Six Good Habits of a Lazy Gardener

I’m a suburban gardener. I garden in spurts because I’m busy, and, sometimes, just lazy. Thanks to a few good gardening habits I picked up from my mom, I have cucumbers to pickle, more peppers than I have time to eat and put up, herbs, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, okra, tomatoes, onions, and . . . well, there are lots of peppers.

My mom is the antithesis of rushed and lazy and, when it comes to gardening, she’s the real deal. She pushes a hand plow through straight, fertile rows. As her plants grow and produce, she weeds, waters, and hoes on a predictable and reasonable schedule. My rows are crooked, and my schedule is irregular, but I managed to take on few good gardening habits that I learned from her, mostly the ones that involve reusing and repurposing things you have on hand.

Six Good Gardening Habits

  1. Newspapers: Unfold and stack newspaper pages, pulling out the ones with waxy finishes (those aren’t so great for the garden). Arrange newspapers (at least 6 layers thick) around the seedlings or plants. The newspaper serves as weed block. When it’s time to pull up old plants and turn the soil, till in whatever papers hasn’t already composted itself.
  2. Mulch: Leaves, grass clippings, pine needles. They can all be your garden friend. I prefer leaves in my vegetable garden because they are less likely to introduce weed spawn and they break down more quickly than pine needles. For Wow! weedblocker, after covering your garden rows/beds with layers of newspaper, add a layer of leaves. Once your plants peter out, you can till the leaves and the newspaper into the soil, and you’ll have an even richer soil for the next round.
  3. Cardboard: To create a raised bed above a grassy or weedy area, don’t buy weed block or dig up the grassy patch. Use cardboard. Remove any tape or stickers from the cardboard and place on top of the grass. Make sure it’s a solid layer by overlapping pieces of cardboard so no grass sticks through. Once your bed walls are up (I use cinder blocks), fill your raised bed with soil, peat moss, compost, etc.
  4. Eggshells: Save and grind eggshells. I have a little compost bucket in the kitchen, dedicated to eggshells. When it’s full, I grind the shells in my food processor. NOTE: Eggshells will scratch plastic blenders and food processors. If you want to avoid this, place the eggshells in a Ziploc back, smashing them as you do. Remove as much air as possible before zipping, and roll over the bag with a rolling pin.
  5. Vegetable waste: Compost! There are many dos and don’ts about composting correctly, but I don’t have time for all of that. I just toss my vegetable scraps into my compost pile, a 3-sided area (the fence and two sides of cinder blocks) just over the back fence in the right of way. My compost is unkempt, but when I need good dirt, it has never disappointed.
  6. Plastics: Don’t recycle those plastic containers. Let the other R take over and Reuse the plastic jugs and jars. I use vinegar for nearly everything: cleaning, canning, cooking, even washing my hair. The empty vinegar jugs become scoops and funnels that I use for distributing soil and fertilizer. In June, the jug becomes a fruit picking bucket that hangs like a holster on a belt while I pick blueberries and figs with two hands. Wide-mouthed plastic containers are great for storing seeds, ground up egg shells, and fertilizer.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

My Garden Control

The hunter’s full moon is shining down on my garden tonight. I don’t have much in the garden, but the soil is freshly tilled and a dozen seedlings are reaching for the sky. My garden, honestly, is about everything but the vegetables. Sometimes it’s about control.

I can’t say I control my garden well. And the garden certainly doesn’t control me.

If the bean counters showed up, my garden would be condemned. It’s a bad business model. More money for the lesser vegetables, or, often, no vegetable at all. Add to that, the garden takes up precious time, space, and effort.

If the bean counters, however, would factor in more than harvest, my garden would receive a “best deal” sticker. My garden is for unplugging, for meditation and movement, for physical and mental therapy, for emotional grounding.

Tonight as I studied the hunter moonshadows on my crooked rows, I felt a surge of comfort.

Just as everything was spinning completely out of control, I took time last weekend to weed and till my garden. The weeds in some spots were chin-high. It took two days and many I’m-going-to-pass-out moments.

Control becomes an emotion. I felt it immediately. Sure, I was panting and wiping the sweat from my face. But I had restored something. Taken control.

I started this week with more direction and strength. And tonight, as that out-of-control feeling was creeping back in, I went outside to see the full moon. I knew she’d be there. That helped.

I looked at the shadows she cast. My garden rows and seedlings beamed up at me in the moonlight. They restored me.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

 

A Pepper Apology

Five reasons I shouldn’t have a pepper garden and Five reasons I do

The inception of my pepper obsession escapes me. Peppers went from Yes, jalapeños on my burger! to Yum! Let’s makes some more pepper jelly! to How many pepper varieties can I grow this year?

Growing peppers is fascinating, yet equally frustrating. My modest pepper garden has an extravagant history of false starts, flustered efforts, and full fails.


I know at least five reasons I should not have a pepper garden.

1. Shysters

These were sold to me as Ají Amarillo. I’ll allow that “ají” in Spanish is almost like saying pepper, but please. These mature to red, not yellow.

Ají Amarillo, they said. I’ll allow that “ají” in Spanish is almost as specific as saying “pepper” in English, but please. These mature to red, not yellow.

My pepper ventures begin with a bubble of excitement, selecting and purchasing pepper seeds online, imagining what those seeds will become. That bubble swells with the successful seedling, the plant, the flowers, the peppers . . . And Pop! Wait! This isn’t . . . What kind of pepper is this? I want a refund! But the line is disconnected and emails go into cyberwasteland. Shysters!

These were sold to me as ghost. Um, no! But I fell in love with them and I'm trying to find the right seeds.

The seeds for these were sold to me as ghost. Um, no! The worst part is I fell in love with them, but I’m not sure what they are and they didn’t reseed.

2. Broken promises

Some plants keep their promises. Peppers, like the seedy seed vendors, are often renegers. My pepper seed success rate stands at about 20%, and that´s probably an exaggeration. The low performance rate is only part of the treachery. Sometimes the plant that produces a fabulously perfect pepper —Yes! That’s the seed I ordered!— exhales its last puff of oxygen days after its one and only pepper. Heroic efforts fail to perk up the limp leaves of these one-pepper wonders. I never trust a pepper plant.

3. Critters

Critters did it

Many mornings I find evidence of wild parties and drunken endeavors. Or maybe it was an opossum.

Critters burrow, critters nibble, and sometimes critters crush the plant. As infuriating as these delinquencies can be, the most annoying critter habit of all involves my carefully placed plant labels. Why do they move my plant labels? Are they playing toss the plastic? Having pretend sword battles? My plants and my pseudo-scientific efforts to track and positively identify them often fall victim to the shenanigans of nocturnal critters. Note to self: must map the garden plot.

4. Insects

A leaf-footed nymph

A leaf-footed nymph

The beginning of any season is bliss. The beds are fresh, and that order-day bubble of excitement billows with hope. The seedlings will mature, the seeds will produce what the label says they should, the newspaper and mulch will control the weeds . . . But one bright morning, Pop! The stink bug convention is in full swing! Before long, my garden becomes a playground for stink bug babies, tiny other-worldly nymphs with creepy red bodies. I battle other insect invasions, but stink bugs are the most aggressive. I only use organic pesticides, so short of grabbing the leaf-footed bugs and crushing them against my thighs, there is no instant termination. I dust them with diatomaceous earth, coat them with neem oil solutions, shoo them away, and pray my dreams aren’t infested with them.

I've eked out a few peppers from this plant, but it has been unhappy since seedlinghood.

I’ve eked out a few peppers from this plant, but it has been unhappy since seedlinghood.

5. Peppers

Peppers are bratty, lazy children. No, not yet! I’m tired! I’ll germinate tomorrow. Too much water! I need more water! Additionally, the peppers that manage to survive the critters and insects are prone to almost any disease, bacteria, or fungus that gambols through the garden. My inchoate gardening skills are part of the problem, but a PhD in peppers could not sufficiently school me on the essentials and afflictions of my pepper plants.

The list of frustrations goes on. Even success can be frustrating because the yield is never just right. Too few to follow the recipe or too many to use before the peppers surrender to mush.

Why am I still pampering pepper plants? Five possible reasons:

1. Challenges

Pepper concoctions

I spy candied scotch bonnet, pickled pimento pepper, pickled pizza pepper, pickled planet pepper, chocolate ghost jelly, angry ginger (scotch bonnet) jelly, and candied jalapeños.

I love a challenge. This one goes beyond negotiating my way around seed shysters, nocturnal critters, and alien insects. This challenge has culinary and intellectual branches. What  can I make with this pepper? How can I showcase this pepper’s attributes without killing a friend? The more I learn about peppers —from names and types of plants to different canning and storing methods—, the more I know I don’t know. I’m sure that even my last pepper plant will teach me something, a lesson in survival, a story of surrender, an anecdote about its indigenous history, or maybe a simple moment of grace as I accept the firm, perfect pepper my plant offers.

Harvesting work castings

Harvesting worm castings

2. Grounding

Gardening, especially cultivating peppers, takes me out of my head and into the dirt. Many gardening acts feel holy: harvesting compost and worm castings, organizing seed trays, mixing organic elements. The garden is my quiet room, where I sow and weed thoughts, pamper ideas, and whisper affirmations. I find myself in the failures and bounty of the plants, especially my pepper plants.

Ascent peppers are similar to Tabasco peppers in their look and growth patterns. The name is descriptive, yet unfortunate. No one ever understands on first try. Scent peppers? No, ascent peppers. Cent peppers? No ascent. Sent? Writes down the name.

Ascent peppers are easily confused with Tabasco peppers. No one understands the name on first try. Scent peppers? No, ascent peppers. Cent peppers? No AH-scent. Sent? Writes down the name.

3. Excitement

Baby moruga

This baby moruga scorpion looks innocent enough, but it is a member of the pepper family that is being touted as the hottest in the world.

Discovery, exploration, and, of course, heat. Each year I discover new varietals we must try and explore recipes and techniques. What are we having for dinner? I still can’t answer, Peppers! But peppers are the exciting compliment, brightening a dish with bold flavors and color. Elation escalates with rising Scoville ratings. Even people who can’t tolerate hot peppers are fascinated by heat. They will watch with anticipation as a friend bites into a spicy morsel and dance with excitement when the friend´s eyes tear up from the heat. Like many pepper addicts, I’m on a quest to grow the hottest varieties available. My mission, however,  is divergent. I aim to tame. I dance with excitement when I harness the hottest devils and chaperon them into palatable jellies, sauces, and relishes. 

The coveted and feared ghost (bhut jolokia ) pepper

The coveted and feared ghost (bhut jolokia) pepper

4. Beauty

Peppers are art —my garden canvas, my kitchen palette, my pepper gallery. The pepper laden limbs, a basket full of ripe peppers, jars of pickled peppers, the goat cheese log draped in bright pepper jelly. Beautiful art. Although they will never be the reliable what’s-for-dinner vegetable, peppers are a splendid extravagance, the aesthetic bounty I harvest and share with friends and colleagues.

A pepper harvest

Pepper harvest

5. Peppers

Peppers are my garden children, unpredictable attention seekers. Watch me dance! Watch me shine! Listen to my story! Did you know I can . . . ? The peppers that survive my 80%-plus failure rate are worth the frustrations and stink-bug nightmares. I shamelessly show them off to anyone who gives me a moment. I parade my pepper jellies at parties, share pepper photos, fill gift boxes with pepper delicacies. I love peppers. No apologies.

My first chocolate success: the chocolate ghost pepper

My first chocolate success: the chocolate ghost pepper


Notes and tips for my fellow pepper enthusiasts

Not all seed vendors are trustworthy. So far, these are vendors I do trust: Territorial, ChilePlants, and Peaceful Valley.

This is a list of some of the positively identified peppers that I’ve successfully cultivated. The list of failed attempts is longer.

alma paprika, ancho, ascent, banana, various bells, Bulgarian carrot, Caribbean (or maybe Bolivian?) red, cayenne, cayenne thick, chocolate ghost, fireball, habanero, ghost, jalapeño, NuMex Jo Parker, moruga scorpion, moruga scorpion yellow, pizza, planet, purple jalapeño, scotch bonnet, Serrano, sheepnose pimento, sweet chinese giant, Tabasco, Trinidad scorpion

If you harvest seeds for the next season, clean, dry, and store them in sealed bags or containers in the freezer.

Pre-soaking seeds in solutions of saltpetre or citric acid can help overcome stubborn germination.

Start the seeds in seed trays or hydroponic systems.

Start early! I start making seed trays in late January and early February, but many of my pepper plants don´t start performing until late summer or fall. They can be painfully sluggish.

If you live in a warm climate, many of your peppers can winter over. Pamper them through the cold months, and protect them from the occasional freeze.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.