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.
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.
Other frost-tender crops also benefit from covering, including eggplants, tomatillos, beans, 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.
– 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.