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Hot Peppers? Sweet Peppers!

Growing PeppersHere we are in the last days of August and peppers are growing everywhere. They’re hanging big and bright in our gardens, the produce sections boast an abundance, and farmer’s markets offer bushels of varied-colored, varied-sized peppers of types we’ve never seen. In places like New Mexico where chile peppers are deeply embedded in the culture. It’s no joke to say that as summer progresses, so does the heat, at least when it comes to peppers.

With all the attention given to hot and hotter peppers, we want to make sure that you don’t overlook those other peppers, the ones grown for flavor and sweetness rather than heat. They’re often called sweet peppers, and frequently limited to traditional bell peppers, the kind every gardener has grown at some point. But we’re talking about the wide and ever-expanding variety of mildly or even barely spicy sweet peppers that have been commonly called wax and Hungarian peppers, the type that do well in stir-fry, gazpacho, and pickled.

We’ve been on a binge of sweet peppers this year and find that they’re a great addition to pastas, casseroles of grains and veggies, and wonderful ingredient to include in salsas. Not only that, they’re among some of the most beautiful and ornamental plants in the vegetable garden, their sizable blossoms giving way to a host of colorful fruits in all sorts of shades. Even their names are attractive: piquillo, lemon drop, padron, peperoncino, guindilla verde, corne de chevre (goat’s horn), Basque. (more…)

Orange Disease: GMOS To the Rescue (Not)

GMO Orange TreeThe plague that’s sweeping orange groves across the world — it’s known as “citrus greening” — was discovered in Florida in 2005. With millions of trees at stake and huge amounts of money, big growers responded as they often do: spray more pesticides. It was thought that killing the insect that spreads the bacterium coupled with burning all the diseased citrus trees might solve the problem. You already know the answer to that one.

The usual cross-breeding of orange trees with disease resistant varieties couldn’t work because no one could find an orange tree that was resistant to the disease. So they came up with what they thought was the next best thing. Find another living thing that was resistant, or even immune, and graft its genes into the orange. Voila!, a genetically-modified solution. Considered donors, so far for this modification? Other kinds of trees, a couple vegetables, a virus and … wait for it… pigs! (more…)

Pesticides and Unintended Consequences

Pesticide DriftWe’ve already mentioned the fine documentary released early this summer More Than Honey, a film that looks at the behavior of bees as well as issues and consequences behind colony collapse disorder that’s sweeping the world. As the movie states, bee activity is responsible for a third of the food we eat. Losing them would have impacts well beyond the loss of some fruit. It could mean a complete change in the way we live. The movie shows us an example of a place where bees have already vanished and the consequences that followed.

The place is China. Seems that Mao Tzedog before his death in 1976 decided that a plague of sparrows was putting a large dent in grain production. So in the kind of short-sighted, ill-conceived wisdom that’s apparently shared by Chinese dictators and American corporate agricultural CEOs, Mao called for the elimination of sparrows. The killing of the sparrows released a swarm of insects, a problem that affected agriculture much more than the damage done by the birds. So massive spraying programs were instituted. The spraying not only killed harmful insects, it killed beneficial ones as well, including pollinators. Without bees, Chinese crops blossomed but didn’t produce. The solution? Hand pollination. (more…)

Dangerous Roadside Spraying

Spraying HerbicideA friend responded to my roadside herbicide rant from our Facebook page last week, a post that (thank-you!) was greeted with scores of comments. Seems he was a hippie back in the day, politically active and, as was common there about the time of the first Earth Day, slowly gaining awareness of the complex web of environmental problems the world was facing. He took his bike out of the midwestern college town where he lived and was enjoying a pedal in the country when he came upon his county’s roadside spray team hitting the ditches hard with herbicide.

What they were spraying was wild hemp. Like much of farm country in the years ahead of World War II, farmers in his home state had been encouraged to plant the hardy crop when the Navy started to rapidly expand and the previous source of hemp for rope making, the Philippines, was threatened by the Japanese. This hemp wasn’t the sort that hippies normally liked. It’s uses were limited to what could be made of its skeins and pulp. Only a fool would smoke it. Once it was discovered during the first months of the War that the brand new compound nylon could be used to make rope, the hemp was left to go to seed. It spread everywhere including along water courses and unplowed draws, but grew best (and often undisturbed) in road side ditches. (more…)

Beautiful, Delicious Eggplant

EggplantA friend likes to tell the story of how he almost proposed marriage to a woman who made indescribably delicious eggplant parmigiana. Then he found out it was the woman’s mother who was the genius behind that wonderful eggplant dish. So he proposed to the mother instead. The woman, a widow in her 80s, refused because our friend didn’t garden. “Where am I going to get the good eggplant and tomatoes I need?” she protested.

The mother had it right. The sad truth here is that it’s tremendously difficult not only finding good tomatoes in commercial grocery stores but good eggplant, too. All of our favorite dishes are only as good as the ingredients that go into them. Growing eggplant (and tomatoes) yourself gives you a decided advantage when making parmigiana. If you’re lucky, you’ll find good, organic eggplant in your local farmers market. But growing your own is best. (more…)

Florida Fertilizer Runoff Kills

Indian RiverOne of our favorite places in this beautiful country is Florida’s Indian River. The Indian is not really the kind of river we usually think of. It’s a long, narrow estuary on the east coast of Florida running from Merritt Island (which holds Cape Canaveral) all the way down to Vero Beach.

Protected from the open sea by a long string of islands (which also protects the mainland from hurricane waves), the River was once an ecological wonderland. Your once foot-loose Planet Natural Blogger spent a month working at a Marina near Neptune, Florida near where the Sebastian Inlet provides access from the River into the sea. We enjoyed rowing through the quiet waters, fishing off the nearby islands, and watching dolphins cavort just off the dock where we often spent the end of the day. A nearby wildlife refuge, one of the country’s first, had been designated in an attempt to save the then-endangered brown pelican. That attempt was wildly successful.

But ecological victories in this day and age are often short-lived and now, the Indian River is in big trouble. Hundreds if not thousands of pelicans have perished along the Indian River and its system of estuaries already this year. And that’s not all. Some 300 sea manatees, those big gentle creatures of Florida, have also died there, as well as “scores” of bottle-nosed dolphins. What’s going on? (more…)

Tomato Patrol: Protecting the Harvest

Tomato WormA friend, an avid organic tomato grower, has started her harvest and you know what that means. Tomato Festival! The festival usually runs from the first weeks of August right up to the first frost (at which point it becomes Green Tomato Festival or the Wait-Until-These-Tomatoes-In-the-Windowsill- Ripen Fest).

The event, held in kitchens around the country, is an unofficial celebration of one of our most cherished home-gardening products. Our friend grows heirlooms and so far this year has a bounty crop of golden jubilee, a juicy, subtly flavored orange tomato, as well as big, bold brandywines, and a few unusual, tremendously sweet, strangely colored chocolate stripes. (more…)

Bees Swarm Media

Honeybee ColonyIs it still possible to take bees for granted? Since the general population learned about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious effect that has destroyed a large percentage of the world’s pollinators in a 2007 broadcast of CBS’s 60 Minutes and the publicity in its wake, people have come to appreciate bees for the critical work they do. Before, when someone was asked to think of the first word that comes to mind when they hear “bee,” they might have said “sting” or “honey.” Now they just might say “food” or “survival.”

That’s our survival, not just theirs.

Honeybees are critical to the food supply. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, squash, almonds, and melons of all types? Thank the bees. It’s estimated that of the 100 food crops grown around the world, crops that supply 90% of the world’s food, bees pollinate 70 of them. Without bees, there would be no watermelons, no blueberry cobbler, no marinara. It’s estimated that bees, acting as pollinators, add $15 billion a year to food production. (more…)

Garden Fresh Vegetable Recipes

Fresh VegetablesRead back over months of previous posts and you’d think we garden just for gardening sake. And, yes, we do. But let’s not loose sight of the first and foremost reason. We love to eat. And there’s nothing better than eating — and cooking — fresh, organic, home-grown produce. Now that we’re in the season when gardens are supplying us with a bounty of fresh vegetables and greens, we thought we’d talk about enjoying the harvest. Let’s eat.

Combining fresh vegetables in various recipes is a matter of taste and compatibility, sure. But it also hinges on what’s ready and when. Earlier in the season, when we harvest peas, we’re also harvesting baby or pearl onions. A little butter and voila! The simplest of dishes that everyone knows and loves: peas and pearl onions. Make a cream sauce and you’ve got a traditional comfort food: creamed peas and pearl onions (a little bacon really makes this dish shine). Cook the onions down, add some chicken or vegetable broth in which to braise the peas, add some mint, thyme or chives from the garden and you’ve got a wonderfully different yet still easy dish of braised peas.

Most likely, your peas are done for the year. But here come the beans! Make the braised pea recipe above with green beans. For a homey, Southern variation, sautee the onion (and some garlic if you know what’s good and what’s good for you) in a little bacon grease. Then braise the beans in the broth. Vegetarians: you know what to do. Have some walnuts? Add them when you’re almost done sauteeing the onion. (more…)

Everyone Loves Gardens and Gardening

Front Yard GardenOur far-flung correspondent in often arid Santa Fe leaves town and reports back:

I spent a few days at the end of last week in Tacoma on family business and would like to report it rained on Friday. Nothing unusual about that, this is after all the wet northwest. But it was unusual for this summer. In fact, as the newspapers reported, it was the first time it had rained in 35 days.

Now, sunny summers aren’t that unusual around Puget Sound. But the duration of this dry spell was and it had an effect on the usually lush landscaping that surrounds even the most modest homes. The talk? It was about rain.

No, this isn’t some attempt to work in the subject of climate change, though there’s no doubt that things are a bit different here than they used to be. Larger factors, like the El Nino phenomenon, may mean that some years will actually be wetter. All this can be very interesting and fascinating to watch over a period of years but the practical is what interests gardeners who know that you work with what you get. And what gardeners got this year was no rain the entire month of July. (more…)

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