Tidewater Gardening March 2006:

Getting Ready for Hot & Spicy Summer Color


K. Marc Teffeau

    I heard on the radio the other day that this past January was the warmest on record. There are some mixed blessings with that news. With higher fuel prices it has helped keep the rate of heating cost increases down, and, except for a couple of days, my evening wait for the commuter bus on K Street in Washington, D.C., hasn’t been that unpleasant. Some of the nursery growers I work with in Ohio and New York have commented on the lack of “lake effect” snows that they usually get in Lake Country, Ohio, and around Buffalo, New York.
      Plant-wise, the warmer temperatures have broken the chilling cycle for some flowering trees. Some stone fruits like cherries and apricots have flowered early. If you were expecting to harvest fruit from those trees this summer, it’s not going to happen.
      The spring bulbs have poked their foliage through the mulch, but even a cold snap should not affect them as the flower bud is still buried deep in the bulb.
The mild winter temperatures get us thinking about the spring gardening season. Not surprisingly, one of the hottest plants selling at garden centers now are pansies. January was an excellent sales month for these colorful bedding plants. You could buy and plant them out in January and February because the ground wasn’t frozen. As tulip, narcissus and other large bulbs begin to emerge, set pansy plants between them for added color.
      If the warmer than usual winter continues into March, I would be prepared to plant some of the cool season cole crops like broccoli early. If it is not wet, you should be able to get your potatoes planted on St. Patrick’s Day and your edible pod and regular peas into the ground. Don’t forget the early root crops. You can also direct seed carrots, parsnips, beets, radishes and turnips as long as the ground is not frozen.
      Many annual flowers are very frost hardy when plants are small, including alyssum, California poppy, candytuft, larkspur, pansy, viola, phlox, pinks, Shirley poppy, snapdragon, stock and sweet pea. Seeds can be sown as soon as the soil has thawed. During some of the milder days of March, divide and transplant summer- and fall-blooming perennials including astilbe, aster, bleeding heart, coral bells, daylilies, hostas, phlox and shasta daisies. These perennials perform best in well-drained soil with plenty of humus.
      Astilbe, hosta and bleeding heart will bloom in the shade. Also, if your liriope has gotten out of hand, you can rejuvenate it by using a lawn mower to cut back the old foliage to a height of 2 to 3 inches. Avoid mowing too close and damaging the crown of the plant since that is where the new growth emerges.
      Phlox is always a favorite perennial in Eastern Shore gardens but mildew takes its toll on the plant’s appearance as the hot, humid days of summer progress. In 2004, the plant breeder Anthony Tesselaar introduced the Volcano™ phlox series of perennial phlox. These plants are compact, sturdy, exceptionally floriferous and extremely tolerant of the powdery mildew that plagues most other phlox. The first introductions included vibrant colors of pink, white, red and purple.
      For 2006 he introduces “Pink with a Red Eye” to join this series. All the Volcano phlox are multi-branching perennials featuring flower clusters of up to 125 flowers or more per stem, providing masses of color from July through September.
      It’s interesting to note that these new varieties actually owe their existence to the end of the Cold War. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, members of the Dutch hybridizing firm Bartels Stek trekked the newly-opened countries of Eastern Europe looking for exceptional plant material. Their most exciting find was a group of old varieties of Eastern European phlox that were unknown in the West.
      While the old varieties weren’t fragrant or very floriferous, they were very disease-tolerant. Cross-breeding resulted in the exciting new Volcano series of fragrant, abundantly-flowering, compact phlox with high natural disease-tolerance.
      The Volcano Phlox series are great for our growing area. Unlike many phlox, which can grow to three feet in height, Volcano Phlox grow low and compact on upright, sturdy branching 16- to 24-inch stems making them an excellent choice for both borders and containers.
      Even though Volcano Phlox are very mildew tolerant, it’s good gardening practice in general to take steps to avoid conditions that can promote mildew. Follow spacing recommendations when planting. Crowded plantings can reduce air circulation and promote mildew. It’s important to water phlox at the base of the plant and not from above. Soaker hoses are great. Never water your garden at night, as this promotes mildew and other diseases in all plants in your garden. Morning is the best time to water the garden. In our area divide the plants every 3 to 5 years or when the plant looses vigor or the center of the clump starts to die. Divide in early spring for best results.
      Another new introduction from Anthony Tesselaar for 2006 is the Color Flash™ Lime astilbe. Color Flash Lime has subtle lime green foliage providing a stunning contrast to the burgundy foliage of the original Color Flash. Compact and dense, with pale pink inflorescences, Color Flash Lime works well either as container plants or for mass landscape and border plantings.
      Color Flash Lime thrives in partial shade and is hardy in our area. Its small blush pink flowers form a pleasing, plume like inflorescence that extends 10 inches above the foliage. Blooming from late spring through early summer it and likes to be well watered.
      I read recently that salsa has out-paced ketchup as the number one selling condiment in the U.S. That’s not surprising with the increase in our Hispanic population. Well what makes salsa hot? Chilies of course! The National Garden Bureau is celebrating 2006 as the Year of the Chile Pepper.
      According to the NGB few edibles are harder to pigeonhole than chile peppers. To start, what’s the proper spelling? Is it chili, chilli, or chile? The South American country is Chile; cooks and chili-cook-offs use chili when referring to the dish chili con carne. The British prefer chilli, as do many folks in parts of the Southwest. To establish standard spelling for gardeners, the National Garden Bureau determined that most seed catalogs use chile when referring to the pepper, and when the pepper is an ingredient in an ethnic dish; that is the standard we’ll use here.
      No other edibles have the cachet of chile peppers. There is no macho connotation to eating carrots or tomatoes, no matter the color or size. Not many vegetables have a magazine and festival solely devoted to it. From the smallest cayenne used sparingly as a seasoning to the largest poblano stuffed for a side dish, chile peppers are outstanding among vegetables. What is it about a chile that has captivated humanity for millennia? Certainly, the plants with their ripe fruit in a range of colors from red through orange to yellow, green, purple, brown, and black are beautiful and eye-catching in the garden. Yet, it is in the kitchen that the passion for chiles and their diversity becomes evident. Their flavors—smoky, nutty, or fruity heat—are as varied as their looks, adding subtle to dynamic dimensions to any recipe.
      There is the mystique, mostly masculine, about who can eat the hottest peppers without dire consequences. Some experts speculate chile pepper heat (and the subsequent oral pain) stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, conferring a sense of well being similar to a runner’s “high.” Cooks enjoy having a variety of fresh chiles at hand—for their range of flavors, and for more control of the heat in the dishes she/he makes. A gardener grows chiles because they are so rewarding; extremely productive, less prone to diseases than other vegetables, and beautiful. Don’t underestimate the competitive spirit, a chance to grow the hottest pepper on the block.
      All peppers, scorching chiles to sweet bells, originated in Central and South America. Archeological evidence in Mexico suggests that native peoples gathered wild chiles as far back as 7,000 BC; by 2,500 BC they were cultivating chile peppers.
      In his quest to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus ended up in the Caribbean where he sampled a vegetable grown by the natives. Its fiery taste was reminiscent of the spice black pepper (Piper nigrum) grown in the East Indies. With the flavor connection in mind, Columbus gave the piquant vegetable the moniker “pepper.” He didn’t know that black pepper was the berry of the tropical vine in the genus Piper and that the New World peppers are shrubby plants in the genus Capsicum.
      Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chiles back to Spain. From there, the Spaniards and Portuguese traded chile peppers throughout Southeast Asia and India, where they were quickly adopted by cultures already immersed in spicy foods. Use of chile peppers soon spread to the Middle East and throughout much of Europe. Eventually chiles spread to North America, either via Europe or the Caribbean; it’s not clear. Here, chile peppers weren’t an overnight sensation. Records dating to the Colonial days show that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, at Mount Vernon and Monticello respectively, grew a cayenne pepper of some type.
      Chiles were occasionally used in some households, but basically as regional delights. They were hard to find outside New Orleans and the Southwest until the middle of the 20th century.
      Peppers are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, as are tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. Chiles, and all other peppers, are in the genus Capsicum. Although there are five species in cultivation, the most common chiles, Anaheims, Jalapeños, Cayennes, Poblanos, and Serranos, and almost all other chile types used in the United States are all Capsicum annuum. The most familiar exceptions are the Habañero types (C. chinense), Tabasco, and a number of the Asian hot peppers designated C. frutescens.
      Other chiles worth exploring: some of the wild peppers from Mexico and the American Southwest like the notorious chiltepíns and chilipiquíns (C. annuum avicular), (recent taxonomic re-classification to C. glabriusculum), fiery chiles beloved in other countries such as the Peruvian ‘Aji Colorado’ and the Caribbean ‘Scotch Bonnet’ (C. chinensis) and ‘Peru Yellow,’ as well as the milder but very flavorful ‘Peri-Peri’ from Portugal (C. baccatum).
      According to the National Garden Bureau there are two ways of classifying chile peppers—by their heat and shape. In 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented a test to measure the hotness of peppers by diluting the pepper until the heat was just perceptible on the tongue. The Scoville rating is measured in multiples of 100; he rated a bell pepper 0, while a Japanese chile came in at 20,000 on the Scoville scale.
      It is easy to get started growing chile peppers. Many nurseries have young starter plants available in the spring; Jalapeños, Hungarian Wax, Hot Cherry, Anaheims, and an occasional ornamental pepper plant are most common. Choose sturdy looking plants with dark green foliage. Avoid those with yellowed leaves and long spindly growth as they generally fail to thrive.
      For a greater choice of chiles, many gardeners, including the thrill-seeking fire-eaters, order seeds from mail-order seed companies that offer a plethora of ethnic and specialty chile peppers. Happy and hot and spicy gardening!!!