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Persevering for Peppers

Perseverance  – a lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious  success.
Ambrose  Bierce

 

Some of you, who have been following my blog a little while, may remember my post titled Behold Our First Pepper. It was an account of the unfortunate discovery that my first pepper plants bought here in Okinawa were not the Jalapeños I was expecting. My husband and I love Jalapeños; but when we find them here, they are priced at almost a dollar a pepper! It isn’t just the overpriced produce that has me disappointed. In a previous season, my pepper harvest from a single container counted to the hundreds (literally). That taste of success has me longing to recreate a wonderful bounty that not only enriches our cooking but impresses my husband to no end. Who wouldn’t want that right?

So what was the problem that held me back? I could blame several factors but the most significant was timing. I moved to Okinawa and started my garden in April whereas normally I would have a window sill garden in January and be ready to transplant outside in March. Then the plants became scorched by heat and bugs before they could properly take root, we had a drought this summer, and my Jalapeño seeds were unwilling to germinate. My determination did not waiver and I acknowledged these challenges not as my personal failures as a gardener but rather an opportunity to learn more and persevere. I ordered seeds online from Baker Creek Seed Company and pressed on.

I started new seedlings, I protected them, I waited, I uprooted the disappointing pepper plants (I’m sorry, it was hard but I did it), and I transplanted my heirloom PURPLE Jalapeños. Today they are a little bit taller and two gorgeous blooms have set.

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How cute are they? Normally, most pepper plant flowers look like these:

DSC03206English: A recently blossomed flower on a Quad...

But sometimes heirlooms come in different colors. Don’t you love how pretty a vegetable plant can be? I certainly do!

Sometimes when it doesn’t look possible to have success, if you continue to move forward you may be surprised at what can happen. The year that I had the very successful Jalapeño harvest, I also had several other peppers growing at the same time. I remember thinking that the Bell Pepper plant died while the hot peppers thrived but I ended up reaping Bell Peppers late in the season. It seems that as the fall weather set in, the bell pepper plant was much happier and started setting a lot of fruit. The hot peppers had already been setting for months. If I had given up on the plant when it didn’t produce like the others, I would not have harvested 20 Bell Peppers. This isn’t to say I haven’t had my failed attempts in my garden–because I certainly have–but often times there is hope when you don’t realize it.

Here’s to hoping for the possibility of a late Jalapeño crop on an island that has the potential for a long growing season. The air feels cooler now, but it’s still quite warm. The sight of the lovely purple flowers lets me know that there is hope after all!

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gardening, gardening and inspiration, sprouting new seeds

How to become an Heirloom Gardener (Lesson in seed collection)

Do  not let spacious plans for a new world divert your energies from saving what is  left of the old.
-Winston Churchill

How do you save these seeds? This was the question I was asked after I posted a reflective blog entry called, “I am an Heirloom Gardener on Foreign Soil”. My husband was the first to tell me, “When I read that blog, the first thing that came to my mind was “How?”. You have written about the “Why?” and should give your readers the “How?”. So now I will heed his advise and share with you some of the things I have learned about seed saving.

First, lets discuss a basic question. “What makes your seeds heirlooms?” To me, the answer is simple. If your grandmother gave your mother a piece of beautiful jewelry, then your mother gave you that jewelry, it is an Heirloom. The same is true for seeds. You extract the seed from a parent plant, sow it into the soil, watch it grow, then produce its own seeds which you then gather for the next generation of plants. So why then are red tomatoes just called tomatoes and purple or orange tomatoes called Heirlooms? To put it simply, these unusual varieties would disappear if gardeners did not save the seeds. Red Tomatoes can be heirlooms too, it’s just more popular to call rare varieties heirlooms. Make sense? Many mainstream varieties of vegetables have actually been genetically modified or developed to have longer shelf lives, which is what you normally see at your local grocery. This isn’t to say “everything” on the shelves is modified, but you get the idea. In a nutshell, heirlooms are about trying to grow particular varieties.

Here are my Seven Steps for Heirloom Seed Saving:

1. Determine where the seeds of your desired plant come from.
As you are all aware, many fruits and vegetables have seeds within them while others do not. Some seeds come from other parts of the original plant. If you have a fruit or vegetable with seeds, go ahead and dig them out and move to step two.

If the plant you are trying to derive seeds from doesn’t have a core of seeds, you may need to do a little research. I’ll give you a few examples. If you want seeds from a potato, garlic, onions, or ginger, you will need to let sprouts develop on the veggie itself. You can then pluck those sprouts off and plant them in soil. A new root crop will develop and the cycle will repeat. Often times, the plant that grows on the surface from those sprouts–root crops included–will put off a flower head that will eventually dry up on the plant and produce a seed head. Then you will be able to get seeds from that dried up flower.

DSC03404 [Spuds sprouting from potato and ginger]

Many ornamental flowers (flowers can also be heirlooms) will produce seeds from the dried flowers as well but some will create seed pods. For example, the Petunia will bloom for several days and then suddenly the bloom will droop and fall off the plant. The spot on the plant where the flower fell will grow a small pod. When the pod is mature, it will dry, crack open, and release its teeny tiny seeds. The same is true for many herbs such as Basil. Flowers such as Marigold dry and the seeds are actually attached to their petals. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Marigold seeds actually look like little match sticks.

DSC03405 [Basil Seed Pods, most are already dry]

DSC03406 [Marigold Seed Heads]

2. Clean the “messy” seeds if necessary.
What if the seeds are gooey and wet? You must find a way to dry so that they will not end up molding. For tomatoes, some heirloom gardeners will put them in water, blend them, and let them ferment for a couple of days so that the seeds will actually separate cleanly and able to be dried. Personally, that’s not how I do it. I am too concerned that I would leave them too long. I actually place the seeds with the sticky pulp into a kitchen strainer and wash them with cool water thoroughly. Often times I can’t get all of the excess pulp off but I get as much out as possible and then I prop the strainer over a bowl for a couple of days to dry. The remaining pulp will dry and flake away from the seeds after that. Other “messy seeds” that aren’t so gooey will be okay with a simple rinse and air dry. You can actually lay them out on a piece of butcher or news paper. I like to write on the paper so that I can keep track of the days they are laid out.DSC03237[Gooey Dragon Fruit Seeds]

DSC03233 [Shikuwasa Seeds; messy, but not as messy]

3. Let them dry, TOTALLY!
This step is very important. The slightest amount of moisture can cause mold when you try to save the seeds. Usually the magic number is three days. So set the seeds out for three days and let them dry. If you extract seeds from seed pods, they may already be quite dry. Let them sit in a paper bag or cheese cloth so that they can drop out easily when they are ready.

DSC03232 [Moist Okra Seeds left out to dry]

4. Protect them from the elements.
Some seeds lose their germination capabilities when they are left out in the air or too much light for too long. When leaving the seeds out to dry, place them in a darkish spot in the house where they are undisturbed. Once they have dried completely, place them in a sealed jar or plastic bag then in a dark place. I usually go with one plastic bag and one envelope for each set of seeds so that they are air tight and placed in the dark. I used to only use plastic bags and often that still worked but this year I found that many of my Jalepenos refused to sprout. I learned then that pepper seeds are more “light-sensitive” than most seeds. So, I’m using envelopes from now on.

DSC03342 [Plastic bags for the seeds then to be placed in a dark spot]

5. Be a master Labeler.
Seeds do last a while; many of them for years. But they don’t last forever. Different seeds have different life expectancies. So, that’s a good reason to label by date. A few years down the road when you’re sifting through your collection, you can determine which seeds will stay, which ones will go, and which ones need to be used up ASAP. I like to label mine with the name, dates, and place of origin (as best as I know).

DSC03384 [Inside the seeds are sealed in plastic bags then placed in labeled envelopes]

6. Plant in season if know the season. If you don’t, fret not trial and error then take notes.
Many fruits, vegetables, and herbs grow as annuals. There is no guarantee that they will be productive in the winter if they are meant to be a summer crop and vice versa. Lettuce crops grow well in moderate to cool weather, tomatoes grow well in warm weather, and hot peppers grow well in blazing hot weather. A little planning goes a long way. If you’ve saved seeds from a vegetable you have limited information on, don’t be afraid to test them out. You can always try again a couple of months later or the following year. Be sure to take notes about your results or lack there of and you’ll get it.

7. Research early, relax and enjoy later.
In addition to knowing about your crop’s seasons, find out about potential bug pests and diseases that affect the particular plant you are trying to grow. Find out about water and light needs. Get to know all that you can so that you can plan accordingly. Use labels so that you don’t have to keep it all memorized in your head and get overwhelmed. My system for container garden watering is as follows: I find out if the plant needs consistent moisture or drying in between watering. I place the dry plants in clay pots and the wet plants in self watering containers like “Plant Spa.” It takes the guess-work out of it for me and I can avoid under/over watering. If you know a certain bug likes to attack your selected crop, find out what plants repel that pest and apply a little companion planting. This is a lot of research and work at the beginning of each growing season, but hard and purposeful work in the beginning saves you a lot of trouble later on. It’s worth the effort.

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With these steps, you can begin saving your favorite varieties as you come across them in your local market or travels. It’s not very hard, it just takes a little time, planning, and organization. I hope this article helped. Please feel free to ask me questions or share your Heirloom Garden Experiences!

gardening, gardening and inspiration

Don’t Blame Your Beige Thumb!

Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement. -C.S. Lewis

When I talk to others about gardening I normally get one of two responses. The first is one of enthusiasm: “Oh I like gardening too. Right now I am growing (insert plant name here).” The other response is, “I just don’t have a green thumb.” I continually meet people who claim that they kill every plant they bring home and they are just too discouraged to make any further attempts.

Well I have news for you. I too have unwillingly killed plants. I didn’t know how to care for them properly and needed to do some research. For some odd reason, I decided a couple years ago to try again with tomato seedlings and a Rosemary Bush. After my first successful harvest, my husband mistakenly assumed that I felt passionate about growing things and that Christmas gave me a handful of photographically captivating books about gardening. The truth was, in the beginning I just wanted to grow tomatoes so that we could avoid a few extra trips to Wal-Mart during the week to feed our tomato addiction. I had the Rosemary bush because I knew that it grew well in poor soil with minimal care and it seemed like a good way to balance out my empty porch. I however was a complete softy for my new husband with his big dewy eyes and warm smile as he welled up with pride at the gift he had given me. Something happened to me too at that moment; I was proud of myself as well. I knew that for the first time I had done a good job caring for a plant and that plant in turn was producing fresh, organic food. I also realized that actually my husband wasn’t wrong about me–he just knew something about me before I saw it in myself.

The following January I filled my small sunny windowsill with seeds to get a jump start on my growing season. My new garden books were ever present by my spot on the couch and my bedside table. At the very onset of spring I perused the local nurseries in town. I filled my balcony with vegetables and herbs to the point that some of my plants couldn’t get enough sunlight due to the lack of space. It was that year that I also had my first encounters with plant diseases and pests. I became aware of the other things I had to learn but I didn’t mind that extra effort because the fruit that effort could bear was worth it. My husband also got me to invest in grow boxes that I use to this day and out of those grow boxes I harvested approximately 350 Habaneros, 100 Jalepenos, 20 bell peppers, and dozens of tomatoes (out of just two growboxes). My success that year was very encouraging in spite of a few plant losses.

The very first gardening books I owned and read from Brian were about container gardening since we lived in a second story apartment. One of the specialties of the books dealt with successfully combining plants in containers for looks and productivity (an example would be growing flowers with vegetables). Becoming increasingly familiar with combos and techniques, I have become bold with some of my experiments. You might remember my blog entry, “Odorous in a Good Way.” I combined three plants for a container to place at my front door.

Here’s how it looked then:

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Here it is now:

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There appeared to be something white and foamy on the plant that went brown. I think it may have been a fungus. I carefully cut away all the brown leaves and looked online for a way to create my own natural fungicide and sprayed that spot after scraping the top layer off carefully. In addition to washing my tools, I threw away the leaves instead of composting to avoid disease passing. The plants that remain have been returned to our front door. At least the citronella is still alive, I need it to repel mosquitoes.

My other failure comes in the form of seeds that haven’t germinated in almost two months.

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Yes, it is sad losing these plants; but that does not diminish the joy I have on this porch:

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Our patio is lined with flowers, tomato plants, tomatillo plants, pepper plants, herbs, and ornamental plants that are thriving. This would not have been achieved if I didn’t keep trying and remain willing to learn from failures. I can categorize all of my failures into a few simple tips that enable my current success:

Water correctly: Too little or too much? Know how to water and when to leave the plants alone. Watering near the roots in the morning prevents diseases and overwatering. Self-watering containers prevent under-watering a very thirsty plant. The rest just need good drainage.

Basic pest knowledge: If you know the most common pest for your area and take steps to prevent it from being a problem then you will ensure safety for most of the plants you have. Sometimes it’s as easy as planting a Marigold and a garlic clove with your tomato. Just do a little research and plan ahead. Most of the time when I do this, I no longer have to fuss over it for the rest of the season.

Fertilize once in a while: This is a lot like watering. Read the recommendation on the label and follow it. Sometimes with container gardening you only need to fertilize once and you’re done. Maybe do it again in 3 to 6 months. That’s it.

Place your plant in the right spot: Most plants like sun. Some like it a little. Others like it a lot. A few don’t like much sun at all. Find out which one your plant is and place it accordingly.

Get some easy plants: These are the plants that thrive naturally in your region. It’s nice to have a few that you don’t have to work at caring for whether you love digging in the garden or garden once a year (at best). Regional plants seldom need to be watered if ever and you don’t have to think about fertilizing. You’ll be able to guess which ones they are by looking around town; they are the ones you find the most of!

Lastly, remember that there is a season for everything: I can guarantee you that if I plant lettuce on my balcony today it will sprout quickly, become bitter, then die quickly. I can do everything else right but the truth is it is not it’s season. If I plant it when the temperatures drop in the fall to winter time however, it will be a super easy crop! If you’ve ever had a plant that was doing great for 6 months and all of the sudden failed, it may just be the season.

With a little practice all this knowledge can become automatic–especially with your favorite plants. If you have a desire to grow things, don’t be discouraged if a few attempts fail. Be willing to grow yourself. Take it from someone whose beige thumb turned green after all.

Grow on,

Marissa