Love in a Cold Climate

sprouting tomato seeds

sprouting tomato seeds

Shivering Seeds

Recently a fellow gardener mentioned to me the trials of sprouting seeds in a house where temperatures dip into the 50’s. Dip? Ha! In our house, we heat with wood, and the stove is at one end of the house, where the chimney was built. My fingers are barely able to feel the keyboard as I write. Modern houses tend to be built with the assumption that you can warm yourself by turning up the thermostat. I could, but I refuse, both out of parsimony and stubbornness.  If I had the house to build over, and I had a say, I would build a big old European style tiled wood stove, with an oven. Anyway, we are blessed to have the wood stove we have, and deadwood on the farm, and chainsaws, and fuel to run them, and arms to split wood.

Insulated Micro-Environments

My favorite insulated micro-environment is our bed. Not practical for the seeds. So. Where, in a cold and/or energy efficient house do you find a place which will give your seeds any kind of bottom heat that is consistent? Pepper seeds like it 80-90 Fahrenheit, tomatoes and eggplants slightly less. I used to set mine on top of the water heater, but since we turned it down and insulated it, that’s a no go. Setting it near the wood stove is dangerous- the pots have been known to pucker with the heat. My latest insulated micro-environment is an old yoghurt maker. It is one of those long ones with holes for the glass cups and a top. If mine were the proper heat, putting seed pots in the holes would be too hot. As it is very old and debilitated, the heat is very gentle and it would be fine if I had my seeds in old yoghurt containers. I think it is about 85, which is especially fine for peppers. Since my seeds are in bigger square pots that don’t fit in there, I fit 4 of them in a plastic salad container (people save them for me), wrap it in an inside out (cleaner) used plastic grocery bag, and balance it on top of the yoghurt maker. I can fit two boxes on it, on a shelf where nobody bothers it, wedged between pipes, because it would be a disaster for them to tumble off, and then cover that with towels to keep in the heat. This way I can give good heat to 8 varieties at a time. This might be fine for some, but I grow a freakishly large number of varieties.

Rot and Death

For the rest of my pots, it has been touch and go. I would hastily move them to the dryer, which gets warm on top, when weather was too nasty to use the clothesline or I was drying black clothes. I would put them in a black plastic bag in a sunny window. I would stack shelves all around the yoghurt maker in hopes of gleaning some heat. What happens to me is of course that I get mold, slow germination, and with older seeds, rot and death! I have a few tricks that help. I sprinkle cinnamon on any white fuzz that comes up- it is a fungicide, I open up any that seem soggy to let them dry out a tiny bit, I check overdue seeds  by squishing one between my fingers- then at least if it’s rotten I know to reseed, and I rotate boxes of sprouting seeds between the warmest spots. Once they have sprouted at all, I put them in a window so they can get the chlorophyll working. They need about 10 degrees bottom heat warmer for sprouting than they need to grow, and a 10-20 F temperature drop at night is fine. (By the way, all these hyperlinks are to other articles I have written on the highlighted subjects.)

Thank God for Goodwill

The absolute best germination mat I ever used was the kind of heating mat taxi drivers use to sit on. I had it on the lowest setting and it worked like a charm, except that it used to give me a shock now and then. My husband found it in the Goodwill for ten bucks. It died after a bit and we haven’t found another one.

So, why don’t we spring for one of those nifty new germination mats they sell in fancy gardening catalogs? They cost seventy bucks, which would not kill us, but I think it is something about the naffyness of them. It’s sort of like the reason I gather my own basket weaving supplies instead of buying them at a craft shop. People didn’t use to have them. People used to grow out their tobacco seedlings in flats hundreds of years ago. How did they do it? I think we need to invent something better and tidier than what I do, but I haven’t figured out what yet.

Peppers Hot and Sweet: Growing food and medicine from Chile Agua to Bhut Jolokia

Jimmy Nardello pepper plant

Jimmy Nardello is a sweet Italian pepper that is pretty and prolific.

Of all the Solanaceae, Capsicums (the pepper family) are are neck in neck with Tomatoes for my affection.There are SO many peppers! Peppers of every flavor, every color,every shape and size, they are pretty plants, and they are generally really easy to grow, given a bit of warmth and sunshine, even in containers. They produce generously, and they are both delicious and very medicinal. You couldn’t ask for a better plant friend.


The heat of capsicums doesn’t register on a thermometer, but it isn’t just a flavor either. The “heat” comes from a rubefacient (reddening) effect on the tissues. It causes your capillary veins to open, pulling extra blood through the affected area, because your surface nerves think you are in contact with something chemically hot that needs to be repaired, although it isn’t actually damaging you.The combination of heat sensation and flavor creates synergy that is addictive to so-called chiliheads! But peppers are a medicinal herb as well: Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chile heat, doesn’t  just affect your tongue and other mucus membranes(do NOT touch your eye!), but your external skin as well. This can be great for sore muscles, -and literally a life saver.

Medicinal Use: For Aches and Pains, wear it:

Even if you don’t eat hot peppers, you should grow them to make liniments and creams for sore muscles and stiff joints. If you can tolerate eating a little, it’s good for your heart! Some people even carry hot sauce or cayenne tincture with them in case of a heart attack. (I’m not a doctor; just a gardener who reads).

Make your own pain relief:  

For sore muscles, you can tincture peppers in alcohol to make a liniment rub, or make an oil infusion as a heating massage oil.

To tincture in alcohol, fill a glass jar with dried cayenne peppers and top with cheap vodka or other 80 proof alcohol. In a few days you will find that the alcohol has turned orange and is very spicy. Rub it on stiff muscles and painful joints, a lot of it. The drawback is that alcohol feels cold, but it does penetrate better than oil. For a post on tincturing and othe nice things like making liqueurs, click here.

To make an oil infusion, do the same thing but with oil. I have used fresh peppers as well as pepper flakes for this. It needs to stay warm for a week to ten days, which, since it doesn’t matter if it is affected by the sun, can be done in the back window of a parked car, or sitting on a radiator. You can then draw it off the top and leave the rest to get stronger if you like, or filter it. I use olive oil, but other oils, like jojoba, penetrate better, so that is my next trick. Rub it on achy muscles and cover.

Here’s what I do for back spasms, etc.: My DH hurts his back now and again, so I set up my massage table in front of the woodstove and lay out my materials. I actually combine some peppermint infused oil as well for good measure. Alcohol tinctures are great, but only if applied warm. I prepare some wet towels folded into squares, and heat them in the evil microwave (which I use for nothing else!). I have some warm quilts ready. I lay him out face down, covered with quilts except for the area I’m working on, and start rubbing spicy oils into his back, applying the oil gently all over the back and then massaging slowly from the least sore areas towards the worst. Of course my hands will get very hot, but I really hate working with gloves. If I ever get arthritis, I’ll benefit from these sessions even more. When it’s time to take a break, I put a thin cloth on the sore area, put the hot wet towel in a big ziploc bag, lay it on top, and cover with the quilts. He may well sleep by then.  I replace the hot packs as they cool and let him rest. He feels the heat on his back for hours, even after he’s up and moving around. Capsaicin is a great painkiller!

Cardiac claims: Alternative healers say that warming herbs like ginger root and hot peppers warm the body, energize the heart, and thin the secretions. I certainly find a spicy soup can fend off a cold. Hot peppers can make your nose run, which can unblock it, and help you to feel better. Spicy food gets your digestion going as well, so you may feel a lot lighter afterwards…. But to decide if you think it is good for your heart is up to you. My husband says it makes him feel better, but he is a person who shuns pharmaceuticals in general.  It is certainly part of many herbal heart remedies, and it is good for you in many ways, although a very few people are allergic. What it apparently, allegedly, (note me being careful) does for the heart is open up the capillaries, thereby helping circulation to the extremities and taking the load off the heart. Therefor some people carry cayenne tincture with them to guzzle in the event of a heart attack. My husband says should he ever keel over he wants me to dump it down his throat and into his eyes. Yee-ikes!

the only thing we didn't harvest was the quinoaCulinary Use: Eat the Heat- and the Sweet

We gauge pepper heat in terms of Scoville Units.  From Bell peppers to the deadly hot Bhut Jolokia , also known as the Naga Bhut Jolokia, there are about a million Scovilles. It’s sort of silly- Jalapenos are  about 3000, Red Caribbean Habaneros are 300,000. Please. How do they get these numbers? Somebody explain this to me. But people who love hot peppers,- I call them chiliheads, are nerdy masochists. We delight in creating evil concoctions to drip onto our food, and try to one-up each other with the latest white-hot bullet from the wilds of Borneo, brought back by an expedition of which half the explorers were eaten by cannibals. Names of chili sauces read like death metal album covers: Lethal Ingestion, Trinidad Scorpion Ghost…but as I get older, not only do I get a stomach ache from overindulging in seriously hot peppers, but I’m sort of over the heat competition, and more into interesting flavors- like the bouguet of apricot and caramel you taste when biting into a habanero in the nanoseconds before the pain hits.

Sweet No Heat:

Perhaps I was a bit giddy, saying they come in every flavor. Peppers come sweet to hot, with lots of overtones and undertones, like wine. I didn’t mean to claim they come in mint or banana, -although there are both sweet and hot banana peppers; long, yellow, and ripening in generous bunches. In Spanish, the bell pepper that most Anglos think of as safe and friendly is known as Chile Agua. Water chile. Fleshy and full of water, and at least the green ones, compared to other peppers, taste like…water. Friends, there is more to peppers than water. But common sweet peppers include the Bells, the sweet bananas, the grilling peppers like cubanelles, although not all grilling peppers are absolutely sweet, the sweet cherry peppers, which are wonderful stuffed with cheese, and some sweet pickling peppers. There are lots of sweet peppers with rich, sweet, fruity flavors.

What Wimps can Grow: Packet descriptions are clear about heat. If you are one of those wimps who just can’t associate food pleasure with mouth pain, there are still plenty of choices. I grow California Wonder for my parents, and last year I tried a Burpee mix called Carnival Bells, which included purplish black bells that cooked up green but were pretty in a salad, green bells that ripened yellow, although there were supposed to be oranges and reds as well, and a compact plant that produced ivory mini-bells that ripened pale apricot. The sweet grilling peppers are about 6-8 inches long and usually 1/2-2 inches thick. I I love Jimmy Nardello, a gorgeous Italian sweet frying pepper that ripens rapidly and dramatically. The graceful waxy green fruits, 1/2 inch thick by 8 inches long, seem to catch on fire, the deep crimson streaks flickering up the sides before the whole fruit turns lipstick red. It is very pretty and delicious. I did get a few with a touch of heat though, and I am growing them with extra care this year not to confuse any because it distinctly says Jimmy Nardello is sweet. There are peppers that play pepper roulette, but I think the error may have been mine. Usually little peppers are viciously hot, but I have a pepper from the Amazon that looks like a red Habanero but is quite fruity-sweet except at the very center. It may be a rocotillo type, as it take forever to mature. A lot of South American peppers are low heat.

Medium Heat: But live a little. Get some medium hots. Jalapenos are being bred now to milder and milder heats- even a no heat (what a yawn). And pickling peppers brings the heat down- something about the vinegar. That’s for a  summer post, but it is very easy to make semi-spicy pepper relish. But who can resist a good jalapeno popper?

A big medium Hatch pepper has just enough heat to make a thoroughly delicious relleno (pepper stuffed with potatoes and cheese. Hatch is an Anaheim type from Hatch County, New Mexico, so you can’t legally call what I grow in Maryland a Hatch pepper, but they are delicious.  In Ft.Worth when I visited my sisters in law, they were selling huge bags of hot, medium or mild fresh Hatch peppers at the Whole Foods, and outside they had a man roasting them in a big revolving cage like a lotto machine. Hot peppers are a part of Texan culture! Love it. Big Jim is a popular Hatch type you can grow.

Last year I went to Roswell, New Mexico, where the UFO museum is. I hit the hardware store and this year I will be trying Sandia, Santa Fe Improved, and Lumbre, which did not germinate well. I may give it another try as the man said they were a favorite. I am also growing Chimayo, billed as a landrace pepper, which means people just grew them and saved the seed of what grew well, not worrying too much about isolation. Check back with me in the fall of 2014 for results on those.

Ancho,which means wide in Spanish, are the big dark green triangular peppers you see in the store. They make awesome chiles rellenos! They vary in heat and size, but usually the ones in the store are milder and larger than what I grow. I love their smoky flavor, made smokier when I blister them on the stove and rub off the skins (will elaborate in another post this summer). Once semi-softened by this procedure, I can make a hole in them to rinse out the seeds, stick in some cheese and potato, dip them in egg, and fry them. So delicious. Live a little.

 Real Heat:

OK, now we get to the heart of chile love. There are reasonable chiles with reasonable heat, like a normal Jalapeno, cayenne, chile negro, chile japones, chile pasilla. By the way, I thought chipotles were smoked, red-ripened jalapenos, but Phillipe Reyes, a friend from Mexico, who grows a lot of chiles in Bristol, VA says they are not; and that they are a specialized pepper (more on this later). They are too fleshy to dry without smoking them. Chile guajillo is kind of medium, with a lot of caramelized flavor and a dark, smooth, shiny appearance when ripened and dried. Then there are chiles that hurt, like chiltepins that grow on wild perennial plants in the Southwest, chile pequins, chile arbol (not too bad). Then there are the rock ‘n roll legends: The habaneros, african bird peppers,  7 Pot (one peppers heats 7 pots of food), Bhut Jolokia the Ghost Pepper, also known as teh Naga (Bhut means ghost, Naga means deadly snake) and most recently, the Trinidad Scorpion. The Indian government is using Bhut Jolokia to make a non-lethal bomb to flush out terrorists. They also put it on food. The theory is that you break a sweat and feel cooler. Hm.

Growing the Legends:

Most of these you need to start early, and you are best off overwintering them indoors and growing them as perennials. (Phillipe Reyes suggests putting a chunk of Tilapia fish under the plant in a pot to give it the extra nutrition it will need to tolerate groing in a container. He reports people keeping chile de arbol in pots for 25 years.) We travel a lot, so I am always on the lookout for new varieties to try. When we were in the Peruvian jungle I got a few in Pucallpa, and one in upriver Yarinacocha, that I treasure, like the Mirasol Amarillo de Pucallpa, which is  neither yellow nor upward pointing, but makes sublime, perfumey, white hot ceviche. But the Aji Rojo, which just means hot red pepper, that I got from my friend Rosaura’s garden behind La Perla, a jungle B&B in Ucayali, takes forever. I start it in January and I’m lucky to get fruit by November. So now I grow some in pots. They are tiny C.Frutescens, I believe, a brilliant red pepper the size of a wren’s beak, which is dried and powdered, added to food while cooking, or crushed with salt and vinegar into a very hot, slightly citrussy paste which is spread on small flat river fish. You see the attraction?

Easy to grow hots:

Bili mirc pepper seedlings just coming up

Bili mirc pepper seedlings just coming up

Some of the peppers I met in India, such as the lal mirc, the bili mirc, and a long curving skinny pepper from Rajasthan called Ganesh, are entirely convenient and easy to grow.  One pepper I got from Assam, which is small, wrinkly,citrussy and pretty lethal, about an inch long, was presented to me as Bhut Jolokia. I think the dear man was trying to be nice. Bhut Jolokia is bigger than that, and an Indian friend told me he ate one and cried for his mother. (India is a wonderful, incredible, enormous place where everything may definitely certainly be possible, but 95% is illusion. That is also worthy of another post.) Most of the peppers I found in India are cayenne types that dry well and make excellent spices and condiments. This means you can just use a bit, if you aren’t gung ho, for a gentle warmth and to experience the subflavors. These peppers are also great for external applications to sore muscles and arthritis, and make nice gifts dried on a string.dried peppers hanging

A Trick for the Cheapsters:

Yes, we want to support our seedsmen, but here’s a secret for the flat broke or just curious you may not have thought of. When you come across dried peppers, the only reason they wouldn’t sprout just as easily as seeds in a package is if they weren’t ripe when they were dried, or if they were heated by more than the sun. I am presently trying to see if there are any survivors in some extra nice chipotles I bought at Krogers. (seeded, soaked, chopped, fried with onions, garlic and olive oil they were DIVINE on eggs) Probably not but I’m just curious how much heat destroys viability. I have also started seedlings from fresh ripe peppers. If the fruit is ripe, you’re good. Of course you may not know the variety name, but you know what you ate, so even if it was a hybrid and you get sketchy parent strains, in a pinch, you can at least get free pepper plants.

How to Start Pepper Plants

little pepper seedlings

Little pepper sprouts waving their pale leaves at the sun

Just go back to my post on how to sprout tomatoes. The same procedure works just fine for all solanaceae- that includes eggplants as well. This post will give you illustrated steps for how to start seeds using organic potting  soil and recycled pots. Plastic plant pots account for a distressing amount of landfill garbage, and they are made from oil as well, so get other people to save them for you and clean and reuse. Sometimes if you have a good relationship with your recycling center they will even save them for you there. Our  Midshore Regional Recycling Center actually called me!

Last Word

You can count on lots more pepper articles here. Recipes, condiments, varieties, yum yum. I actually have been thinking about starting a tour club for chili heads. We know so many great places where chiles grow. Wouldn’t it be fun to ride elephants through a tea plantation in Assam and then go to the pepper gardens? Let me know. We can do it. On this nasty February night, however, it’s enough for me to open up some glowing red powdered peppers from my summer garden and shake them into in my venison chili. Here is the recipe for the chili. Piquante! Hallelujah!

ps If you like that try my venison curry which has met approval from serious people- it is bahut garam and is a good easy introduction to making really authentic tasting Indian food.

Seed catalogs and watermelon dreams

Ok, the holiday season is DONE! But wait, I get a quick gripe in before we get down to business.

Winter is for reflection, for going deep. The surface is dead, and we move slowly, thinking of the roots of things. The Miles River is crystal clear; crabs are sleeping under the mud. Winter is for sorting and repairing; preparing for the rush of spring. Stack the washed planting pots according to size, throw out broken ones, tighten handles, sharpen blades. Prune now, reflecting on the perfect shape of the tree, the rose, the grape. Think about your life and your people. Think about your God.

Blam! No, you have to think about reassuring everyone that they are on your holiday list. Making presents, buying things, wrapping, mailing, giving parties, going to parties. Who has time to go deep?

Look, my tradition is Christmas, which is a pagan holiday dressed in Christian clothing to entice the heathen. My ancestors burned a yule log in the cold winter dark in faith that the sun would finally return. They decked the halls with evergreens to remind themselves that spring would eventually come, for some of them. It had nothing to do with Christ. Matter of fact, it can actually become Antichristmas, with the hideous commercialism today.

Well, things are what you make of them- the Devil can quote scripture to his purpose, and we can create moments of love and reverence in our families, even on a pagan feast day. But keep Christ close.

OK, I feel better. So now, whether you are buying seeds or not, is a great time to relax with a seed catalog. Everybody who ever bought a seed gets Gurney’s, Burpee’s, Henry Fields’, Park’s, etc. Then perhaps also White Flower Farm, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange,  Southern Exposure, etc. It blurs. Oh, I have my favorites- the wonderful Baker Creek Seeds, my pen pal Richo Cech’s Horizon Herb Farm. His daughters illustrate the catalog with line drawings and cartoons, and he peppers it with anecdotes and medicinal information. Great read.

But I feel bad about all the catalogs that get printed for me, to the extent that I sometimes take the time to ask them to stop sending catalogs I never buy from. And I buy less and less, as I save more and more. The internet is a smorgasbord of delightful, clickable seed catalogs. Tomato Grower’s Supply stocks a fantastic array of tomato and pepper seeds. Why even read a paper catalog? Save a tree! But it is delicious, lying comfortably on a sofa by the wood stove  imagining the idealized version of my garden, the delicious fruits and vegetables, the happy eaters all around. Go ahead, savor it. Fall asleep with  a seed catalog on your chest.

Well, ok now. Unfortunately most of those nice little catalogs have been bought up by one big evil company. Yup, Monsanto. I smell brimstone, as Chavez would say….( If you want some comprehensive information about Monsanto and its quest to own all the seeds, Organic Seed Alliance is a good place to start, thanks to my noble colleague John Navazio, breeder of the famous Purple Dragon carrot.) Seed catalogs are educational though. After a while you will recognize the old varieties, like Detroit Red beets, Silver Queen corn, Danvers Half-long carrots, Cherry Belle radishes, Wando peas, Roma tomatoes; open-pollinated varieties that haven’t been genetically modified, hybridized, etc. These can be bought cheaply everywhere and if you like them in most cases you can save seed from them without too much trouble. Hybrids are fine- often quite vigorous and productive, and a good choice for a beginning. Buying seeds from catalogs is fun, convenient, and allows you to experiment with which varieties you want to grow. It can bring great diversity into your seed collection. (Oh brother, you should see mine…)  It’s just that if you want to be self-sufficient, you will want to save seeds that will come true (reproduce the same plant) from your garden every year. This has the added bonus that your plants will adapt to your particular garden over the years, and you will have a larger number of seeds to trade or share. (We will discuss seed saving this summer.) There are great varieties you can try that great gardeners have been saving for hundreds of years just because they are delicious, hardy, productive, or even just odd. That’s the fuss about heirlooms. Take Yellow Brandywine; a huge Pennsylvania Dutch yellow heirloom tomato grown sparingly on a giant plant with potato-like leaves; a big blob of glowing yellow play-doh in the dark green forest. One huge tomato makes a salad; the seed cavities are small, and the color is more orangey inside, so that the bowl lights up with the firm orange-yellow pieces that have a sort of apricot/tomato sweetness. Not too acid, but never bland. I drool as I write. One fat slice with onion and basil, a drizzle of olive oil, a scratch of salt and pepper…Bob’s Big Boy Hybrid just can’t compete. Sorry.

What varieties should you set your heart on? Depends on where you live, what your garden is like, what you want to eat and whether you will can. What is your zone? Most catalogs explain zones. I am lucky to be in zone 7 because so much grows here, but then, so do weeds and bugs. Every zone has its ups and downs. It’s a great idea to contact your agricultural cooperative extension to get a list of varieties that grow well in your area. I have found a lot of information on the internet about frost dates and germination times as well. Some varieties need a longer growing season than I have, like my Peruvian Aji Rojo, which just means red spicy pepper. Such a cute little pepper, about the size of a sparrow’s beak, but powerful! I got it from a friend in Yarinacocha. The parent plant was 4 years old. If I plant them in February I am lucky to get a ripe pepper by November. Luckily I have a greenhouse, albeit wood heated. I have trouble with plants that grow well in cooler areas. Celery, for example. My garden gets hot and it is hard to keep the constant moisture celery likes. Broccoli does best in the fall for me, because in spring if the row covers aren’t perfect the heads are full of green caterpillars. In fall it’s the timing. I have to bring the seedlings to the garden after the harlequin beetles are gone, but I have to protect them from the heat as well, and since I have to seed them in August this can be tricky. But I really love broccoli, so I finally figured out that all I have to do is get about 8 good plants in the greenhouse and we will eat sweet green sideshoots of broccoli all winter and into early spring, lightly steamed and kissed with butter, as long as I keep them picked so they don’t go to flowering.

But there are some plants that just rock some years and other years you just have to be philosophical. For example, watermelon is a Kalahari plant, brought to this country by enslaved Africans. When my mother and I were in Botswana, I found a small, wild, watermelon-looking plant. The River bushman guide told me it was a Tsamma melon. These melons are not sweet but are full of water. In the rainy season, the rains pour down onto the Kalahari desert, which is a big sand deposit blown in from the Indian Ocean. The watermelons sprout and flourish. Then the rains stop, the water soaks away through the sand, and the place dries up to a crisp. But the bushmen know that if the rains were good, they can still cross the desert, because the Tsamma melons are out there, vines and leaves dried to dust, but fruits still full of water.  Our other guide told us he and his friends had found a domestic watermelon in the bushveldt, which is where the elephants hang out. Apparently an elephant had raided a village garden, and the seeds in his dung had grown happily in the peri-Kalahari bushveldt. So, why include this story? When our summers behave normally- wet spring, dry July and August, my heirloom Moon and Stars vines keep our refrigerators full to bursting with their cold, sweet, delicious, oddly speckled watermelons. Last year we had a dry spring and a wet August, and Moon and Stars petered out as the vines fell to a fungal blight. Orangeglo, which I was just trying for the first time, gave me 3 small deformed melons- so delicious I may try them again.

Yes, watermelon dreams are perfect for January.