque vacation in a plant

Capt.Capsicum has been lovingly coddling our Espelette pepper seedlings ever since he glimpsed the Basque food article in the foodie Saveur magazine we subscribe to. He decided to order these seeds from the internet, and as soon as they arrived, went germinating.  Since then, we have been dreaming of visiting Basque country, soaking up the sights, culture, and especially cuisine. Unfortunately, such a vacation will preclude us this year, and we will have to settle to cooking our own Basque food! Hence the Espelettes. Week by week we are slowly getting closer to harvest as our seedlings grow. With the rough, grey weather we have been having, these guys are special enough to get some of the brightest spots in our grow light station. The Espelettes grow bigger and leafier by the day.

While we wait for them to grow up and dream of spring, we to make plans for the peppers and while away the time learning about their origins. In Basque, this pepper is known as the Ezpeletako biperra, and festoons can be found hanging in markets and window-boxes in the Espelette commune in southern France along the Pyrenees mountains,  the northern most area of the Basque region.

 

As mentioned before in the previous post, these peppers are so special to french culture and cuisine they have the designation of Appellation d’origine contrôlée, a certification granted by the French government for significant regional foods. There are a few other french Basque A.O.C foods which I do not expect us getting our hands on. For example, the cute black spotted Kintoa Basque Pig which just got its designation last year or the Irouléguy wine of the region. And yet there are a few others which I expect we will, like the sheep cheese Ossau-Iraty, which is apparently sold at Trader Joe’s as Basque Shepherd’s Cheese. We are definitely going to have to make tapas come fall and hang up a festoon of peppers to dry and decorate our kitchen as well.

For now, back to Chicago though and an update on our pepper’s progress. Although the germination rate was not as vigorous and fast as the petit marseillais , they are making quite a come back at the moment. The leaves are growing and the plants are not looking at all anemic.  Just in case, I also germinated a few more in some coconut coir just in case because for a while some of our peppers weren’t looking too good.  (A few security seedlings never hurt).

Espelette Seedlings Growing in Chicago
Babies ready for their own containers

A bit of heat and light always does a pepper good. I fully expect that these guys will be able to succeed outdoors and we will be collecting fruit and cookin’.  We are about two weeks away from our last frost date in Chicago and every day I grow more anxious.

Until then, we dream of spring, read gardening blogs, read food blogs, learn javascript (my life has been strictly backend development), and anxiously look at the weather forecast getting ready to dig and plant our summer crops.

Oh and these are getting gently transplanted to their own containers tonight!

Let there be light. And lots of it – Troubleshooting Pepper Problems

Starting seedlings can be hard. Starting them during an insufferably grey spring in Chicago is even harder. I am still trying to revive my ostry cyklon peppers under some LED grow lights and while heat is one of the components, so is light. Perhaps even more so given that light emits energy which in turn produces heat. As an aside, I’m not taking any chances and germinating a few more seeds. Okay. So. How much light does one of our baby pepper seedlings need?

To start that discussion, we first need a concept of brightness and a unit of measurement for it. In comes the idea of  “lux”. A lux is a international scientific standard unit of measurement for illuminance and luminous emittance, equal to one lumen for a square meter. Whoa– maybe some vocab first?

  • LED – Light-emitting diode. It is speculated that led lights have the potential to offer greater efficiency, longer lifetimes and wavelength specificity. 
  • lumen – a unit of luminous flux in the International System of Units perceivable by a human, that is equal to the amount of light given out by a source of one candle intensity radiating equally every direction.
  • illuminance – the amount of light level measured on plane surface perceivable by the human eye. Correlates to human brightness perception. 
  • luminous emittance – the luminous flux per unit area emitted from a surface. (so how much bounces off). 
  • lux (lx) –  lumens per square meter. One lx = one lumen per square meter. 

As I understand it, the lux is the unit of measurement that answers the question “how many candles would have to be crammed into a square meter to produce equivalent brightness?” . Here are some examples for frame of reference when we start measuring around the house.

Common Lux Light Levels Observed In Nature Table
Recommended Light Levels (Illuminance) for Outdoor and Indoor Venues – National Optical Astronomy Observatory

For pepper seedlings we want to reproduce the equivalent of direct sunlight through most of the day for our peppers. Damn tropical plants. With that amount of brightness the chlorophyll in our plants’ leaves will have the best conditions for photosynthesis which in turn creates energy for plant growth.

But wait, lumens aren’t everything! Consider that when we talked about lumens, we discussed human perception of brightness. Not plants. Humans see more light on the yellow/ green wavelengths but plants utilize red/blue wavelengths which the human eye is poor at perceiving. Plants use prefer lights beginning at 450 nm (nanometers). 450 – 650 nm rays are required for plant photosynthesis, the production of food from light, water, carbon dioxide through the catalytic action of the plant pigment, chlorophyll. The 650 and 730 nm wavelengths control flowering through light-induced changes in the plant pigment, phytochrome.

Graph of visible light on the electro magnetic spectrum
http://tobyrsmith.github.io/Astro150/Tutorials/EM/

It is worth mentioning that there is currently some research being conducted where scientists are trying to determine what waves have what affects on plants. I was not able to find too much info on that.

electromagnetic_spectrum_and_peppers
The effects of light-emitting diode lighting on greenhouse plant growth and quality — Margit Olle & Akvile Virsile. Agricultural and Food Science, [S.l.], v. 22, n. 2, p. 223-234, june 2013. ISSN 1795-1895.
However, unfortunately, the measure for that Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) is not commonly advertised on those colored LED lights, so we will not be using it in this discussion. Hopefully, in the future this will be how we rate and describe grow lights.  But what little I found suggested that every wavelength plays its own special role in producing a healthy plant. So just defaulting to using lux doesn’t seem to be without merit.

So how bright are our overcast Chicago days rating? I downloaded a simple app on my phone to measure lux. Today was a partially cloudy day and the reader measured between 1,500 – 5,500 lux at 5:30 pm when I get home from work. Hovering my phone parallel to my led grow lamps, at about three inches away,

Fish pepper seedling under led grow light
Fish pepper in a seat of high honor.

I am reading about 100,000 – 114,000 lx. However, every inch I move away from the bulbs, my lux reading drops significantly. At six or so inches, I am lucky to get a reading of 14,000 lx. Given the strength of the LEDs and their consistency, the fact that I can keep them on for how long I see fit, I’m inclined to keep using them. I think it makes sense to put my most sensitive and beloved plants as close to the grow lights as possible. The remainder, I guess will go on the window sill and we pray for some sunny days.

I wish I had records for what the lux light level was like when I was at work. I have an extra RaspberryPi lying around and now am inspired to put together a light logger so I can have a better idea of what kind of suffering I am putting my seedlings through. What about you guys? Have you created any smart gardening tech tools to help you better understand the conditions of your plants? How much — if at all — do you utilize extra lights in your gardening?

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.

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!

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.

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

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.

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.

 

Cyklon Paprika Pepper

Here is the hot pepper of my people I am trying out this year. The pepper ostry cyklon is a milder heirloom hot chili believed to originate in Poland. In fact, it is such a mild hot pepper that even the poles refer to it as a “half-hot” pepper. The name of the pepper translates to “hot cyclone”, but Poland isn’t known for it’s cyclones or it’s hot food. A hot pepper fit for the polish palate.

There isn’t much information on English language sites but a wealth of it on polish ones. The fruit themselves will grow to about 3 – 6 inches in length and have about 3 millimeter thick flesh. The flavor is described as sweet-hot and is commonly found in polish farmers markets in the late summer. I plan on smoking the peppers whole, dehydrating them, and making my own paprika powder.

ostry_cyklon_seedlings

Now onto my other hot peppers. It takes so much patience. Given the germination problems that I’ve been having with some of my other hot peppers (fish peppers, red and purple cayennes), I am so impressed with the germination rate of the cyklons. I believe I took a wrong turn setting the plants directly on a radiator and the mixture of dampness and heat has caused my seeds to not make it. These particular seeds were started on the radiator during an oddly warm spell in late February and I bet the radiator was not running as hot! After some research, it seems as though mild temperatures of 65 – 75 degrees are ideal for hot pepper germination if sown directly into dirt. A little hotter if you are starting them in paper towels. Most pepper heads prefer the  hot hot hot damp paper towel method which I will be trying next year.

Something have noticed the hotter the pepper, the lower the germination rate. The more finicky slow growing the plant. I might run to the store and pick up some liquid nitrogen to help my babies out.