Monthly Archives: December 2012

Happy Holidays from Grow So Easy Organic

No post on veggies today, no new tales of woe, just my sincere wish that you, your loved ones, your families and friends have a wonderful holiday.  And a wish that you have a wonderful and very happy new year…in 2013.

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Grow So Easy Organic: Recipes for Using The Sweetest Peppers

Bugs That Bug Peppers
Apparently, there are quite a few insects that can do damage to peppers.  In my zone, I haven’t had any problems with insect damage on my peppers until this year.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Halyomorpha halys ...

Stink bugs come in a lot of flavors but this is the one I battle – the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Halyomorpha halys (Stal) (Photo credit: Armed Forces Pest Management Board)

Because stink bugs have become so prolific, I have started having damage on all my vegetable plants, including peppers.  As with all insect pests, I use as many organic methods as possible to control them.

Tachinid wasps help.  Hand picking and crushing work, too.  But the key to controlling insects on peppers is the same as it is on most other garden pests.  You have to get ahead of the bug population by spotting and crushing the eggs before they hatch into nymphs.

One tip if you’re working with stink bugs (or any beetles) – go out early in the morning to catch and kill. Spread a white pillow case or piece of fabric under the each plant and shake the pepper plant.  The stink bugs will drop onto the fabric and you can crush them or scoop them up and drop them into soapy dishwater.

Stink bugs aren’t the only bugs that bug peppers.  Other pests include the European corn borer, pepper maggot, aphids, thrips, spider mites and even the cucumber beetle.

The University of Florida provides a comprehensive list of pepper pests including illustrations.  Although this list is specific to Florida, the same bugs have been slowly wending their way up the East coast so they are probably either  in your garden already or going to make an appearance, soon.

Pepper Diseases
I also haven’t had many problems with diseases in my peppers.  But there are a handful of diseases that can affect these sun-loving plants.  Many of them are common to tomatoes, which is not surprising because peppers and tomatoes are related – both are members of the Solanaceae family.

Diseases include bacterial leaf spot, phytophthora blight, anthracnose and viruses. It helps to try to choose resistant varieties of peppers, which agricultural experts say is the most effective management strategy for controlling diseases.

Like tomatoes, blossom end rot is a common affliction in sweet peppers and it’s directly correlated to a calcium deficiency. This disease can be made even more deadly if your pepper plants experience long dry periods because calcium uptake only occurs via osmosis.

Blossom end rot starts as a water-soaked lesion on the bottom (blossom end) or side of the pepper fruit wall. Eventually the lesion becomes discolored and papery dry, making the fruit vulnerable to insects and inedible.

Recipes
Stuffed peppers never made my list of favorites and I hadn’t really thought of any way to cook and serve peppers until I married into an Italian family.  Over the last 30 years I have been perfecting my pepper recipes and want to share a two of my favorites.

RECIPE:  Scalloppine Sauce
No need to crack open a cook book or worry about how hard it will be to make this dish.  This is the easiest, fastest and tastiest way I know to let the flavor of your vegetables speak for you (and use up the last of the tomatoes and sweet peppers hanging out in your kitchen).  If this Irish woman married to an Italian man can do it, so can you.

INGREDIENTS
Chop about 30 peppers into large pieces.  NOTE:  I do not peel my peppers but you can if you don’t want strands of pepper skin in your Scalloppine.
Cut 6 to 8 cups of onions into rough pieces.
Dice up 30 to 40 tomatoes.
Mince 4 big cloves of garlic.

DIRECTIONS:
Dump all the ingredients into a large pot.
Add a dollop (make that a cup) of olive oil.
Put the whole concoction on the stove to simmer on a very low flame.
Let this brew/cook down for 14 to 16 hours.

The vegetables should reduce by about 1/3 rd while cooking down.  If your batch is still a little loose, just let it cook for another 4 to 6 hours. When the sauce is as thick as you’d like it to be, you can start canning.
Ladle it into quart jars.
Use a non reactive tool to remove any air bubbles.
Process quarts for 25 minutes.
Turn off heat, remove canner lid and let jars rest in water for 5 minutes.
Remove, cool for 24 hours.  Remove rims, label and store.

I usually get about 8 quarts of fabulous sauce.  You can fry up sausage and add the sauce to it for a fast and fabulous Italian dinner.

RECIPE:  Hot & Sweet Italian Pepper Relish
I created this recipe myself and have to say it is really tasty – great flavors from all the veggies and just the right kick of heat from the peppers.

INGREDIENTS:
13 or 14 Italian sweet peppers
3 to 4 large sweet onions
1 c cider vinegar
1 c olive oil
½ c sugar
1 T mustard seed
1 tsp salt
2 tsp celery seed
1 T oregano
2 clove garlic – minced
1 T basil
1 tsp red pepper flakes

DIRECTIONS:
Core and seed peppers.
Chop onions and peppers into ¼ to ½ inch pieces – use a food processor to make this easier and faster.
Put onions and peppers into large, non reactive pot.
Pour in vinegar and oil and bring mixture to a simmer.
Slowly stir in sugar, mustard and celery seed, oregano, basil, salt and red pepper flakes.
Continue to cook on a very low flame for 1 ½ to 2 hours stirring every 15 or 20 minutes.
When the relish is thick, ladle into jars.  Use a non reactive tool to remove any air bubbles.
Process pints for 20 minutes.
Turn off heat, remove canner lid and let jars rest in water for 5 minutes.
Remove, cool for 24 hours.  Remove rims, label and store.

Both of these recipes beat Stuffed Peppers by a mile in the taste department and you can use them all winter long to spice up your sauces, soups and stews.

If you like your peppers hot…check out Jovina Cooks Italian for some great information and some more recipes!

Next week, another perennial garden favorite — Zucchini and other summer squash!

Grow So Easy Organic: How To Grow The Sweetest Peppers

The only pepper I saw in my mother’s garden was the green, bell pepper.  And I never liked them.  The taste was too strong, bitter, almost biting.  So I never planted peppers until I found red and yellow bells.

Assorted bell pepper fruits from Mexico

Discovering peppers of color led to what is now my favorite pepper of all time, the Italian sweet pepper.  Italian sweet peppers are at the heart of any great sausage and pepper sandwich you’ve ever had.  And they are the key ingredient in my scallopini.

Italian Sweet peppers have a rich green color that gradually turns brilliant red.  The flesh of the pepper is medium thick and the fruit is slightly curved, tapering to a pointed end.

These peppers can grow as long as 12 inches but are usually between 7 and 8 inches long.  Raw, they are sweet all on their own or as an addition to a salad.  Cook Italian sweet peppers and add a sweetness, richness and flavor to just about any dish.

So, even though I still raise red and yellow bell peppers, I make a lot of space in my garden for the Italian sweet pepper also known as (aka) the frying pepper.

Starting From Seed
Peppers are a warm weather plant so, like tomatoes and eggplant, I always start them from seed.  And I always start peppers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the date specified on the seed packets.  Why?

In my zone, peppers that are started 8 weeks before my last frost (around May 15th) just aren’t big enough or strong enough to set fruit before the middle to end of July.  As a result, if I started plant when the seed packet said to, I’d only get a few peppers from each one. If I start the plants indoors and early, I get a glorious crop from all my plants!

I use 24-cell APS starter kits from Gardener’s Supply and I highly recommend them.  Funny thing is, I’ve been using cells for seed starting for years and now, recent research revealed that growing peppers in larger tray cell sizes or containers will produce larger transplants.

There are a couple of other reasons I use these kits.

For one thing, I’ve had the same kits for more than 15 years and they still work for me.  For another, the kits ensure that your seeds and seedlings get just the right amount of water while sprouting and growing.  Not too much – not too little — because they use capillary mats in the cell system and take advantage of osmosis.  Because of the system design, I never have to contend with damping off when using these kits.

I fill the cells with Gardener’s Supply germinating mix, place 4 seeds in each cell…two in opposite corners.  Then I cover each cell with a bit of sphagnum moss, put on the plastic top and set the tray on my heat mats. I fill the tray with water and then check in 4 or 5 days to see if the seeds have sprouted.

NOTE:  You have to check your seed trays every day to make sure there is enough water in them.  Because I sit them directly on the heat mat, the water evaporates pretty fast.  If the seeds dry out at any time during the sprouting or early growing stages, the plants will either die, outright, or just malinger – no grow very much at all.

As soon as the seeds sprout, I lift off the clear cover and drop the light to within 2 inches of the cells.  As the plants grow, I keep the trays watered and I keep the light as close to the seedlings as I can without touching them.  If the light touches them, even a fluorescent light, it will burn the baby’s leaves and slow its growth.

When the seedlings have two full sets of leaves, I give the plants a very mild fertilizer called Plant Health Care for Seedlings, also from Gardener’s Supply,

Once the plants are 3 to 4 weeks old, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots.  NOTE:  If all the seeds sprout, either separate the seedlings and put one in each peat pot or clip the smaller of the seedlings off with nail scissors so the remaining seedling has more room to grow.

Transplanting Peppers
Before you put your pepper plants in the ground, make sure you are NOT planting them in the same area where you had tomatoes, eggplant or potatoes last year.

Peppers are in the Solanaceae plant family and are botanically related to these popular garden vegetables.  Because they are related, peppers can share the same spectrum of pest problems and should not be rotated into soil recently lived in by their kissing cousins.

Also, whether you’re growing from seed or using transplants (unless they were outside when you bought them), you have to “harden off” your plants before you stick them in the garden.

Hardening off does NOT involve tools or torture.  It just means that you have to introduce your transplants to the outdoors, gradually.

Five or six days before you want to put them in the garden, start setting them outside for a couple of hours the first 2 days and keep an eye on them.  Make sure they have water and are not staked out in high sun or high wind.  Then leave them out all day for 2 days then overnight for one night.

NOTE:  also, when hardening off, stop fertilizing.  If the plants have small flowers or fruit on them, pinch both off.  You want to help the transplant direct all of its energy to rooting in the soil before it tries to set flowers or fruit.

Remember, peppers like warm earth and warm air – even warmer than tomatoes.  So the optimal temperature for them to go into the ground is 75 to 85 degrees. Peppers are typically transplanted about two weeks later than tomatoes, for me that’s early June.

Peppers can be planted in single rows or twin (double) rows on a raised bed. Space the pepper plants 12 to 24 inches apart and space rows about 4 feet apart. If you decide to use a double row, make the rows about 18 inches apart on the bed and put the plants in the ground in a zigzag pattern.

By the way, peppers and tomatoes don’t work and play well together so don’t plant tomatoes on one side of your trellis or fence and peppers on the other.  The pepper plants will grow but their growth will be stunted.  And the peppers themselves will be small and prone to rotting.

Feeding The Peppers
If you don’t want to use fertilizer on your transplants, here’s a little trick I learned from a farmer friend.  Crush up eggshells and put about ½ of a cup of them in the bottom of the hole. Toss a bit of soil on top of the crushed shells before you put the pepper plant in so the baby roots (cilia) are not cut.

Crushed egg shells are slow to break down but will feed the plants.  And they are free so I love using them as my fertilizer.  By the way, you can also use crushed egg shells to stop slugs…just by sprinkling them around the base of your plants.

Peppers have shallow roots so water them when they need it and don’t hoe too close.  Also, stake peppers so that when fruit loads are heavy, the plants don’t topple from weight or high winds.  I use old, inverted tomato cages.  That sounds odd but the cages work better than anything else I have tried.

I put the tomato cage over the plant with the wide ring on the ground and fasten the ring down with ground staples.  Then I gather up the tips of the cage and secure them with a wire tie.  The pepper plant stays inside the cage, grows up straight and is supported even in the heaviest wind or thunderstorm.  And I don’t have to tie the pepper plants up.

Next week, bugs that bug peppers….and some fabulous recipes for all those luscious, red peppers you are going to harvest.

Grow So Easy Organic – How To Grow Dried Beans

Most people think of dried beans and come up with the familiar four – kidney, navy, pinto and black.

Diversity in dry common beans

There’s a lot of diversity in dry common beans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there are a whole lot more varieties of dried beans and some of them have spectacular flavors and very high nutritional value.

For my money, Rancho Gordo sells some of the best dried beans available on the market.

I don’t normally recommend buying something if I can grow it in my backyard but…there are a couple of reasons I strongly endorse Rancho Gordo.

First of all, organically raised, heirlooms like Mayacoba and Good Mother Stollard beans are just a click away from arriving at your front door.  Secondly, Rancho Gordo is a small company in California started and run by Steve Sando, a man who knows a whole lot about organic and beans.

Another reason I LOVE Rancho Gordo is that Sando’s bean seeds are organically sourced and he works with Seed Savers Exchange.  Then there’s the fact that the beans he bags and ships are fresh and so flavorful they actually stand on their own as a main course.

Those are all really great reasons to like and recommend a product but here’s one of the strongest reasons of all.  The first time I had a problem (the disaster referenced below), I emailed Steve and he actually, personally emailed me back with advice and ideas.

The “disaster” started because of one of my growing philosophies.  In this age of saving money and eating locally, I decided to try sprouting some of Steve’s lovely beans and growing my own.

Disaster!

Starting Dried Beans Indoors
I made a decision to start my bean plants indoors, from beans I bought from Rancho Gordo.  My last frost date is May 15th so I put the seeds in the pots the last week of April – first mistake.

The seeds were incredibly quick to break open and start growing.  Within 5 days of sprouting, they were a foot tall.  It literally took less than a week for the beans to outreach my highest grow light.  Here comes the second mistake.

I thought about what I should do for a couple of days but when I went back into the basement to check the little dears, I realized I had no choice. I was raising two trays of Seymours from Little Shop of Horrors!

I had to transplant them!  The third and final mistake.

A bit too early and a bit too cool, but I put the small trellis in the soil and put the bean plants in the ground.  The next morning, I walked out to the garden to see how they were doing.  All but 3 of my 48 bean plants were flat on the ground.  Within 24 hours, most of them promptly fell over and died.

It was a full-blown,  growing disaster so I moved to Plan B.

Direct Seeding Dried Beans
Okay, so starting seeds indoors and transplanting them was an unmitigated disaster.  But I don’t give up easily.  And since the seeds were so ready to sprout and grow, I thought, why not direct seed?

So, I put beans in the ground, watered them and watched them sprout quickly and reach for the netting.  They were beautiful plants, sleek, green, growing straight up the supports.  Then they were dying.

I think they literally drowned.  It rained for 5 weeks straight here in Eastern Pennsylvania – way too much water for this crop.

When the bean plants that survived the flood (no I did not put them on the Ark and drive them around until the waters receded) finally did dry out, they really tried to finish their jobs and produce beans.

The plants set flowers. I got bean pods.  But with all the moisture in the air and the soil, the pods promptly got moldy!

In desperation, I emailed Steve Sando and asked him if I could still harvest the bean pods if the outsides were speckled and turning black.  This wonderful master of all things bean actually emailed me back.

Yes, I could but…isn’t there always a but?  If the beans themselves were discolored or speckled (unless that’s the way they were born), I had to toss them.

Bottom line, I grew more than 100 bean plants; I harvested 1 quart jar of dried beans.  And now I just buy my beans at Rancho Gordo because it is a heck of a lot cheaper than trying to raise them!

Despite my bean disasters, I did learn a lot about how to plant and grow beans.  That’s up, next week.