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.

container.garden.deck.jpg

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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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!