Testing Fabric Grow Bags To Focus Soil Quality For Super Hot Peppers and Tomatoes

As written in earlier posts the “soil” in our rooftop garden is miserable, made up of sand, lava rock and who-knows-what else presumably to keep it light given the volume up there. I’ve had reasonable success growing in this medium with limited use of compost / worm castings and fertilizer, but my compost bin is limited and the soil volume is substantial.

This year I’m considering fabric grow pots / bags (Amazon Canada has Vivosun grow bags here) for some of the more demanding produce so I can supplement the soil more deliberately through the season, and recover that soil at year’s end rather than have to remember where supplementation occurred for the next year.

From what I’ve read, the 5 gallon fabric grow bags should do for my needs, in particular for use with some of my super hot peppers. I’ll continue to grow most of them in the main planters, but intend to use 3 or for grow bags for comparison this season. I’m assuming the 5 gallon size would suffice for tomatoes as well, and so I’ll likely consider a comparison there as well.

If anyone has any experience using these I’d love to hear about it. I’m particularly curious how well they stand up to weather… can you really expect to get 5 to 7 seasons out of a single bag?

2020 Super Hot Pepper Preparations – March 20 Update

So I’ve been away since the 15th and left my seedlings to fend for themselves under a full spectrum lamp, and a plastic cover. I have to admit, I was assuming I’d come home to dead peppers… but I’m pleasantly surprised. The pepper seedlings are a bit leggy, so I’ll have to work on correcting that, but they look pretty good given my shameless neglect. Here’s where we sit:

Variety (Planted Date) Germination Rate
Yellow Brain Strain (2/28) 100%
Yellow Reaper (2/28) 100%
Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah (2/28) 25%
Thai Dragon (2/28) 100%
Moruga Scorpion (3/4) 100%
Naga Viper (3/4) 100%
Yellow Reaper – source 1 (3/10)
Brain Strain – source 2 (3/10)

Covid-19, Sourcing Seedlings, and Vancouver 2020 Garden Plans

Perhaps not top of mind for most, but I’m wondering how things will play out for the local gardener.

Growing your own should be appealing in this time of social distancing, but with our relatively short growing season, starting from seed isn’t always the most reliable option. While I typically try seeds, I often find myself falling back to garden center purchased plant starts when hardening off fails, or crows take their toll.

Whether or not garden centres are open, their suppliers must surely be continuing to care for their various plants… So this weekend will be about locating sources of plants starts, and contacting them for timing and purchase process. If anything, this may provide a broader selection to choose from, and help keep us out of the stores (eventually) in order to add fresh food to our basics. 

2020 Super Hot Pepper Preparations – March 13 Update

Just a quick update on the super-hot seeds planted recently. Frankly I’m surprised at how many have already sprouted given past experience. All were planted in seeding mix, on a heat mat. There is a single grow light over the seedlings as they sprout (and they are sitting at a south-facing window).

Variety (Planted Date) Germination Rate
Yellow Brain Strain (2/28) 100%
Yellow Reaper (2/28) 50%
Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah (2/28)
Thai Dragon (2/28) 100%
Moruga Scorpion (3/4) 75%
Naga Viper (3/4) 25%
Yellow Reaper – source 1 (3/10)
Brain Strain – source 2 (3/10)

Seasoning Peppers – A New Challenge For 2020

Granada Seasoning Pepper Seeds

This might be a new one for many of you, but Seasoning Peppers (Tobago Seasoning Peppers, Granada Seasoning Peppers, Trinidad Pimento Peppers and other names) are peppers that look and smell very similar to Habanero Peppers and some of the super hots, sharing some taste, but don’t have the heat.

I’ve never tried growing these before, but I’ve used them in cooking anytime I can find them in Caribbean specialty shops (which isn’t often). I’ve been coming across more and more recipes calling for Trinidad Pimento peppers, so I figured it was time to give them a try. I found some seeds on eBay and planted them earlier today, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a) they germinate and grow and b) they’re actually Seasoning Peppers (I’ve had some surprises when purchasing pepper seeds on eBay). Stay tuned.

To hold you over, here are a couple videos I found on Youtube that discuss these unusual peppers.

 

The Benefits of Fennel in the Pacific Northwest Garden

2019 was my first year growing fennel. I grew both from starts (Orion I believe with the rounded bulb ), as well as from seed (Selma Fino from WestCoastSeeds). Initially I planted them out of curiosity as I do enjoy fennel in salads, and like the look of both fennel and dill plants. After year one, I recommend a fennel planting to anyone considering it, and will be planting several pockets of fennel again this year.

First, my fennel did very well, both those started from small pants and those started from seed. After a bit of a slow start, the seed fennel took off and by year’s end were massive.

Next, they were a very effective draw for pollinators and various types of wasps. Based on what I’ve read, I believe several of these were predatory wasps, which I was very happy to have around. The fennel flowers bloomed on immense heads and at any given point were covered by bees, wasps as well as ladybugs which really seemed to favor the plant.

Recommendations?

  • If you’re planning to eat them, plant extras (so you can have the benefits of the ladybugs and wasps throughout the season) and don’t wait too long to harvest. If I could do it over, I would have pulled the bulbs earlier as the ones we ate were a bit woody. According to WestCoastSeeds you should harvest the fennel bulbs before the flowers form… in which case I wasn’t even close.
  • Think about how you might stake them. I planted my fennel fairly close to some of my pepper plants (to the north and east so as not to shade them) and later in the summer the fennel started to bend over top the peppers. I tied the longer stalks back, but it wasn’t very nice to look at. This year I’ll better plan how to keep the fennel stalks and flowers from shading the peppers, while still having them close enough for the wasps and ladybugs to wander by. 
  • Don’t forget the seeds! At the end of the summer I saved a fair number of fennel seeds from one of the plants. After they’d try they served as a very nice snack over the next several months. That said, don’t leave the little ‘connector’ to the seed itself. Those things don’t fall off easily on their own, and dry into little gum-piercing spears. You’ve been warned.
  • Don’t plant too close to dill. I read this somewhere, but given that they’re closely related you want to keep them away from one another.

That’s it. I didn’t experience any real downsides to growing fennel in my garden, and observed several valuable benefits that will see fennel become a constant presence in my garden going forward.

One more thing. I didn’t fully clean out my fennel at the end of last year. On inspection this week I noticed that shoots were erupting from the older bulb / roots. I pulled the old plant and cut the base into several pieces, each with a new green shoot and placed them back in the garden bed. It’s been several days, and so far they’re showing no ill effects, so I may have found an easy way to get a head start on this year’s fennel patch.

2020 Super Hot Pepper Preparations

Super hot pepper seed packages

Buy Jiffy seedling trays and heat mats  – US

Buy Jiffy seedling trays and heat mats – Canada

I realize I’m a bit late to the game and should have planted seeds in December…. but I’ll remain hopeful and give it a go anyway. Peppers are being started in Jiffy trays (Buy from US / Canada) on heat mats (Buy from US / Canada), under full spectrum lights (though admittedly not an ideal lighting setup in this case, but the best I already had on-hand. Seeds in the “ground” at this point include:

  • Yellow Brain Strain
  • Red 7 Pot Brain Strain
  • Yellow Carolina Reaper
  • Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah (chocolate)
  • Moruga Trinidad Scorpion
  • Naga Viper
  • Thai Dragons
  • Red Habaneros

Of the above group I’ve previously had success with the Thai Dragons, Red Habaneros Moruga Scorpions and Carolina Reapers, but the others are new to me and we’ll just have to see how things go.

I’m convinced that without full spectrum lights I would have no chance of growing super hot peppers quickly enough to get a harvest in the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, I’m convinced that without heat mats I would have not chance of germinating super hot peppers reliably and early enough to get a harvest. If you’ve tried one but not the other, make sure you try them together, and start early .

In addition to the heat mat and lighting setup, I’m planning to add a fan after they’ve germinated to try and strengthen the young plants early. I’ve had a tough time in the past hardening pepper plants for the transition outside. I’m not sure if this is a common issue, a reflection of having started them late and trying to transition when too young, or just a fact of life given Vancouver’s somewhat unpredictable weather.

Buy Jiffy seedling trays and heat mats  – US

Buy Jiffy seedling trays and heat mats – Canada

It’s Almost March, Are Your Native Bees Ready?

Prepping tubes for mason and leaf cutter bees.

Buy Bright Creations mason bee tubes – US

Buy Milliard mason bee tubes – Canada

Just like that we’re (hopefully) through the worst of winter here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re into March in a month, which means it’s time to ready your bee homes, and the residents they’ll house. 

While there aren’t any blooms out at this point, other than a handful of crocus’ providing a splash of colour, the various berry bushes have produced buds, with the gooseberries showing the first hint of leaves. It won’t be long now, and previous years have taught me that without the mason bees, we’ll be lucky to get fruit from the gooseberries, blueberries and currants.

My chief learnings from the last year would be the following, along with mitigation ideas for this time around.

  • Angle the bee houses slightly forward. Last year, despite facing the tube openings eastward there were a few days with heavy wind and rain that saw moisture enter the bee home. This year I’ll be tethering the homes more securely to their anchors to prevent even the slightest shifting in wind, and I’ll be angling them slightly forward so that any liquid that enters has a natural path out.
  • Reconsider wooden bee houses. My wooden houses are in rough shape after only two seasons. This year I’m thinking of trying to repurpose something like plastic milk jugs or 2L soda bottles to form the shell of the bee home. Benefits I’m hoping for are that it allows reuse of an existing material, is impermeable to water, can be cut to the necessary dimensions including an overhang to limit water ingress, and won’t break down under the stresses of Vancouver weather. The test will be securing the bee tubes side the slick plastic shell.

Finally, if you’re looking for a source of good quality, well-priced mason bee tubes here are the ones I’m testing this year. I’ll be comparing them to the drilled bamboo tubes I used last year.

Buy Bright Creations mason bee tubes – US

Buy Milliard mason bee tubes – Canada

There you have it. Good luck!

Testing Landscape Fabric to Limit Weeds and Capture Heat

Buy Master gardener landscape fabric – US

Buy Weed control landscape fabric – Canada

This past summer I tried tested black landscape fabric as a weed barrier, and heat retention tool for my pepper plants. The idea being that a) any weeds that germinated in that planter would be starved for light unless they could find a path to one of the holes where the peppers were planted, and b) the black colour of the fabric would serve to capture the sun’s heat, bringing the soil up to a temperature preferred by peppers even on cooler days.

What did I learn?

  • Weed suppression. Well, a single layer of landscape fabric doesn’t seem to starve weeds of light or water. Weeds still germinated and grew under the fabric. In some cases they surfaced through one of the pepper holes, but in many cases they didn’t, yet still appeared to grow well. Despite this, they were restricted to the height they were able to push the fabric, and so didn’t compete with the peppers vertically for sun. Not what I’d expected, but less work than the constant weeding needed with bare soil.
  • Heat capture. Landscape fabric does seem to trap the sun’s heat in the soil. Comparing the temperature of the soil under the fabric to the surface soil of a neighbouring bed showed clearly that this worked.
  • Surprise! There was another learning from this ‘experiment.’ When the pepper plants were the only plants accessible in this particular bed, they were the only plants that avian pests targeted. Crows are smart, and they watch every year as I prepare the soil and plant seedlings. It seems that the black tarp may have brought an appealing focus to the seedlings planted, and almost half of them were uprooted by curious crows over the course of several weeks. Eventually they seem to realize that pepper seedlings represented nothing of interest , but in the meantime halved the number of plants for the 2019 crop.

So, would I do it again? No. At least not the same way. I think next year I may encircle my seedlings with some of the fabric in service of heat capture, but I’m not going to blanket the entire bed. Additionally, I may consider covering the bed with netting or something similar until the plants are off to a good start to prevent the crow disaster from this past year.

Buy Master gardener landscape fabric – US

Buy Weed control landscape fabric – Canada

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

Buy garden trellis & netting – US

Buy garden trellis & netting – Canada

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.

Buy garden trellis & netting – US

Buy garden trellis & netting – Canada