Pepper Report

Just a quick note from me (Erica) this month to report on some new pepper cultivars I’m growing. These include ‘Lesya’ sweet pepper, ‘Tam’ jalapeño, and ‘Escamillo’ frying pepper.

First, ‘Lesya.’ Wow, I’m in love with this one.

It’s a heart-shaped red pepper, about 3-4 inches long, thick-walled and super-sweet. Those thick walls make it great for roasting, but it can also be eaten raw or cooked other ways. It also just looks terrific growing on strong plants that don’t get leggy and seem pretty disease-resistant.

I bought seed for ‘Tam’ jalapeño because it’s supposed to be on the milder side, but with some spice to it, unlike the ‘Nadapeño’ heatless type I grew last year (which was kind of boring). The first thing I did with the fruits was to make them into refrigerator pickles (sliced), and those turned out pretty hot. So I thought I’d do a taste test comparing ‘Tam’ to other jalapeños. Please note, this was not a scientifically valid comparison; that would involve a lot more testers (instead of just me and my son), a lot more peppers, and many tests over time. Peppers can be more or less hot depending on the weather, the soil the plants are grown in, the genetics of particular plants, and probably lots of other factors.

Anyway, I picked a couple of peppers from the Derwood Demo Garden, and a ‘Tam’ from my own garden.

L to R: ‘Tam,’ ‘Lemon Spice,’ and ‘Jalafuego’ jalapeños

I’ll also note that picking the ‘Lemon Spice’ fully ripe made the comparison even less valid (but it’s so pretty!), and that I should have found a larger and more mature ‘Jalafuego.’ But onwards. Of the three, ‘Lemon Spice’ was definitely the hottest, nice and eye-watering. ‘Tam’ had practically no heat on first bite, and then it crept up on me, but it was definitely milder. ‘Jalafuego’ was weirdly mild as well; I suspect another fruit on another day would have knocked my socks off. So, nothing definitive, but I think if you want a milder jalapeño ‘Tam’ is worth trying.

Apparently this year some people, in some places, bought ‘Tam’ plants that turned out to be sweet banana peppers – all part of the great pepper seed mixup that you can read about on this Garden Professors blog post – but my seed (purchased from Sow True Seed, for the record) turned out to be the real thing.

Finally, this is my second year growing ‘Escamillo’ frying pepper, and I’m very satisfied.

It’s a nice meaty yellow pepper that can easily reach 6 inches or more, ripens up fast, has thick walls for good roasting, and is also great for frying or eating raw.

And that’s the pepper report!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Golden summer: tomatoes and tomatillos

A few times a year I like to take a moment to assess the vegetables I’m growing, their positives and negatives, and whether I’ll grow them again. This year I’m growing a few varieties new to me, so I’m going to look at those today: two tomatoes and one tomatillo.

Let’s start with the tomatillo. This is not a vegetable I always grow, because it takes up space–two plants are needed for cross-pollination, and they are not small plants–and because I always seem to have insect issues. Both those things are true this year as well, and yet I’m glad to have been tempted by catalog copy and fallen for Chupon de Malinalco tomatillo. It just isn’t like anything I’ve grown before.

The fruits are huge–over two inches long on average–and generally pear-shaped. They ripen quickly to a bright yellow, and the flavor is sweet-tart, great for salsas. The negatives: they’re hard to keep up with, and fall off the plant when fully ripe. Once on the ground, or even when hanging low on the plants, they get eaten. I don’t know by whom, though it could be rabbits, since they get into our community garden all the time. The fruits higher up are not safe either, since fruitworms and other pests get to them, and often I’ve removed the husk to find so much damage it’s not worth cutting away the bad parts. But with these larger fruits, often the damage is minimal and I can save some parts, which is an advantage over the smaller tomatillos I’ve grown before.

Continue reading

Beyond Broccoli Part Six: Flowers, Bud!

Welcome back to Beyond Broccoli (earlier parts here) where  in this final edition we will finally get around to talking about broccoli (and its flowering friends).

Imagine you’re strolling through your vegetable garden in June (maybe a warmer June than we just had) and you notice that a lot of the brassica crops you planted in the spring look like this:

In fact, they are bolting. It’s a response to heat and other stresses; the plant will go to flower and then (assuming the flowers are successfully pollinated) will produce seed. Reproduction means, for the plant, that it’s been successful and can die happy. Of course for the gardener it doesn’t always mean success. We might have wanted that mizuna to produce lots more edible leaves before bolting. But before you yank out the plant and toss it on the compost pile, do me a favor. Snip off that little cluster of flower buds and eat it.

Continue reading

Beyond Broccoli Part Five: Love Them and Leaf Them

Welcome back to Beyond Broccoli, the brassica blog series! You can find previous entries here. In this edition we’re going to explore the plants in the genus Brassica that are grown for edible leaves.

I think the best place to start is on the shores of the Mediterranean. This is likely the home of the wild relatives of what became the domesticated forms of Brassica oleracea. They would have looked something like what we know as kale. The lineage of these wild plants is still fairly obscured, but if you want to read more about it check out this scholarly article.

The kales we grow today are actually not all one species. Most of them are Brassica oleracea var. acephala(or Acephala Group), but the super-hardy kales like Red Russian and Siberian are Brassica napus var. pabularia, related to rutabaga. Even the B. oleracea kales are amazingly varied, having been bred for millennia into forms with curly leaves, flat leaves, small or enormous leaves, leaves with blue and purple tints, the cabbagey-looking ornamental kale that landscapers plant at the corner to carry through the winter, and kale that forms stems taller than people that are made into walking sticks. (I wish we could grow that kind here, but our heat and humidity don’t agree with it. At least you can read about it.) My favorite kind to grow and eat is the blue bumpy type known as Tuscan, Lacinato, or Dinosaur kale.

Looks like dinosaur skin, I guess? Kid- and adult-friendly!
Continue reading

Beyond Broccoli Part Four: Down to the Roots

In this edition of Beyond Broccoli (see parts one, two and three for background) we’re going to start exploring some specific species and subspecies (varieties, groups, etc.) within the genus Brassica. Rather than address each species systematically, I’ve decided on an approach based on the plant parts we usually consume. Never fear, I will inform you when introducing each plant how they fit into the genus.

So let’s start at the bottom, with root vegetables.

Fuku Komachi turnips
Continue reading

Beyond Broccoli Part Three: Pesky Pests

Welcome back to Beyond Broccoil! Read parts one and two to get caught up. We’ve put our plants into the garden in the cooler weather of spring or fall, and now we need to get them successfully to harvest.

Brassica crops aren’t subject to many disease issues, though (as discussed in the last post) they can be affected by temperature extremes and variations. The biggest problems you’re likely to have, though, are pests. Animals such as rabbits, groundhogs and deer love chomping on cabbage family plants, so you’ll need to exclude them with a fence. These are not plants you want to spray repellents on—after all, you’d be eating the leaves or other parts you covered with hot pepper or rotten egg concoctions. Row covers (discussed below) may be enough to keep browsing animals out, but make sure they’re tightly secured.

Many insects also love to feed on brassica plants. Here’s a list of the most common with links to HGIC pages covering them:

Harlequin bugs in different stages feeding on mustard. Photo by Barbara Knapp.

The simplest way to deal with these pests really is to exclude them using floating row cover. I have talked to many, many gardeners who resisted doing this, thinking it was too much trouble, and then realized that picking caterpillars by the dozen off their hole-riddled harvest was actually a lot more difficult. (Worse: realizing you didn’t actually pick all the caterpillars off before cooking the vegetables.)

Read the page linked above to learn all about the uses of row covers and the different types available. I recommend trying the more durable insect mesh netting for summer crops, and also the heavier weights of row cover if you want to start your plants early in the spring or keep them going into late fall or winter. Brassicas overwinter quite well if given some protection from cold snaps. You could also consider wintering over plants in low tunnels with clear plastic or under cold frames, but remember that you may have to vent them on warmer winter days (which we’re dealing with a lot more often). Also look into shade cloth as a way to cool the soil when you’re transplanting fall seedlings in hot summer weather.

You need to uncover the plants only to harvest and weed, and they will look beautiful! Photo by Erica

The one circumstance where row cover is not appropriate is when you’re incorporating brassicas into a flower bed as part of edible landscaping. This is great in theory, since some of these plants are really attractive. Just keep possible pest issues in mind. Surrounding brassicas with flowers will help attract beneficial predatory insects, and strong-smelling plants like herbs or members of the onion family may keep animals away. Insects might also be confused by a diverse mix of plants. But unless you’re very lucky you’ll probably have to accept some damage.

Other methods to deal with insect pests include:

  • Pesticides. You can read about these at the links for each pest, above. Try to stick with organic pesticides, and use them as a last resort and according to directions.
  • Handpicking. Have a bucket of soapy water handy and drop the pests in, or squish them.
  • Last-minute kitchen intervention. Soak the vegetables in a sink full of water with salt added. Pests should float to the top.
  • Trap crop. Plant a crop early in the season and destroy the insects that visit it. This may at least cut down on the total number of pests.
  • Weed regularly. Insects feed on weeds as well as crops, so keep their food supply low.

Aside from dealing with pests, growing brassicas is not difficult. Water as needed, and incorporate a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer into the soil. Brassicas prefer a pH of 6-7.5. Add compost to your soil on a regular basis to help maintain nutrients and improve drainage. If you have room in your garden for crop rotation, it’s a good idea to move members of different families to new areas each year. Brassicas might leave a few of their insect pests behind this way (it won’t help with the ones that fly around freely) and they will appreciate the nitrogen left behind by bean family plants (including cover crops).

Pay attention to the weather forecast. If temperatures are heading upwards, your brassica plants may react by going to flower. It might be time to harvest even if the vegetables in your garden don’t look exactly as expected. I have harvested a lot of disappointingly runty broccoli heads, but I’ve also learned that small is better than exploding into bloom. (Though you can eat the flowers.)

Next time we’ll start learning about specific plants within this genus.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Beyond Broccoli Part Two: What’s Up with Brassicas?

Welcome back to Beyond Broccoli! Last month I posted about how the genus Brassica is classified and grouped, and where the plants come from in the world. Now let’s talk about what characteristics the brassicas have in common. Here’s some of what they share as a group:

  • An origin in temperate regions. These species originated in Europe and Asia, and most of them prefer to grow in cooler weather.
  • Thousands of years of cultivation and breeding. They’ve been part of humanity’s diet for a long time, and have great cultural significance in many regions.
  • Some physical similarities. I mentioned the cross-shaped (cruciferous) flower in the last post. Brassica seed leaves (cotyledons) have a characteristic heart shape, and seeds are generally small and round. We’ll explore leaf pigments and other commonalities in later posts.
Seed leaves of mustard
Continue reading