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.

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