Sunday, September 28, 2014

Growing Heirloom Hot Peppers

I love heirloom plants and hot peppers are no exception. The fact that the genetic makeup of a vegetable or fruit can be traced back in time many years makes the special. In some cases they have a historical context, but the main reason I like them is that they usually have a better flavor than those that are commercially produced. In my garden there is no plant easier to grow than a hot pepper. I grow several different varieties of hot peppers which range in spiciness from mildly hot to extremely hot. I love a nice hot jalapeno pepper on a sandwich but generally shy away from partaking of those that might require hospitalization!

Hot peppers (and other peppers) are fairly carefree once established. Early on in their growth cycle it is a good idea to give them a little nitrogen fertilizer to encourage some green growth and lots of branching. Pinch back the first sets of blooms to send the energy back into the plant. It's emotionally hard to do but the results will pay off later with more blooms and more fruit. Only use the nitrogen fertilizer toward the beginning of the growth cycle then lean toward a fertilizer with more phosphorus and potassium (The P and K of the NPK ratio). P and K help form fruit and roots on the plants while N is good for leaf growth. We want to eat peppers not pepper leaves!

Once the peppers are of sufficient size you can eat them at any stage. I prefer to allow them to ripen and color on the plant which improves their flavor and nutrition. Hot peppers are measured using the Scoville Heat Index which grades the peppers on the intensity of their heat. Individual peppers can vary quite a bit on heat within the same variety depending on the growing conditions so use the Scoville Scale as a guideline. The 'Ghost' pepper  ('Bhut Jolokia') is graded around 1,000,000 Scoville heat units whereas a Jalapeno is only around 5,000. Hot peppers extend beyond the range of the 'Ghost' pepper but I've always thought that a pepper has to be able to be enjoyed in order to have value - I wouldn't enjoy a 'Carolina Reaper', nope - not one bit!

There are lots of ways to enjoy a hot pepper. Fresh peppers are great to add to your dishes but dried peppers can bring you some good flavor when fresh peppers are out of season. Dried peppers can be ground up into a powder for use in cooking. I enjoy throwing a couple hot peppers into our fall chili recipes. I usually dry them whole then put them in a jar to use as needed. I'll write more about drying hot peppers in a post very soon.

You can propagate peppers through stem cuttings and preserve the plants through the winter. You may not get any produce from them over the winter but when warm weather appears you will have larger already established plants you can move into the garden. You can also dig up your favorite peppers and grow them in a pot indoors until spring. I was harvesting jalapenos in early May this past spring - you could too!

Here are a few peppers from one of my recent harvests!

Serrano Hot Pepper
Serrano Peppers - Up to 23,000 Scoville Heat Units

Chocolate Habanero Hot Pepper
Chocolate Habanero - 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat Units 

'Scotch Bonnet' Hot Pepper
'Scotch Bonnet' - 100,000 to 225,000 Scoville Heat Units

Lemon Drop Pepper - 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units
We have a few others not picture here which I am still waiting on to fully ripen including a 'Thai Yellow', 'Pasilla Bajio', and 'Paprika'. When selecting peppers to grow always lean toward flavor rather than heat.

What hot peppers are your favorites?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Asiatic Lily Propagation with Bulbils

Perhaps one of the easiest methods of plant propagation is through bulbils. Bulbils are simply baby plants produced along aerial stem of a plant. Lilies are well known for producing bubils and you can take advantage of this natural plant ability to create more lilies for your garden. Not all lilies produce bulbils so be observant of your garden to find out if you have any on your lilies. The bulbils in the picture below came from an Asiatic lily. This lily did not bloom this year because a deer ate the top off before it could flower. Instead it exerted its energy into creating bulbils.

Asiatic Lily bulbils

Bulbils form along the stem of the lily and can be harvested when they look like plump little plants with roots sticking out, somewhat resembling 'Hens and Chicks' (Sempervirens are completely unrelated to lilies). Each of these bulbils can be planted immediately in the garden. Expect lilies grown from bulbils to take about 2-3 years to grow into a full flowering plant.

Asiatic Lily bulbils

Asiatic lilies may also be propagated via the leaves. In this case you are taking advantage of the lily's ability to produce bulbils a little earlier in the season.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

How to Save Seeds from Redbud Trees

redbud tree blooming, flowersFall is a great time of the year for seed saving. Our plants have spent their time over the summer building up energy to produce seeds which will one day sprout, grow, and create new plants. Seedlings are essential to the diversity of a species. When open pollinated plants share their genetic makeup they can pass on variations in their gene code that can help the species fight off diseases and become stronger over time. One of my favorite trees to collect seeds from is the redbud or Cercis canadensis.
redbud tree with seed pods

Redbuds bloom with purple flowers in the springtime that are very attractive to pollinators. Redbuds are legumes and produce their seeds in bean-like pods. The flowers can grow on the branches and trunk of the tree and eventually produce a bumper crop of pods. Redbud trees are a small understory tree that would be a great native plant selection for small yards. They are large enough to eventually create shade and small enough that they won't overtake powerlines and create issues.

When collecting seeds from a redbud just remove a brown redbud seed pod and peal the string part of the pod. It's very similar to a string bean in structure. When you do this the pod splits open very easily, revealing the actual redbud seeds inside. Collect as many seeds as you want to save.

how to open a redbud seed pod

how to open a redbud seed pod

After you have collected the seeds check them for viability. Just place the seeds in hot (not boiling) water. Redbuds have a hard seed coat that will need broken down and the hot water will help with this. After a few hours of soaking any seeds that are floating can be discarded as they are likely to not be viable. The sinking seeds are the ones to keep. 

soaking seeds to determine viability

Save the redbud seeds in a bag of slightly moist sand and place in the back of your refrigerator. You could use any time of container that will keep them sealed until spring. Redbud seeds need cold stratification to further break down their seed coat and simulate the winter cold to help the seed germinate in spring. Once spring arrives you can sow the seeds directly in the ground where you want them or plant them in pots. 

Before planting it may be helpful to nick the seeds slightly with a knife or nail clippers so that moisture can reach the embryo easier. The cold stratification helps but the seeds may need additional help from a technique called scarification. Scarification is where the seed coat is damaged in a way that will allow moisture to reach the embryo inside. 

Cold Stratification of Dogwood Seeds

One trick I have used to speed up germination is to scarify the seeds then place them in a moist paper towel inside of a plastic bag for a couple days. I usually put the bag in a warm place like on top of the fridge. After a few days the seeds should have germinated and you can sow the seeds that have roots. It may take 7-10 days or more before all the seeds can germinate so be sure to give them plenty of time.

Redbud trees can be very hard to transplant from one that is sown in the wild. By saving the seeds you can grow a tree and plant it right where you want it to be. Special varieties of redbuds like 'Forest Pansy' or 'Lavender Twist' won't reproduce the exact same tree from seeds. Cloning or grafting is necessary for those varieties.

So go out and have fun collecting seeds this fall!

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Few Observations of the Fall Garden

Fall, as I've said before, is probably my favorite time of year. I enjoy the processes involved with closing down the garden, the cooler weather, and the changes in the leaves. It's also a great time to garden with its own set of unique challenges. For planting trees, shrubs, and bulbs there is no better time than autumn. For growing the best tasting greens with high flavor content, again, there is no better time than autumn. It's a fun time of year with falling leaves raked into piles (who doesn't like jumping into one of those?), fall festivals, carving pumpkins, and delicious apple cider. It is an ideal season for so many things.

As they say, getting there is half the fun. Watching the changes take place and doing the tasks involved is all part of the process of enjoying fall. In the garden it is easy to see the changes. Beyond the changing leaves is the fall flower color display. Goldenrod and ironweed begin to color the wild fields with purple and gold. Remember goldenrod is not what causes your fall allergies, it's the wind pollinated plants like ragweed that bloom simultaneously with the goldenrod.

The coneflowers are still pumping our purple blooms but will soon be produce lots of seed for finches and other birds to enjoy this fall and winter. What they miss will become new plants next spring after a good cold winter for stratification.

The fall vegetable garden is started with seedlings of radish and kale. Fall planting of vegetables can be challenging. Often when it is the ideal time to plant it is too hot for good germination. Bugs can present a challenge as well as they voraciously devour what they can as they begin their overwintering processes. While these are challenges, overcoming them will bring you loads of delicious greens in the fall and (if protected in harsh winter climates) through the winter. In my garden I have radishes and kale that sprouted well while partially shaded by a cucumber vine. Shading you seedlings is one way to overcome the heat issue.

Fall is also about the harvest, as I'm sure this orb weaver spider would tell you. It's time to gather and store the produce we've grown over the summer so that we can enjoy it through the winter. Whatever your garden brings you this fall be sure to enjoy the process. Take time to observe the little things and harvest those as well. Store and save them in your mind to enjoy over the cold bleak days of winter.

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