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!

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!

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.

serrano_pasillabajio_hummus.jpg

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!

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.

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!

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!

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.

Hello, hot peppers!

Today was an unusually warm early March day in Chicago. It hit a whole fifty degrees! I’ve been trying hard to start some fish peppers. My sister went to college in Baltimore where these peppers originate and she has always raved about them. These peppers have beautiful variegated leaves and hit anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 on the Scoville scale. Historically, they were used to spice up seafood dishes in the Mid Atlantic in the African American community. Because it was so popular in seafood dishes, it was named the fish pepper! I tried to germinate only five seeds a few weeks ago and only had one seedling germinate and promptly die when I forgot to check on it and it rotted in its covered container. Hopefully setting them on my radiator germinator and being more loving will speed things up.

fullsizerender

Hot peppers in general take a very long time to germinate, so I am trying to start them well in advance of the last frost date in Chicago. I’ve got some more mild peppers (ostra-cyklon and sigaretta di bergamo) peppers which germinated in about a week.

I would love to hear if anyone else has had success growing these peppers!