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!

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