Rooftop Vegetables and Protection from High Winds Part II – You Forgot The Berries

Winds on the roof can be more damaging than I’d anticipated. My focus has been on securing / protecting the ‘softer’ plants like peas, beans and tomatoes that may be whipped and damaged by the wind. Especially early in the season while stems are particularly flexible and soft. What I didn’t worry myself with were the berry plants. 

In our rooftop garden we have 2 gooseberry bushes, 2 blueberry bushes and 3 currant bushes. All have been in the ground for at least 2 years, so there are relatively mature, woody stalks in all cases. That said, over a recent weekend we had winds strong enough to both strip flowers/fruit in some cases and even kill branches by presumably thrashing them about. In all cases the branch damage was on new, green growth but it did take me by surprise. 

Lesson learned. Any new growth or soft material is at risk on the rooftop if not properly protected. This may take the form of staking, trellises (to allow peas to anchor for example, and limit thrashing), cages (to limit movement for larger tomato and tomatillo plants for example), barriers (I’ve used burlap stretched across stakes to create windbreaks) or natural barriers like hedges. I don’t know that the form is important is terribly important provided that it gives the necessary support or protection. The one exception being that in past experience fully blocking wind can expose plants to mildew and other issues as circulation is limited.

Growing Cape Gooseberries – Physalis peruviana

Cape gooseberry (aunt molly's ground cherry) grown in Vancouver, BC

You may be wondering what a cape gooseberry is. I’m fairly certain you’ve seen one, even if you didn’t realize what it was. Cape gooseberry, aka Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry, aka Aztec berry, Golden berry, Inca berry or Poha berry fruit are small (in my experience less than an inch in diameter) round fruits that grow in a ‘husk’ similar to tomatillos. As the fruit mature, they change from green to yellow/orange, and the husk changes from green to brown and papery. At this point the fruit start to drop from the plant and are ready to eat. The fruit stays fresh for quite a while so long as it remains in the husk.

Cape gooseberries are related to tomatoes and potatoes as a member of the nightshade family. The flowers are very similar to those of tomatillos, and the bees seem to love them. The ripe berries are safe to eat, though as I understand it, the leaves, stalks and unripe fruit can make you sick. In my experience the plants grow to about 18 inches in height and branch to around 24 inches in diameter. One plant produces are surprising amount of fruit.

As far as care is concerned, I’ve found them very easy to grow, however there are a few things to note. First, I’ve never seen cape gooseberry seedlings for sale, so I’ve always grown them from seed. They start to sprout as soon as the soil starts to really warm up. They’ll also reseed themselves in subsequent years if you let the fruit drop. While I’ve experienced good fruiting from such self-seeded plants, I’m going to use pure seeds this year as I don’t know how crossing might affect them (I grow both cape gooseberries and tomatillos in my garden). These plants like heat so I plant them in the garden in full sun. The most success I’ve had was actually at our previous place in pots on a balcony. Amount of sunlight wasn’t that much different, but in that location the plants benefited from reflected heat off the building. Again, this is just an hypothesis. The only pests I’ve experienced were aphids which swarmed the plants two summers ago. That said, I had no issues with aphids this past year. I have no idea what the difference was.

Finally, watering. Cape gooseberries will let you know when they need water as their leaves begin to droop. I’ve tried to keep them supplied so that it doesn’t get to this point, but anytime it has they’ve recovered quickly. Toward the end of the year I’ve noticed that too much water will see the fruit split their skins. In this over-watered state they also lack the sweetness that you’re looking for… so in my opinion it’s better to under-water than over.

Don’t overthink these berries. They’re easy to grow and delicious so give them a shot. I’ve had luck with seeds from all over. I can’t speak to the different variants of cape gooseberry, but I’ve purchased seeds from Westcoast seeds and eBay with success.

Surprising Tomatillo Production on a Vancouver Roof

Tomatillo fruit grown in a rooftop planter

Salsa verde. That’s why I tried tomatillos for the first time about 5 years ago. Little did I know how easy they would be to grow in Vancouver, and how much fruit they would produce.

For those not aware, salsa verde is, as it’s name would suggest, the base for the green salsa you often see at Mexican restaurants. The fruit itself is related to tomatoes, though smaller, and surrounded in a papery husk like the orange chinese lantern plants you see for sale around Halloween. In fact, the two are related.

Tomatillos are firm, with a texture that reminds me of watermelon (vs tomatoes), with seeds much smaller than those found in a tomato. I’ve grown both all-green varieties, as well as some that start green and color up to purple as they mature. Flavor-wise I find them to be tart and not very appealing raw.

The plants themselves are fast growing and tall. As such they require staking, or a tomato cage to deal with winds, especially on a rooftop. To be honest, the staking & cage is probably a smart move regardless as the abundance of fruit can lead to branches breaking. I’ve found them to be reliably upright, with the exception of the occasional long branch that makes a horizontal run. Again, in my experience this has been driven by fruit load more than natural growth.

Tomatillos are quite thirsty. This may reflect the poor quality and quick-draining ‘soil’ we have, but regardless in the peak of the summer we watered regularly and deeply. The roots seem to anchor the plants well and I don’t recall any having been uprooted before their time. The stems are not woody, but they are robust. One word of caution is to ensure that whatever method is used to stake the plants does allows for adjustment as the stem and branches grow. Flowers are small and yellow with black patterns and the bees seem to love them. Husk develop first with the fruit trailing and eventually filling the available space. Ripe fruit are easy to identify as they fill the husk to the point of tearing.

Picking is straightforward, though the fruit inside the husk is sticky and will need to be washed before eating. If the husk hasn’t torn, the fruit can be kept for some time before using them. Personally, I harvest in batches and either blend with peppers etc for salsa, or I clean, chop and freeze for use in winter chili.

Each fall I take the plants, remove any remaining underdeveloped fruit and deposit them in the compost bin, then chop the plants and dig them into the soil. By spring they’re gone. will self seed the following spring to the point that I’m contemplating not purchasing seeds or starts this year, and just transplanting the eventual seedlings into orderly rows.

The Super-Hots: Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Indoors

Indoor Trinidad Moruga Scorpions

Most of our super-hots were grown outdoors on the roof (as one might expect given the title of this site), however we did keep two inside in our south-facing solarium. Both Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, the peppers grew well indoors, producing peppers, though not nearly as well as the top outdoor plants. At season’s end we noticed aphids on both plants and so pruned them back to just the major stems, sprayed them down with insecticidal soap and tried to start again.

It appears we were successful.

Despite it being December in gray, rainy Vancouver we currently have two healthy Trinidad Moruga Scorpion plants. One with 4 nearly mature peppers colored and waiting to cause pain. Both plants have new flowers forming as well, promising additional harvests through the winter.

We did not use grow lights of any sort, though during the day the room is kept slightly warmer than the rest of the home. I will admit that I do have a grow lamp at the ready should it be needed, however I’ve been able to keep it in storage thus far. Other than that, no special treatment. Plants are watered regularly (with water from a nearby aquarium) and that’s about it. So… give it a try and you could find yourself in peppers through the year with little extra effort.

The Super-Hots: Bhut Jolokia

My single largest plant in 2018, and also the heaviest producer was a ghost pepper (bhut jolokia). This one was from a purchased start (I didn’t grow it from seed), and after a brief period to acclimate it took off. By season’s end it was about two feet high and equal in width, and LOADED with peppers. The other 5 bhut jolokia plants weren’t as big, but they put up a decent effort and production as well.

Observations were as follows.

  • It took a bit after the transplant for them to grow at all. I was initially worried, but once they started they didn’t stop.
  • Production happened all at once, but again, fruit growth and ripening was very slow at first to the point I wasn’t sure would get ripe peppers before the season ended.
  • The ghost peppers can get quite large. Of all the hot peppers I grew this year they were the largest… but they were also some of the thinnest walled. Some seemed almost dry when cut open with huge hollow cavities.

I don’t know that I’d do much different next year. One thing that was common across my largest plants was that they were closest to a glass barrier that shielded them from direct wind while letting late day sun through. Other plants benefited from this same wind break, but not so completely. I expect it resulted in cooler temperatures the further away the plants were as the wind increased. Given this I may think about how I can extend the wind protection without reducing sun/heat exposure across the board.

Home Grown Hot Pepper Powder. One Vancouverite’s Super Hot Experience

Home made hot pepper powder

What to do with hundreds of super-hot peppers? Last year I made some pepper sauce that seemed to win folks over. This year we’ll try that again, and I’ll provide details in another post. In addition to sauce, I’ve decided to give pepper powder a shot.

Step 1. Get a dehydrator. I went for one from Canadian Tire because a) they’re nearby and b) I found myself with a relatively unbooked weekend right around the corner and so didn’t want to wait for something to be shipped. The specific device I purchased was the Hamilton Beach Digital Food Dehydrator. You can get it cheaper online, and there were cheaper options at Canadian Tire, though not in stock the day that I went. It’s a pretty simple device. Five trays and a lid, along with two finer mesh sheets and a fruit leather sheet which I just set aside for now. The dehydrator basically has temperature (I used the default 130 degrees) and time settings along with a Start button. No problem.

Step 2. Prepare the peppers. I’d already washed my peppers so I removed the stems, split them in half and removed the core and most of the seeds (but not all). I laid them out with some space between and then stacked the trays and added the lid. What I learned after the first batch:

Lesson 1 is that there’s no need to leave space between the peppers. They shrink a LOT, so future batches I had them right up against one another.

Lesson 2 is that the peppers will dry much faster if do more than half them. In later batches I halved the peppers first, then cut several additional slits along the fruit, especially where the peppers narrow to the tip. This allowed the fruit to flare out a bit and I think it allowed them to dry faster.

Lesson 3 is that some peppers dry much faster than others. Carolina reapers and bhut jolokia have thin walls and dried out super fast. My habaneros were more like bell peppers with thicker walls and much more moisture. They took a lot longer to dry.

Step 3. Dehydrate your peppers outside. I plugged mine in out on the balcony and let it run. After about six hours I poked my head out and the fumes were still very strong. I can’t imaging what dehydrating these peppers inside would do to your home, let alone your eyes and throat. Find a covered location away from pests and plan to use that.

Step 4. Wait. Mine took a couple days, running at 12 hours a day minimum. Even that wasn’t enough for the larger habaneros which I put in with the next batch.

Step 5. Crush / grind the dried peppers. I wasn’t well prepared at the time my peppers were dried, and didn’t want to wait a day for stores to open so I grabbed a mortar and pestle, along with my trusty powder-free nitrile gloves and went to it. I recommend you don’t follow my lead. While this did reduce the volume of most pieces, there was no consistency and it did nothing for the seeds. Additionally it messed up my mortar and pestle for any future grinding that shouldn’t involve spice. What I found that worked well for my needs was a spice mill microplane. While it provides quite a wrist workout, it mills the pepper flakes and seeds to a consistently fine powder. My only concern would be for someone doing a LOT of milling in which case I suggest you find something that takes the same approach, but does so electrically.

Step 6. Pack it up. I found some small spice bottles that allow dosing by adjusting the top. This powder is HOT, so precision will be appreciated. I originally was going to use small standard jars, but there’s no way to deliver appropriately small doses of the spice without having to use a spoon.

Anyway, that’s my initial experience. I’m sure there are better approaches and I’m all ears to hear them, but what I’ve described above has worked for 2018.

The Super-Hots: Carolina Reaper

Carolina Reaper in Vancouver

Fortunately we experienced another hot (for Vancouver) summer this year, which the pepper plants clearly enjoyed. Cold periods in the spring definitely delayed the plants materially, to the point I wasn’t sure if they’d survive. Fortunately both those started from plants, as well as those started indoors from seed managed to recover and produce.

Of all the hot peppers grown this season, the Carolina Reapers were the ones I was most concerned about. They started slowly (very slowly) and took a while to start setting fruit. Fortunately, once they got going they really took off with one of the reaper plants being the second largest across all varieties. Production was good as well, though not in line with plant size.

Observations & Learnings

  1. These peppers seemed less cold tolerant than the other types I grew this year.
  2. My reapers seemed to build heat later than others. For example, I (cautiously) tried a fully formed, but still green pepper and was able to eat it as I would a bell pepper. There was no hint of heat.
  3. Don’t let point 2 fool you, these things are crazy hot. I still don’t understand how someone can just throw an entire, fully ripe Carolina Reaper in their mouth and not completely fall apart.
  4. Carolina reapers require more post-harvest preparation for use than others. The reapers are not only ‘bumpy’ but folded in on themselves consistently. I encountered trapped material in these folds for most of my peppers, which required cleaning. This wasn’t easy and in some cases scratched the pepper itself, so wear gloves (which you should do regardless). I hesitate to mention, but I found small webs in some of these crevices, suggesting that spiders or something similar are taking advantage.