Better Late than Never

Cold has finally gotten the better of my pepper plants. Two below freezing nights a month ago started their demise, and two more during the last few nights finally finished them off for the season. Not the fruits, though, plenty of which are piled and spread out in trays and baskets in the kitchen.
Peppers in various stages of ripening
Outdoors, fruits weathered the below freezing temperatures well. They’ve been shielded from the full brunt of cold by their canopies of increasingly floppy leaves. Also, fruits of plants are higher in sugars than are the leaves. Thinking back to high school chemistry, I recall that any solute, such as sugar, lowers the freezing point of the solution. So pepper fruit cells can tolerate more cold than pepper leaves.

Even with the plants dead outside, the pepper season isn’t over here. The season has been greatly extended by harvesting and bringing indoors sound, green peppers showing any bit of red — or yellow if that’s the pepper’s ripe color. Sitting in trays and baskets in the kitchen, these mostly green peppers have been ripening, depending on when they were harvested and how long they’ve sat, to fully red or yellow color, when they are most flavorful (to me).
Peppers in trays and baskets
For some reason, perhaps the heat interfering with pollination, peppers started ripening later in the season than usual. The present and the past few week’s abundance of them makes up for the late start.

Thank You C2H4

For the peppers’ morphing from green to red or yellow, I have to thank, in large part, a simple gas made up of just two atoms of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. It’s ethylene, a plant hormone. Most plant and animal hormones are much more complex molecules.
Ethylene diagram
Ethylene is produced naturally in ripening fruits, and its very presence — even at concentrations as low as 0.001 percent — stimulates further ripening. The ethylene given off by ripe apples can be used to hurry along ripening of tomatoes, by placing an apple in a closed bag with the tomatoes.

Banana, apple, tomato, and avocado are among so-called climacteric fruits, which undergo a burst of respiration and ethylene production as ripening begins. These fruits, if picked sufficiently mature, can ripen following harvest.

Peppers, along with “figs, strawberries, and raspberries are examples of non- climacteric fruits, whose ripening proceeds more calmly. Non-climacteric fruits will not ripen after they’ve been harvested. They might soften and sweeten as complex carbohydrates break down into simple sugars, but such changes might be more indicative of incipient rot rather than ripening or flavor enhancement.” Or so they say. And, I admit, I’ve said; that quote is from my book The Ever Curious Gardener. (The rest of the section about ethylene in my book is correct.) They and I were wrong.

So, I’ve learned two things. First of all, pepper do ripen well after harvest, not only to a bright color but also to a delicious flavor. And second, further reading has revealed that hot peppers, but not sweet peppers, are, in fact, climacteric fruits.

What about semi-hot peppers? Or non-hot hot peppers? (Read on.)

Hot and Not

I did also grow some semi-hot peppers this season. Roulette is a variety billed as resembling “a traditional habanero pepper in every way (fruit shape, size and color, and plant type) with one exception – No Heat!” Roulette had an interesting flavor that I both liked and didn’t like (mostly liked), and occasional ones did have some heat to them, but that might have been due to their proximity to . . . 

Red Ember is billed as an early ripening hot pepper with “just enough pungency for interest.” It definitely caught my attention when I bit into one! Call me a wimp, but I thought it was fiery hot.

Peppers, Red Ember and Roulette

Peppers, Red Ember and Roulette

In my previously mentioned book, The Ever Curious Gardener, I also explored flavor in fruits and vegetables and, briefly, hotness in hot peppers. “Studies have been done with peppers, focusing specifically on their hotness, which, to muddy the waters, stems from not one, but from a whole group of compounds, capsaicinoids, mostly capsaicin and dihydrocapsain. Hotness in peppers was found to depend on the variety, the environment, and the interaction between variety and environment, with smaller fruited peppers less influenced by vagaries of the environment. Usually, but not always, a pepper will have more bite if plants are grown with warmer nights, with colder days, with just a little too much or too little water, or with fertility imbalances; increased elevation elicits the fiercest bite. Basically, with any sort of stress.”

Uncommonly hot temperatures this summer may very well have turned up the heat in Red Ember and put some heat in Roulette.

Peppers & Potting Soil


You’d think that there’d be no reason for me to be concerned. After all, year after year I raise my own seedlings for the garden. Nonetheless, every day I take a look at the small tray of soil in which I had sowed eggplant and pepper seeds, waiting for little green sprouts to poke through the brown surface of the potting mix.

These plants are on a schedule. They get a start indoors — in a greenhouse now; under lights or in sunny windows in years past — so that they have enough time to start ripening their fruits by midsummer.

Italian Sweet peppers

Italian Sweet peppers

Even an early-ripening pepper wouldn’t ripen its first fruits before October if seeds were sown directly in the garden once the soil had warmed enough for germination, which isn’t until the end of May around here.

Ingredients for Good Transplants

Not that raising transplants for the garden is difficult. All that’s needed is attention to details, the first of which is using seed that is not too old. The dry tan pepper and eggplant seeds might not look alive, but they are. And they do age. Under good storage condition — cool and dry — pepper seeds retain good viability for only a couple of years, eggplant seeds for 4 years.

Next in importance is the container and potting mix. Old yogurt containers, egg cartons — people have come up with all sorts of containers for growing transplants. They’re all fine as long as they’re at least an inch and a half deep and have holes in their bottoms to let excess water drain out.

Garden soil, even good garden soil, is not suitable for containers. It stays too wet, suffocating roots. So all potting mixes contain aggregates, such as sand, perlite, vermiculite, or calcined clay (a.k.a. kitty litter), which are large mineral particles that make room for air in the mix. Mixes also contain some organic material, such as compost, peat moss, or coir (made from coconut waste), to help them retain moisture.

You can purchase potting mixes made with or without real soil in them, and either sterilized or not. Sterilization kills potential pests that might lurk in the raw ingredients. Not sterilizing keeps living things, including potential enemies of any potential pests, alive in the mix. I make my own mix, usually unsterilized, from equal parts compost, garden soil, peat moss, and perlite.

With seeds sown and then covered with about a half inch of potting mix, the container is gently watered, then covered to keep in moisture.

Warmth is the next ingredient for good germination. Seeds need more warmth to sprout than than a seedling needs for good growth. In the case of pepper and eggplant seeds, between 70 and 80° F. is ideal for sprouting. The top of a refrigerator might provide a warm home for the seeds to get started, as might a shelf above a radiator. I use a soil heating mat.

The last ingredient in raising seedlings is the most difficult one for me to provide, at least with pepper and eggplant seeds. Patience. Even under good conditions, these seeds might take a week or two to sprout. All I need, then, is to be rational. I sowed the seed on March 5th; I provided good conditions. As I write this, it is March 12th. One week, a not unreasonable time for the seeds not to yet show signs of life.

Not to Worry

Growing transplants is generally easy. Although I’m a little concerned until pepper and eggplant sprouts emerge, I’m more laid back with pretty much all other seedlings. Tomatoes, for example, are among the quickest and easiest to grow, and, because of the wide choice of varieties when growing your own transplants, very satisfying.

Once the peppers and eggplants sprout, they, like other sprouts, need to be moved to where they are bathed in light. Along with light, slightly cooler temperatures from then on make for sturdy, healthy growth. And then, towards the end of May, out to the garden they go.

Update: March 17th. I was about to re-sow the pepper seeds. But first I checked the ones sowed March 5th. They sprouted!Pepper seeds sprouting


Finish Squash

    “Zucchini bread is for people who don’t have compost piles.” That’s what I told Deb after she suggested, first ratatouille, and then zucchini bread, as vehicles for our excess zucchini.
    Most years I make an early, too large planting of zucchini (about 6 plants), and then, six to eight weeks later, make another sowing of only a couple of plants. The first planting puts enough zucchinis into the freezer for winter, as well as leaving enough for eating. The second planting is to yield an occasional zucchini for fresh eating through summer after plants of that initial planting have succumbed to squash vine borer, cucumber beetles, bacterial wilt, and any of the other maladies that usually do in the plants a few weeks after they begin bearing. Usually and thankfully do in the plants. But not this year.
    Almost every time I check that early planting of zucchini, a new fruit has swelled at the end of a vine now trailing beyond its bed beneath stalks of popcorn in an adjacent bed. I feel no obligation to eat zucchini, whether in zucchini bread, ratatouille, or any other concoction.

Where Are the Insects?

    In all my decades of gardening, I’ve never experienced a season with so few insect pests. A few Japanese beetles reared their ugly heads back in July; they were the only ones who showed up, except for an occasional straggler. Likewise for bean beetles. Eggplants hosted the few requisite flea beetles, but never enough for concern. (I did spray a few times with horticultural oil; judging from other gardeners’ flea beetle-less experiences this year, doubt that the effect was from the oil.)
    Cabbageworms, always requiring some late summer action on my part in the past in the form of one or two sprays of the biological insecticide Bacillus thurengiensis, have let me occupy that time with other things.
    Spotted wing drosophila, known non-affectionately as SWD, showed up, as usual, in sufficient numbers in early August to warrant a spray of spinosad, an extract from a naturally-occuring bacteria found in the soil of a defunct rum factory in the Virgin Islands. That one spray, along with some experimental traps from Cornell, was sufficient to keep the buggers from using my blueberries as nurseries in which to raise their young.
    As is so often the case with complex systems, in this case involving the vagaries of this season’s weather, the biology and the chemical and physical make-up of the soil, interactions between garden plants as well as between garden plants and weeds, timing of plantings . . .  what I’m trying to say is that I have no idea why the year was so auspicious, as far as insects.

Here Are the Diseases

    That was insects. Diseases are another story. Don’t look at my tomato plants.
    The tomato plants started the season neatly and decoratively trained as single stems up bamboo poles, soon clothing those poles in lush, green leaves and red or orange tomatoes. Now? Stems are pretty much bare from ground level up a couple of feet, with some shriveled, brown remnants of leaves dangling downwards. The disease is not fusarium or verticillium, to which so many modern tomato varieties are touted for being resistant.Diseased tomato plants
    The affliction is leaf spot disease, which is actually one or more of three diseases: early blight, septoria leaf spot, and/or late blight. The worst of the three is late blight, which makes us gardeners and farmers especially nervous after a severe outbreak ravaged a large swath of the Northeast a few years ago. Air currents and humidity have not been favorable this year for late blight to hitchhike up from the South, where it overwinters, and any that might have reached here couldn’t get footholds with this season’s hot, dry weather.
    Thorough cleanup of old leaves and stems, which house early blight and septoria leaf spot through the winter, and planting tomatoes where they haven’t been plant for the previous two years, was supposed to keep these diseases in check. Perhaps it did, but not enough.
    I have two vegetable gardens, and next year I’ll plant tomatoes in the one that housed no tomatoes for the past couple of years, putting more distance between overwintering disease spores and my plants. Clean up and distance should also quell one other disease, anthracnose, responsible for sunken, rotting areas that develop on some of the fruits.
    Diseases notwithstanding, plenty of glass jars filled either with sparkling red, canned tomatoes and dull red, dried tomatoes line shelves to bring some essence of summer into through the dark months ahead.

Pepper Heaven

    Tomatoes may be the essence of summer for their ubiquity in gardens; for me, though, ripe, red peppers more represent a summery flavor. My peppers rarely experience insect or disease problems. The challenge, this far north, is ripe, red peppers in abundance.

Italian Sweet peppers

Italian Sweet peppers

    My favorite variety for flavor, earliness, and productivity, especially this far north, is Italian Sweet. I put in many plants this past spring, and the harvest is prolific.
    Unfortunately, dried or frozen peppers offer only wan hints of the fresh peppers’ summery flavor and texture.

Who’s the Best Gardener/Farmdener?

Fresh Watermelon, and More, with Help from Ethylene

Could I possibly be the best gardener west of the Hudson River? Perhaps. As evidence: On November 1st, here in Zone 5 of New York’s Hudson River Valley, where temperatures already have plummeted more than once to 25°F, I was able to harvest a fresh, dead-ripe watermelon. Not from a greenhouse, not from a hoop house, not even from a plastic covered tunnel. Watermelon, a crop sensitive to frost and thriving best in summer’s sun and searing heat.

Okay, perhaps I can’t assume all that much responsibility for the melon. Let me explain . . . 

Every fall, I have a landscaper dump a whole truckload of leaves vacuumed up from various properties at my holding area for such things. Rain and snow drench the pile in the coming months, starting it on the road to decomposition. When sufficiently warm weather has decided to stay in spring, I scoop out a few holes in the pile, fill them with compost, then tuck in watermelon transplants.

Last fall’s pile yielded well from summer until early fall this year, at which time I gathered up remaining melons for eating or, if unripe, for composting along with the vines. The tractor, with its bucket, was able to move and compact the now dense pile to make way for this  year’s crop of leaves.


Ben & Jeremy show off the November watermelon.

Ben & Jeremy show off the November watermelon.

Now we’re up to November 1st, time to spread the leaf mold before it freezes — a big job that necessitated enlisting the help of my neighbors Jeremy and Ben. We were loading and hauling and loading and hauling, forking deeper and deeper into the bowels of the pile, when Jeremy yelled that he’d just speared a watermelon I had overlooked when cleaning up. I cleaned it off and sliced it open. It proved to be a ripe watermelon. The taste? “Awesome,” to quote Jeremy.

The Watermelon Mystery

Okay, I admit to not being able to claim too much credit for the ripe watermelon. How did it get there? Was it ripe and overlooked, then buried and preserved in the warm bowels of the leaf mold pile? Was it unripe when buried, then subsequently ripened? Probably not. No leaves were poking out of the pile, capturing the sun’s albeit weak rays for photosynthesis to make the sugars needed for ripening. A couple of nights of 25°F would have done in the leaves anyway.

Some fruits can actually ripen after harvest. These include apples, pears, bananas, avocados, and other so-called climacteric fruits. Just before ripening, respiration of climacteric fruits dramatically increases along with a burst in production of the plant hormone ethylene. Through a feedback mechanism, ethylene stimulates more respiration which in turn stimulates even more ethylene production and even quicker ripening. Hence, enclosing bananas in a bag stimulates ripening, and why one rotten apple — injury, whether mechanical or from pests, also elicits an ethylene response — can indeed “spoil the barrel.”

This burst in ethylene production occurs even after climacteric fruits have been harvested, as long as they were sufficiently mature at the time. You can’t pick a golfball-sized green apple and expect it to ripen off the plant.

Non-climacteric fruits lack that pre-ripening spike in respiration and ethylene production, and do not ripen after harvest. Or so the thinking, based on early experiments, went. According to more recent research, fruits show various degrees of ethylene production. Watermelon is not a climacteric fruit, but at a certain point the white flesh within does release a burst of ethylene some time after which it morphs from bland and unripe to sweet, red, and ripe. But that won’t happen off the vine.

(“Ripe” is open to some debate. Peach, for instance, is a climacteric fruit that, if picked sufficiently mature but underripe, will soften and become more edible. But it won’t develop the aromatics of a tree-ripened fruit or, until rotting changes starches to sugars, become at all sweeter after picking. I don’t call that “ripe.”)

So my watermelon must have been overlooked and ripe and evidently kept perfectly well in the moist warmth of the leaf pile.

Deb & Ethylene Take Credit for the Peppers

Ethylene, and not me, is going to take credit for the fresh, sweet red peppers in today’s salad. Peppers are a climacteric fruit. Green peppers are unripe peppers, but if the fruits have just a hint of red on them, they can ripen even after harvest to full red (or yellow, orange, or purple, depending on the variety of pepper) color and, at least to my taste buds, flavor.

Still eating fresh, red, ripe sweet, juicy, delicious peppers.

Still eating fresh, red, ripe sweet, juicy, delicious peppers.

Skill is needed to ripen peppers off the plant. Cool, but not too cool, temperatures hold the fruits for storage and warmer temperatures then speed ripening. Just the right amount of humidity is also needed to, on the one hand, avoid drying, or, on the other hand, rotting. My wife, Deb, rather than I, plies these skills, so should probably get credit for the ripe, red peppers.

This season has been the best pepper season ever, both in quantity and in quality. King of the North peppers, large and blocky, with thick, juicy walls, now ripening in a basket taste as bland now as they did all summer. I won’t grow them again. In contrast, Carmen, Sweet Italia, and (slightly hot) Pepperocini peppers, also ripening in that basket, taste as good now as their siblings did snapped from plants basking in summer heat and sun a few months ago.

Holly Needs a Male, and Cold Peppers

Connecting the drip irrigation to the spigot behind my compost pile today, my eyes fell on five nearby Meserve holly bushes. Which brought my thoughts back to last fall, when I realized that I’ve never seen berries on those shrubs.
Hollies are dioecious plants (“two houses”): some are male, others are female. Only the female plants bear the bright, red fruits that, along with spiny, shiny leaves, are so essential a decoration for the winter solstice. To bear fruits (which are ripened ovaries, the female flowers must be dusted with pollen from male flowers.
Last fall, I reasoned that the lack of berries could be that the plants were too young (no, I planted them over 15 years ago), that the plants were too shaded (if so, there would have been at least a few berries), that late frosts were killing the blossoms (unlikely every year), or that the planting lacked a male stud. Except that I do remember making sure to plant one male holly for the harem of females.
A female holly flower
As luck would have it, coincidental with my connecting the drip irrigation, the hollies were in bloom. The blossoms are ornamentally insignificant but did provide the opportunity to confirm each plant’s sexual orientation. No magnifier was needed to see a swollen, green ovary at the base of the petals of each flower on all my plants. All my hollies are females. 
Right away, I started thinking of where, locally, I’ve seen hollies from which I could beg a few male blossoms, assuming other plantings have some males loitering about. Male flowers on a branch with its base in water would stay viable long enough for bees or me to effect pollination.
Once the drip irrigation was connected, I broke tradition, neglected my own advice, and planted out tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants transplants. The date was May 19th rather than my usual end of May planting date. These plants allegedly shudder at a temperature below 50°F., which was predicted and sure to occur again. I did offer them some protection in the form of light, air, and water-permeable “row covers” held up over the plants by double metal hoops (from or, as concrete block truss reinforcing wire, from a building supply store). A single hoop over the row cover at each double hoop holds the row cover in place while allowing it to slide up and down for access to the bed.
Like holly berries, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are ripened ovaries — that is, fruits (botanically speaking; horticulturally and legally, they are considered vegetables. As fruits, they need pollination to develop. The flowers, in this case, are monoecious (“one house”), with male and female parts on the same plant. More than that, male and female parts are on the same flower; the flowers are all bisexual.
Pollen still has to move from the male parts of the flower to the female parts, and mostly, it’s bees that get that job done. Bees can’t get at plants within the row cover tunnels so once cold weather is reliably past I plan to uncover the rows and let bees work the blossoms.
Row covers can also offer protection from certain pests. Anyone who grows eggplant eventually becomes familiar with flea beetles and the holiness they impart to the plants’ leaves. New growth on vigorous plants can more than offset older leaves’ loss of greenery but flea beetles can kill weak plants.
So the tack here is to keep eggplant plants under row cover until their flowers begin to open. In addition to fending off flea beetles, the additional warmth and calmer environment beneath the covering spurs growth for earlier harvest and for a plant better able to fend off flea beetles once uncovered.
With peppers, it’s especially important to pull off the cover just as soon as plants blossom. The atmosphere within a row cover tunnel is a few degrees warmer than ambient, which is helpful now, when some protection from cold nights might be needed. Fruit set for peppers is poor at temperatures below 58°F., so a little extra heat can improve early season fruit set.
As days grow warmer, the even warmer environment beneath a row cover can have the opposite effect. Fruit set is also poor when daytime temperatures rise above 85°F.
Tomatoes could remain covered throughout the season because bees are not necessary for pollination. Abetted with just a little movement — from wind for example — the mere opening of the flowers effects pollination. Night temperatures from 59 to 68°F. are best for tomato fruit set. Once night temperatures go higher than 70°F., fruit set suffers, but that’s not going to happen for a long time, even beneath a row cover.