Extend your pepper season and preserve peppers

Last night at about 11:30 Ken alerted me that the forecasted low for our area was 36 degrees, meaning that we could easily get a light frost.  At midnight the two of us headed out to our gardens with a flashlight to cover our pepper trials, two of our pepper seed crops, and our purple hyacinth bean seed crop with tarps and garden blankets that had been left next to the crops since the last time we had a risk of frost.

Pepper plants in our trial pepper patch. One of the tarps we used to cover the patch is behind the plants.

I also turned on a sprinkler to water our Keystone Resistant Giant pepper seed crop and our Riesentraube tomato seed crop overnight. Contrary to most people’s intuition, a sprinkler can protect plants from a few degrees of frost if it is turned on before the temperature gets below 32 degrees and not turned off until after it gets above 32 again.

A few pepper plants, as well as what remains of our basil, squash, gourds, and beans, were left unprotected, as were most of our remaining tomatoes.  This morning at 8:00 I took a quick walk to see what was dead and what was alive.  I was sad to find abundant evidence of frost in the garden, including that the leaves of our Joe’s Round pepper plants were stiff with ice where they hadn’t been covered.  Our basil was also stiff, and it’s even a little more tender than most frost-tender crops. However, when I checked them again around noon, I found most of those leaves quite alive!  I’m guessing this means that dew on leaves of even very frost-tender plants can freeze without necessarily harming the leaves themselves.  We’ll probably get another good seed harvest from each of our pepper seed crops, and then, around the time of our first killing frost, a big harvest of green peppers for eating. Green peppers don’t have mature enough seed to expect a good germination rate.

Peppers can be slow to come into production, but once they do, they bear prolifically. The fruits keep well on the plants, and in your root cellar or fridge. They are also easy to preserve… more on that below.  So, abundant fall pepper harvest are generally well worth the effort of covering the plants on the first few frosty nights.

Our habaneros were planted late and were slow to start producing, but now they are bearing especially prolifically.

Other frost-tender crops also benefit from covering, including eggplants, tomatillosbeans, cucumbers, and both summer and winter squash.  If you have a cucumber patch that’s still going strong in the days before your first frost, cover for harvest season extension.  However, many crops are harder to cover due to their height.  Also, cold weather and short days slow many of them down a lot.

Preserving peppers is easy, and you have lots of options:

- They freeze well. Unlike most vegetables, they don’t even if need to be blanched (flash-cooked) first. Just cut them into strips or squares, bag them in freezer bags from your local grocery store, and pop them in the freezer.

- We’ve made a delicious roasted red pepper spread. It can also be frozen, and takes up less freezer space than unblended peppers. Just roast peppers and garlic in the oven at about 350 degrees until soft, then thoroughly blend with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

- Some of my friends absolutely love pickled hot peppers.  Lacto-fermented jalapeños have come out especially well for us.  You can also use them as seasoning in other ferments like kim chee.

Sliced red bell peppers with whole green hot peppers and coriander, almost ready for lacto-fermentation

- Dehydration is also a great option, especially if freezer space is scarce. If you have an electric food dehydrator, put at about 135 degrees. If you live in a dry climate, you can dry peppers outside, or string small, thin-skinned ones – like Aji Dulce (mild), Cayenne (hot), or Habanero (very hot) together and hang them in your kitchen or pantry to dry. On our farm, we dry peppers and other vegetables in our convection oven, set to the lowest possible temperature (about 160 degrees, actually lower than the lowest listed temperature on the dial). Dehydrated veggetables are best stored in airtight containers such as mason jars with two-piece lids.

- Homemade hot sauce is a great option.  Canning recipes abound.  Or, if you’d prefer to store your hot sauce in the refrigerator, you can forgo the recipe entirely and experiment with the ingredients you happen to have on hand.

- Hot pepper jam is a favorite of many, and sweet pepper jam is a great option, too.  One of the best jams I’ve made was tomatillos with a touch of Jalapeño peppers, at the rate of about one deseeded pepper per pint.  If I hadn’t already known the hot peppers were in it, I wouldn’t have guessed.

Those tarps and garden blankets will likely come in handy again later in the fall and in the winter, for covering greens on very cold nights.  For more on what fall and winter crops survive down to what temperatures, see our Fall and Winter Gardening Quick Reference.

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Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland – Book Review

     Our new seed office is ripe with the wonderful smell of garlic!  Allium planting season is here and we’re busy shipping garlic and perennial onions.  All our garlic shipments come with a copy of our garlic and perennial onions growing guide, but if you’re looking to get more extensive know-how along with your shipment, consider picking up a copy of Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland. His conversational style makes this book accessible to the layperson while his wealth of experience makes it useful to even the experienced gardener.  Despite having been written over 20 years ago, Growing Great Garlic remains the standard gardening guide for anyone interested in the organic cultivation of garlic.

The Cover of Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland

     The recent explosion of knowledge and interest in heritage vegetable varieties finally seems to be making its way to the onion’s much loved but poorly understood cousin, garlic.  Garlic has found a place for itself in culinary traditions around the world as a seasoning, a foodstuff in its own right and even a confection.  If the produce section at the local supermarket is anything to go by, garlic is a forgettable, small and either gray or gray.  Its flavor is identifiable, but consistent.  It seems any head is as good as the next.

        In this 226-page garlic growing guide, Ron Engeland sets out to introduce the small farmer and home gardener to the many faces of this amazing plant.  The author introduces the main types (Rocambole, Continental, Artichoke and Silverskin) as well as his strategies for cultivation and harvest.  He even helps diagnose garlic diseases, pests and pathogens (from nematodes and thrips to botrytis and yellow dwarf virus).  When your garlic is ready, Engeland walks you through processing and storage, to ensure that your harvest lasts long into the winter months.

        Give Engeland a chance and he will show you that organic garlic can be an exciting crop of diverse shapes, colors and flavors.

Garlic Drying in the Barn after Harvest

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National Heirloom Expo

Squash cornucopia in the exhibit hall

One of the recent events that Southern Exposure attended is the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, CA.  This is quite the trek for us, but it’s rare to be able to connect with a group of individuals and organizations that are as passionate about preserving genetic and heritage diversity as we are, striving to instill a deep appreciation of traditional, regionally adapted food sources.

Our exhibit of heirloom tomatoes

Although we specialize in heirloom seed adapted to the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, when I set up our exhibit of heirloom tomatoes, I was pleased to see how well our many of our varieties do in this climate.  A big thanks to local tomato extraordinaire Tamara for generously providing us with tomatoes – with her help, we won 2nd place in the exhibit!

Sculptural muskmelon lantern

In our booth, I enjoyed talking with passersby about the value of saving your own seeds, including the ability to select the most desirable traits for your area. Many food advocates are beginning to understand the allure of seed saving: slowly, over time, tailoring a variety to have a unique profile of characteristics, including taste, appearance, resistances to disease, ease of harvesting and preserving, and the less quantifiable satisfaction of building regionally food heritage.

Multi-melon sculpture

We also staffed a booth for a long-time ally the Organic Seed Growers And Trade Association (OSGATA), helping to raise awareness about the importance of preserving organically sourced seed and the create a resilient and decentralized food system.

Giant pumpkin delivered via forklift

 As someone who has been intermittently involved in food activism for a number of years, I offered to do a presentation highlighting community models that are building the food justice movement.  The organizations that I featured focus on one or more of the following: promoting and supporting young and beginning farmers, building a local economy, using ecologically conscious gardening techniques, helping empower marginalized populations, and working to alleviate food deserts, which includes components of education, affordability, and proximity to healthy fresh food.  Special thanks to Renew Richmond, Allegheny Mountain School (AMS), and the Anti-oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) for taking time out of their day to do an interview with me, along with the Greenhorns and the Agrarian Trust for all the inspiring work they do to bring strength and cohesion to the young farmer movement.

Evan of the Farmer's Guild

After my talk, I was pleased to meet many speakers and attendees who contribute to the work of food justice.  I met Evan Wiig, who helped found the Farmer’s Guild, which is a network for young a beginning farmers who meet on a monthly basis to share knowledge and resources.  Only several years in existence, the Farmer’s Guild is already in 7 locations throughout Northern California.  I decided to hear Evan talk about the Farmer’s Guild, and was quite impressed – passionate and motivated leaders such as Evan are what we need to send the young farmers forward into the future as a thriving movement.  Cross your fingers for him doing a presentation at next year’s Heritage Harvest Festival!

Cathryn of the Ceres Community Project


Next, I met Cathryn Couch with the Ceres Community Project, which serves hot, organic meals to individuals and families who are dealing with serious illness, prepared by youth in the community.  The way Kathryn sees it, all youth are “at-risk” youth if they don’t find a sense of belonging.  Clients are often so appreciative of these meals, that they come and thank the youth who prepared them personally, and consequentially, some of the youth have participated in the project for four years now.  This is an example of how food can intersect so many areas – health, the environment, youth empowerment, and a social safety net maintained by community members, for community members, just to name a few.

Passing on the treasury of knowledge

Happily surrounded by heirloom enthusiasts, I met the expo coordinator, Paul Wallace, who told me about how this year they’re having the Education & Fun Day seriesfor kindergarten through high school aged kids.  There, they’ll have activities including “be a farmer for a day,” name that veggie, potato sack races, probiotic mud balls, seed ball making, seed saving, and worm bin exploration. He’s expecting over 2,000 kids from surrounding schools to attend.  Although school gardens are gaining traction throughout the nation, the effects of more garden based curriculum such as this could be tremendous, with more and more people of generations to come interested in and connected to their food source.

Ira Wallace, expert gardener and seed saver

Last but not least, I met Arno Hesse and Samantha Dweck with Credibles, an umbrella project of the Slow Money movement where consumers can pre-pay for their years’ worth of groceries from their favorite food provider, helping local food-related businesses access capital for growth.  This program as an intersection of slow food and slow money, where the vital backbones of a more just society – food and the economy – grow in tandem.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange will be attending upcoming Slow Money Conference in Louisville.  Join us there to hear seed saver extraordinaire and co-manager of Southern Exposure Ira Wallace talk about seeds and diversity.

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