Monday, November 19, 2007

Hot To Trot

We grew a lot of hot pepper plants last year, a lot more than we needed. All told, we raised no less than 12 thai dragon, 8 cascabel, 7 manzano, 6 habanero, 5 hot lemon, plus another five or six that were given away. A friend also donated two jalapeno, cayenne, and kung pao plants each, making a grand total of WAY TOO MANY. We repeated this miscalculation with our tomato crop as well [Kate sez: There's no such thing as too many tomatoes!], but that's another story. Personally, I'm a big fan of hot peppers (obviously) and it's largely my fault that we ended up with such an obscene number of hot pepper plants. Kate has a normal appetite for capsaicin and would have been content with three or four plants. Thus, the burden fell to me to devour, or disseminate as much of the hot pepper harvest as humanly possible. Despite my best efforts to consume, consign, and dehydrate the surplus, the task proved to be too overwhelming and a good number of extra peppers went to the ignominious compost heap to nurture next year's plants.

I've learned an important lesson about planning for next year's garden. This new insight applies to all of the plants I plan to grow, but I'll use the hot pepper debacle as a case study. I don't plan on devoting more than three plants at most to any particular variety for next year's chili pepper run. My focus will be on variety rather than quantity. I also plan to account for each species' particular productivity. For example, the thai dragon plants were very productive, yielding upwards of 50 fruits per plant. The manzanos, on the other hand, formed only a handful of never-ripening peppers per plant. It's not that productivity should be the main consideration when deciding what to plant, it just dictates whether to plant two or five of a given species.

Another refinement I plan to make is concentrating on growing pepper varieties that I actually like. This sounds like a no-brainer, but I often overlook the familiar crowd-pleaser in my quest for the exotic. My favorite peppers from last year are the thai dragon and hot lemon by a long shot. In fact, these two are the only types I'll be replanting from last year. As much as I love trying new types (I'll be taking a stab at some purple coffee peppers from Trinidad), I have to make sure I cover my bases. This being said, I also like to avoid growing chilies I can easily obtain at a local market. No doubt my final selections for next year's crop will remain nebulous until the seed catalogs arrive in February.

I also plan to do a more heartless and thorough cull of the weak seedlings in favor of a few "alpha" plants rather than a mediocre horde of underperformers. Seedling decapitation may seem heartless and frivolous, but there is no point trying to nurture a slew of anemic stragglers only to receive poor production come harvest. If I'm going to raise fewer plants next year, I want to ensure that the ones that make it are the toughest ones in the bunch, the overachievers. Part of my trouble this last year was trying to maintain every plant that sprouted, a sort of "herbanthropy." Not only do the weaklings struggle to thrive, they take up space and fight for the same limited light and water as the stronger ones. Alas, there will be no further botanical coddling. Next year will find the birth of Darwin's gardener.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

First Things First

We’ve dabbled in gardening for several years, but in 2007 we got serious. For years we’ve been obsessed with fresh, organic food, and also with DIY. Armed with lots of enthusiasm and not much else, we got our first lesson from our next-door neighbors who have a beautifully organized, terraced garden comprised of raised boxes with paths in between. Poles and wires are looped around the perimeter for bean plants, and they get a great harvest of tomatoes, basil, squash, and eggplants every year. They told us the raised beds protect the plants from some diseases and pests, and are also easier to tend and weed than a typical flat garden with rows.

We set aside 160 square feet the northeast corner of our small backyard. Mark went to work building five 4’x8’ wooden boxes. We got ambitious and also made four 4’x4’ boxes to go on a strip of grass along our driveway. Our plan was to put vegetables in the back plot and herbs along the driveway. We bought seeds for Purple Rain eggplants, heirloom chocolate peppers, purple dragon carrots, rose beans, and sweet peas. We hedged our bets with two kinds of seeds and two varieties of seedlings for tomatoes—Purple Cherokee heirloom, Black Pearl, Super Tasty hybrid, and Early Girl.

Lucky for us, the renowned Well-Sweep Herb Farm is just 30 minutes away from us, so we visit several times every year to stock up on herb plants and have at least one long talk with Cyrus, who knows more about plants than anyone we’ve ever met. We always learn something useful from him, like how to care for a finicky fig tree or that a good Indonesian restaurant just opened up in Hackettstown.

It went without saying that this garden would be an organic effort, especially with a new baby. We had already started making an effort to eat more local and natural produce. Who wants to eat a perfect, unblemished tomato if it's full of fertilizers and pesticides? Not us. Growing our own food is a way for us to get that top-dollar organic eggplant at a low cost. Going organic turned out to be easier than we expected. We're still not sure if it was luck or if a lot of those chemical interventions are less important than they're advertised to be.

From March till May every horizontal surface in our house was covered with trays of seedlings. We rotated them under a fluorescent lamp and in natural light by the windows, careful not to overwater like we did last year. Our success was so great that almost every seedling survived, and we didn't have the heart to do a cull, so we ended up with a lot more plants than expected. We ended up with dozens of pots on our two-level deck--peppers, tomatoes, lavender, basil, and these awesome black violets Kate couldn't resist buying.

We ended up with a good harvest, too. More tomatoes than we could handle, and hot peppers galore. Mark dried tray after tray of Thai chilies, and there are still bowls of habaneros and hot lemon peppers languishing on the kitchen counter. The eggplants got started a little late, so the bulk of them were ripening just before our first frost in early November. Sadly, the purple carrots didn't get very large or sweet because we planted too many of them too close together. The best part about 2007 is that we learned so much that we're rarin' to get started with 2008.