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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: The Mighty Pepper

Saturday, August 26, 2017


PHOTO: Leonard Moorehead

Long ago after all frost danger, gardeners set out peppers in the sunniest, most fertile garden plots and nearly forgot their sturdy stems, intense green foliage, work a day four starred white blooms and innocent health. Peppers thrive during hot sultry days. Their roots absorb moisture from dry soils, they are virtually pest free. Our cultural pluralism is evident within every garden or container plant, our choices originate from many sources. Lucky gardeners grow an array of Capsicum varieties. 

Peppers, fall into 2 broad categories, sweet and hot. Who hasn’t savored the delectable aroma of sweet peppers and onions on the grill? Sweet peppers are good to eat at any stage of maturity, Sweet Bell peppers are classic types often sold green at lower prices, mature at red, they command premium upgrades in price. But why sort through heaps of imported peppers when our gardens produce generous crops? Like their summer cohort of tomatoes, basil, and eggplant, peppers first set out roots and burst into growth when soil temperatures reach 65 degrees or more and stay there. 

Nutrition and abundance are home gardeners goal. Peppers are champs in taste, color and form. Immature peppers have good flavor and texture. Mature sweet peppers advance in flavor and have higher sugar content. The challenge is to resist picking them before they reach maturity. Taste is rarely found in such close proximity to color and shape as among peppers. Bees cluster around their 18-24” stems. Provide a foot in every direction for each plant, mulch heavily and watch them form elegant dark green plants. Peppers need all summer to grow and fruit. Reserve space in the sunniest location possible, “all day” best. They thrive in moderately fertile soils, ideal for those starting a new garden. Well mulched, they are reliable upon natural rainfall.

Yet, we cannot raise out hoes at that. Rather, the pepper world is wide ranging. Smooth lustrous skin is universal among peppers. Colors? Gardeners are rarely disappointed by the pepper’s strong palette. Red is often the sign for picking, however, the other realm, the “hot” pepper domain offers 10 stars of heat in purple, black, green, golden, shades. Fruit size has nothing to do with flavors intensity. Diminutive Thai peppers are pack a lot of punch into small fingerling peppers. Five pot Jamaican peppers are so called for their ability to flavor 5 successive dishes. Bite into hot peppers with caution. 

Capsicum is the root of this heat. Insects, bacteria, the soft tissues of the body, are irritated and stimulated capsicum. Although hot to the tongue, throat, and if not handled carefully, hands, hot peppers lower body temperature, a powerful bodily reaction naturally achieved through sweat. Our skin is our largest organ, sweat eliminates salts and toxins through the skin. Consume the pepper and enjoy massive doses of anti-oxidants and vitamins. Their flavors enhance lackluster carbohydrate rich grains and legumes. 

Peppers are highly decorative plants. They thrive in 18” or larger deep pots left in scorching sun. Pebbles or broken seashells scattered on the pot’s surface up to and around the main stem prevent splashing and evaporation. Water peppers in containers when the soil is dry. Plant various peppers directly into large pots sunk into the main garden. Remove to pride of place on the front steps as they burst into a galaxy of colors. Enjoy the wide range in form and size. Some are geometry gone awry, others resemble small fingers, and all are visually attractive. 

Snip, don’t pull, peppers from the main stems. Peppers are in near continuous bloom, one Thai variety offers mouth melting, tongue seared, unquenchable thirst, for some absolute pleasure, for others, suffering. The pepper’s white seeds concentrate forces. All peppers dry well. Lay fresh clean picked peppers on a mesh or screen under shelter with good air circulation. Oven’s set at 200 degrees are an option. 

Shop around for interesting jars for storage. Peppers produce large harvests. Dry or create specialty sauces for every day gifts. Or spread the harvest upon the kitchen table and thread with a large sewing needle and string peppers.  Traditional? Hang the pepper strings close to the stove for year- long piquant. Snip off strands for the pot or friends. 

Compost last year’s remnants. Keep them if not growing peppers this year, dried peppers endure beyond annual harvests. Ground peppers or an infusion is a toxic insect repellant for application within the garden. 

Gold finches need no control among coneflowers, amaranth, and sunflowers. Their chirp trumps urban background noise, the males purest yellow plumage flickers under nodding sunflower stalks. Deadhead carefully if at all. Harvest coneflower seeds as soon as the finches express interest. Like Ruth, never remove all seed heads. Our birds deserve a share of our garden’s bounty, they add so much more than ever remove. Many volunteer sunflowers, coneflowers and others depend upon seeds the Gold finches, House finches, and others drop. Birds are on the frontline as Rachel Carson so eloquently persuaded us in the “Silent Spring”. A garden full of birdsong endorses a garden as chemical free as possible. Provide fresh water for our friends. Shallow basins are apt to dry out, a practical interruption of mosquito life cycles. Refill as needed, rinse away algae, larvae, feathers and dirt. Plants surrounding bird baths thrive. 

Tropical depressions are likely during the next few weeks. As we tilt towards the autumn equinox atmospheric events accelerate. Harvest heavily laden bean trellises and secure tomato plants. Rainfall is welcome after a dry spring and summer, more powerful winds topple taller sunflowers, bend or break branches, shake pears from trees. Bundle asters and chrysanthemums with doubled or tripled strands in at least 2 bands, draw closer, work from the bottom up. Break a few brittle chrysanthemum stems? Strip off most of the leaves and insert the stem close to the mother plant.  

Chrysanthemums are shallow rooted and easy to move around. Their long summer greenery is at apex. Bundle them or if too large to encircle with arms, consider lifting and dividing. Gently insert a spade and dig straight down around the plant. Be patient, create a perimeter twice before shoveling under and lifting up. Humus rich soils tend to fall away from Chrysanthemums exposed roots, lay the division upon a wet burlap bag, fold, cover, and transport to another sunny space. Duplicate the original division’s depth and width, add bone meal and cultivate the planting hole. Place the division onto the soil, firm, retain the same soil to stem level and mulch. Water. 

Late August is an under- appreciated growing season. Think through the kale that suffered through summer heat, or plant new seeds. Thin way myriads of volunteers, such as French hollyhocks, cleome, violets and common weeds masquerading as gone to seed beets or arugala. Clear away unhealthy plants, bend or clip off leek and allium seed heads for self-sown results next year or winter storage in case you’re to relocate. 

Color often drives my descions, this year I encouraged a natural phenomena. Novel blue potatoes planted years ago kept growing around the garden. A visit to the local farmer’s market yielded bags of seed potatoes in red, gold, blue, none to common spud. Virtually all, tucked into separate locations sailed through the summer free from the dreaded Striped Potato bug. Nor did they succumb to leaf fungi and virus. Many were overshadowed under their thick mulch by Turk’s Cap lilies, delphiniums, comfrey, spearmint and overrun by strawberries. I continue to lay mulch, currently seaweed and grass clippings over the now rather bereft plants. The treasure is beneath.

Potatoes grown under thick mulch are beautifully shaped. They keep nicely in the soil throughout the winter. A permanent mulch insures just the right amount of moisture, nutrients and protection for the tubers. Pry apart layers of mulch to the potatoes remove the larger, pack soil against the smaller, replace the mulch. They are divine fresh from the garden, do leave on their jackets. Like Lady’s Straw, potatoes grown next to roses are usually protected by thorns. Each does best in the same daylight although potatoes, perhaps a result of low cost and space, are often left out of the urban garden. Potatoes however flourish under faster growing and taller plants. Those grown adjacent to Shasta daisies are excellent companions, the daisies repel predatory insects and attract pollinators for both. 

We are on the verge and strong. Season dishes with peppers, give in fellowship, and look ahead. The summer garden is a tropical storm away from heavy wind and rain. Snug inside, we pray for the sailors at sea. Blue potatoes? Yes, right through like beets and novel upon any plate. There is hope, butter and cream once in a while cures all. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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