Overwintering Peppers and Tactical Nukes

16 12 2012

It’s been a while since I updated the blog, but strap yourselves in because this one’s a doozie.

Our story starts with my obsession with growing warm weather crops year round in a climate that freezes over the winter. That, and my frustration that my pepper plants didn’t really start producing this year until late September, early October. Can I keep the peppers going throughout the winter? Yes and no. Yes if I move a few garden zones closer to the equator. While we’re at it, get me a frosty beverage while I lay by the pool in my tropical paradise. I open the bottle… young models in bikinis carrying even more beer walk out of the pool as Van Halen music starts to play. This post is starting to sound like a beer commercial. Anyway, peppers will do fine during a hot, hot summer. Winter in my back yard, probably not.

I read some articles about hot peppers being perennials in hot climates and decided that at the very least, we’ll keep some hot pepper plants indoors and alive this winter. That will give us an early start in the spring/summer next year. There was no mention of overwintering sweet peppers though. Why not? It seems as though nobody tried. Is this information being suppressed? I smell a conspiracy…

([start dream sequence] Secret meeting of Thurston Burpee, Montgomery Parks, and Johnny Moneybags from their respective seed companies. While we’re at it, let’s include George Soros, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates at the meeting to make the conspiracy complete. [dreamus interruptus]

As an aside, are you angry at that big bad 1 percent? Do you have the average US household income? If so, you are the 1 percent. You have the top 1 percent of income in the world. Minimum wage? Top 13 percent of household income in the world. Don’t have the new iPhone? Neither do I. Your computer is soooo slowwwww that your Facebook status updates are taking 2 whole minutes? Half the planet is spending their day searching for food and drinkable water. You have First World problems? Here’s a straw, suck it up. Enough of my rant… I’m just grateful for what I have. Time to put the tin foil hat back on…

[return to dream sequence] They are in the back room smoking cigars, drinking scotch and wearing their top hats and monocles. — “Why yes, let’s make them grow new plants every year. Then we can sell them seeds every year. The idea is so evil, it’s brilliant! Bwahahahaha!”) [end dream sequence]

Peppers in the basement

Peppers in the basement

In an effort to discover the truth about keeping peppers over the winter, I dug up some sweet peppers and some hot peppers just before the frost hit in October, planted them in large pots, and moved them to the basement under grow lamps. By large pots, I mean I went with 10 inch terracotta pots. Try to keep the roots intact when you dig them up. Prune back a lot of the growth; you don’t want the plant expending extra energy to support excess branches and leaves. The plan is to get new ones to grow in the Spring. It’s a good idea to skip the garden soil, and go with some bagged potting mix. I went with some peat moss, some bagged compost, and since I was running low, some soil from the garden and the yard. More on this later.

The plants seemed to survive the shock of the move. Then all the leaves fell off. What’s the deal with that? Too much testosterone? Needing some plant Propecia? Doubtful. Imminent plant death? I sure hope not. Maybe the plants aren’t dead. Maybe they’re “just sleeping.” Actually, it’s not all doom and gloom. The stem remained green, and within a week I noticed some new green things on the plant. Could it be… leaves? Why yes, patience my boy. The plant was getting back to growing. All was well in the plant kingdom. Now that we’re gently lulled into a false sense of confidence, it’s time for the excrement to hit the air conditioning.

The hot peppers are taking their time growing new leaves but the sweet peppers are having a great time with their new sprouts and leaves. Another 2 weeks and what do I see? Even more green. The green is moving. That’s right, it’s moving. Leaves do not move of their own volition. What the <bleep> is going on here?!? These peppers are being invaded by a town of aphids. It’s like they’re having a party. Do I see a teeny tiny swimming pool? And do I hear Van Halen playing out of some teeny tiny speakers? Great, we’re in an aphid beer commercial. And here I was thinking this was pure, clean garden soil.

What does ivory snow and my soil have in common? More than you would expect.

What does ivory snow and my soil have in common? More than you would expect.

Off topic- Have you ever heard of Marilyn Chambers? She was the young lady on the cover of the Ivory Snow soap boxes in the early 1970s. Her bright smile and wholesome good looks were used to advertise the purity of the product– 99 and 44/100% pure. Unfortunately for Proctor and Gamble, she decided to become a porn star, making some of the filthiest films of the time. So that lawn and garden soil that I thought was so pure was more of a Marilyn Chambers kind of 99 and 44/100% pure.

There are two types of bugs that feed on garden plants. They are chewing bugs and sucking bugs. Aphids are sucking bugs, not only because it sucks so much having them on your plants. Aphids treat the plant like their own giant Slurpee, pushing their mouths into the leaf to suck out the juices. This weakens the plant, and if you’re really unlucky they’ll transmit fun plant diseases in the process. If little miss aphid had gotten around a little more, a trip to the clinic wouldn’t save the plants. They would be goners. In this case we were fortunate, and no disease appeared on the plants.

But how do you get rid of these pests indoors without killing yourself, the wife, the kids, and the neighbor’s dog? Here are a few options:

  1. Spray them off with a strong stream of water; they won’t be able to find their way back to the plant. Two problems with this approach. First, I am not going to spray a strong stream of water in my basement. Second, these plants are the only game in town. The bugs will find their way back
  2. Squash them; this will serve as a repellent. Two problems with this approach. First, I’m not going to get them all. Second, these plants are the only game in town. The bugs will stay. Not to say I didn’t try. The aphids hide in plant crevices. Hurt the aphids and you take out part of the plant.
  3. Insecticidal soap- What’s this? A product that’s safe for people, safe for pets, and will help control the little buggers. It will dry up and kill the invaders. Let’s give it a try…The insecticidal soap works like a charm. For a day. If that long. Unfortunately, the label states that it is only effective with direct contact. You miss one side of one leaf where they are hanging out, and they’ll be back in business quickly. I pull out the magnifying glass. Are they wearing shower caps? What does it look like when a bug is smiling, flipping you the bird? Time for another approach.
  4. Beneficial insects- Don’t get me wrong. I love the ladies. Ladybugs, that is. But I don’t love the idea of replacing one infestation for another.Aliensaphids
  5. I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…
    But it will vaporize the plants, the family, the house and the neighbor’s dog.
    Give me a few minutes while I put myself in a fetal position and suck my thumb in the corner.

  6. Neem oil- what is neem oil? It’s oil extracted from the neem tree. Obviously. It is used as an organic insecticide. I bought Garden Safe brand. I think their products are called Garden Safe because that is where they store all the Garden Money I have been paying them. At this point I am willing to try anything. Disclaimer. I did not buy the neem oil extract. Rather I bought an organic fungicide/insecticide that contains neem oil. May as well protect the plants against other damp basement threats while I’m at it.
    Anyway, time to start the treatment. Bombs away! I love the smell of neem oil in the morning. Wait a day, and what do I see? No aphids! Wait 3 weeks and what do I see? Plenty of aphids! Maybe next time I will finish reading the instructions. You need to follow up every 7 days for effective treatment. Let’s see what happens after treating every 5 days. I will let you know.

Garden on Rye, Hold the Mayo

29 10 2012

“Hay, hay, hay!!”

“Hay is for horses!”

“And for gardens…”

You may be wondering what the heck this guy is talking about. Well, since you asked, I decided to continue my gardening through the winter by growing some green manure. Green manure? What are you doing with that crap?

Well, technically green manure isn’t “crap”. It is a cover crop that establishes itself in the Fall , overwinters, and will continue to grow through the Spring if you let it. For my garden beds, I chose Winter Rye.

Winter rye getting a start in the garden

What are the advantages to a cover crop?

  • Helps prevent both wind and water erosion- especially if your garden lies on a hill, grow a cover crop to keep your soil from washing away or blowing away during the winter
  • Increases organic matter in the soil- when you till the cover crop into the soil in the Spring
  • Increases plant yield- shown by studies conducted on experimental farms
  • Helps control weeds- just like in a lawn, established plants reduce the likelihood of weed growth
  • Improves soil moisture- Plant coverings retain more moisture than bare soil
  • Homesteader/farmer bonus- Your cows, sheep, goats can graze on the plants

Growing winter rye

To start, I planted the rye in October. This being my first time planting my seed, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everything was so dirty- my boots, my gloves, the rake… Note I’m sowing winter rye, not sowing my wild oats, so we’ll keep the commentary from getting too out of hand.

Sprouts are starting to turn green.

Anyway, the first week of October gave the plants plenty of time to establish themselves. Apparently, the seed will germinate even with nighttime temperatures approaching freezing. Gently cover the seed and let it grow. I am looking forward to seeing green in the garden beds this winter. Note that you may need to mow down the plants before tilling into the soil. Did you plant in an area where you will not garden next year? Then let the crop grow. Winter rye can grow up to 4 feet tall depending on variety, and you can harvest the plants for animal food or for mulch.

I hope you have fun with cover crops this Winter. Enjoy.

Zucchini not knocked up yet? Let’s help them get busy…

1 07 2012

Oh, the joy of eating fresh zucchini! Grilled with olive oil, sauteed with onion and tomato, the bread, mock apple pie… The meals are endless. And with the plants being so prolific–

What’s that? No harvest yet? But the plants are so huge! The leaves are so beautiful and the plants are quite healthy. The veggies start to form and it all seems so promising. Then the unexpected happens; the squash starts to shrink and wither away. Someone’s got a problem. Mr zucchini appears <unable to perform>. Looks like somebody needs a little blue pill.

Er, not exactly. Let’s blame the absence of our little bee friends. The crazy summer weather has many of them just trying not to get cooked alive. They haven’t always been making it over to the squash patch to spread a little loving, and pollen, around. What to do? What to do?

First, let’s go back to the bees part of the birds and bees talk that some of you got in high school / middle school / elementary, depending on when and where you were born. I promise you that this is something you did not hear in health class. Zucchini is interesting in that there are not boy parts and girls parts in its flower. No, there are actually boy flowers and girl flowers. And we need to be the wing man for those boy flowers so they can get lucky and drop off some pollen in those girl flowers.

Female flower

Female flower on a miniature squash

Let’s set the mood for some pollination magic. Let’s start with the lighting; natural works in this case. Put on the mood music. Listen to some Barry White? Nine Inch Nails? Frank Sinatra? Take your pick. After all, you are a major player in this show. How about you slip into something more comfortable? My personal choice is shorts, tee shirt, and garden sandals. Maybe a little wine for the gardener? Keep it real and have a beer? No thanks. Better to stick with coffee. One thing I failed to mention is that the flowers are only open between 6 and 9 in the morning. The only other supplies you need are a Q-tip or a small artist’s paintbrush.

Male flower

Male zucchini flower on a thin stem

Hand pollination is quite simple, really. Use the Q-tip or brush to gather pollen from the middle of the male flower and lightly brush the middle of the female flower to deposit the pollen. OK, I will save you the embarrassment and tell you the difference between the male and female flowers. The male are simply attached to a stem. The female appear to be attached to a miniature zucchini squash. Spread a little pollination around and you will be harvesting fresh zucchini in no time.

My, what lovely flowers… Let’s eat them (but not the poisonous ones)

22 05 2012

Many people are surprised to learn that there are edible flowers in the garden. I’m not talking about the obvious ones like broccoli, or cauliflower, or even artichokes. I mean honest to goodness blossoms that you can munch on.

Sugar snap pea flowers are delicious

First a disclaimer: While some flowers are an impressive addition to your diet, some are not good for you. Some are bad. Some are very bad. Others will kill you. That beautiful patch of foxglove in the corner of the yard will give you heart palpitations and make you a corpse. Don’t eat poison. Some edible flowers can cause a reaction for those sensitive to the allergen. I don’t want to hear any complaints as you stand there covered in hives with a throat swollen shut because you ate poison. I doubt that I will hear you over the wheezing anyway. Don’t do anything stupid. As with any other food, make sure you know what you’re eating and the associated risks. End of disclaimer.

The list of large culinary blooms includes the squash blossom. I have seen them battered and fried on the Food Channel. They are said to have a sweet squash flavor. However, I want to make sure that I get a decent harvest of squash before taking the flowers away for a snack.

Flowers from arugula add a unique look and flavor to salads

Another large bloom is the day lily. Their large size will add some drama to the dinner plate. Just three notes of caution:

  1. I have not tried these myself yet.
  2. Other lilies that are not day lilies are poisonous. Do not eat poison.
  3. Use sparingly, if at all. They are said to clean out the system pretty well.

Some blossoms from my garden are radish blossoms, arugula blooms and pea blossoms. The arugula petals adds a little bit of spice, and the pea flowers have a mild pea flavor. I had some this weekend and they were delicious. As a bonus, many parts of a pea plant are edible. Just one note of caution:

  1. Garden peas are delicious. Ornamental peas are poisonous. Noticing a trend? Similar plants can have very different results. Think of this analogy: Ethanol is a great ingredient in a Martini, but Methanol will make you blind

Sage flowers are surprisingly mild

Flowers from my herb garden include sage, nasturtium, and chives. Sage and chive blooms taste like mild versions of the herbs. I was surprised at how mild the sage was that I tried. Nasturtiums have a peppery flavor.

Edible flowers from the flower bed include roses and pansies. Did you know that roses are related to apples? I did. Did you know that pansies are related to peanuts? Are you surprised by that one? You should be; I made that one up. At least we know you’re paying attention.

Now that you know some edible options, I will provide some final tips.

  1. Know what you are eating. An Easter lily is NOT a day lily. Do not eat poison.
  2. Allergies do not go away just because a food looks interesting. Be cautious with additions to your diet.
  3. Grow your own plants if you want to eat the blossoms. Who knows what pesticides and other nasties were used at the nursery to make the flowers look good. Ladies, don’t put it in your mouth if you don’t know where it’s been.
  4. Know what parts of a plant are edible and what parts are not. Most parts of a snap pea plant are edible. Most parts of a tomato, pepper, or potato plant are, you guessed it, poison.

Enjoy the new appearance and flavors of your salads and entrees with these interesting additions.

Invasive Landscaping

15 05 2012

I like making gardening easy. That includes plants that are simple to grow. But some plants are a little too easy.

For example, I am growing three kinds of mint in my yard. I never planted any, but they sure keep growing. They crept under the fence from neighbors yards. They must be looking for rum. Pitcher of mojitos, anybody? Maybe not. The mojito was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink, and we all know how things turned out for him. <gasp>

Mint invasion from the neighbors

What’s the story, Morning Glory? What’s with the nasty root system and vines that choke out other plants? I never planted them but they managed to trash more than one garden bed.

I had challenges with varieties that I put in the ground, too. Oregano is great in Greek dishes. Vegetation killer is great for removing the Oregano that established itself in the middle of the turf in the back yard. That was one of the few times I was willing to use poison on the lawn. And I’d do it again in a similar situation.

Knowing the risks of invasive plants, it is important to plan ahead and prevent disaster. Here are a few tips to keep your plants, and yourself, happy.

Plant it in a pot (Then plant the pot in the ground)

The pot will keep the plant in check, and the clean border will make the garden look neater.

Oregano in a planted pot

Use plant fabric or garden barrier

Just make sure the barrier is deep and strong enough, or it may not work.


A 2×4 board will not stop raspberries from spreading

Pick the flowers, watch out for seeds

Chives can spread far and wide when they go to seed. So can mint. Bonus tip: Let some parsley and cilantro go completely to seed, and it will self-sow for the next season

Mow it down

Patches of Raspberries, Lilly of the Valley, Day Lilies can be kept in check with mowing around the edges on a regular schedule.

Some of these invaders can be a great addition to the garden. Just don’t let them conquer your yard.

Artichokes in the Fridge – Vernalization 101

22 04 2012

I love artichokes. I enjoy them marinated, in dip, in pasta, cooked or fresh, straight out of the can. They are a tasty treat. Wouldn’t it be a bigger treat if I grew them in my own back yard?


There was one minor problem with this plan; artichokes do not natively grow in the South Central PA climate where I live. I was sure that with a little research I could figure something out.


Did you know that the artichoke that people eat is part of the bud from a large thistle plant? How did they figure out that was edible? And what happened to the unfortunate souls that tried the other parts of the plant? If the scales and thorns were a problem on the way down, what about the following day? Ouch! However, I digress.


These plants take up a lot of space – 4 to 5 feet tall, and just as large around. Fortunately, there is an unoccupied corner of the yard that will accommodate the thorny monster. When do I plant these for harvest in my area? The seed packet said 180 days –or- 360 days. I started them in January to hedge my bets. Why did the packet list two different maturity times?


I dug further, so to speak, and discovered that in most cases the plants just won’t produce the first year. It is not until year number two that those globes of goodness will line my plate. That is just not an acceptable option. Why did the packet list 180 days? Apparently, you can fake out the seedling into thinking it survived its first winter. In turn, it will produce a harvest at the end of the first growing season. This neat trick is called vernalization. The plant needs a week or two of temperatures below 50 degrees for the strategy to work.


Challenges, challenges, I sure love challenges. Mother Nature greeted my first attempt at chilling the plants with a week of outdoor temps in the 60s and 70s. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, Dave gets inventive. Artichoke plants, say hello to the Beer Fridge, um, the Beverage Fridge in the garage. I made a little room on the shelf and the plants were good to go. They got very chilly, and looked sad, but they survived.

Happy artichoke seedling

This is a picture under the basement grow lamp, before the plant made its journey to the refrigerator


Only time (approximately 180 days) will tell if the effort was successful. I will keep you updated.

Feeling like Elmer Fudd – PVC to the rescue

26 03 2012

I was walking through the yard the other week, admiring the plants in our winter yard, when I noticed something unusual with my blueberry bushes. Did somebody prune them?  I saw all buds below 1 foot were cut off! Then I remembered the rabbit… The fat, nasty rodent was smirking at me that very morning. Have you ever wanted to kill over a bowl or two of tasty berries? I sure did.

Well, I could have gone the Wild West / Loony Tunes route and brought out the shotgun. But I am out of ammo– and the neighbors in the closely spaced lots won’t appreciate gunfire in their back yards.

What to do? What to do? Well, until I find a way to “send bunny on a trip”, I had to stop the damage. My half-assed bird netting from last year needed an upgrade. I got a great roll of new netting, but I needed a frame to put the netting on. Let’s go with cheap. How about using PVC? Yes, that works, but it’s butt-ugly. White plastic ducts look fine in a lab, not so much in a back yard.

But how do you make PVC not look like PVC? Apparently in most cases you don’t. It’s made to look like crap, so deal with it. At least that was the early information I had. But I have a top notch research team, and they suggested making it look like wood.

(Actually not wood, more like what wood looks like in PVC Land.)  I thought what could it hurt to try?

PVC- dark wood stain

pvc heavily sanded and soaked in stain almost looks like wood

I found one link with the suggestion to use wood stain to color the pipe. Brilliant! The only drawback is the hours of sanding required if you do not have a power sander. Dave does not have a power sander. I had nothing else to do on a particular Saturday, so I had at the PVC with 60-grit coarse sandpaper. I followed up with a light coat of stain on one set of pipes. I came close to dunking the other sets in the stain. Results are in the pictures left and below. I can say that it does look like wood from a distance, and it doesn’t look too bad up close. A few zip ties and the netting was looking sharp.

PVC- normal staining process

PVC doesn't soak up the stain. It looks much lighter if you try to stain it like it is wood

There are other ways to decorate PVC for a garden-friendly appearance. Many techniques require the use of primer, which surprisingly is located near the PVC aisle at your local big box home improvement store. One coating of this and you should be ready to paint with your favorite earth tones (or your favorite lawn elf colors, if you’re into that thing). Alternatively, some people have had luck with the spray paint for plastic I will let you know what happens when I try them. And I will let you know whether I can take Mr Rabbit on a long trip…