Starting Peppers

Peppers are temperamental to start. The joy of starting tomatoes is that they just go for it, in most cases you get all seeds you start germinating within a few days – I only put one seed in per cell. Not so with peppers! It’s like pulling teeth.

One problem is seed life, which is unpredictable. In Ashland I felt confident that pepper seed would last for a few years, but here in Lebanon (much more humid), pepper seed may have trouble after only a year or two. I started test for this, in 2016, just to see what different storage life was. I took a couple of packets (Orange Sun from Nichols) and divided them into three batches. In 2020, did a side-by-side germination test:

  • Stored in the box with other seeds, not airtight, room temperature: 0 out of 10 germinated
  • Stored in canning jar in the fridge: 3 out of 10 germinated
  • Stored in canning jar in the chest freezer: 9 out of 10 germinated

I am now storing all my peppers in the freezer! Even fresh seed, though, can take some days to germinate and will not germinate 100%.

Here is my system:

I start peppers right after the tomatoes, between March 15 and March 30. This allows time to start another round for anything that doesn’t germinate. Peppers get planted out as much as a month later than tomatoes.

All pepper seeds are started on shop rags or paper towels. (Watch out for cheap paper towels that dissolve after being damp for a week). This lets you see what has germinated and not have lots of empty cells.

Get the paper towels pretty wet to start with, later they should be damp but not dripping; put the seeds on, put in a label, and fold into quarters. Put a stack of wet paper towels into a small plastic bag and fold over but don’t seal, it should NOT be airtight. Put in a warm place. I usually put mine on top of the grow light over the tomatoes, but be careful it’s not too hot.

Every day, check the seeds for germination – a little white root tip; it also airs the paper towels and prevents too much mildew. I’ve seen germination in a couple of days, but it can take a week or 10 days… or not germinate at all. Re-dampen the paper towels as needed. I remove a seed as soon as I see any root; left to themselves, the root can grow though the paper towel and get damaged on removal.

When you see germination, very gently transfer the germinated seed to a cell tray. I usually use 50-cell trays for this. Use seed-starting mixture (I use potting soil mixed with a lot of perlite and sifted to remove the giant pieces – the key is something that drains well). Plant about 1/4″ deep. Water, label and put on a humidity cover. Set tray on a heat mat; it will need to be kept warm and moist until the seedling has emerged from the soil. I don’t put under grow lights until something has emerged from the soil, but grow lights do add some warmth. Not every seed will make it but usually only 2-3 failures out of a tray of 50.

Once the first seedling is up, it goes under a grow light. I try to leave the humidity cover on until all the seedlings have emerged from the soil, but it doesn’t always work. The grow lights are on 16 hours a day; sometimes 24 hours. While I think plants ought to have light-darkness cycles, they just seem to want more light than the grow lights provide and I haven’t seem problems with 24-hour lighting.

The seedlings will start with two seed leaves, then get their first set of true leaves. If your soil does not have any fertizlizer (seed starting mix might not), then you’ll want to very gently fertilize once there are true leaves. I use a all-purpose granular 7-5-4, a pinch per cell and mix in. Using a liquid fertilizer is easier but be very careful to make it mild – it’s quite easy to burn the little roots. My potting soil already contains nutrients so I wait until the last-germinated have their true leaves and the first-germinated are on their second true leaves.

Once all the plants have a couple of sets of true leaves, I make as much effort to get them into real sunshine as possible, while keeping them warm. Peppers can be permanently stunted by exposure to excess cold. The risk is temperatures under 50 degrees, or possibly under 55 degrees, and I’m not sure how long at this temperature it takes to do damage. You’ll know since in the garden, they stay small and stunted and somewhat twisted. So, as much sun as possible but not at the risk of chills.

Pepper plants get planted out as late as possible, for me that’s usually into June when the ground is warm and the days are long. Even then, I put a 40%-50% black shade cloth over the rows, which keeps the wind off, and helps keep them a bit warmer at night (and also helps against sunburn). This stays on for most of June until the real heat of summer starts. You can’t coddle peppers too much.

Oddly, peppers can handle the chills of late fall much better than tomatoes. We put blue tarps over the plants in late September or October, and the peppers keep ripening, long after all the tomato vines are past.

Insect love…

It’s rather distressing to read about the loss of insects. Like David Attenborough said, the planet can manage without humans but without insects, we’re toast.

In a small way, I see this in my greenhouse, in which I take an annual survey of paper wasps the third week of August. The reason is that if there are too many nests and too much activity I take out a few hives to make it a little safer for guests. The paper wasps are good neighbors but the one time I was stung I think she landed on me my accident and didn’t like being brushed off.

But the last few years have been low paper wasp. It’s got me worried. I rely on them to deal with caterpillars and they are good with aphids, too.

One thing that I may be doing is treating the peppers with Neem. While tomato and basil are very easy to grow, come late spring it’s an ongoing struggle to keep aphids off of the peppers and eggplants. Since you can’t sell plants with bugs, and hand-picking is an endless task, I’ve been using a bit of Neem, which is about as gentle as you can get. But I’ve seen the ladies looking for aphids on the peppers and I worry. So…

I’m going to give up trying to sell pepper and eggplant starts. The peppers have always been a headache since seed life and germination is so unpredicatable, I get so worried about their chills, and I just don’t find all that much excitement in pepper varieties. And perhaps the greenhouse can be an insect sanctuary. I stopped treating the scale since the times I had whitefly was after I used some kind of oil treatment on the citrus. In the small scale of a greenhouse the delicate balance of nature is more visible and throwing some chemicals in just has unforeseen and usually not great consequences.

Duck, duck, goose

We had a little free time this weekend. We were planning to go on the Peterson Butte hike; this mountain is in full view from our house, it’s open for a climb one day a year, and we have never actually made it. But heavy rain was forecast, and hiking in pouring rain didn’t sound that appealing. So, instead, we started shopping for turkey chicks; and we (well, I) happen to notice there were little goslings in at Wilco. And I’ve always kind of wanted a goose. And I’ve been reading about geese lately, since becoming such a fan of duck confit. And also, Jay is a very tolerant husband when it comes to adventures in farming.

Sooooo the short story is we now have two little geese setup in a brooder in the greenhouse! They are actually literally under the grow lights, since the box with lights is setup under the table with the grow lights. We did also pick up a batch of turkeys, which are in a separate box… but they are boring.

goslings
Baby geese look just like very large, homely ducklings.

These goslings were “assorted”, so we don’t know what varieties they will turn out to be, and I haven’t been succesful in guessing. This is kind of a problem for me. However, there aren’t that many kinds of geese offered commercially, so hopefully it will become clear as they grow up. And if the confit thing turns out to be relevant, it won’t be a long-term problem.

Geese are our first new (animal) species on the farm in almost a decade; the last one (hard to believe) was the dog in October of 2005. The last new proper farm animal was bees earlier in 2005. When we first got the farm, we (well, I) was so curious about new things and new animals… we got ducklings and goats the same week in 2002, which was a little much, and instituted a one-new-species-per-month limit. But there’s so much to do with these many kinds of animals, trying to keep yet more species happy has always seemed too much. We’ll see how the geese go, how different they are or if they are just like extra large ducks.

Cooking duck

Duck is tricky to cook. It’s hard to mess up a chicken, but a badly-cooked duck is pretty much inedible. Given that we need ducks to deal with slugs in this wet climate, and how easy it is to hatch out a bunch of duck eggs in the incubator, we do end up having some ducks butchered every year, and so we have been working out, with fear and trepidation, how to cook them.

Duck can be quite delicious – it’s more flavorful than chicken, and completely different. The meat is dark, and breast meat is usually served rare, where is has a kind of meaty, beefy quality. The richness (for which you can read fattiness) is more like pork; while beef and lamb fat are unpleasant, pork fat (e.g. bacon) and duck fat are tasty in themselves and good for cooking.

The best thing I’ve ever made from duck – possibly the best thing I’ve ever made, period – is confit of duck. This basically just means slowly braising in duck fat. It intensifies the duck flavor, and the duck is meltingly tender.

Here’s the recipe I use:

Duck Confit
4 duck leg/thigh pieces, skin on, excess fat trimmed and reserved
3 tablespoon kosher salt
4 sprigs thyme
4 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves, crushed
about 4 cups duck fat and/or olive oil

Sprinkle salt over duck pieces. Sandwich the pieces, skin side out, with herbs and garlic in between. Put on a wire rack in a large container (so moisture can drain), and refrigerate 12-36 hours.
Wipe excess salt and seasonings off duck pieces. Arrange them, skin side down, in a deep baking dish or ovenproof saucepan. Tuck reserved duck fat trimmings between pieces. Cover with more duck fat or olive oil.
Cover and bake at 200°-225° (the pot should be under a simmer and just barely cooking). Cook for 4-5 hours, until meat is falling off bone. Remove duck from the fat, wipe off excess, and serve.

To store, remove from fat and pack pieces in a large glass jar. Strain the cooking fat, and separate the fat from any liquids. Pour the fat over the duck, making sure it’s entirely covered. It will keep for a long time in the refrigerator and can be frozen. When you want them, remove from the jar and scrape off the fat, and reheat in a frying pan.

Oxheart Carrot

Back in the old farm, in the dreadful waterlogged rocky clay, I used to grow a kind of carrot called Oxheart carrot. They are large, round carrots, more beet shaped than carrot shaped, and since they are short and fat they are better for dense and wet soil. I like them in stews and roasted dishes, where you want a lot of carrot for the amount of peeling effort.

Carrot seed lasts a few years, and then, one year, I couldn’t find them any more. They were out of stock or not available from the mail order catalogs… no problem for any particular year, but then it was the same story next time I looked. Then it looked like no one among the hundreds of people on seed saver’s exchange member’s listing had it. Heirloom varieties get lost when this kind of thing happens, when it is dropped from commercial listings and no individuals take it on.

I posted on the SSE forums, and no one really knew what was going on. But I found a few folks with a little seed, and Sand Hill let me have two packets, and from that, I was determined to grow them for seed. A few others on the SSE forums were also going to do that, but still, you can’t just wait around for “Someone” to do “something” about a problem. I’m not saying Oxheart Carrot is the best carrot ever, but it’s too good and too unique to let it disappear.

Unfortunately, we live in a place where the Queen Anne’s lace spreads far and wide in late summer. This crosses freely with carrots, which makes saving seed that will produce sweet orange carrots, not stringy white QAL roots, into a Problem.

The greenhouse was my solution. Carrots are biennial, the first year they just grow root and if you don’t eat it, the second year they flower and seed. I grew the carrots the first year in the regular garden. In winter, I dug them up and replanted in a set of big pots in the greenhouse. For carrots, you need at least 50 plants to have sufficient genetic diversity, so it was a bunch of huge pots, but the carrots were planted fairly close together; there would be less seed from each carrot, but the diversity is more important.

The greenhouse, being warmer, allowed the carrots to sprout earlier in the year, and flower well before any Queen Anne’s lace sprouted. Come midsummer, as the carrots were finishing up their flowering, I got extra vigilant; and started removing any new flowers umbrels from the carrots, and stopped watering them. The carrots stalks and flowers got about 6′ high (including the pot), and needed to be tied up. But by and by the green seeds appeared, and then matured and turned brown and were ready to collect and winnow.

I offered them in the SSE yearbook and those who ordered some have reported that they are very happy, the carrot seed germinated well and no mention of crossing, so I feel fairly confident that the queen anne’s lace didn’t contaminate the seed.

This year I’m relieved to see Oxheart offered in the SSE glossy catalog, and in the Territorial catalog. The pressure is off, at least for now. While my efforts aren’t what saved this carrot… I do think the energy and determination is not for nothing.

Cold hardiness, as seen in late winter

The grass has started growing and the crocus are almost but not quite blooming, which means it’s late winter, even though we are technically just starting the middle third of winter.

We had a particularly low cold snap (18 degrees) in November, and most of the brasicas froze out. The Gigante Kohlrabi seems to be the hardiest, even more so than the regular kale; we have one ultra-tough kale (both texture and resilience) that has done fine, though, and cilantro is not bothered. An interesting and unusual green, Sculpit, looks better now than it did in the summer, it apparently loves the cold damp weather and adds welcome green. Sorrel also would be doing fine except for the chickens. Carrots were sadly damaged by the frost, the parsnips are fine, and we haven’t ventured a beet lately.

The Muna peppers (Mucho Nacho dehybridization/cold-tolerant pepper project) in the unheated greenhouse are looking rough, but it didn’t get as cold as last year, so there are green (if ratty-looking) leaves, and new peppers are showing. The senior (full blood) Mucho Nacho will be four years old in a few months. The impressive survival was the Great Cold Snap of ’13, when it got down to zero degrees here. I did run the small heater in the greenhouse, but there still light frost inside; the peppers died back to sticks, but they respouted come spring.

In the greenhouse, the holy basil has some green leaves left on it; that would never happen with real basil.

An a couple of trays of lettuce, brassicas and onions are starting to get their first real leaves.

Sheep death

Sad day Friday – we found the body of one of our sheep, lying in the stream.  It looked like she might have tangled her foot in her fleece and lost her balance, and fell into the water and couldn’t get out; probably on Thursday, a day of heavy rain.

This is our first large-animal death (well, other than being butchered for meat… which is different, somehow).  So it goes.  The unreasonable joy of lambs in the spring is balanced by cold dreary death in winter.

Lambs in happier days

Lambs in their younger, happier days of Spring

“Cooked” makes it sound harder than it is

Omnivore’s Dilemma was wonderful; while there were irritating bits, these were not so noticeable, in the wealth of wonderful information and perspective. Unfortunately, there’s much less wealth of information in Cooked, so the irritating bits are much more visible.

Yes, if you have hundreds of hours to focus on baking bread and take lessons from award-winning bakers you can make a great loaf, and I’m sure his are delicious, but not like the humble loaves I bake; and no, I don’t chop my onions finely for my stews, yet we eat them with enjoyment. It’s possible to cook from scratch ingredients (many home grown), and have it not take a long time; and while it may not be haute cuisine, it will taste pretty good. Pollan notes that as a culture we are interested in watching cooking even when we don’t do it; this book seems to fit right in, we are reading about him doing things that sound quite inaccessible (and I’ve done some of these things myself, so it’s not like lack confidence).

This book seems to make the divide in our food culture even larger, rather than bridging the gap; the line between those that take their time to cook wonderful meals with organic ingredients from the farmer’s market, and those that don’t have the time or finances and so don’t cook, and just eat fast food. There’s a whole lot of different interesting things that lie in between the San Francisco artisan sourdough loaf and Wonder bread. We’ve been making almost all our bread for years; it’s not exciting and artisanal and it takes very little time, we don’t gush over it and write about it or anything.

Having said all this, Pollan still is a great writer, I did learn somethings… I am more diligent about the wholewheat flour, and mix it with water and let it rest for a few hours before proceeding with breadmaking.

Perhaps I’m too jaded, the first time you read about fermentation may be that much more exciting than the umpteenth time (but I do recommend you go directly to “Wild Fermentation” if you want to be inspired to ferment)

Fava Beans

Fava beans are fairly new for us; we’ve been growing them off and on, but never really processed many for cooking. After trying once to peel the fussy little beans and getting a tiny bit of bean puree, it just seemed like too much work.

PENTAX Image

But this year we grew Broad Windsor (from Territorial seed), which produces really enormous beans, cutting down the work significantly. They say “quarter sized” and while I’m not sure if that’s quite true, the beans are much thicker than a quarter.

They were very easy to grow; just stuck seeds in the ground in fall, and weeded a couple of times. Only planted a small patch, less than 3′ by 5′.

PENTAX Image

A hailstorm in May caused them to lie down, but didn’t bother them particularly, though it did cause the patch up to take up quite a lot more space. I had to tie them up so I could reach the back of the bed; the main path is overgrown with borage, which I’m leaving for the bees.

After the tomatoes and peppers are planted, I’m not as busy, so I’ve had time to pick favas. So far we’ve got 15 pounds of pods but there’s at least 10 pounds more left.

To prepare fava beans, you shell them like peas.

PENTAX Image

Then blanch briefly – I blanching in boiling water for 1 minute, then put in cold water to stop the cooking. Then peel the skins from each and every bean – but after blanching, the skins just pop off.

My favas may be older and/or have thicker skins, but I’ve been piercing the skin with my thumbnail before squeezing out the bean. It’s a lot of repetitive work, but not unpleasant; it’s rather like knitting.

PENTAX Image

The peeled beans are beautiful, bright green, and tender; they have a fresh flavor, a little pea-like but more savory than sweet. You can see in the picture the big container of discarded empty peels and the smaller container of vivid green favas, ready to cook.

By my calculations – which don’t entirely agree with the internets – 10 pounds of fava bean pods would yield about 4 pounds of shelled beans and about 2.5 founds of peeled and ready to eat beans, maybe 7 cups.

I’ve been looking around the web for fava recipes, but it doesn’t seem to be that challenging to cook with them.

There’s the Alice Water’s puree where you simmer the favas with garlic, rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper, then puree; it is delicious. But a regular hummus is also delicious.

We added them into a sauteed with vegetables and served with pasta.

I really think you could just put them in anything and they would be pretty and tasty and nutritious. And from what I understand they freeze well. We’ve had so much that I’ve been freezing the peeled beans.

It’s so much fun to find a new vegetable that’s tasty, easy to grow, and doesn’t ripens when we have no time to care! Not that there isn’t food out there – there are snow peas, a little broccoli, and lettuce, the cabbages are heading and the beets are nearly eating size.

Happy Earth Day!

We observe Earth Day by planting trees. This year: a standard apple and american persimmon, a gingko, elderberry, oregon grape, and willow down by the stream, and the Mirabelle plum in the flowering border. Also planted the mystery tree up by the street, where the fig didn’t make it. The mystery tree came north with us but I have NO idea what it is… though the buds do look like those on the linden.

Today was very warm and sunny (and humid… after weeks of rain) so planting trees was mostly endurance. Especially the ones in the far pasture, since we have to ford the stream and cross soggy pasture with the wheelbarrows of dirt.

But when not planting trees in the hot sun, what a beautiful day! The bees are buzzing in the cherry tree,s maples, and kale (two of the three hives made it through the winter), birds are chirping and carrying on, everything is budding or blooming or growing.

The garden paths are built or cleared, and all are mulched. Planted potatoes, and mulched onions and other early plantings… the broccoli/cabbage was looking droopy but responded well to watering. Jay’s working on a second door to the duck room, which will be used for the meat chickens that are now in the brooder (after the ducks move into the old coop). He’s also working on fencing for the north-side pasture, but the grass is over knee-high so we’ll have to get it mowed before sheep can deal with it. They will move out there sometime after the other two sheep give birth, which could be any day now.