Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Paprika doesn't work for me"

OK, I didn't mean to post twice in one day, but I was just reading a thread on Dave's Garden forums with this title, and was moved to reply. Reply I did, in what turned out to be copious detail (ah, when we get going, we GET GOING). Alas, I don't remember my Dave's Garden login, and I'm at TechShop laying out garden markers in Corel Draw, so I couldn't post it! As to why I'm reading Dave's Garden at TechShop, I'm looking up how many days various peppers take so I can put it on the markers, and every now and then my eyes wander. :-)

I have also found that there are LOTS of lovely paprika peppers out there that I am not currently growing, and that I need to fix that. My 'Stained Glass' peppers are most likely a hybrid of a generic 'Hungarian Paprika' seedling from OSH or Yamigami's Nursery and the 'Super Shepherd Frying' peppers I grew that year. I grow Turkish Alma and Pasilla Baijo but there are Leutschauer, Szegedi (maybe a landrace, but named after a region in Hungary), Dulce Rojo, Boldog, and I am sure many more.

Making Paprika Peppers Work for You

A couple of things... flavor of peppers, both sweet and hot, varies according to the soil. I've found my peppers have better flavor if I use greensand, organic eggshell, and other sources of minerals, as well as lots of good compost.

Step One: Soil & Ripeness

So, the first step in paprika flavor is the pepper itself. In addition to using lots of tasty soil amendments, you want to leave a drying pepper on the plant longer than you would for a fresh eating pepper. We pick eating peppers when they are glossy and bright. A spice pepper you should leave on until the color deepens and the fruit starts to lose its gloss. You want that fruit to have all the sugars and esters and orneriness that it would have if it were going to go completely to seed. Don't wait so long that it starts to get wrinkled or spotted-- that's too long, and you may have trouble drying it without spoiling. This is concentration one, full ripening.

Step Two: Drying

The second step in paprika flavor is drying the pepper. Don't cook it, don't oven-dry it, just hang it up on a line in a breezy indoor place out of direct sun. Stop drying when it's done: leathery, hard to tear, inner ribs are fully wizened. Don't leave it out on the porch all summer (who, me?! how would I know this? ;-) ) or it will lose a good chunk of flavor. This is concentration two, drying.

Step Three: Show It the Fire!

The third step is heating, ideally in oil. Taste a bit of the dry pepper. It is probably mostly sweet and kinda boring. Now grind or finely chop it (it should be dry enough to grind in a coffee/spice chopper) and heat it in oil. Boom, the taste comes out, including things you could swear were never there. This is concentration three, more properly, unlocking, as this is how you get those little boxes of flavor out where you can taste them.

Do I Have to Grind 'Em Up?

Heck no! I am naturally indolent, so I often just dry my pasilla baijo and alma paprikas and toss them in an old mason jar. I put a doubled piece of tulle in place of the lid, and let the jar sit a bit to make sure all the moisture is out, like when I dry beans. Then I toss a regular lid on them and put them in the cupboard, out of the sun. When I want to use them, I snip off a few matchstick strips, or just tear off a chunk and throw it in the slow cooker with beans. Slow-cooked kidney beans with most of a pasilla in the pot and plenty of onion-- makes even opening a can of good organic beans seem like eating dry cornflakes.

So don't give up on your spice peppers. Give 'em plenty of greensand, let them ripen to the point where they start to lose their gloss, dry them lovingly and carefully, and then reap a panful of awesome flavor on a cold dark winter day.

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Out, Out! In, In!

It's just barely past midsummer, and we're in another heat wave: time to do some summer swapping! I got outside at the leisurely hour of almost-9 in the morning, did some remedial watering, and then worked on my in-and-outs. Nope, not the burger joint! Summer crops!

Out go all the lettuces bolting and going to seed, except for one or two for seed-saving, on the perimeter and upwind of where we like our volunteers to come in. Unless they're an exceptionally mild variety, don't bother trying to harvest any leaves from them if they've bolted to over a foot tall-- they'll be quite bitter, usually.

Into that same spot goes some nice compost, watering, a pass with a hand rake, and the next round of summer beans, some Gold Rush yellow wax beans. I also put a sprinkle of carrot seed, which almost never comes up for me, just in case it decides it likes the shade. I've had a few random carrots come up this way, ya never know. Carrots are allegedly a cool-weather crop, but a neighbor who grows them, flawlessly, says he sows them every month except February. He's amended his soil heavily with sand and grows wonderful leeks, too. I should try sandifying a patch of my heavy clay, but haven't quite gotten there yet.

Out goes the mostly-dead (but with a few blooms to make me feel guilty!) Blue Celeste sweetpea that I trellised into the main garden bed. The ones on the fence have been shedding seeds, and I'll harvest a bunch of seedpods from this one. I've picked up the trellis and put it sideways, going across the other long half of the bed, where it will provide a little shade for some lettuces and various things underneath.

Into the ground, on one end of the trellis, I planted a new variety (for me), Renee's Seeds "Spanish Musica" pole bean. On the other end, my tried-n-true Renee's "Italian Tri-Color" pole beans. In the middle, I've scattered a chiogga/yellow/bull's-eye beet mix, some curly parsley, and genova basil. OK, that last I mostly scattered in the sunny spot between my eggplants, but I always try a little diversity!

Speaking of eggplants, my Ping Tung Long, which I'd all but given up on, taught me a lesson. Keep watering! Even if it looks hopeless! Yes, it was only a two-leaf seedling for ever and ever, since MARCH (!) until we got the heat wave previous to this one in late May. That week of high-80F temps caused it to suddenly pop into leafy life! Now it's actually looking like a 'real' eggplant, with a thick purple stem and a plethora of leaves. Huzzah! I transplanted it today a couple of feet away from my store-bought Thai Lavender eggplant and will keep my fingers crossed.

Sadly, none of my Clemson Seedless nor Red Okra made it this year. One of these days I will grow it. I think it might be like the Ping Tung, I might be starting it way too early and too chilly.

On the outs, the lovely but mostly gone-by cornflowers in the big sunny white planter. I had to cut them off at the stem and then carefully jiggle the roots out to avoid hurting the yellow penny/viola. Surprisingly, most of the cornflower was only one HUGE plant, and just a couple of smaller ones.

Into the gap, the Berry Basket zinnias that I've had in tall four-inch pots since they came up in six-packs in May. They're about a handspan tall and were just reaching the bottom of the pots, great timing! I've got a couple of thumb-sized ones in the six-pack that came up late, and will need to refill a pair of the four-inch pots to get those a bit bigger before putting them out... where? Good question.

Let's see, I also pruned the roses in front, especially the up-from-rootstock canes that had gotten some kind of mildew or fungus from overwatering (sigh, they are VERY sensitive and I need to split off our drip system for the roses). Did more daylily deadheading, so they won't waste their strength making seedpods. Put a tripod up in the Tomato Mistake half-barrel, as it was listing heavily to one side.

The Tomato Mistake. Therein could be a whole blog post! Suffice to say that every year I have some kind of labelling disaster, where I lose track completely of what variety are in what seedling pot or six-pack. One year I dropped a tray of NINETY tomato plants which had been 'labelled' only by my writing the names on squares on 3x5 cards... which completely depended on keeping the orientation of the tray and not on rescuing a jumble of tiny peat pots on the floor. This year I was SO GOOD. I labelled and double-labelled. Ok, one pot with a pair of pepper plants in it had the label in pencil and it washed off, but that is IT. I was STOKED.

On an early trip to the nursery, I saw Reisentraube tomatoes and thought, I have wanted to grow these for quite some time, huge clusters of tiny pointed tomatoes hanging like grapes. I have a half-barrel planter. I will prune and stake and have an adorable small tomato plant with snacking on the patio. HA! HA-HA! Yes, despite being from a store, and having a Real Label in the Pot and everything, my little cherry Reisentraube is in fact some gigantic sprawling cuckoo of a tomato, possibly even a beefsteak variety. It never fails. I have relegated it to the front side-yard, near the daylilies, and have just now had to put a tripod in the planter to keep it upright. There are already tomatoes on it as big as my fist. I have no idea what color they will be when fully ripe, or what kind they are. NEENER NEENER says the Garden Universe. I am still going to keep labelling. Just you wait.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sibling Rivalry in the Three Sisters Garden

Faithful readers may recall the earlier plans I published here for a Three Sisters garden of corn, squash, and beans. With my usual cheerful abandon, I ignored various bits of online advice on when and how to plant it. Consequently, things are now somewhat out of control. A normal day in my garden! W00t!

To begin with, the vines you see creeping along the edge of the garden bed actually belong to the squashes planted about halfway down the bed, not the ones that are 'supposed to' be there. The little Black Futsu winter pumpkins don't tolerate chilly weather as well as the robust kabocha types, so they are still dainty rosettes of fuzzy green leaves with a blossom or two, and haven't really taken off yet. Meanwhile, the Hokkori is coming up in the outside lane to steal their thunder!

In this aptly-titled photo, we see the tomato cage trying to resist the encroachment of vigorous squash vines, kind of like trapped shoppers in a mall in a zombie movie. I came to the rescue, but it wasn't pretty. While looking at the small squashes starting to form on the vines, I noticed that the vine giving the tomato cage the most trouble was also the one which was not breeding true to type.

This should be an ebisu-delicata hybrid "Ebicata 2007" that I saved and am planting out. I had banana squash growing nearby, and clearly some happy-go-lucky bee went to more than one squash party on a crazy summer afternoon. I'm not a huge banana squash fan (too bland) and this is the wildest and wooliest of the vines, as well as the primary instigator in the Tomato Cage Invasion. Part of growing stuff out is knowing what to get rid of and what to keep! I trimmed the vines, and then cautiously took out the whole plant and added it to the compost bin, saving the couple of soap-bar sized squashes to eat as summer squash.

This is what they should look like, and the plant sharing that garden section, grown from the same batch of saved seed, has delivered the goods. These are about baseball and table-tennis ball sized, respectively. More where I'd expect them to be this time of year, instead of the huge one just down the row from them.

I didn't try tracing the vine to see if the big one is from the same plant, though it could well be. This one is already at close to mature size of 8 - 10 inches across. Early adopter! I won't pick it until it is mature, otherwise it won't keep well. The stem will be rock-hard and brown-dry, and the rind of the squash will be tough enough that it doesn't casually dent to a fingernail.

This kabocha is new to me, though I think I've enjoyed it from the farmers' market. It's Hokkori, a dark green kabocha offered by Oakland importer Kitazawa Seeds. They're a great source for all kinds of awesome Asian veggies, especially freaky cool greens like chrysanthemum that I haven't learned to eat yet. These juvenile Hokkori are grapefruit and mandarin-sized. How come nobody describes citrus fruit in kabocha terms? Maybe they do in Japan!

This Hokkori is about softball sized. One thing I did while visiting the garden to water was to wipe the dirt off the bottom of each of the little squashes and put a piece of scrap plastic under it. Otherwise the pill bugs start eating the rind where it touches the dirt. If you don't do this, the rind stays light colored and soft where it touches the dirt. When the pill bugs finish with it, the squash looks like it survived some kind of hideous medieval plague, and at worst they break thru into the main part of the squash and ruin the whole thing.

See you on the flip side: it's two minutes to Blogger maintenance, so I'd better finish up! Oh yeah, the sibling rivalry-- the beans are getting shaded out by the kabochas. They weren't as cold tolerant, and the kabochas went in FIRST, because I started them from seed TOO SOON. Lesson here!

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Home Hydroponics: Yes, You Can!

Someone browsing my FlickR stream commented on this picture of one of last year's hydroponic fence planters and asked, "what are the steps involved in starting an eggplant hydroponic growth system?" I wrote a quick answer, and then realized that there are probably readers of this blog who'd like to know, too!

Get yourself a pot with a water reservoir (or make your own), some substrate material (I use perlite), and figure out what you will use for nutrient solution.

I use a commercial mix from the local hydroponic store (ignore all the mixes about "Big Buds", sigh-- they are not for veggies, and they are high-nitrogen anyway so you would get more leaves than fruit). Dry mixes are best, followed by concentrated liquid mixes that you dilute. Don't bother with a premixed solution, you are paying a lot for water!

You might be able to use a combination of conventional minerals, like dusting greensand into the medium, and some bone meal, and then using an off the shelf fertilizer like VF-111 or a concentrated fish emulsion (Alaska, Atlas). I haven't really tried that yet, since the little container of the dry hydroponic mix I have has lasted 3 years already for me, with only a few 4-foot long planters a year and a teaspoon of mix into each weekly. As you can see, it grew some nice eggplants for me! Thai Lavender (long) and Fairy Tale (short, variegated)

I recommend reading up a bit on the net on hydroponics. It's really pretty simple if you are doing it at home, rather than trying to automate it in a commercial greenhouse to produce bumper crops at timed intervals. Sure, if you get the mix too weak, your peppers might take an extra week or two to ripen. No big deal at home, a real big deal if you have a quarter-acre of them in hoop-row greenhouses and a contract to deliver them to some restaurant chain. ;-)