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.

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.

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.


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′.


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.


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.


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.

Lost crops of the Incas

Consider the yacon.

I’ve been growing this for some years now.  It’s easy to grow, fairly attractive plant, at the end of the season you get these large brown tubers to eat and small nobby red parts that easily keep inside overwinter to start next year’s plants.

But we don’t eat them.  They are kind of like a water-chestnut but more juicy, slightly sweet.  What to do with them?  Me, I put them in bags or buckets and they sit around until they go bad.

So again this year I’m following this system, and we got to the stage last weekend where one of the buckets of yacon that’s been sitting in the garage since October got tossed into the compost pile Then yesterday, I ran through the pouring rain to harvest some kale to put in a salad, and I notice that the rain had washed clean the blackened, gnarly skins and they actually looked pretty good.  So I went to the not-yet-composted bag of yacon that was sitting in the den, and pulled one out and scrubbed and peeled it.  Wow… still good!  And the 5 months storage had made it much sweeter.  We sliced it and added it to the salad, where the texture was tender but juicy and a little crisp and the sweetness really came though.  It discolored a little even from kitchen to eating… but not badly enough to be a problem. This is my very first time eating yacon as part of a meal… or for that matter eating it while sitting down.

Yacon is one of the lost crops of the Incas, it’s a sunflower relative that produced tubers.  In Ashland, I had tried – and failed both times – to grow Oca, a tuberous oxalis.  I have some tubers and will try again this year.  Since last year, I’ve had mashua growing, with mixed success; mashua is a tuber-forming type of nasturtium.  And I just purchased Ulluco, which is related to Malabar spinach; you can also eat the leaves so I feel happier about the possibilities, although Malabar spinach is, well, mucilaginous.

These four tubers are among the Lost Crops of the Incas, a set of edible plants domesticated in the highlands of South America and described in a book of that name.  These plants would include the potato except that the potato is definitely not lost.  Besides many tubers, this includes Quinoa, Amaranth, Chilean Guava, Pepino and others.  The problem of growing many of them is that they are from high elevation tropics – the equator runs through Ecuador, after all – so while they are adapted to coolish temperatures, usually they don’t take frost, and day length issues can cause problems.  For example, Oca just starts to form tubers when the days get shorter in fall, and may not form anything if the frosts come before they have time to do their thing.

The Ulluco came from Fry Road nursery in Albany, who produce a lot of greenhouse tropicals.  They have a number of other interesting tubers, like taro and canna root as well as coffee plants.  But given that it’s taken me more than 5 years to go from growing to eating the yacon, and my list of as-yet-untasted lost crops; it’s better not to try to push things too much….

Seed companies

So, now that I’m living only 15 miles from Nichol’s Garden Nursery, I have a chance to pop in. (It’s actually much more inconvenient for me since we move – I used to drive past Nichols twice a month during daylight hours, and it was well positioned for a break from driving. Oh well). Anyway, I’ve been having less than warm feelings about Nichols since about 2007, when Monsanto bought Semenis and I took a strong position against Semenis seeds. I wrote to Nichols and they weren’t very helpful, they were relucant to clarify sources on their various varieties. I had a little better luck with Territorial, perhaps since I stopped in their store in person when the product manager happened to be around and we looked up some varieties in his system.

Anyway, now I learn that Nichols is phasing out the Semenis varieties, that they are no going to be carrying them. The Semenis varieties are on a separate rack, away from the regular seeds. This is good; I feel much better about them and trusting them for something as important as the very source of our food!

And I think it’s wonderful that we have seed companies so close! Oregon is blessed with many wonderful small seed companies as well as larger ones like Nichols and Territorial/Abundant Life. One I’ve found recently is Adaptive Seeds. These folks are pretty close to us (as the crow flies, there’s some hills between). They are big advocates of seed saving and have a wonderful instruction book: Seed Saving ‘zine.

I’ve also discovered that Tom Wagner, the seed breeder who came up with Green Zebra (as well as many other well-known tomato varieties), is around here, Washington state somewhere, breeding tomatoes and potatoes. Tom Wagner’s blog He will sell an assortment of seed potatoes from his breeding lines. It’s tempting, but we are so fussy about potatoes.

And finally short plugs for Peace Seedlings/Peace Seeds (I’m not sure why these are distinct) and for Wild Garden Seed.

I don’t really need more seed this year, though, I already have more than I can possibly use

Fruit Trees

Fruit and nut trees take some years to produce; depending the the variety, some will produce the first year, others will take three or four years.

Online Fruit and Nut Information

North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) is an organization dedicated to fruits. In addition to their publication, they have a very interesting email list that is not restricted to members.

The Home Orchard Society (HOS) is an organization of home-scale fruit growers in the Portland, Oregon area. Among other things, they host the fall fruit tasting and spring scionwood exchange.

Mail Order Suppliers

While trees from a reputable local nursery are best, you can get better survival rates for bareroot fruit stock ordered online from reputable companies, certainly than the bagged trees from big-box stores. Mail order places can get the tree to you as soon after they dig the tree, and wrap the roots with sawdust or wet newspapers and wrap it in plastic. The tree doesn’t have to spend any time sitting around in a store waiting to be purchased. However, some mail order places don’t take care, in which case you can end up with a lot of dead trees. I’ve had a terrible results with Gurney’s and Musser.

Burnt Ridge Nursery is one of my favorite online fruit and tree nurseries. They have great prices, great selection, and the trees and shrubs I ordered from them while inconsistent in quality (size/branching/aesthetics of graft union), they in general look good and are a great value. With my 5th or 6th order I did have a few trees not survive (a pawpaw and a jujube; the jujube rootstock is okay but above the graft union is dead), and while a little awkward they did duly replace the plants in 2005, and the replacements are doing well. They are located in Washington State.

Raintree nursery has a very tempting catalog and beautiful online site, with lots of information and a great selection. Unfortunately they are expensive. The plants I got from them were fine, large and healthy and thriving, except a gooseberry which caught borers and died. They sent a replacement without giving me any problem. They are located in Washington State.

Big Horse Creek Farm will custom graft just about any type of apple you want at a quite reasonable price. I fulfilled my fantasy of having Swiss Gourmet Apples here! This is a type of apple I’ve had only three times in my life, in 1992 and again in 1993 at the Safeway in Colorado Springs; and a third time at the 2002 Apple Festival in Portland. They are located in the Southeast.

One Green World nursery is located outside of Portland, Oregon. Similar in selection and prices to Raintree. I have several plants from them that arrived fine, although I’ve heard some not-so-good things about their practices in some fruit circles.

Trees of Antiquity, AKA Sonoma Antique Apple Orchard, has very helpful and knowlegdeable people. They have a good selection of apples and plums, but don’t go into more exotic types of fruits. I have one plum, which came with an impressive root system and is growing fast. They are in California.

Oikos Tree Crops has a great selection of oaks, and nuts and unusual native fruits. Some interesting permaculture type plants. My order arrived quickly – the plants are in tubes, rather than bareroot, and looked good. They are in the midwest.

tomato tasting results

Here are the results of the 2008 Fairweather Farm tomato tasting.
There were 38 ballots cast. And the winners are:
#1 – Sungold
#2 – Rose de Berne
#3 – Purple Cherokee

Best Flavor
WINNER: Rose de Berne (7)
RUNNERUP: Sungold (4)

WINNERS: Ananas Noire (6) and Black from Tula(5)
HON.MENTION: Lillian’s Yellow (3), Peron (3), Rose de Berne (3)

Best Red
WINNERS: Rose De Berne(11) and Stupice(9)
RUNNERUP: Peron(5)

Best Purple/Black
WINNER: Purple Cherokee(17)
RUNNERUPS: Black Cherry (5) and Black from Tula (5)

Best Orange
WINNER: Tobolsk (9)
RUNNERUPS: Kellog’s Breakfast (5), Tangerine (5), Lillian’s Yellow(5),
and Sungold (5).
HON.MENTION: Plum Lemon (3), Ananas Noire (3)

Best Cherry
WINNER: Sungold (13)
RUNNERUPS: Gardener’s Delight(6), Tiny Dancer (6), and Peacevine (5).
HON.MENTION: SunSugar (4), Gabrielle(3),

Best of the Best
WINNERS: Sungold (7) and Rose de Berne (6).
RUNNERUPS: Purple Cherokee (4) and Stupice (4).

While Sungold won “Best of the Best” by one vote, Rose de Berne beat Sungold both in Best Flavor and prettiest. So I suspect bias, due to the order of questions in the survey data isn’t fair… cherry tomatoes are right before the Best of the Best.

Overall the votes were all over the map this year; for example, out of 30 entries, 19 different tomatoes got votes for best flavor, but 17 of those had just one or two votes each. Only three varieties got no votes in any category: Talledega, Green Grape, and Odoriko.

The entries:

Peron Sprayless
Rose de Berne
Super Fantastic
Red Brandywine (Karen)
Momotaro (Karen)
Odoriko (Karen)

Paul Robeson (may not be true to type, red not purple/black)
Purple Cherokee
Black from Tula

Lillians Yellow Heirloom
Plum Lemon
Kellog’s Breakfast (ElizabethR)

Ananas Noire
Marz Round Green

Tiny Dancer
Dr. Carolyn’s Pink
Matts Wild Cherry
Sungold (both Lisa & AlanS, and we didn’t ask people to differentiate)
Peacevine Cherry
Green grape
Gardeners Delight (AlanS)
Black cherry (AlanS)

I had picked a Palestinian, but it was a beauty that weighed 2 pounds
1 oz. so we just admired it rather than cutting it up. Someone brought
in a single small Garden Peach, which we also set aside to look at.

More on wheat

The winter wheat is harvested, and the spring wheat is nearly so. The differences between them are so great I am just fascinated – it’s like that time some years ago when I realized that tomatoes were not boring red round bland mushy things but had flavors and colors and complexity. The differences between these two wheats are as big as between Brandywine and Green Grape! Well, maybe not, but that’s the idea.

Since on closer look both wheats have awns, I’ve been calling the shorter many tillered one “East” and the taller, greener one “West”. The East was ready first,
and threshed out (with great difficulty, a lot of straw to the amount of grain) to about 4 or so pounds, but the hulls are staying on the grains, so it’s likely to go to the animals. The West wheat was/is MUCH easier to thresh; I expect yields will be similar, but we took a big clump for decorative purposes.

Side note: I think the spring wheat is much prettier for display than the West wheat. The spring wheat has a nice light tan color and is nice and fat, while West wheat has darker or blueish tones. The grain head pattern is similar for the spring wheat and the West wheat, with sticking-out awns instead of ones that lay flat; but besides color, the Spring has shorter stalks, and the heads are a fatter. Haven’t counted the tillers.

Threshing hasn’t become easier; the rubber trug on the porch, and pounding with a 2×4, sift out the straw, wind-winnow the grain, handpick the bits of stem. With the East wheat I did a lot of hand twisting and folding, but the West wheat’s awns are too stiff for that, it hurts.

Back to awns; when I grew these wheats out the first time 2-3 years ago, I do remember one of them not having awns. So what happened? I can’t believe they cross-pollinated, since each type has been very consistent within the patch. Perhaps a mislabeled jar? I must grow test plots of the originals too!

I’ve got another grain, presumably one I planted, growing in the circle beds, but I don’t know what it is – maybe barley? It looks like something I planted, but I don’t remember anything. It has truely naked seeds, not like the wheat that has an easily broken off covering. It could also be kamut, or even rye…

And the oats were harvested and threshed by rubbing in my hands, some work but no stabbing awns… came out pretty clean. It’s a long way from dry, though.

On other notes, garlic is all harvested, cabbages are harvested, a new one for us, what fun! and the first tomatoes have ripened (polar baby, of course). Beet seed is ready for harvest, and there could be enough basil for pesto. I’m still fighting the squash bugs and cucumber beetles, but the green beans are already ahead of us. The chickens in the orchard are getting larger by the day, and the freezers are still full so we won’t have anyplace to put them. Two more chicks hatched out, and unlike the first three these are very friendly and come running when they see us, which adds greatly to their cuteness factor. The dog had foxtail in her paw, one surgery at the vet, two weeks of swollen paw, another surgery by Lisa to remove the last foxtail, and she’s finally better and can get the skunk-smell-removal shampoo that’s been waiting for her.


I usually grow a little plot of wheat. You can get 10# of wheat berries from a 5×20 plot, it’s not enough to live on, but that is a few loaves of bread, and it’s quite fulfilling. I also try different kinds of wheat (winter wheat, spring wheat, kamut, stone age, etc.) and different ways of growing it (plug trays, broadcast).

The kinds I grow are fairly easy to tresh and winnow, although it’s hard to get all the bits of stem out of the grain. I suppose it adds fiber… We use an electric grain mill to make flour and from that bake bread. It’s perfectly nice bread, perhaps a bit dark and heavy, even using 100% home grown wheat. But we like dark interesting breads.

tallwheatTall, non-awned wheat

I believe it is SS 791 from Bountiful Gardens. This from saved seed that I grew out from 2005-2006 (I think). It germinated slower than the other.

shortwheatAnd this is the shorter, awned wheat. This, I believe, Hard Red Winter from Bountiful Gardens. (I could have these backwards).
You can see a little of the tall wheat to the left.

The last time I grew these varieties, I don’t remember a difference in the plots, but the non-awned was a little easier to thresh, the grains were a little larger, but the yield was a little less than the awned.

This year, the difference is dramatic. Both were planted in the same bed, same number of plants (transplanted from 244-plug trays), at the same time with the same spacing, and treated the same (i.e. ignored). The awned wheat is been yellow and unhappy, while the non-awned grows tall and green. I counted tillers (stalks with seed heads) on a particularly healthy looking plant of each; the non-awned one had about 20 tillers, while the awned one had almost 80! If I’d heavily fertilized the awned wheat, it could have really gone to town with production.

I think this is the heart of the “green revolution”, both the good and the bad. Yes, the right variety when treated optimally will give you a much better yield. But equally, if you can’t give it all the fertilizer it craves and demands, perhaps the old traditional varieties have a use. It’s too soon to see how they will yield.

And I would never have though two types of winter wheat would be so different. I wonder if they taste different?

tomato tasting results

We had our biggest tomato tasting this weekend. Had about 25 tomato varieties for tasting, and about 41 people wrote down opinions.

The clear winner was Ananas Noire! It came first in best flavor, prettiest and best overall. Best red was Rose de Berne, best yellow/orange was Tangerine, best purple/black was Black Prince. Best cherry was a tie between Peacevine Cherry and Sungold.

Some other interesting notes:
– Tiny Dancer was third in cherry tomatoes and second in yellow/orange.
– 18 different tomatoes got one or more votes for best flavor… and 13 different tomatoes got one or more votes for best overall; which goes to show how different people’s tastes are. We had kids, parents, young folks, old folks, all age groups except about 10-20.
– Thessie-O and sub arctic plenty got “yuck” comments.
– Brown berry was much favored over Black cherry.

Alas for the ones that got sick and were pulled out… no brandywine or big rainbow this year 🙁