They cannot be contained (except when they can…)

Hello to our fellow denizens of the soil, tenders of the garden! Our plants are loving this weather and are growing with purpose, enjoying these temperatures and humidity far more than I am, where the sun and the temperatures provide a persuasive reason for staying in the shade and air conditioning. Not even the hot weather has been able to keep us away from our burgeoning harvest, as we have been able to pick peas and radishes, cut garlic scapes, and tend to the beds to ensure the plants, especially the finicky peppers, can grow as much as they can during these stretches of ideal weather.

In addition to our beds, we are growing plants in containers. We have several, which adds an extra dimension to what is already a challenging enough pursuit. Unlike a garden bed, you do not have as much control over the environmental variables you can expose your plants to nor do you have as many options for maintaining growth. Once it’s in a pot, it’s in a pot. About all you can do is water and fertilize it. You do not have the relative freedom provided by a bed: fewer ways to control moisture levels, limited space for roots to grow, better exposure to the environment. Containers do have one obvious advantage though. You can physically move them. Not getting enough sun or water? Maybe the other side of the deck is better. Not getting enough nutrients? All of that fertilizer is going to one plant.

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The pros and cons of beds versus containers is one where the pros are firmly in favor of the bed, but you can still have success with a container. Living in rental apartments over the last few years has forced us to learn the best practices of container gardening, lest I end up empty handed. Other than large heirlooms, which I have given up all hope on successfully cultivating in a container, I’ve had varying levels of success. From an over wintered habanero to an especially precocious bell pepper plant, it is possible to have a good harvest even if it has to be done on your back porch or in your front window. Here are a few of the most important things I’ve noted from my attempts the last few years, bountiful and futile alike:

  1. Water. Unlike in a bed, where it’s hard to over water to the point of killing them because it’ll run off, if the pot is not well drained or in the sun, it’ll stay moist a lot longer than a bed will, meaning root rot is a distinct possibility. Only water when you are sure the dirt is completely dry or the plant has begun to wilt.
  2. Sunlight. This is one area where containers can be better than gardens. You have to work within the limitations of your space, but you can sometimes better accommodate the light needs of your plants because of the portability of pots.
  3. Fertilizer. This is a the toughest part and the lesson it took me the longest to learn. Even an unfertilized garden will have nutrients passing into the soil consistently from organic matter, worms, animals, and more entering the ecosystem. A pot is a relatively self-contained environment. Once the nutrients from the soil are gone, they’re gone and if your plants runs out of nutrients while it’s trying to fruit, you’ll be out of luck.
  4. Pot size. This is one case where bigger is better. Never underestimate the ability of a plant to grow roots. In a garden bed they’ll be able to go down as deep as they need, but in a container they’ll be constrained. Use as a big of a pot as you can manage to give your plant the most room to expand. Not to mention a bigger pot will hold more nutrients, decreasing the amount you need to fertilize.
  5. Optimism. Sometimes you just need to keep at it and hope for the best. Last year we had a black bell pepper that put out three delicious peppers by August and then nothing. We kept at it, watering and fertilizing regularly, and got another dozen peppers before the first frost.

Does anyone out there have any tips for container gardening? I’d love to be able to grow full-size heirloom tomatoes some year! Until next time!

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You Can’t Make Mole Without the Olé!

Happy Memorial Day weekend to all of you in the United States! If I did not have a calendar I would swear it was only mid-April and not close to turning over to June. Our brief period of sunshine and warm temperatures has not lasted and even though the calendar says we’re on the cusp of summer when I look outside I swear it’s only mid-April. The burst of frenetic gardening energy brought on by the warmth and the sun of a few weeks ago has been tamped down by the weight of cool and damp days and cooler nights, which have yet to abate and show no definitive signs of retreating.

The silver lining of the the temporary halt to gardening activity is giving me an excuse to indulge my curiosity.  If you’ll recall my post Late Starters and Slow Growers from a few weeks ago, we tried tot throw a germination hail mary of a few additional varieties of peppers that would maybe or maybe not have enough time to fruit. As you can see in the photo below, that effort was less than successful:

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Two serranos and one pasilla bajio out of around ten seeds of each. A success rate lower than ones I obtained in many of my college calculus exams. In hindsight, buying a few serrano seedlings proved to be an excellent choice, but I’m still disappointed by how few sprouted, not to mention I was looking forward at taking a crack at making mole sauce. Garden space is already at a premium though so maybe a smaller number of seedlings is a blessing in disguise.

So thus we have my experiment. I’ve placed a half dozen pasilla bajio seeds, for no real reason other than only one plant has survived thus far and also because I’m less concerned at this point about getting them into the garden and their fruit into a sauce than I am at coercing better germination rates out of our seeds, into a cup with moist dirt and a lid.

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I did a little research and it seems like the most important thing is to keep the seeds warm and evenly moist. That would explain my poor germination rates with the original batch of seeds, where I placed them on top of the dirt and left the temperature of the soil up to the whims of mother nature. This time around I buried the seeds just below the surface to ensure they do not dry out and stay more insulated than if they were on top. I’ve placed them on a seed mat and underneath a grow light to keep them at a consistent mid-80 degrees Fahrenheit temperature, which I think will be the key difference. They are a central American pepper variety so it was no wonder they did not do well in an environment subjected to the springtime weather patterns of the upper Midwest. We’ll check back in a week or so and hopefully see a few plants starting to peek out of the soil. Until then, adios pimientos picantes!

Growing Up and Hardening Off

They grow up so fast, don’t they? One day they are only seeds, small, hard and so unlike a plant and then it seems all do is blink your eyes and they have grown into strong, tall, and independent seedlings. We weren’t as successful as we were hoping, our inexperience reared its ugly head as we moved through the spring and saw many of our seeds either not germinate or die soon after giving us a glimmer of hope. The weather, so cold and gray for March and April certainly did not help either, but despite all that we still managed (with the help of the local gardening store) to bring almost two dozen tomato and pepper plants far enough along to start planting them in our garden for the summer. Due to the number of seedlings versus available planting space, we are being more gentle with some plants than with others, as we can afford to lose a few but wanted to get as many plants into the ground as we could in time to take advantage of the great weather (mostly sunny and in the seventies and eighties much of this week) to try and make up some of the ground we lost due to the lousy spring.

The plants we planted this weekend fell into two categories: plants that were ready for the outdoors, like our tomatoes and cucumber plants which had both been spending time outside in their containers and grown unwieldy, as well as few varieties that were struggling inside and we were willing to risk to the whims of the garden gods: eggplant, garden store Serrano that was muddling along in the gardener’s limbo of not growing but not dying, and the single Ostra Cyklon pepper plant that survived, albeit barely, and was obviously not thriving in our apartment. I’ll be curious to see if the warm temperatures and full days of sun will be enough to revive those. Those varieties (excepting the Serrano) are also from cooler climes and should be able to handle the variances in the weather patterns of a Chicago spring.

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The plants we are holding onto are exclusively hot peppers.  This is mainly due to their size (pictured below) and their geographic region of origin. While tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumber find their homes in more temperate continental climates in the Northern Hemisphere, our pepper’s homes can be mainly found around the equator, meaning they’ll prefer to let the cooler nights of May pass indoors to await the warmer days of June and July more akin to their homes. As such, we are taking a more traditional hardening off approach with these, where we are placing them outside during the hottest part of the day and bringing them in at night. Over the next few days if they’re all looking good we’ll probably start leaving them out at night in preparation for their planting sometime next week.

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I’ll be curious to see if these end up doing better or worse than the plants we put in the ground this past weekend, with the Serrano serving as a perfect control. Feel free to share some of your approaches for kicking your adult plant children out of your home! I’m of the opinion that plants are fairly resilient organisms and can survive many conditions, so my approach to hardening off is accordingly lax, somewhat to the chagrin of Super_C#. This year might make me eat those words and adhere to a bit more rigorous routine for hardening off, but only time will tell. Until next time!

Thyme is not always on our side

I love thyme. It’s my favorite herb and I cook with it as much as I can. The distinctive strong aroma and bold taste means it easily stands on its own as the star of a dish but the flavor profile also blends well with many other herbs and seasonings from warm climates, creating beautiful medleys on the stove top and in the salad bowl.  I always have some on hand in the spice cabinet and when in doubt with what to add to a meal I’ll usually give it a few shakes of thyme.  The only problem is that the dried version is nowhere near as flavorful as the growing plant and much to my chagrin I can never seem to keep a thyme plant alive! We’ve tried to grow a thyme plant in a container the last few years and all have kicked the bucket on us. An attempt or two directly in the garden failed as well. This year, instead of leaving the fate of our new thyme plant up to fate and our incapable hands, I’ve done some research and aim for better success for our humble plant this year.

Growing Thyme

Our thyme plant will be a primarily indoor plant with some time spent outside during the summer months, so most of my planting plan is built around that.  Thyme originates from the Mediterranean region and likes a well drained soil on the sandier side.  In retrospect, this was our most common mistake, as we have planted it in potting soil designed to retain moisture as well as garden beds heavy on clay in the past.  This year, I’ve mixed some cactus soil (heavy on sand and perlite) with potting soil to create a more hospitable environment for our thyme plant.

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In addition to this, thyme requires mostly full to full sun to grow. Last year we had it on our back porch, which gets only a few hours of the morning sun. No wonder it died so quickly! Heavy potting soil and limited sunlight does not do a thyme good.  We will be keeping it in our front windows with the occasional trip up to our roof deck for the summer months. Hopefully the better sun and soil conditions will yield a healthy thyme plant whose leaves will impart their fragrance to our cooking this summer, instead of the usual dried out and dead mess we have by June.

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(Here it is in its new home! Hopefully the more spacious confines will give it space to fill out over the next few weeks.)

Anybody have any other tips for growing thyme or other herbs? We’d love to hear them! Also, if you have a favorite recipe featuring thyme please feel free to share! We always love trying out new recipes in the kitchen.

Late Starters and Slow Growers

Hello from rainy Chicago!  Hopefully the weather has been better wherever you’re reading this from.  It’s been stuck in the forties and fifties with intermittent rain and limited sun for a better part of the past week and will remain that way for at least another day or two.  Before this rain blew through we had discussed starting to move some of our more mature seedlings into the garden beds due to the unseasonably warm weather.  It hasn’t dipped below freezing, but with the way the forecast looks for the foreseeable future I’m glad we didn’t take the leap.  I don’t imagine the young plants would weather (pun intended) this deluge of rain very well. The silver lining of this particular weather pattern has that its been cold enough for our radiators to be back on, making it ideal for seed germination! I had desire the other week to try to sneak in a Serrano plant or two yet this year (they’re one of my favorite chilies to cook with) despite how close we are getting to the main growing season starting. Lucky for us, even though the temperature outside is not ideal for growing, it is inside is for seed starting! We also nabbed a few small seedlings from the local garden store (at $1.49 for four how could we not?) that still need some growing up before being transplanted.

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Pictured above is our last few pepper varieties we’re going to try and grow this year. The seedlings are Poblano and Melrose peppers; the seed packets contain the seeds of serrano and pasilla baijo peppers.

Poblanos hail from the Puebla state of Mexico and are mildly hot, usually somewhere between bell and jalepeno peppers, and are a very versatile pepper.  We use them a lot for fajitas and other meals heavy on bell peppers to give it a little extra heat without changing the flavor profile of the dish.  When dried they are called ancho chilies, which is a common seasoning in Mexican cuisine.

Melrose Peppers actually originate in Chicago and are rarely found outside of the city, and accordingly, information on them is relatively hard to find.  Their name originates from the Chicagoland suburb Melrose Park and are a staple in the cooking of the Italian community here.  Neither of us are Italian, but both love the city and are looking forward to growing and trying them.

Serrano Peppers are also from the Puebla region of Mexico and are named for the highlands present in that part of the country (serrano means “mountainous” or “of the highlands” in Spanish). They are hotter than jalapenos and have a very bright taste that comes out well in salsas and richer dishes.  They are a favorite of mine to use in chili and sauces because they add a good amount of heat while imparting their own distinctive flavor on the recipe. Despite visiting numerous garden stores, and the large Hispanic population in Chicago, we were unable to find any seedlings, but I’m hoping we’ll be able to sneak in a few peppers at the end of the year.

The final packet is the best kind of seeds, free seeds! They are of the Pasilla Baijo variety, which is not one I had heard of previously.  Apparently, they are one of the main peppers in the dark version (mole negro) of mole sauce. I’m not sure what to expect from these, but I’m still excited to try them. One of the best parts about getting involved in the gardening this year is discovering all of the new peppers I’ll get to incorporate in my cooking this fall and this is another one to add to the list! Upping my sauce game.

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We’re out of seed starting pods, so I’ll be placing our serrano and pasilla baijo seeds in this empty hummus dish. I’ve soaked them overnight and hopefully that, along with the radiators, our new seed warming mat, and any hummus I didn’t manage to clean out of the container will speed these along enough to still get a good harvest.  Has anyone experimented with ways to speed up germination and early-stage growth?  I can’t imagine we’re the only procrastinators out there.  Until next time, cheers!

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!

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.

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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!

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!

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.

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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!