Archive for September, 2015

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Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

As we move into fall,  vegetable gardening is going to slow down in many parts of the country, so I’m going to have to dig deep to try and come up with some subjects to keep you reading. With those long, cold nights and short days ahead, I’m going to spend some time addressing several of the questions I’m most frequently asked. I’m also going to address some of the rampant misinformation and over complication of topics I see repeated, especially on social media. We will cover topics as varied as soil improvement, composting with worms, best (and worst) fertilizers, seed companies, aquaponics basics, hydroponics for beginners, seed starting vs. buying starter plants, and more. I hope you’ll stick around and join the conversation.

I want to begin with a subject I’m very sensitive to and passionate about. I’m going to tackle heirloom vs. hybrid vegetable (and fruit) varieties and where the whole GMO fits into the discussion. If you look through the archives you’ll see that I have addressed this question more than once, and have done so fairly recently.  I plan to tackle it in early spring in a You Tube episode, but wanted to touch on it one last time this year. It’s probably the most frequent topic I’m asked about, because there’s a lot of confusion about what those words really mean.

In full disclosure, there are some ‘purists’ who are going to disagree with my conclusions and our practices here in the ‘burb, and that’s ok. You get to grow your garden in line with your own philosophies. What I want to be really clear on are the definitions of terms and what that means to the backyard and beginning gardener.  I want to demystify and simplify gardening for you so you can be as successful as possible, regardless of your experience. Let’s start with some definitions.

Heirloom – An heirloom variety is nothing more than one that has been stabilized and consistent for an extended period of time. The catch is, there’s no set time table on when a variety becomes an heirloom. Is it 50 years? 100 years? 7 generations? The jury is still out. A pepper breeder/farmer may define it differently than a tomato grower.  For my purposes, the key is knowing that the seed will produce consistent plants, fruits and seed season after season.

Hybrid – a hybrid is typically a deliberate crossing of two varieties to try and create a new variety that has some of the (best?) attributes of both parents. I’m going to use peppers as an example. In many ways this is an oversimplification, but it will suffice.

Let’s suppose I want to cross a Poblano with a Jalapeno to create a spicier Poblano. I plant them next to each other and do what I can to ensure the plants cross pollinate. There is no indication I’ve had any success in that first year. The Poblano plant will produce ordinary Poblanos and the Jalapeno will produce Jalapenos.

The next step is saving the seeds from some of the Poblanos that were cross pollinated and plant them the next year.  The fruit from those plants will be hybrids. Some will be spicier, some may be mild. Some may look more like Jalapenos, some more like Poblanos. Does this make sense?  It’s kind of like breeding a German Shepherd with a Beagle. Their offspring will be all over the place in size and shape. That’s a hybrid. It takes several generations of breeding to stabilize a hybrid so that it breeds true.

GMO – A Genetically Modified Organism, is dramatically different than a hybrid, because a. it has to be done in a laboratory and b. it’s crossing characteristic or types at the DNA level in ways that would not happen in nature. (Think, placing resistance to a pesticide into the DNA of corn or soy. Or, even more dramatic, splicing a protein from the Golden Orb Weaver Spider into the Embryo of a milk goat embryo (which has been done) with a goal of producing the desired protein in mass for various medical and scientific purposes).

The science is marvelous, though there are still long term ethical and environmental issues that are unknown.

My purpose here is not to debate the ethics of GMO, but merely to demonstrate the difference between a GMO and a hybrid. I prefer to call GMO plants and animals, ‘Chimeras’, but that might give away my biases.

Open Pollinated – Amusingly, many companies use ‘Open Pollinate’ as a synonym for Heirloom, or even as a separate kind of natural, trustworthy seed. Most of us have seen ads that say, ‘we have only heirloom and open pollinated varieties.’ The fact is, open pollinated is really a description of how the parent plants were pollinated. They are pollinated by whatever happened out there in the garden, be it, bees, breezes, wasps, birds, human contact. There were no controls on the pollination. An open pollinated plant in a back yard garden may very well (and probably does) produce hybrid offspring.

For example, if I’m growing dark green zucchini in one row, and Italian ribbed zucchini in another row 50 feet away (or my neighbor is growing it), open pollinating may allow the varieties to cross. I’d never notice until the next year if my seeds produced some interesting hybrids.

I know my definitions will drive some geneticists nuts, but they work for me in a broad brush sense.

One last point; I don’t know of any GMO seeds being made available to the general public or backyard farmer. No seed catalogs offer GMO corn or soy or potatoes. There are no GMO green beans, cabbage or sweet basil. There is zero danger to you of getting any of GMO varieties.

In conclusion, you don’t have to be afraid of hybrid varieties unless you are a seed saver. I grow some every year. My favorite zucchini and cucumber are both hybrids. I grow some hybrid tomatoes every year along with my heirloom ones. There are lots of great hybrids out there. Fear not.

Later this winter I’ll explain what I do to protect my heirlooms from cross pollination if I want to save the seed. For now, I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion. If so, please consider giving us a like and  sharing with your friends. Oh, and join the discussion by posting your comments and questions. I love to hear from you. After all, we’re in this together.


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This guy needs a shave!

This guy needs a shave!

Those of you who are long time readers know that I love heat. In my world, spicy food rules. Whether it’s salsa for Mexican food, ketchup for meatloaf, Cajun delights or Indian Curries, as far as I’m concerned, the hotter the better.

We started growing our own peppers about the same time we started this blog, back in2009. Since then, we’ve grown dozens of varieties of hot (sweet, too) peppers. Compared to some of my Facebook Friends, I’m a rank amateur, but I’ve learned a lot about growing and cooking with peppers.

My love affair with all things spicy began the moment I ate my first Jalapeno when I was about 10 years old. It changed my life. For years, I put hot sauce on everything.  I was content.

Life changed again in the eighties, while living in the United Kingdom, when I was introduced to Indian food. Oh my g6osh, what a revelation in spicy living. Vindaloo became my go to dish for several years, until I heard of a dish called Chicken Phall (or Phaul).

Phall is frequently called the spiciest dish in the world. It was actually created in England, not India or Pakistan.  Originally invented to encourage young, drunk Englishmen to leave the restaurant at closing time, Phall has become a staple dish in many parts of the United Kingdom. It really will put hair on your chest.

I make it all the time, and truly love it. Habanero Peppers are a primary ingredient. Chicken Phall is more than just scorching heat. It is full of flavor and depth.

Mash ready to puree

Mash ready to puree

Over the years, I have upgraded from Habs, to Jolokia and Moruga Scorpion Peppers. I have yet to make any with the legendary Carolina Reaper, but it’s just a matter of time.

As the years have passed, and I’ve done more cooking with peppers, I’ve used less and less hot sauce.  At the same time, because I grow so many peppers, My stock of frozen and dried peppers has come unwieldy. The supply just keeps growing and my long suffering wife would like to have some freezer space back for other produce and meat.

Simultaneously, I’ve watched the Chili Pepper boards on facebook come alive with news from Fiery Foods festivals and I’ve witnessed the introduction of many new sauces. As, someone who loves both to eat and to cook, all these new creations have made me want to try making my own hot sauce. Finally, this year, I decided to make it happen.

This first sauce, I’m calling, “Pastor Sam’s ‘Altar Call’.” (Regular readers know I use the “Pastor Sam’s” moniker for all my BBQ sauces and marinades.  At its base, Altar Call has one pound of peppers. There are 4 types of Habanero (Orange, Red, Chocolate, and Peruvian White), Jolokia (Ghost), Moruga Scorpion, and a few Carolina Reapers in the mash.  I aged mash for 6 days before turning it into a sauce and bottling it.

I was really surprised by the depth of flavor, after only 6 days.  The heat hit about two seconds after the flavor. At first, I thought I was going to be disappointed by a lack of heat, then two other things happened. A strong habanero flavor suddenly comes through after the first heat wave and made me think, ‘Yum. And to think, I made this all by myself.”

It was at this point, the Jolokia and Reaper peppers came into their own. What started as a slow burn, continued to grow into some real heat. It was mouth and lip heat more than back of the throat, but it kept growing for several minutes. What a pleasant surprise.

Pastor Sam's 'Altar Call' Hot Sauce

Pastor Sam’s ‘Altar Call’ Hot Sauce

Finally, in true Jolokia tradition, the pain hit my gut. Of all the hot peppers, Jolokia’s hit my gut the hardest. This one packed a pretty good punch.

As a first sauce, I am really happy with it. I would give it a solid B. It has plenty of heat combined with decent flavor. In future, I will age it a few more days, and I might try it with a hint of garlic, but it’s pretty darned good, as is. I can’t wait to add some to my burrito tonight.

I’d love to hear what you like in a hot sauce. Do you make your own? Please add your comments and questions, because it’s more fun when we share. After all, we’re in this together.


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Fall Squash. P.S. it's even bigger now.

Fall Squash. P.S. it’s even bigger now.

Optimizing results for the small space backyard gardener is what we’re all about here in the ‘burb.  One of our major goals is finding ways to make healthy food affordable for ordinary families, whether buying it or growing it.

Those of us who grow our own food are pretty much constantly on the prowl for tips and tricks to achieve healthier plants and increased yield from those plants. I want to spend just a few minutes sharing three almost magical tricks that will turbo charge your garden, whether fall or spring.

  1. Manure – Well, surprise, surprise, surprise. With all the fertilizer and supplement products available at your local garden center, it may come as a shock to you that old fashioned aged manure is still the best thing you can do for your garden. The real Miracle Growth comes right from the processes God built into nature rather than those coming out of chemistry set.Manure is best used, with one exception, aged for a few weeks. Here are my favorites.
  2. I’ve found that I get my very best results by using some of the modern products built on a foundation of the best natural processes used since Eden.
  1. Rabbit (one of the few that can be used without aging, but I still age mine when possible). Rabbits are prolific poopers and the pebbles they leave behind are worth their weight in gold.
  2. Chicken – should be aged for several weeks to allow the ammonia to burn off and cool down a bit.
  3. Duck
  4. Quail
  5. Guinea Pig
  6. Cow
  7. Horse or donkey
  8. Goat or Sheep – These can be tougher to get if raised in a pasture rather than a pen or stall.

My recommendation is to pile up the manure and let it age for several weeks then put some or all of it into worm bins. In my experience, Rabbit manure is the fastest ageing option. Some people actually place their worm bins directly beneath their rabbit cages and allow the droppings to go straight into the bins. I prefer to wait a few days for the ammonia to burn off.

Poultry manure on the other hand takes the longest. I like to let it age for several months before adding it to the worm bins or directly to the beds.

I’m growing quite a bit of zucchini and squash in my fall garden this year. Fall squash has fewer bug problems than those in the spring/summer garden. Some of my squash is in containers with good planting mix and fed a diet of regular watering with a combination of organic, sea weed based nutrients. Some others are in containers loaded with aged rabbit manure as well as the planting mix.

All of my fall squash looks great, but the plants in the rabbit manure containers are twice as lush and productive as the ones without.

  1. Mulch – I was slow to catch on to the benefits of mulch. Frankly, I was afraid it would just contribute to weed growth. Now I’ve learned differently. I have discovered, (finally), the benefits of moisture control and weed suppression that mulching provides. Besides mulching beds after planting, a great practice is to add a thick layer of tree, leaf or straw mulch to the bed before overwintering. (I can’t even describe the difference this made in my strawberries. Wow.). Over time, the mulch will both help suffocate weed seeds and slowly compost from the bottom up, adding valuable nutrients to the soil underneath. Before spring planting, simply rake or push mulch aside, plant your starter plants, then put the mulch back in place, along with any top up mulch you need to apply. It’s awesome.
    1. Tree Mulch is versatile, abundant and often free. Call some tree removal companies and you’ll be surprised how many will simply give it to you. I have two big truck loads aging right now that didn’t cost me a cent.
    2. Leaves are also an excellent mulching option. When you rake your leaves in the fall, instead of putting them out for the trash man, use them in your garden. (Tip) if you have extra bags of leaves, put them in a black plastic trash bag and set them in a sunny place to overwinter. The winter sun will warm the bags and begin the composting process. By spring, they will be great to add to your garden beds, saving you a ton on compost and fertilizers
    3. Straw is always a go to option. I cover my strawberries with it in October or November and forget about it. In the spring, the berries grow up through it. The straw composts providing excellent nutrients. It’s so easy. (Tip; use pine straw for blueberries, blackberries and other acid loving plants).
    4. Grass clippings are also popular. They are my last option. I still have a weed fear from grass clipping. I prefer to leave my grass on the pastures and lawn to mulch them. I’m not a fan of bagging grass from the lawn. I’ll explain that another day.
  2. Magnesium – This little micronutrient may be the best kept open secret in gardening. Mg is like a mega vitamin or tonic that boosts every part of plant growth. The simplest way to add magnesium is by mixing some common Epsom Salt with water and applying it either as a foliar spray or using a hose end feed sprayer when you water your garden. Mix one tablespoon per gallon of water. I do it weekly. Some other people feed Mg bi weekly. It’s an inexpensive way to boost plant health and crop yield.
Fall Peppers Still Bursting With Color and Still Producing

Fall Peppers Still Bursting With Color and Still Producing

These three Ms – Manure, Mulch, and Magnesium with absolutely revolutionize your vegetable (or flower) garden. Next week, I’ll share two more underappreciated inputs, but these three will make you the envy of your neighborhood and will fill your pantry with extra nutrient dense vegetables and fruit.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for improving plant health and yield? I’d love to hear from you. After all, we’re in this together.


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