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Urban Gardener: Hot Peppers And Picante

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Hot peppers of the "Patrone" variety Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Urban gardeners are thrifty sorts who pack as much punch as possible into their garden plots. Space is always at a premium among us. As summer’s last full moon slowly ebbs away the garden is poised at the turning point. Harvests are abundant and we strive to preserve our abundant crops.  Peppers and pears are ready in my garden, how about yours?

A fine container plant from a tribe with endless colors, shapes, and degrees of heat are the hot peppers. Gone are the days when salt and pepper seasoned American cuisine. Our textured cities ignore borders and invite one to sample plants and season dishes from around the world. Let’s harvest the summer crops and prepare for the cool Fall growing season.

Peppers are a compact deep green plant. Some grow up to three feet tall and freely branch out. The pepper families are sun-lovers. Woeful indeed is the pepper plant consigned to shadows. Bliss is to see peppers accent the garden much as they add picante to our foods. I plant trios of peppers as accent plants.  They are immune to most pests. Capisum is the medicinal portion of the pepper plant, found especially in its seeds but evident throughout the plant. Capisum is perceived as heat by the palette and repugnant to most insects. Indeed, peppers are an ideal companion plant for tomatoes and cucumbers.

Peppers have deep roots in American horticulture. Brought to Europe and then to the world by early European visitors and colonists, the pepper entered European and Asian cuisine. Nearly universally cultivated today, hot peppers are a colorful lot. A rainbow of purple, deep lustrous green, yellow, every shade of red, ivory, black, and orange fruits offer visual appeal. 

Hot peppers, Muy Caliente Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

More interested in taste? Peppers come in every degree of hot. Their pugnacious hot taste brings out flavors in bland foods. They do well in ordinary garden soil and thrive in rich well drained loams. Their long growing season reflects their Central American origins. Most of us plant seedlings although some of us start the easily germinated seeds ahead of spring’s last frost on windowsills. 

I pull up the entire plant to harvest. The peppers are beautiful to behold. Edible from shortly after the small white flowers are pollinated, it’s possible to snip off junior peppers from mid- summer forward. The largest dividends are given now when the plant is pulled up from soil, roots broken off, and stripped of fruit. Handle with care or gloves, capisum is potent and irritates the skin, lips and eyes of the unwary.  Warn youngsters but never teach inspire fear.

Virtually the only time I thread a needle is to string hot peppers. Double up on thread and pierce the tough intersection of stem and fruit. Slide the peppers down the thread and form long chains of the fruit. A classic annual ritual in my kitchen is to take down the last of the old peppers, dried and still good, and replace with the new peppers. Let them air dry and break off as needed. When so easily reached;  you’ll discover new uses for this versatile plant. Everyone knows someone who likes their food hot, perhaps it’s you. A string of various peppers within reach adds so much more to meals for so little effort. A string of hot peppers is a humble but assertive gift. Wash your hands frequently when handling the peppers, innocent appearances are deceiving. If you wish for less heat, remove seeds, they are concentrations of capisum.

Urban gardeners are far from finished with gardens. Summer slowly fades away, much gardening remains.  Break up your pepper plants and let fall upon the mulched garden. Groom the annuals and deadhead those you wish to keep in bloom. Leave your favorite zinnias, cosmos, coreopsis, and other annuals to go to seed. Year after year I harvest seeds each Fall. Although I do not selectively breed plants, many pursue this inexpensive and fascinating hobby. In a world of diminishing gene pools, seed savers are the quiet heroes. Hybrid varieties may regress towards their parent stocks, others pioneer new adventures in horticulture. Why not? Seed saving is free, takes small effort and pays big dividends to the do it yourselfers out there.  Within a few years you’ll have gardens personalized to your individual choices. Apply your signature to the garden.

Open the garden up from rampant summer growth. Trim back the long outreaches from the tomato plants or pull them up altogether. Tomatoes will continue to ripen in the garden far into autumn. However most gardeners devote the sunniest most fertile garden spots to tomatoes and need the space for cool weather plants such as kale, endive, lettuce and others. Need I remind you to snip the plants into smaller parts and leave as mulch? Or do you turn over the soil and bury the summer plants? Either way, the garden ecosystem relies upon the return of vegetative growth to the soil. A well mulched garden forms a very active microscopic community hungry for more organic material. The more organic material added to the soil the more complex and active the microbes and, dismissively described, lower forms of life.

Korean pears Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Tired of stringing the peppers or fingers burnt, stung, heated? Turn to the ideal urban fruit: the dwarf Asian pear. Asian pears are distant cousins to European pears. Their fine white flesh is tasty and crisp. Asian pears look much like a large golden brown apple. Once exotic, they are a fine addition to any garden. Self-fertile, hardy and virtually pest free, they are a noble fruit tree. At the time of summer’s last full moon, they are ready to pick and eat. Their shelf life is fairly long in some homes.  Like many gardeners, I enjoy picking and eating them right on the spot. Thin the fruit during the growing season or you’ll end up like me: a lovely small tree with heavily laden branches full of small pears. Who really cares? The fruits are very tasty and each a miracle of nature’s abundance just a few feet away from busy streets and the harsh realities of the world. A pear tree is testament to goodness.

Peppers and pears signal the turning point. Soon, chrysanthemums, asters and fallen leaves will define our urban growing spaces. Enjoy, preserve the summer crop and live well my friends.

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 tree.


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