Friday, January 30, 2009

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers...

I LOVE peppers! I'm not referring to hot peppers, though I do appreciate the wonderful flavor of a hot little jalapeno in my salsa. I'm talking about sweet peppers--bells, pimientos, green, red, orange, yellow! YUM! I love them raw and naked or in a creamy dip. I especially love to pick a bright red sweet pimento or pointed Lipstick and munch it right there in the garden.

I indulge myself in these wonderful little delights by planting a large pepper patch. (By large I am talking about 60 plants total. This includes about 6 different varieties including about 6 jalapeno plants which make more peppers than I can make into salsa!) My goal each year is to push the boundaries of short Minnesota summers so that I can munch on fresh peppers for the longest amount of days. I've learned a few season extension techniques that have helped me in this quest.

First of all--starting seeds. I start all of my own pepper plants from seed, and I start them early. I like to get the seeds planted in either late February or early March. They are kind of finicky little buggers when it comes to heat--they like a nice warm bed! The answer is a seed heating mat. I have had almost 100% germination rates when using a seed heat mat under my seed starting trays. I use mini soil blocks and pot on to 2 inch soil blocks a few days after germination--once the first leaves have opened up but before the first true leaves have made an appearance. They are placed under growlights immediately upon sprouting. I like to leave them on the heat mats for a good week or so before weaning them off to normal room temperature. Clear "greenhouse covers" are a must! They keep the blocks moist and create a perfect humid climate for the seedlings.

Depending on how late spring arrives (usually later than earlier!) I will usually have to pot on the pepper plants to 4 inch pots well before it is time to transplant to the garden. I usually run out of room under the growlights what with all the tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplants, etc., that are clamoring for space. As soon as it is reasonable and safe from horribly cold temps, I move my peppers out to the cold frame on the south side of the garage. Last year this occurred in early April. A bit of watchfulness is in order--the cold frame needs to be monitored to make sure it doesn't swoop down into freezing temps at night and doesn't bake the plants on a sunny day. I've found a little remote thermometer to be just the trick for keeping a close eye on those fluctuating temps. Since it does get rather nippy in April (it's nowhere the last frostdate!) I've used a small ceramic heater in my coldframe. I set it to kick in so that the temp never goes below 55 degrees F and use a sheet of insulation foam on top of the cold frame to keep the heat in.

Once it's getting close to May 1, I start getting antsy to plant those plants in the garden! Our FFD isn't until about May 15-22, so I need to be careful. If there's room in my 10'X10' greenhouse, they may move in there for a bit, but that is usually overflowing with tomatoes--my other veggie weakness. By now I'm removing the cover on the coldframe during the day so the plants are pretty well hardened off. For the last couple years I've set out my peppers between May 10-20, protecting them from late frosts with Agribon cloth tented over the rows. It has worked extremely well! The plants are quite large by now and with this extra TLC they are often blossoming within a week or two of setting out, with the first green peppers being ready the first week of July. They are ripening to red, orange, and yellow a few weeks later. I've had little if any transplant setbacks by making sure the plants never get rootbound or too big for their pots, setting out in deep enough holesinto which we dump a quart or so of water and 1/4 cup Fertrell Feed and Grow before popping the plants in. I mulch heavily using paper under old hay. We get the paper from cutting apart empty chicken feed bags--it is similar to craft paper.

The pepper harvest continues right up to, and possibly after(if I was quick with the blankets to cover the best plants), the first killing frost. I've found that the jalapenos are a bit more hardy than the sweet peppers when the nights get cold and go into super-production when you can start to see your breath in the air. I've been out picking jalapenos by feel on a clear cold October night after they've survived a couple light frosts under the blanket, and I know nothing will save them this time. By then the tomatoes have had it, and I have boxes waiting in the garage for me to do something with them. Then it's time for salsa! I like to use as many jalapenos in my salsa as possible without needing to call a fire department, so I prefer a milder jalapeno with more flavor and less heat. My prior fave jalapeno was called Delicias, and though my brother would laugh at me (he who goes for the extra hot everything), it was mild enough for even this tender-mouth to eat raw by itself. Pack a lot of them into the salsa, though, and it has a bit of a kick.

This year the stars in the pepper patch will be New Ace, an early thinner-walled pepper which turns red very early; King of the North, a thick blocky green-to-red; Valencia, a large thick-walled green to orange; Sunray, another blocky pepper that ripens to yellow; and Lipstick, a supersweet early red pointy pimiento-style pepper. The newcomers will be Carmen, similar to Lipstick, and Dulce Jalapeno, hopefully the perfect replacement for my standby Delicias Jalapeno which I wasn't able to get this year.

Now as for pickled peppers... I've never tried them. Peter can have them. I prefer my peppers raw and crunchy, and preferably eaten right in the patch!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Conservative/Liberal, Christian/Pagan--Polarizing Views on Gardening

For a couple years now, there is a group of us in the area who get together each January to order seeds together. We are mostly conservative Christian homeschooling moms/families. We get to share some wonderful food, peruse catalogs, combine our orders to receive discounts, and share gardening strategies. By and large this group is also an "organic" group--doing our best to raise our families with healthy food and, as a means to that end, garden organically. We are all at different points in our health-food journey, but we all learn from each other and truly enjoy the fellowship.

Last week during a flurry of emails as we were trying to cement our orders, I was struck (as I have been a few times in the past) at the irony of this group ordering seeds from some catalogs that are quite obviously on the opposite end of the political, and most likely, religious spectrum. I feel somewhat responsible for this since I introduced the group to at least one of the most liberal catalogs, be that good or bad.

I have contemplated this whole matter quite often, actually, and it brought me to this point--while I agree with these seed companies on their safe seed pledge, it really bothers me that many of them seem to have completely OPPOSITE political leanings from me. It seems to me that in the natural food and organic gardening circles that there are 2 opposite political views and rarely a middle ground. Both are just as strong in their commitment towards natural food and organic gardening, etc. It seems to me that while those of us in the conservative Christian circles are viewing our food and gardening practices as a way to be stewards of what God has provided (our land, our bodies, our families), that the opposite end of the spectrum is searching for their god in the name of health/organics/etc. I don't think I'm finding the right words, but hopefully you can get an idea of what my line of thought is on this. I find it interesting that such polarizing views are brought together by the same means. Does this go beyond stewardship to an opportunity for discipleship? Hmmmm.

I would enjoy hearing others' views on this subject. And also your thoughts as to where this leads us.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Now THOSE are cucumbers!

This is a photo of part of my garden, year 2006--the summer of plentiful cucumbers, tomatoes, leeks, corn, ... YOU NAME IT! Just look at those cucumber plants. Down in the left corner is one of the baskets of cukes we harvested that day--we had to pick every day and emerged with baskets like that! The leeks just to the right of the cukes are now one of my favorite vegetables to plant. They are amazingly forgiving, and as long as they are started early indoors, they grow a beautiful long white shank here in the short MN summer.

This is one of my favorite garden pictures--it amazes me everytime I look at it. It also makes me sad that I haven't taken more garden pictures. I'm planning on taking LOTS of pics this year! And hopefully the cukes will be even more amazing!

The Great Seed Order

Well, are you ready for this?! Now, bear in mind that some of this will be planted in my friend's garden. We both were looking for a variety of food that will keep our families well-fed all summer and most of the winter. My mouth is watering just going over this list...
  • Bush Beans: Provider
  • Beets: Early Wonder
  • Broccoli: Fedco's "Broccoli Blend"
  • Cabbage: Chinese Fun Jen and Golden Acre
  • Cantaloupe: Athena Hybrid and Halona
  • Carrots: Mokum, Over the Rainbow mix, and cute little Tonda di Parigi
  • Sweet Corn: Bodacious, Lancelot, and Spring Treat
  • Cauliflower: Charming Snow
  • Cucumbers: Marketmore 76 and Cross Country (I'll also plant Burpee's Hybrid II and Sweeter Yet that I can usually find locally)
  • Eggplant: Pingtung Long
  • Lettuce: Red Sails, Red Salad Bowl, Amish Speckled, Green Deer Tongue, Butttercrunch, Blushed Butter Cos, and Mesclun Mix
  • Bright Lights Swiss Chard
  • Winterbor Kale
  • Herbs: Gigante d'Italia Parsley, Genovese Basil, Caribe Cilantro, Lemon Balm, and Lemongrass
  • Kilibri Kohlrabi
  • Cajun Jewel Okra
  • Onions: Expression, Yellow of Parma, and Evergreen Scallions
  • Shuko Pac Choi (a mini Pac Choi)
  • Peas: Green Arrow, Sugarsnap, Oregon Giant Snow, and SugarAnn
  • Peppers: Valencia (ripens to orange), New Ace, Carmen, King of the North, Lipstick, Sunray(ripens to yellow), and Dulce Jalapeno
  • Pumpkins: Wee Be Little
  • Radish: Easter Egg
  • Laurentian Rutabaga
  • Space Spinach
  • Table Queen Acorn Squash
  • Tomatoes: Rutgers, Pineapple, Amish Paste, Sun Gold Cherry, Sweet Olive Grape, and Gold Nugget Cherry
  • Watermelon: Sugar Baby, Little Baby Flower, and Sorbet Swirl
  • Zucchini: Raven and Sebring Yellow
I do have a few seeds that I had left from last year that will round out the garden:
  • Leeks: King Richard and Lincoln
  • Squash: Buttercup and Eastern Rise
  • Tomatoes: Brandywine (my all time favorite slicer!!!) and New Girl (the earliest best tomato here in cold MN)
I also have a perenniel herb garden that includes chives, oregano, chocolate mint, and spearmint. I'm hoping the marjoram and rosemary may survive the winter, but we'll see.

Uff Da! There will be a lot of planting going on over the next few months! We'll start the peppers, tomatoes, and onions sometime in February. Gradually quite a few other seeds will be started in 2" or mini blocks as spring starts to thaw this frozen tundra of the north. They'll gradually move from the cozy warm house and grow-lights to the cold frame and greenhouse, before making their final move to the garden soil.

Now for the wait--for the seeds to arrive and then the right time to plant!

Friday, January 23, 2009

That time of year again!

It's that time again! It is the dead of winter, yet the hopeful among us are sending our seed orders in so that when this arctic tundra thaws, we will be ready! We will have our tender little seedlings ready to set out. We will plant seeds out in freshly plowed dirt and eagerly await the arrival of the first green shoots! Now the dreams are firm in our minds of how wonderful our garden will be! I invite you to dream and plan with me. The garden is my second home during the months of May-October. And this year will be the best ever! (See, there is that ever-present winter optimism.) I'm planning on sharing my past garden experiences while keeping a current journal of how things are going this year.

I like to think of myself as an organic gardener. I do my best to control of the little nasties that make my garden a not-so-nice-place with natural means. This means a lot of good old getting down and dirty! I do have the assistance of a great tiller that I thoroughly enjoy using, which makes some of the gardening tasks SO much easier. There is nothing quite like watching an aisle of weeds succumbing to the turning tines of my blue BCS wonder! This year I also have the added joy of gardening again with my best friend. We will be sharing the wealth and work of both of our home gardens, and if I can talk her into it, the "putting up of the harvest." (Kris... hint hint!) We have gardened together in the past, and it was wonderful!

This thought of organic gardening brings me to a dilemma--where to get my seeds? I have made a personal commitment not to buy seeds from certain large agri-companies who persist in playing God with questionable practices in bio-technology. Thankfully, I have found quite a few seed companies that have committed to a safe seed pledge that I have come to depend upon. My favorite of these is Fedco Seeds. The majority of the seeds in the garden this year will come from Fedco. There are quite a few others that are worth mentioning also: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seeds of Change, and Seed Savers Exchange. And not only can one depend on safe seeds from these companies, their catalogs are feasts for the eyes.

Next post I will try to include the list of seeds that will hopefully be speeding their way in the mail to me soon! In the meantime I leave you with this quote:
By the time one is eighty, it is said, there is no longer a tug of war in the garden with the May flowers hauling like mad against the claims of the other months. All is at last in balance and all is serene. The gardener is usually dead, of course.
~Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, 1981