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)

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.

 

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

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

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 (Buy in US or Canada) 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

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – US

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – Canada

 

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 (Buy in US or Canada) 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.

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – US

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – Canada

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.