Search This Blog

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Haunting of the Garden: A Ghost Pepper Summer

ghost pepper rowDo you believe in ghosts? How about ghost peppers? I am pleased to report that the “what’s new in my garden this year”appears to be a success. It’s a triumph, however, I’m a bit hesitant to test. Last winter when I was thumbing through Territorial Seed’s spring catalog, I happened across the company’s new offering: ghost peppers, a variety touted in recent years as the “hottest” pepper in the world. The instant I saw the ad, the pepper gantlet was thrown down. I hurriedly flipped through the catalog’s remaining pages, tore out the order blank, and at the top of my order penciled in one packet of ghost pepper seeds, not in the least phased by the price: $7.00 for ten seeds, seventy cents per seed…a  mere pittance , I thought, for world class heat.

Growing peppers and tending a pepper plot are two of my most rewarding tasks in the season’s garden. There is just something about a pepper-laden plant, those pendulous, shiny globes of color and heat, that pleases me. Raising peppers to maturity presents a challenge in our Valley’s short season, maritime climate. jalapeno cropI’m fortunate to have a section of garden exposed to full sun most of the day during the summer months. This plot I reserve solely for tomatoes and peppers. Through much micromanaging in the form of mounding a green plastic mulch-covered berm in which to insert the pepper starts and applying weekly soakings of Miracle-Gro, this year’s garden has a crop of peppers that would make Peter Piper proud.

Over the years I’ve perfected my pepper horticulture to the point I now feel confident I can raise a peck of peppers each season, especially the peppers of heat, caliente: jalapeno, serrano, and cayenne. Building on my platform of pepper success, each year I seek a new variety, something exotic to try in the garden. My first departure from the tame (the reliable, thick fleshed California Wonder bell) came years ago when for heat seekers, the habanero was at the fore of pepper popularity. My results, while not stellar, yielded enough of the little “scotch bonnets” to make a batch or two of pepper jelly and a half dozen small jars of “Hotter than a Two-Dollar Pistol” pepper flakes.

One seed catalog featured a variety of pepper called the Peter pepper. When I saw the photo, I knew the Peter had to be that season’s “new to the garden” choice. “What a great gag Christmas gift for the brothers,” I thought, “a pint of pickled Peter peppers for each.” It would be the kind of gift one might find at a Spenser’s Gifts if the store included “naughty” pickled produce among its inventory. As to the choice of names for this pepper variety, I’ll say no more beyond the seed catalog’s disclaimer: “Not for the prudish…” But as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,”so with the image provided, let your imagination take you where it will.

Peter pepper

My garden novelty this year is the ghost pepper (Bhut jolokia), a variety native to India; the fruit supposedly was named by the Bhutias people because the pepper’s heat “sneaks up on” those who consume one. In 2007 The Guinness Book of Records entered the ghost pepper as the hottest pepper on earth, a notoriety that assured this indigenous oriental variety an occidental debut. The ghost pepper overheated the previous record holder, the red Savina habanero, to earn top billing for pepper fire.

The agent capsaicin creates a pepper’s heat. The Scoville Scale, devised by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, measures the amount of capsaicin oil a pepper contains.The scale starts at zero with the benign bell pepper (no heat, except what’s needed to bake a stuffed one) and tops out at sixteen million Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) or one hundred per cent capsaicin, a level not found in nature and can be created only in the laboratory. The pepper fancier finds the first real heat in the beautiful, glossy kelly green poblano pepper which weighs in at one thousand to fifteen hundred SHUs. heating upOther popular chilies in SHU ascending order are : Jalapeno (3,500-8,000); serrano—and the Peter pepper--(10K-23K); cayenne (30K-50K). The red Savina habanero bowed out of the contest at a scorching 350K-580K, gracefully stepping aside for the meteoric heat of Bhut jolokia, at 855K-1.5 million scathing SHUs.

Whether by accident or gratis, Territorial Seed included an extra seed in the packet. In early March I planted eleven little pips in my indoor seed starter. pepper bermAll eleven germinated: unusual for chilies, especially ones with heat. (Hot pepper seeds can sometimes take six weeks or more to germinate.) In early June I transplanted the eight ghost peppers on a green plastic mulched berm in full sun. The plastic serves as a geothermal blanket, heating the soil beneath during the day and retaining the soil temps at night. Three plants journeyed across the Cascades to haunt my brother’s greenhouse.

“I did a little research,” the peppers’ host told me via email. “The plants grow to a height of three to four feet...width about the same diameter.” (“I planted them too close together,” I fretted.”) My brother continued: “ Ghost pepper fruits take 150 days from setting to maturity.” 150 days? A quick bit of digital calculating told me it would be well into October before the plants produced a mature ghost…and in October it’s not uncommon to get frost here in the Valley. My goal of just one pepper (one ghost, that’s all I hoped for) now seemed a remote possibility at best; I lowered my expectations to the blossom stage…if I could just get them to bloom. But maybe if I doused the plants with Miracle-Gro once a week and our Indian Summer is long and warm, I’ll have some ghosts just in time for Halloween.

Here it is, the latter days of September and I’m reporting in on my “hottest pepper in the world” experiment. At this writing, I’m happy to say the garden gods have smiled on my ghost pepper row. I haven’t counted my yield of “ghosties,” (as my brother calls them), but there must be nearly fifty dangling from the eight plants. To date, none have turned orange or red—the sign of pepper maturity—but several are full term size and, given time, may blush yet. So, you ask, what does one do with the hottest pepper in the world? For the time being, I’m admiring my ghosties and basking in the glow of accomplishment (after all, it’s about the journey, isn’t it?). Some I may use for pepper jelly (there’ll be extra “gag” in the gag gift for the brothers); others I may dry and grind into pepper flakes for woodstove Saturday soup chili;  at seventy cents per seed, I most certainly will try to harvest some for myself.

Pride is a dangerous thing, and as the old saw has it,  it “goeth before a fall.” I boasted about my “hottest peppers in the world” to my gardener friend Jim. He shot me a quizzical look and said, “I try not to grow anything in my garden that’ll hurt me.”ghost peppers

[Post Script: in 2012 the ghost pepper dropped to second place in pepper heat, replaced by the Trinidad moruga scorpion, besting the ghost pepper by 500K SHUs. I’ve already begun searching for seeds….]

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Tualco Valley Speedway…Or Life on the Fast Corner…

the fast corner“Better be careful down around that corner,” Brett de Vries pointed down the Valley south, looked at Gladys and cautioned, “there was a car/motorcycle accident yesterday afternoon.” Brett and Megan live on the first corner of several “reduce speed” corners on the Tualco Loop Road. I had stopped off a bag of tomatoes and this warning was my greeting. Coincidentally, Brett and Megan were  in the front yard as I pedaled up. Hardly had we exchanged greetings when Megan was distracted by white pickup truck rounding the corner. Valley neighbors often wave as they drive by and I thought Megan knew the driver and was preparing to return his wave. Not until she commented on the truck’s speed did I realize Megan was slightly on edge at the moment. “He’s not driving too fast,” she said; her relief was obvious.

The truth of the matter is…no doubt about it…the thirty-five mph speed limit in a Valley meant for dairy cows and farm machinery is seldom observed. “I was working in the yard awhile back,” Megan said, “when I heard the squeal of brakes. I looked up just in time to see a car miss the corner and launch itself into Van Hulle’s pasture.” Twice this summer, she informed me, vehicles speeding down Valley spun out and struck a power pole [Pole 39, a new pole, recently replaced]. Earlier in the summer the Valley was without power nearly ten hours when a speeding pickup truck failed to negotiate the left turn to Highrock Road and sheared off a power pole on the main line. Megan related another recent  incident.“Two cars,” she continued, “were speeding around the corner. One of the drivers saw Brett take out his cellphone as a warning. The next thing we knew both cars, slowed, lined up west of the corner and raced down the straight stretch. They drove the Loop, returned, and did the same thing!” Life on the fast corner had unnerved her, I could tell.

Sure enough, as I negotiated the corner above Swiss Hall I saw the accident debris: flare dust and branded asphalt, assorted chunks of plastic and glass, most of which appeared to be motorcycle parts.

The Tualco Loop Road…you can’t have a loop without an arc, without a curve, without a bend in the road. When the county engineers were laying out the Valley road infrastructure in the past century, little did they know they were designing a future Grand Prix race course. It was their intent to provide access to all contiguous properties, allow Valley farmers egress to a public thoroughfare. The result? A county road with long straight stretches abruptly interrupted by ninety degree corners. These corners are well marked by reduced speed signs (“15 mph”…lowered by the way,Valley people, from“35 mph”) as well as directional chevrons guiding the motorist through the turns. Motorists for the most part disregard this signage, look upon it in much the same manner as New Yorkers view traffic signals: “They’re just a suggestion.”

The truth of the matter is, as a country lane the Tualco Loop Road no longer exists. Traffic in the Valley is on the increase…motorists seeking less congested roadways have shifted their commute to the Valley in the hope of shaving a few minutes from their commute, avoiding lengthy delays at traffic lights, foregoing the turmoil of rush hour and that claustrophobic feeling that comes with metal and machinery pressing in from all sides. And then again there are those long stretches of “as the crow flies”asphalt. Something happens when a motorcyclist or a hurried driver spies a lengthy straightaway…and then there are those irritating crotch rockets that wind up like jet engines on a commercial airliner revving for takeoff; I can hear them from my backyard. Testosterone overpowers the amygdala, the decision-making portion of the brain, and caution becomes a jet stream. Signs are a blur…and suddenly the road becomes Tony Broers’ raspberry field, a cornfield…a pasture. I rarely visit the Valley these days without seeing traces of vehicular mayhem: road signs sheared off, fences mangled, skid marks at corner approaches, crops mowed down, utility kiosks mangled….fence on the fast corner

At the Riley Slough bridge on the Lower Loop road I meet a woman with a camera, another of the many bird enthusiasts I’ve encountered in the Valley and stop to chat. I balance Gladys on her kickstand. The lady and I saunter to the bridge and stop mid span.Our presence startles the blue heron I frequently see at the same site on the downstream side of the bridge. The bird launches into flight, awkwardly gaining altitude, impressing the birder with its struggle and presence. As we watch the heron disappear around the bend, I hear a vehicle approaching the bridge from the north and concerned for our safety, turn to look. The vehicle is coming on fast. I expect it to slow as it nears the bridge. No such luck. No such reduced speed. The car is one of those older nondescript models, the variety that has those retractable headlights, both of which are in disrepair, locked in the up position. The vehicle is painted fifty shades of gray…or fifty faded shades of gray. Oblivious to the two pedestrians on the bridge, the driver flies across at fifteen or twenty mph over the speed limit. We hug the railing as the car shoots by, jarring  the fillings in our teeth and rattling our knees. As the vehicle jets past, I note driver and passenger, two young ne’er-do-wells who not only can’t afford to have their headlights fixed, but also can’t scrape together enough cash to buy razorblades. While the bridge deck is still dancing under our feet, I couldn’t help but think about a cartoon I saw in The New Yorker magazine a few years back. Over afternoon cocktails two women were discussing the legalization of controlled substances. One says to the other, “I’m in favor of legalizing all drugs…except for testosterone.” Let’s face it: fast lane life  is now status quo in the Valley.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

You Say Tomato…I Say Tomatillo…

tomatillo jungleThe Pacific Northwest is green tomato heaven. Not so heavenly, however, for ripe tomatoes. Tomato propagation in the Valley is problematic because of the fall fog that blankets the garden at night and lingers sometimes until early afternoon. Late blight thrives in those conditions and all too often the Valley gardener notices blackened stems and leaves on his tomatoes, a telltale sign the “black” plague is on the march in his tomato patch. Applying a fungicide like a copper-based spray can somewhat allay a blighted patch but given the right conditions, not much can be done to salvage the season’s  anticipated quota of BLTs (last year even the neighbor's’ hoop house couldn’t ward off the black plague).

As a hedge against blight and the potential loss of tomato sauce and salsa, a few years back I thought I’d give tomatillos (the Mexican tomato) a try.BLT in the making Now I’m not suggesting a tomatillo is an adequate substitute for a luscious slab of this (there’s just no substitute for a slice of beefsteak and mayo or the delicious combination of smoked bacon cuddled up next to a thick round of vine ripened Early Girl : 

But as gardeners we need a back up in case of the heartbreak of  late blight. (FYI: late blight, Phytophthora infestans, affects both tomatoes and potatoes and was responsible for the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1740-41.) And as a substitute crop the tomatillo definitely has its advantages. Tomato-like only in shape, tomatillos belong to the same plant family: Solanaceae, which includes, of course, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. And then there’s the pesky vine that creeps up the hedges and trees in your landscape, common name “European bittersweet” (Solanum dulcamara) , an invasive plant and also a member of the nightshade family.nightshade vine

Aside from its lineage and shape, the tomatillo has little in common with the tomato. The plant is shrub-like; its stalk and side shoots not woody but fibrous. Unlike the tomato, the tomatillo has a shallow, compact root system similar to that of an onion—unusual for a plant that easily reaches the height of five or six feet. Because of its high acid content (PH 3.83 compared to a tomato’s 4-5  PH) a raw tomatillo has a tart, lemony taste. tomatillo huskThe fruit or “berry” grows inside a leathery husk, swells until the husk splits, a sign the tomatillo is ripe for the picking.

I especially welcome tomatillos in the garden for two reasons: first of all, the plant is extremely charitable as a volunteer. Because of the mass of seeds (seeds are the shape of a sesame seed but smaller), each fruit contains, tomatillo seeds from the windfalls around each plant--you can’t use them all--are spread throughout the garden by tilling and are most likely to sprout just about anywhere (three healthy plants are sharing the space with the cucumber vines in this year’s garden). Because of their shallow root systems these brazen intruders are easily weeded out.packed with seeds Sometimes they sprout in a convenient place and can be left there until maturity. Because they transplant well, some I dig and plant in a more suitable location. The fact of the matter is…plant one tomatillo plant, raise it to maturity, and you’ll not have to plant more next spring. For the sake of experiment I’m thinking about loosening up my pitching arm and chucking a few windfalls to various parts of the garden just to see how many tomatillo patches—and where-- sprout next season.

The principal reason I like tomatillos, however, is because they are  immune to LATE BLIGHT!Salsa verde

Tomatillos make wonderful salsa verde. Because of  the fruit’s unique, lemony flavor, I make a point of including a couple dozen in my tomato sauce and salsa. In this household our favorite tomatillo recipe is called Aztec Pie, a Mexican-style lasagna in which baked tortilla chips replace the pasta. Ten tortillas, cut pie-shaped in eighths and baked until brittle make up the two layered beds. Two baked chicken breasts, diced, are spread evenly over each layer of chips. The tomatillo sauce replaces the traditional tomato sauce, and combined with a “soup” of sour cream/milk (poured separately) over each layer of chips, then sprinkled liberally with “Mexi-cheese.” The entire casserole is mounded off with feta cheese and then baked. No need to visit a Mexican restaurant the night you serve up Aztec Pie. Again, the entire dish is built around the tomatillo sauce. If you are a fan of Mexican food, consider the following recipe:

1-1/4 pounds fresh tomatillos, stemmed, husked, and rinsed

1 cup reduced-fat and sodium chicken broth, divided

2 to 3 fresh serrano or jalapeno chilies, stemmed and chopped

1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped

2 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (Note: I’d double the cilantro)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (any coarse salt will serve)

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1. Bring a pan of water to boil, add tomatillos and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook 10 minutes. Drain and either blend or food process. Add 1/2 cup broth, 2 chilies, onion, garlic, cilantro and salt. Blend well but leave some texture [use blender’s pulse function for chunkier salsa]. Add another 1/2 cup broth. Taste and add another chili if necessary (Note: for more heat per bite, substitute serrano peppers for the milder jalapenos).

2. Heat oil in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add sauce and bring to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally,15 minutes or until lightly thickened. Taste and add a little more salt if needed.

(Yield: 2 1/4 cups). Suggestion: for a chewier Aztec Pie I’d recommend doubling the tomatillo sauce recipe; a pint of sauce per layer results in a softer texture; if you want crunchy, stick with the above recipe.)

Recipe from “Cocina de la Familia” by Marilyn Tausend with Miguel Ravagotomatillo sauce

I’ve shared the recipe. The tomatillos are up to you…remember, you only have to plant them once.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Companions and Companion Planting…

tractor show signGladys and I are cruising along the Lower Loop Road when we’re aware of some oncoming traffic. Farm machinery, it is—not an unusual sight along Valley roads. As we converge, I see the machine is a very old tractor and as coincidence would have it, I had just pedaled past a new Valley sign promoting the Sky Valley Antique Tractor Show, the Valley’s homage to workhorses of yore and the days of furrows long gone by. I am momentarily confused because this year’s farm extravaganza is yet a month away. Never before have I seen so much rust move so fast and cause such a racket. The machine rattles toward me, slows, and clatters to a stop as I ride into a cloud of exhaust. The driver of the animated pile of rust pokes at a lever or two, pushes one, pulls another. The machine gives a reluctant rattle and cough that echo off the cliffs of High Rock. The sudden quiet stuns. Bert Frohning grins.  His eyes twinkle like the kid who’s just finished a ride on a rattling roller coaster.

Time in the Valley might seem to go by more slowly than in metropolises like Monroe and Duvall, but regardless if you’re on Valley time or Seattle time, time sneaks by whether you like it or not… so memory escapes me if this is Bert’s first or second year of retirement.Time aside, suffice it to say, these days Bert’s a retired gentleman.

(“Retirement.” No matter how you spin it, the word has negative connotations: “Out to pasture,” “rocking chair”… “golf.” However, if you are still one of  the nine to five crowd, not having your mornings dictated by the alarm clock sounds pretty darn good. A word to the wise, though, you nine to fivers: once you’re retired, there are no more Fridays to look forward to.)

“So how goes retirement?” I ask Bert, but before he has a chance to respond, I step on his answer and say, “You’re busier now than ever, right?” There’s that twinkle in the eye again. Bert nods. “I thought so,” I said as I’ve found this to be true of myself.These days Bert Frohning is an “agricultural entrepreneur”; he’s in the vegetable business and in a pretty big way. The Sky Valley Food Bank is the beneficiary of Bert’s new hoop house and an extra acre or two of crops. He’s their hero, the king of cucumbers, the Zoro of zucchini, and the baron of beans. “I’ve dropped off about 2,000 pounds so far,” Bert tells me. In fact Bert’s such a regular supplier he has stretched the food bank’s inventory. “They called the other day,” he laughed, “to tell me, ‘Bert, we can’t use any more cucumbers right now!’”

Not only is the Sky Valley community benefiting from Bert’s farm (and retirement), but he is working on a project that will allow students enrolled in Monroe High School’s Vo-Ag program the opportunity to plant, grow, and harvest vegetable crops from his acreage and distribute them among the local charities. Due to some staffing issues at the high school, the plan is currently on hold.

As the antique tractor drips oil and naps, Bert and I exchange garden notes. Our discussion takes a strange turn and suddenly we’re talking  radishes. But when you’re retired, time is of little consequence; time is an errant soap bubble, an amorphous thing adrift on the wind; time, if you’re retired, leaves you free to discuss radishes at your leisure until you’re ready to move on to turnips, or beets, carrots… grandchildren, or as later it turns out, honeymoon cruises.

“Do you get root maggots in your radishes?” I pose, testing the waters on this subject. “Not since I built the hoop house…for some reason that fly doesn’t like working under cover,” Bert replies. A gardening goal of mine this year is to raise a crop of radishes for pickling (a delectable pickled treat I sampled in a restaurant side dish last winter). Here on the place I have never had a crop of radishes I didn’t have to share with root maggots, so planting a row again this season would be rather akin to what Dr. Samuel Johnson said of a man marrying twice: “It’s the triumph of hope over experience.” Root vegetables, in our garden, with the exception of beets and potatoes—carrots and turnips, in particular—become a smorgasbord for the larvae of the radish fly. “You know,” I inform Bert, “I met a fellow last spring who told me ‘companion planting’ would nip my root maggot dilemma in the bud (a mixed metaphor, I fear?).”

Companion planting—nouveau gardening—you might call it, is a species of organic horticulture that leverages the likes and dislikes of insect garden pests to the gardener’s advantage. Aphid infestations on your vegetable foliage? Nice in theoryPlant nasturtiums as part of the menu and aphids will defer to that entrĂ©e instead of your vegetable crop. “Mix your radish seed with dill and cilantro,” the “expert” said, “and your radishes will be plump and weevil-free.” “It just works,” he told me when I asked why cilantro and dill. “You could use carrot seed, too,” he suggested. It was worth a try, I thought: that pickled radish was quite tasty. I mixed three packets of seed: radish, cilantro, and dill, sprinkled them in the furrow, and awaited the results.

And as quickly as that, the results are in (as I mentioned, time just seems to fly by). My experimental eight foot row of companion plantings sprouted quickly and grew well enough. At first it was difficult to tell which plant was which; not until the roots started to bulge could I distinguish radish from cilantro. In short order I realized the entire endeavor was destined for failure. I discovered I had many more companions than radishes. My yield? Radish cropTwo bunches at most (well, maybe two and a half if you include the ones I had to toss because of the major tunneling project the root maggots had going on). And those pickled radishes? My meager crop filled one pint jar and half another. I had to make an emergency trip down the road to Rosario’s stand for one more bunch to make up the difference. As for the root maggots…ready for brinethe little drilling machines moved on down the row and are now keeping company the with the rutabagas, merrily at work making Swiss cheese of them. Maybe a hoop house like Bert’s is the answer, but I’m not about to go through all that fuss for a pickled radish or two.


pickled radishes

I haven’t seen Bert in a while, have yet to tell him about my failed experiment. It’s September, and come to think of it, Bert may be on that Alaska cruise he told me about during our middle of the road conversation. “It’s our honeymoon,” Bert said proudly at the time. “The wife was wondering about the onboard entertainment the cruise offered. I said,  ‘Why do you want to know that? Entertainment? It’s our honeymoon, isn’t it?’”(There’s that twinkle in his eye again).

As Gladys and I roll towards home, my thoughts turn to the honeymoon couple and their attempt to rekindle the fire of romance in a land of grizzly bears, icebergs and calving glaciers. But then again, there are the Northern Lights. After all, they’re fireworks of a sort, aren’t they?