ALOE VERA, AN HEIRLOOM PLANT EASY TO GROW ORGANICALLY

Standard

IMG_0106

A note to readers: I apologize for the hiatus in writing this blog; the organic greenhouse/nursery I managed closed its doors and I embarked upon a new life adventure. I now work as a Collections Gardener at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California. There, I am helping to preserve, protect, and propagate rare and ubiquitous plant species from deserts of North America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar and Australia. I am involved in the conservation of plant and animal species facing extinction. I will continue to contribute to this blog about heirloom plants grown organically. Organic gardening is part of the best future for our planet; organic gardens actually directly capture carbon rather than indirectly and directly release carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. I urge you to do your part to capture carbon and minimize emissions. Together we can save Earth for future generations of all life forms!

ALOE VERA, AN HEIRLOOM PLANT EASY TO GROW ORGANICALLY

By James Sagmiller

Aloe vera is one of our oldest cultivated plants and was primarily grown for use as a medicinal plant. It is mentioned in the “Ebers Papyrus” dating to the 16th century B.C. in Egypt. It was well known by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In Alexander the Great’s time, about 330-360 B.C., a center of cultivation was the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and about 240 miles from the Arabian Peninsula. (Aloe vera is carefully illustrated, described, and its uses listed in a herbal written by Dioscorides about 78 A.D., De Materia Medica. It is known to us through a copy included in the Codex Anicinae Julianae of 512 A.D. Dioscorides recommends Aloe vera be used topically for coagulating blood, staunching wounds and for hemorrhoids. He suggests mixing it with wine and honey to use as a rinse for tonsils, gums and sores of the mouth. He says it may be ingested as a “purgative” (laxative). He states that the plant was grown in India, Arabia, Asia, Apulia (Italy), and Andros.

Our illustration above is from The Greate Herball of Gerard (1633 revised version) page 507. The plant on the left is Aloe vera, on the right is Agave americana, a plant often confused with various species of aloe. Gerard repeats the medical uses of Dioscorides, but adds that Aloe vera, when ingested will cure worms also. It is interesting that Gerard recommends hanging live aloe plants from the ceiling, mentioning it will stay alive for months. In cottages in England at that time the warmest area (and probably least prone to frost) in a house would have been near the ceiling.

Indeed, Aloe vera is a tender plant in northern climates. It is actually hardy to about 25 degrees F. when it is grown on well-drained, dryish soil. Plants are commercially grown today in the West Indies on islands such as Curacao and Barbados. The old, incorrect name Aloe barbadensis may derive from the assumption that the plant originated in the West Indies, but Aloe vera is thought to be native to the Arabian Peninsula or possibly North Africa.

Medical use of Aloe vera today is quite controversial, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD). Topical use is generally accepted as safe for use in cosmetics and for burns, sunburns, wounds and mouth rinses. Most of the controversy concerns ingestion of  Aloe vera for various ailments, such as psoriasis, weight loss, constipation, HIV/AIDS, and Herpes simplex. Results of several studies are conflicting, so it is advised to ingest Aloe vera with caution and awareness of risks involved. Aloe vera as ingested is not recommended for lactating women, or within two weeks of surgery, and will react toxically with the drug Digoxin.

I personally have found the fresh, live juice to help heal sunburns and other burns quickly. The fresh gel acts as a moisturizing, protective layer on the skin. The fresh juice contains vitamins C and E plus various minerals. It may be that Aloe vera is most effective only when fresh and “alive” and may change chemically and in effectiveness when dried, pasteurized, or otherwise processed, much as is the case with fresh, as opposed to processed garlic.

Fortunately, Aloe vera is easy to grow! Plants produce prodigious stemless offsets which can be easily used to produce new plants. Take offsets and place them in a shady spot in a temperature of between 60 degrees F. and 90 degrees F. Let them dry off for two or three days, then prepare to pot them up. An organic cactus mix will work, but should not be too alkaline (high pH). If that is used, mix 2 parts cactus mix + 1 part organic potting soil + 1/3 part perlite + 1/16 part coffee grounds + 1/16 part bone meal and mix all together. To make your own organic mix, use 3 parts organic potting soil (or organic compost plus rotted bark or peat) + 1 part sharp grit (such as #2 chicken grit) + 1/16th part bone meal. A clay pot is really best, as the roots of Aloe vera need air. Try to think of a plant’s roots as its lungs. It needs a moist, airy environment to survive. A plastic pot may be used for an aloe plant, but place gravel or perlite in the bottom ⅛ of the pot for drainage. Make sure the pot has drainage holes for excess water to drain away. A mulch of rock chips or grit is excellent and attractive around an aloe plant, and serves to hold new offsets in place until well-rooted, but is not necessary. Room (or greenhouse) temperatures of 65 degrees F. to 90 degrees F. are preferred for this aloe. Aloes grow faster with more light and heat.

Plants can be grown in full sun as we do here outside in the low desert of California’s Coachella Valley, but Aloe vera is adaptable to light shade or part shade and fine plants may be grown in lower light conditions. Just be sure to take care not to over water your plants in shade or dark rooms. The best indoor plants I have seen were grown in east or southeast-facing windows.

Once a year, in mid-spring, top dress your potted plants with bone meal and a thin layer of fresh compost, or repot them one pot-size up.

It is great to have fresh Aloe vera on hand for burns and minor cuts, and the plants are quite beautiful with their blue-green foliage. In full sun, the foliage turns reddish. If lots of light is available, your Aloe vera will bloom with stalks of lovely yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Advertisements

A RECONSTRUCTED HUERTA FOR MISSION SAN FERNANDO REY DE ESPANA

Standard

IMG_6605IMG_6601IMG_6597IMG_6596IMG_6592

A RECONSTRUCTED HUERTA FOR

MISSION SAN FERNANDO REY DE ESPANA

SAN FERNANDO, CALIFORNIA, FOUNDED 1797

By James J. Sagmiller

 

HISTORY

During the period of Spanish exploration of North America (1542-1769) and the Spanish Colonial period (1769-1821) the area we presently call California was known as “Alta California,” which translates to “Upper California.” Baja California, or “Lower California” retains its original name today. The policy of the Spanish crown was to establish Catholic missions to convert native peoples and exploit them for labor. Priests were sent out in pairs, usually with regional support of the military. The first successful, permanent mission in the area was founded in Baja California: Mission Nuestra Senora de Loreto Concho, on Oct. 9, 1697 by Jesuit priests. The king of Spain expelled all the Jesuits in 1768, responding to rumors they had become too powerful. The Jesuits were replaced by Franciscan friars who, as part of the philosophy of their order, are required to take a vow of poverty. Around this time, the Spanish crown decided to establish missions and develop ports in Alta California. Mission San Diego Alcala was the first of these, founded July 16, 1769.

FOUNDING THE MISSION

Several criteria were important for a successful mission: fertile soil, water available for irrigation and drinking, standing timber for building, and a native population that could be converted to Christianity and used for labor.

Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded September 8, 1797 by Padre Fermin Fransisco de Lasuen. It was the seventeenth of the missions founded in Alta California. A man named Francisco Reyes already had a ranch at the site of the mission and it was worked with Native American labor. He decided to donated his land to the church. At an elevation of 1,100 ft., with reliable spring water, a mild coastal climate and twelve inches of rain a year, this was an excellent place to start a mission. The native population originally were hunter gatherers who exploited the rich flora and fauna of the area. Several tribal groups lived nearby, but the two most numerous were the Gabrielino and Tataviam Indians.

THE SITE

The site plan of Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was of a design typical for Spanish missions. The main focus of the mission complex was the chapel, with its rectangular central nave with altar, and a bell tower adjacent. Other buildings, mostly workshops, were arranged in the pattern of a quadrangle around a large patio (now known as the East Garden).  A soldier’s quarters were located behind, next to the chapel, and a cemetery to the north. A building designed as priest’s quarters and for guest lodgers was the well-known and much-photographed structure with an arched arcade known as the “convento.” The arrangement of buildings in the compound was designed for efficiency but also for protection from bandits, wild animals, and livestock. Irrigated gardens benefited from this protection and were convenient to the kitchen.

The buildings at the mission were built of adobe bricks, made from a mixture of mud and straw and had very thick walls made to support heavy beams and tile roofs. Pine logs were used for beams and the rafters made from sycamore. Eaves were very wide, to protect the adobe from rain.

ECONOMICS OF THE MISSION

The mission was, of necessity, primarily self-sufficient. Natives were trained in many trades, including: blacksmithing, farming, ranching, carpentry, weaving, leather-making, brick-making, and soap-making. Wine was made from grapes and olive oil as well. By 1804, 1,000 Native Americans lived and worked at Mission San Fernando Rey, producing hides, fine leatherwork, tallow, soap, cloth, and wine as well as all the crops needed to support so many. By 1819 there were 12,800 cattle, 7,800 sheep, 176 goats, 45 pigs, 144 mules, 780 horses. The mission was a popular resting place for travelers on El Camino Real (the Royal Road).

HISTORIC MISSION GARDEN

Every mission had to produce as much food as possible to feed its large labor force and create a reserve to act as insurance for famine. Each of the missions planned extensive gardens. These gardens were not the primarily ornamental ones we see today at the missions, but were subsistence gardens of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, all grown together. A garden of this type was referred to as a “huerta.” A literal translation would be “orchard garden.” These gardens looked quite different than modern gardens. They had geometric beds set into dirt or gravel paths, filled with plants grown together in a practical fashion, watered by flood irrigation from “acequias,” small irrigation ditches of gravity-fed water. There was no lawn grass. Everything grown was used for some purpose, such as for food, medicine, dye, cosmetics, wine, or oil.

MISSION GARDENS TODAY

An early photograph shows the East Garden in a ruined state before the workshop buildings were reconstructed. A fountain was originally in the center of the garden, but it was moved about 30 feet to the west and the original design of the garden obliterated as the workshop buildings were rebuilt. What we see now in the East Garden are cement paths set into grass, with various hedges and shrubs, and olive, pine and palm trees. I am presenting here a design for the reconstruction of the huerta that originally occupied the space that is now the East garden, as it might have appeared circa 1804.

A RECONSTRUCTION OF THE EAST GARDEN

In my design for a reconstructed huerta at the mission, the fountain would be returned to the center of the design, with paths leading in four directions from the fountain as well as a path to each of the four corners of the quadrangle. All lawn grass would be removed, and original gravity-fed irrigation ditches, called “acequias,” would be reconstructed as well. The mature olive, palm and pine trees would be left in place, as the use of those species were very much a part of original plantings at the 1797 mission. Paths would be made of ¼ inch gravel and geometric beds would be flood irrigated just as they originally were. Every effort would be made to source seeds and cuttings of original plants known to have been grown at the California missions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Plants requiring irrigation were the most likely candidates to be grown in the huerta, such as fruits, flowers and vegetables.

HISTORIC PLANTS GROWN AT THE MISSIONS

Wheat, corn (maize) and barley were grown at Mission San Fernando Rey, but most probably in outer fields or dryland farmed.  Vegetables that were probably grown in the irrigated huerta and appearing on mission records include: peas, beans, fava beans, cabbage, lettuce, asparagus, onions, tomatoes and chili peppers. Several fruits were grown at the mission: oranges, melons, pears, grapes, pomegranates, apples, quinces, plums, peaches, apricots, figs, olives, avocados and watermelons. Wild plants were also used at the mission. Presumably the Native Americans introduced the padres to them, for they are an excellent, readily available food source. Wild plants and seeds known to have been used at the mission are: chia (Salvia hispanica), sunflowers, acorns, pine nuts, sage, tunas (the fruit of Opuntia spp. cacti), clover, screw beans (mesquite; Prosopis spp.), “nopales” (leaves of Opuntia spp. Cacti) and agave. The chia was probably brought from Mexico.

In a reconstruction of a huerta for Mission San Fernando Rey it was advantageous to consult historic documents from other, contemporary California missions. Records from Mission San Diego dated 1769, reveal that corn (maize), cauliflower, lentils and garlic were grown there. By the 1770s grapes, barley, wheat, lettuce, figs, peppers, squash and pumpkins were grown. By the 1790s, records show that apples, pomegranates, oranges were grown as well. Herbs grown at Mission Santa Barbara included: anise, basil, borage, cilantro, cumin, dill, epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), horehound, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, and valerian. Father Junipero Serra brought the castor oil plant to Mission San Diego in 1769 and the plant was used for its oil. Other early introductions grown at many of the missions (Padilla 1962; Streatfield, 1994) were: calla lilies, Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum), the Castilian rose (Rosa x damascena bifera), the musk rose (Rosa moschata), jasmine, pennyroyal, wild cherry (Prunus illicifolia), Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), date palm Phoenix dactylifera), Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) and native fan palm (Washingtonia filifera).

Utilitarian plants known to have been grown at most of the missions include: agave, cotton, flax and hemp—all used for fiber. Teasel was used for making combs to card wool. Indigo was grown for dye and palm fronds were used for roof thatching and for making brooms. The giant reed (Arundo donax) was used in ramadas to provide slatted shade. Gourds were raised to be cured and carved into bowls and spoons and cat’s claw acacia and Peruvian pepper tree were used for glue.

At Mission Santa Barbara, Tina Foss, Curator of the mission museum and Jerry Sortomme, Professor Emeritus of Santa Barbara City College have been actively restoring a huerta in the mission grounds. They have sourced several plants that can be traced to one or another of the early mission gardens. A cutting from a grape plant known to more than one hundred years old from Gypsy Canyon Winery was tested for DNA. The plant was shown through the tests to be the original ‘Mission Grape’ (known as the ‘Criolla Chica’ in Argentina,’ ‘Negra Corriente’ in Peru, and ‘Pais’ in Chile; Robinson, 1999). Another (untested) grape cutting was obtained from San Ignacio Mission in Baja California from a grape vine known to be more than 250 years old, thus dating from the time of the establishment of the missions.  Ancient cuttings of pear trees from La Purisima Mission in Baja (circa 1800) and from Rio Hondo may prove be the original pear variety ‘Padre.’

Some varieties of vegetables originally grown at the missions in the late 1700s and early 1800s are still available in commerce, and some might be sourced from other historic collections. Most of the herbs are still available; several old varieties of beans, squash and maize are still to be found, as well as lettuces, gourds, melons and chili peppers. Very few peas, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, and tomatoes have survived; however, I have sourced at least one late eighteenth or early nineteenth century variety of each of these.

DRAWINGS OF CURRENT GARDEN AND A HISTORIC RECONSTRUCTED HUERTA

The drawings I have made show: first, the original layout of structures at the mission, taken from drawings made in a survey of the site in 1933. The second drawing shows the current, historically inaccurate East Garden with cement paths, grass and the fountain moved about 30 feet east of its original location. Third, my plan for the reconstructed huerta, showing overall design of paths and beds, with the fountain restored to its central location. My fourth drawing shows a detail of one of the beds with mixed vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, typical of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century Spanish Colonial style. Existing large olive, palm and pine trees have been retained as part of the reconstructed design. The fifth illustration is a watercolor painting showing what the restored huerta would look like.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

AthanasiusSchafer.com. Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana.

Glybok, Shirley, 1972. The Art of the Spanish in the United States and Puerto Rico. NY:                  McMillan.

Brenzel, Katherine, Ed. 2001. Sunset Western Garden Book. Sunset Publishing, Menlo Park, CA.

Hayes, Virgina, Jan. 23, 2007. “A Huerta for Mission Santa Barbara” Santa Barbara Independent.

Padilla, Victoria, 1961. Southern California Gardens. Los Angeles: University of Caliifornia Press.

Los Angeles County Library.org. Mission San Fernando.

Rivera, Jose A and Thomas F. Glick, 2003. Local Control and Discretionary Authority: Protecting     the Acequia Bordo. From a paper presented at the 51st Congreso Internacional de Americanistas,         Santiago Chile, July 14-18, 2003.

Robinson, Jancis, Ed., 1999. The Oxford Companion to Wine. NY: Oxford University Press.

Streatfield, David C., 1994. California Gardens: Creativity and a New Eden. New York: Abbeville     Press.

 

 

GROWING HEIRLOOM PEAS ORGANICALLY

Standard

IMG_0208

Above: The Blue-Podded Pea, dating to before 1596

Peas love good, rich, moist loamy soils.  Gypsum may be added to heavy clay soils to lighten them, and organic compost is excellent for building mountain and valley soils poor in nutrients.  Fish bone meal, alfalfa meal, and kelp meal are amendments that will provide the complete range of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash to your garden plot necessary for successful vegetable production.  Remember that organic soils are alive with microbes, so food tastes better, is more nutritious, and is safe to eat.  Also, organic soils capture carbon out of the air, reducing heating of our planet’s atmosphere. 

Peas have been grown as a garden crop for centuries and seem to have been a popular vegetable through all that time.  Several heirloom varieties of peas still exist:

‘Blauwschokker’ (Blue-Podded) pea is an ancient variety so old it was described in Gerard’s Herball  written in 1596.  Plants are very healthy and productive.  The pods can be eaten as snow peas when picked early, used as shelling peas later, and dry well for use as soup peas.  The vines of the Blue-podded pea grow 60 to 72 inches tall and require a trellis.

‘Alaska’ is an heirloom pea from 1880.  It is early, ripens all at once, and like many heirloom varieties will dry and keep well.  It is excellent for soup.  The vines grow about 30 inches tall.

‘Tom Thumb’ heirloom pea from 1854 is a miniature pea variety that does not need to be trellised.  The vines grow to 8 or 9 inches tall and are suitable for containers and for growing in cold frames early and late in the season. 

‘Lincoln’ is a famous variety from 1908 that is adapted to warmer American summers.  The vines grow to about 28 inches tall and the pods produce 8 or 9 peas each. 

‘Wando’ is very adaptable to differing climates.  It is more heat resistant than most peas and can be planted later.  ‘Wando’ dates to 1943 and the vines grow about 30 inches tall.

Because peas can take some frost, even while quite young, they can be planted early.  Some people living in milder climates than Montana’s plant their peas on St. Patrick’s Day; 17 of March. 

 Here in Western Montana we make our first sowing April 15 to 20 depending on the weather and the soil temperature.   A second sowing usually is made July 1 (after first crop is harvested.)  It is efficient use of space and easy picking if trellises are set up in the garden bed.  The first crop bears from around June 15 -July 1, and the second crop bears from about September 15-October 25.

Plant your peas in full sun for best production.  The ideal growing temperature is 55–70 F., with 60-65 F. being ideal (peas prefer cool weather).  The optimum soil pH for peas is 5.5-7.5.  Peas will germinate between 40-85 degrees F., but 60-75 F. ideal.  Germination may take 6-17 days.  Direct-sow pea seed 1 inch deep and 1 inch apart.  Plant a few extra at the end of the rows to fill in later as mini transplants.  

Water well; keep the bed moist, not wet.  For the second (midsummer) planting, plant seeds 2-3” deep 1 inch apart, otherwise the same as spring.   Do not let plants dry out at any time, especially during flowering!  Water peas early in the day only, allowing leaves to dry early in the day–steady moisture is best.    

Some pests of peas are: gophers, aphids, birds, mice, cutworms, mites, leafhoppers, cucumber beetles, pea weevils, and various caterpillars.   Powdery mildew can be troublesome also, especially if soil becomes dry and air circulation and sunshine is limited.

To harvest: pick peas when the first pods reach full size: 4”- 5”, not smaller.  Pick snow peas before seeds start to swell.  Snap peas need to be picked when pods are full size, fat, and round with peas inside.  Check and pick every 3 days to keep plants producing.  The first peas ripen at the base of the plant—remove them carefully to not damage plants.  The harvest period should be 4-6 weeks long, for each planting.  Pick all (ready) pods to keep vines producing.  After harvesting keep cool, in high humidity and out of the sun. 

Keep freshly picked peas cool, in high humidity and out of the sun.   Store them in a cool location or in the refrigerator.  Picked pods last only 5-6 days.  Peas do freeze well and most varieties dry and store well. 

 

GROWING ORGANIC KOHLRABI

Standard

IMG_0862

GROWING ORGANIC KOHLRABI

Kohlrabi is a delicious vegetable that is easy to grow in the intermountain climate, yet it is  relatively unknown.  It is a form of cabbage, in the mustard family, the Brassicaceae.   It is botanically classified as Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes.   Kohlrabi is more well-known in Europe and Asia than in the U.S. and well deserves better recognition and use here.  This vegetable takes less space than other cabbage family member, is easy to grow and it is more tolerant of heat.   Insect infestations do not directly affect the most desirable part of the plant, the swollen stem.  Yes, the sweetest, juiciest part of the plant is its stem, which swells with moisture and goodness as the plant grows.  The leaves are edible also, and can be used like cabbage, but the spherical stem can be peeled and cut into cubes; or shredded; or sliced to eat fresh alone or in salads.   The stem is also good cooked and can be used in casseroles and soups. 

Several varieties of kohlrabi are available today, several of them open-pollinated heirloom types.  ‘Early White Vienna’ (55 days) has been grown since the 1850s and is probably the most popular one in gardens.  Early Purple Vienna’ (60 days) from before 1860, is a purple variant of the white.  Both types are remarkably heat and cold hardy for Brassicas.  ‘Superschmeltz’ (65 days) is a giant kind of kohlrabi with stems weighing up to 10 pounds.  This last variety can be left in the garden longer than the other two as it does not tend to become “woody”.  Consistent watering will improve the sweetness and tenderness of this vegetable.  Mulching kohlrabi with 3 or 4 inches of rotted straw will preserve moisture in the soil and will enable you to have great results with less watering, while keeping soil microbes alive.   It is noteworthy that mulched soils are living soils, with abundant soil fungi and microbes that can capture carbon out of the atmosphere.   Keep in mind that bare, un-mulched soils dry and erode, and actually release carbon rather than capture it. 

Organic production of kohlrabi is not difficult.  If you end up with an abundance of cabbage loopers and aphids, the swollen stem will be peeled and so is less affected visually by insects.  However, production will be much higher if you place row covers with breathable insect fabric over your crop and mulch heavily.   Your other Brassicas will benefit from this technique also—there will be no holes in cabbage leaves or worms in the cauliflower and broccoli.   BT, or Thuricide  (Bacillus thuringensis) can be used, but it is better for the environment to simply cover all crops rather than spray.  Insects develop resistance to BT over a few generations, so it should  be reserved for use in special circumstances.  

In Western Montana, we direct sow kohlrabi out April 21-May 1 depending on weather, for harvest in July-early August.   Plants can be started inside about March 1 to be set out around April 15, and harvest would begin in late June.  A second crop (in the same space in the garden) could be direct-seeded around July 15-Aug. 1 following the first crop’s harvests.  Some gardeners plant a new row of kohlrabi every three weeks all season long.  It is ok to plant in the same space within one season, but remember to rotate your crops year to year.  Do not plant the any members of the cabbage family in the same place they grew the previous year; in fact for the previous three years.  A four-year rotation of vegetable crops in your garden will feed your soil and reduce insect and disease infestations.

The germination temperature for kohlrabi is 40-100 degrees F. with 45-95 F. being ideal.  Germination time is usually 3-10 days.  In my experience the percentage of seeds of kohlrabi that sprout is usually low, so plant extra seed in pans or outside when seeding direct.   Water regularly, steadily, and evenly; keep moist, not wet.  Be sure to thin the plants if you direct seed, and mulch when they are about three inches high.  Pests include gophers, root maggots, aphids, cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, diamond back moths, and flea beetles.  Diseases that can appear are: clubroot, alternaria blight, blackleg, black rot, downy mildew, fusarium wilt and wirestem.  It has been shown that soils with a higher pH will reduce the chances of some diseases.  The best soil pH for Brassicas is 6.0-7.5.   Kohlrabi grows best in cool summers, but we still had a great crop last year, which was during the hottest summer any of us remember here in Western Montana. 

 

 

 

GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY

Standard

IMG_1055

ABOVE: A PICTURE OF ‘CAYENNE LONG SLIM’ HOT PEPPER

GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY

Peppers are one of the garden crops that must be started inside and transplanted out to the garden later, when weather has warmed.  Years ago, people grew more sweet peppers than hot, but now hot peppers are very popular here in the northern Rocky Mountain and plains region.  I will discuss some pointers on how to start and grow your plants organically and I will include some information on the many varieties available today. 

Peppers (Capsicum annuum) prefer warm days and nights to grow and produce well.  In our mountainous area, with a short growing season and cool nights, peppers benefit from protection from cold early and late in the season.  So, we time our planting for after the last frost (usually around May 15 here at 3,000 feet altitude) and find it beneficial to cover our plants for the night until temperatures warm.  Row covers, hot caps, even cardboard boxes will collect heat from the soil and release it during the night.  The warm conditions promote faster growth.  Organically enriched soil and the use of organic fertilizers will also speed up growth. 

Hot peppers take longer to germinate than sweet peppers.  Seeds of both types will germinate between 60-95 degrees, but 80-85 degrees is ideal.  The germ time for sweet peppers is 7-14 days; for hot peppers, 14-28 days.  Here, we usually start our plants in February.  A mix of peat, vermiculite and perlite makes a great seed starting mix, as it is sterile (no soil-borne diseases).  Peat pots are great for starting seeds as they can be planted right into the ground when plants are large enough.  A solid flat with a dome cover will keep the seeds moist until they sprout.  Pepper seeds do not need light to germinate, but lights over the plants will promote sturdy growth and prevent spindly, “leggy” growth.  If you do not have lights, put the plants in a warm spot in a south window as soon as they sprout. 

Nights should be 55 degrees or above before planting out into the garden.  (If you are at a high elevation, use row covers.)  Make sure to harden plants off before planting, by putting them outside for a few hours at a time (in shade).  Gradually give the plants more time outside and brighter light for about a week of time.  When you are sure weather has stabilized, plant them out.  If they are in peat pots, make sure the peat pots are very damp and plant the peppers deeper, with about 2 inches of soil over the pots, so they will degrade.   If not covered, peat pots tend to dry out and a plant cannot pierce the pot with its roots.  Protect your plants from cutworms with jugs or cans or paper rings.  Water regularly, keeping them moist, not wet.  Water early in the day only; allowing leaves to dry early in the day.  Watch for aphids, their worst pest.  A preventative spray of Garlic Barrier will deter aphids.  Follow directions and use garlic sprays very early in the day, so as to not interfere with the activities of bees and other beneficial insects.  You will only need to spray garlic three times in a whole season.  A foliar spray of liquid organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest Fish fertilizer will greatly increase the size and productivity of your plants.  This type of fertilizer is very low in salts, an important feature.  Worm castings will increase nitrogen levels in your soil and silica will strengthen stems. 

Insulating row covers (protection blankets) are very useful to extend our season for about 3-4 weeks.  These are more effective at lower temperatures than using poly film.   Mulch your peppers after soil is warm— June or early July, with red plastic or 2” organic straw.  Trim off all flowers until June 22, to enable plants to produce more heavily; otherwise, plants put all their energy into ripening an early crop and seasonal production is much lower. 

Here in the Mission Valley we put our peppers out about May 21-June 1 as weather permits.  Plant peppers about 14” apart.  Plant in full sun.  The growing temperature range for peppers is 55–85 degrees, with 75-80 being ideal.  Optimum soil pH is 5.5-7.0.  Peppers like even steady moisture—not wet soil conditions.  Try to practice regular, even watering; early in the day.

Pests of peppers include: gophers; leafhoppers; cutworms, leaf miners, hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, pepper weevils, mites, nematodes and aphids.  Diseases include: early blight, southern blight, anthracnose, bacterial spot and verticillium wilt. 

Harvest peppers when full size, 4-5 weeks from pollination + 4-5 weeks to ripen (about 9-10 weeks).  If the summer is cool, more time will be needed.  Harvest by cutting the fruit from the plant.  Check/pick every 3 days.  The first peppers should be ready about September 1 or earlier.  After harvesting keep cool, above 55 degrees, in high humidity and out of the sun.  Harvested fruit last about 7 days when stored out of the sun. 

Varieties (all open-pollinated, so seed can be saved each season):

‘King of the North’ heirloom sweet pepper (57 days to green, 65 days to red).   An early variety, grown for seed in the Mission Valley.  Fruit are 3-4” and production is good in our cool climate.

‘California Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (65 days to green, 75 days to red).  Another popular variety here, maturing a little later than ‘King of the North’, but more productive with larger fruit. 

‘Golden Cal. Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (60 days to green, 75 days to golden yellow).  A good, sweet variety for cool seasons, with large, 4” fruit. 

‘Purple Beauty’ sweet pepper (55 days to purple, 75 days to red).  A very productive, early variety with 3-4” fruit.

‘Chocolate Bell’ sweet pepper (70 days to green, 75 days to brown).  An interesting, early pepper that matures well and is grown for seed here in the Mission Valley. 

‘Jimmy Nardello’ heirloom sweet pepper (75 days to red).  A popular, 6-9” long, thin-skinned sweet pepper great for frying or drying.

‘Anaheim’ heirloom mildly-hot pepper (80 days to red).  The best pepper for stuffing.  An 8 inch long, thick-walled pepper that can be roasted, fresh dried, canned or stuffed and baked. 

‘Tesuque Chili’, Estacano Chili’, ‘San Felipe Chili’ heirloom chili peppers (about 70 days to red).  These three chili peppers are from Native American Pueblos in the Southwest.  They all are thin-walled, and excellent for drying.  They are excellent to use dried, ground up and added to dishes.  

‘Early Jalapeno’ heirloom hot pepper (60 days ).  The most popular hot pepper, used fresh and pickled.

‘Cayenne Long Slim’ heirloom hot pepper (70 days to red).  This pepper grows to about 6 or 7 inches long, is quite hot, and dries well.  Plants are very productive and early. 

‘Viet Hot Chili’ (95 days to red).  A very hot pepper grown locally (Mission Valley, Montana) for seed.  Plants must be started earlier than other peppers as they sprout slowly and mature slowly.   The fruit dry well.

‘Habanero’ heirloom chili pepper (95 days to red).   One of the hottest peppers available, it requires a long season, but is tops for flavor. 

 

 

SOME INTERESTING HOLIDAY GIFT PLANTS

Standard

 

Most of us are quite familiar with common garden geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) with their brightly colored blooms and leaves.  We usually grow these outside for summer bedding color.  Other (and not as well-known) geraniums are grown for their scented leaves.  They can be grown outside for bedding or put into mixed containers for scent, but they make excellent house plants. 

Scented-leaved geraniums have been grown since the 1600s and several are heirloom plants.  At one time more than 100 varieties were grown; each one with a singular, distinctive fragrance.   Several of the kinds still available are true species, some are selections out of species and a few are hybrids.   Fragrances include rose, lemon, mint, apricot, pineapple and coconut.  To release the scent of the leaves, simply gently brush against them or rub lightly with your finger.   It is pleasant to have fragrant plants in the house in winter, even without flowers.   How many of us have tried to bring plants with fragrant flowers into bloom in the winter?  It is not an easy task, especially with our short days, minimum window space.  But scented geraniums carry their scent year-round and are not difficult to grow. 

‘Skeleton Rose’, dating to about 1700, is one of the oldest scented geraniums around.  It has a delicious rose-lemon scent and beautiful, deeply-divided leaves.   Flowers appear in late spring and are lavender. 

‘True Rose’ has beautiful divided leaves of quite different shape from ‘Skeleton Rose’, and makes a slightly larger plant.  It has been grown since 1787 and the oil from its leaves is used in perfumes.   This variety has pink blooms in late spring. 

‘Peppermint’ has soft, velvety leaves with a fresh, minty smell.  This variety seems to like more water and cooler temperatures than other geraniums.  The plant can become larger than other kinds also.  ‘Peppermint’ has been grown since 1806.

‘Lemon Fizz’ is a twentieth century plant and is probably the most popular scented geranium today.  Its leaves release a wonderful, sweet, lemon fragrance that is comparable to true lemon.  

In general, I have found that scented-leaf geraniums prefer a more neutral pH (6.0) than most other geraniums, and like a bit more moisture.  It is best to let the plants get sub-moist, but not completely dry; then water them thoroughly so the water runs out the bottom of the pot.  A sign that your scented-leaf geraniums are being kept too dry is the presence of drying, browning leaves at the base of the plants.  A sign that they are being kept too wet is transparent, yellowing leaves.  A fast-draining, organic succulent potting mix is excellent.  These plants are easy to grow organically.  Aphids and spider mites are seldom troublesome, but if they appear, can be controlled easily with certified organic pest controls or by spraying the leaves with a jet of water, washing off the bugs. 

Christmas cacti (Zygocactus spp.) have no fragrance, but what a show they give in the darkest days of the year!  Their flowers are silky and translucent, and bloom in shades of pink, red, white and lavender.   Unlike most cacti, Christmas cacti have no spines, but possess unusual, flat leaves.  In their native habitat, they live in trees.  They like a moist situation and prefer to become sub-moist before they are watered.  They do not like to dry out completely either, and will die if they get too dry.   Likewise, they will die if they are watered too much, so try to keep the plants moist.  A rich organic potting soil works well, and plants prefer to become bit pot bound, when they bloom the best.  In fall, winter and early spring Christmas cacti can be given a spot in a sunny window, but in summer they need part shade or some protection from full sun. 

Christmas cacti are daylight sensitive.  Flower buds are set in fall, when days are shorter and nights longer (12 to 14 hour nights).  Temperatures of 50 degrees to 55 degrees F. will encourage bloom.  The plants must have complete darkness at night to set flower buds, so when you are trying to get them to bloom, make sure there are no lights on in the room or outside the window at night. 

OCTOBER GARDENING CALENDAR

Standard

Hidatsa squash

 

Fall started all of a sudden this year!  Now is the time to bring in any remaining vegetables to ripen, or cover them with a row cover designed to take frosts into the mid-20s.  Plant bulbs, wildflower mixes and hardy annuals.  Harvest apples and pears, and sow seeds of hardy trees and shrubs. 

With row covers and cold frames as protection crops can still be harvested into November.  Ventilate plants in frames and give air and water freely.  When it is cold, cover with mats or straw and do not let the sun shine on an open frame full of frozen plants.   

Finish digging potatoes early in the month in case we get a heavy frost. 

Harvest Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, spinach and herbs.  Harvest and store cabbages late in the month: turn them upside down to dry, take off extra leaves and place them in a bin of sand in a cellar.  Or, place the cabbages in a trench filled with sand, cover them with more sand and place a water-proof cover (open at both ends) over the trench to keep them dry.  Close the ends with straw when frosty.  Thin spinach and lettuce planted last month.  If you have protected your pepper plants from frosts and heavy frost is on the way, pull up the plants and hang them upside down to ripen fruits.  Harvest ripe squash and pumpkins, leaving a one to one and a half inch stem.  Dig, divide and transplant garlic and shallots.  Hang onions to dry in an airy cool place.  Cut asparagus and perennial herbs back before winter.  Carrots may be left in the ground and covered with two feet of straw, leaves or peat moss to pick as needed most of the winter.   To prevent voles, cover the carrot bed with hardware cloth before you place the straw. 

Plant bulbs this month, finishing by November 15; give a top dressing of bone meal to the previous season’s bulbs beds.  Divide and replant peonies and plant wildflower seed. 

Divide perennials late in the month, after cool weather begins, into November.  Sow seeds of late-blooming perennials (to sprout in spring).  Trim lavenders and other shrubby herbs to a few inches and give them a light dressing of manure. 

If not already done, dig tuberoses, dahlias, amaryllis, gladioli and other tender bulbs.  Spread them out to dry in a warm room, clean off hair roots and decaying foliage and pack them up in dry boxes of sawdust.  Keep your bulbs in a cool, dark, dry, frost-free location.  Weed established bulb beds and spread bone meal as a top dressing. 

Harvest apples and pears for storage when the trees are dry.   To test for ripeness gently twist fruit gently one way or the other.  If it comes off easily it is ready to pick.  Place harvested fruit in heaps in a shed to dry further for 10 to 14 days.  Examine each fruit for bruises, which will cause rot in storage.  Wipe each one dry, wrap in paper and store in barrels; or, wipe dry and place in dry sand in the barrels.  Keep in a cool, dry cellar away from frost. 

Transplant trees, shrubs and fruit trees late in month. 

Watch for leafhoppers on roses and spray before severe frosts occur to get last generation before winter.  To protect tender roses over the winter, mound each plant with soil about 6 inches deep and place a layer of evergreen branches over that.  In the spring the soil can be removed gradually, about an inch at a time.  In the spring, uncover the plants gradually.  Use a gentle jet of water from a hose once a week or so, finishing about May 20.   If a heavy late frost threatens, place the evergreens over the crown of the plant again, removing them when weather warms. 

 

 

AUGUST GARDENING CALENDAR

Standard

FullSizeRender (19)

AUGUST GARDENING CALENDAR

GENERAL

August is often dry and hot, so be sure to water your crops and ornamentals that need irrigation to produce, especially those that must not dry out (primroses, chrysanthemums, etc.).  Pay attention to the timing of harvesting vegetables and cut flowers.  Harvest and dry herbs also.  Collect seed from perennials, shrubs, trees to plant; gather flowers and pods to dry.  Prepare soil and beds for planting lawns, fall bulbs, perennials and roses using organic amendments.   Be sure to bring in house plants when night temperatures drop below 45 degrees.  Apply potash in the form of kelp meal or alfalfa meal mid-month to harden trees and shrubs for winter.  Stop watering garlic, storage onions and shallots in late July or about August first.  The bulbs will need to dry off in the ground for two weeks before digging.  Slow down watering of ripening potatoes when foliage dries.  For long-season winter squashes, pumpkins or melons Pinch off female flowers to hasten ripening before frosts of those set on the vines. 

VEGETABLES

During the first week of August, direct sow spinach, radishes, turnips, peas and lettuce.  In cold frames, greenhouse or under tunnels, sow cabbage and cauliflower for late fall/winter frame crops. 

Other crops that can be sown  and grown on inside a frame or tunnel for extended harvest into winter include: beets, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, chicory, dandelion, kohlrabi, lettuce, mizuna, tatsoi, onions, onion sets, parsley, parsnips, radishes, sorrel, and turnips. 

When harvesting cabbage, cut heads above the bottom leaves at a steep angle to avoid rain or irrigation water rot.  After new cabbage buds appear, thin to 3-4 per plant for a crop of mini cabbages.  Cabbage can be prevented from cracking by withholding water and root pruning on one side or twisting the head ¼ turn.

Harvest onions, garlic and shallots.  Dry them on screens in a shed or garage.  Hang dried bulbs in net or jute bags to keep them dry.  

FLOWERS

This month, direct sow seeds of biennials and early blooming perennials.  Sow bulb seeds.  Transplant seedling perennials out into nursery beds.   Direct sow pansy seed in place for next summer.  Cut back violas selected for division.  Encourage and peg down runners to replace mature violet plants.  Prepare frames to over winter violets to bloom in winter. 

Repot auricula primroses in first week of August; take of offsets and pot up.  Sow fresh auricula seed now, saving half for January/February.  

FRUIT

Tie paper bags loosely over grape clusters to protect from birds. 

TREES, SHRUBS AND ROSES

Do not give any nitrogen to your shrubs, roses and trees as that will cause late soft growth easily damaged by frosts.  It is helpful to apply potash instead, as described above.  In August you can plant lawn seed.  Make sure your soil is raked smooth and roll or stamp the seed in so it will not blow away.  A light mulch of dry grass clippings or pine needles will protect the seed until it germinates.  Water the seeded area three or four times a day for a few minutes each time to keep soil moist.  Usually, grass seed comes up within 10 days. 

GROWING LETTUCE

Standard

Lettuce 'Jericho'

GROWING LETTUCE

Lettuce is one crop we can grow here in Montana over a longer season than most vegetables.  Lettuce and many greens can be direct-seeded as early as March 21, even though the soil is still cool.  The minimum germination temperature for lettuce is about 35 degrees F. and 66 degrees F. is ideal.  A cold frame or tunnel placed over the seedbed will warm the soil and hasten germination, especially if it is in a sunny spot.  After planting, lettuce will be ready to cut in about three or four weeks.  Sow lettuce in succession, every two weeks or so, to provide a continuous harvest all season.  Lettuce prefers cooler weather and will turn bitter and bolt early if it is hot.  In hotter weather, plant successive crops about 10 days apart to ensure a constant supply.  Later, in cooler fall weather, stretch out the days a bit.  Lettuce can be sown as late as October 20th.  Use a poly tunnel or cold frame to protect late sowings from hard frosts.  In a cold frame, lettuce can be harvested quite late in the year.  A few varieties that tolerate colder weather and frosts include: ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ an old French heirloom; ‘Red Oakleaf’; ‘Rouge d’Hiver’; ‘Valdor’ and ‘Valmain’. 

Sow lettuce at the rate of 60 seeds per foot in a 3” wide band in rows 12” apart .  Cover seed only 1/8” deep and firm gently.  Full sun is the best spot for lettuce.  Growing temperatures for lettuce range from 45 to 75 degrees F. with 60-65 degrees being ideal.   There are types of lettuce that tolerate warm weather better than others.  These varieties include: ‘Black-Seeded Simpson’; ‘Deer’s Tongue’; ‘Jericho’; and ‘Oakleaf’.  Your plants will grow best in cool days with cool nights.

The best soil pH for lettuce is about 6.0-7.5.  Since the plants have rather weak root systems, it is best if your soil is rich and moist.  Germination time varies from 2-15 days.   In the spring season, protect from cutworms with cardboard collars, or two layers of newspaper, or a layer of aluminum foil.   Water regularly; keep moist but not wet.  Water early in the day only, allowing leaves to dry before evening.  Regular watering is excellent, but do not allow soil to become saturated for long periods.  Lettuce does best with steady, even watering, especially in summer.

Pests on lettuce (besides cutworms) include: gophers, tarnished plant bugs, thrips, aphids, leaf miners, flea beetles, slugs, mites and nematodes.  One way to minimize pests is by growing your crop under insect fabric stretched over row covers.  Some diseases of lettuce are: early blight, verticillium wilt, mosaic, yellows and rust, but these are usually not troublesome here in Montana. 

Cut lettuce early in the morning with scissors, cutting only as much as you need for a day or two.  Try to keep it clean as you cut.  When ready to use, wash carefully.  After washing/drying make sure the leaves are not too wet when they are put into bags.  Stuff the bags loosely with the lettuce.  A person may add edible flowers of nasturtiums, pansies, or calendulas to a mix of greens to brighten up the look of a salad.  Keep cut lettuce as cool as possible to prevent wilting (45- 55 degrees, in high humidity and out of the sun).

GROWING EGGPLANT

Standard

Eggplant New York Improved

GROWING EGGPLANT

Eggplant is not often grown by home gardeners in Western Montana, but a good crop can be harvested and seed saved for next year if you give it what it needs.  Eggplant is native to warm, subtropical regions in India and China where it has been cultivated for more than 6,000 years.  The botanical name of the species is Solanum melongena and it is a member of the plant family Solonaceae , which means it is related to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and petunias.  I grow eggplant in my USDA Certified Organic garden in the same rotation group as these relatives.  (It is important to rotate your garden crops in family groups so that they are not planted in the same spot for four years or more.  This builds soil and reduces risks of disease and insects.) 

Since eggplant starts growing rather slowly, it should be started inside and transplanted out to the garden later, after danger of frost is past.  I start mine inside under lights about February 1, and grow them on in bright light.  Here in the Mission Valley, our average last frost in spring is about May 17th or so, but of course this can vary by a couple weeks each way in any given year.  Eggplant seed will germinate from 60-95 degrees F., but 75-90 ideal.  The time to germination is 14-21 days.  

Harden off your plants before setting out, giving them more and more time outside each day and more sun, for about a week.  Plant them in full sun.  I usually transplant my started eggplants about May 21 to June 1, unless it is very cold and rainy.  Eggplants will grow well under hoop row covers with open ends, because they really like heat, especially at night.  Your soil pH should be 5.5 to 6.8 for best success.  Set plants about 18 inches apart all ways.  The plants grow best when temperatures are 50–95 degrees, and 70-75 degrees is ideal.   

Protect your young plants from cutworms with jugs or cans or paper rings.  Water your plants regularly, allowing them to get just sub-moist, then water.  In my experience they seem to prefer even moisture.  Try to water early in the day only, allowing leaves to dry before nightfall.  Watch for aphids, their worst pest.  You could use fabric over hoops during summer to prevent insects.  Some other pests that might bother eggplant include: gophers; leafhoppers; cutworms, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, mites, stink bugs, nematodes and tomato fruit worms.  Some diseases you might encounter are early blight, late blight, tobacco mosaic, fusarium, and verticillium wilt.  An application of garlic spray early in the season and followed again with the same once a month until autumn will discourage leafhoppers, which carry and continue into fall to prevent curly top. 

To harvest your eggplant, gather when full size, while skin is still shiny and when fruit comes away from the vine easily.  If the skin has turned dull, the seeds are ripening and it is too old, but of course an over-ripe fruit is worth saving for seed for next year).  Check and pick every three days to keep plants producing.  The first eggplants should be ready about September 1.  After harvesting keep the fruit cool, above 55 degrees, in high humidity, and out of the sun.  Fruits last about 7 days. 

A variety that has been successfully grown for seed here in our area is ‘Early Black’ eggplant.  It matures 65 days from transplanting out.  Another good variety is ‘New York Improved’, and heirloom American variety from 1865.  It will be ready to eat in about 75 days from transplanting.