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

Dealing With Pests – Grubs in the Soil, Big and Small

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – US

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – Canada

This article is a work in progress. Here in Vancouver we’re under siege by various grubs in lawns across the city. You can see yards and playing fields with tufts of sod everywhere, overturned by hungry crows looking for an easy dinner of fat grubs. Fortunately I have yet to find these big beetle grubs in the garden. Unfortunately I have regularly found smaller white grubs throughout the growing season.

Last year I decided to try one of the grub spray solutions early in the season to see what would happen. I can’t say for certain, but I do think it worked. I didn’t spray all of the planted beds, but those I did spray didn’t surface grubs through the season when I overturned the soil. Those I didn’t spray exposed those tiny white grubs when I dug around in the soil.

Application was simple. You buy a container that holds something similar to a teabag full of powder (the beneficial nematodes that will eventually kill the grubs in the soil) as well as an applicator which attaches to your hose and (one hopes) evenly distributes the solution as you spray. This stuff isn’t cheap mind you, but in light of the results I’ll be doing it again this year.

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – US

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – 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

Wildflowers: Lupines (or Lupins)

Pink lupins

Buy lupine seeds – US

Buy lupine seeds – Canada

One of the first wildflowers to bloom this year is a flower we haven’t seen before. Lupines, or Lupins… Lupinus either way. I’m not sure what’s the correct name. I assume their seeds just didn’t germinate the year they were spread, and are only showing up now. 

We’re lucky to have 3 distinct colors on the roof. A large clump of purples, a smaller clump of lavender and a healthy dose of pink. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that the flowers last very long as the first spears are already turning from petals to seed pods, but they were nice while they lasted!

For those interested, I’m assuming they arrived in one of the packets of wildflower seeds we purchased from West Coast Seeds and scattered last year. 

Buy lupine seeds – US

Buy lupine seeds – Canada

Purple lupins
Purple lupins blooming on our Vancouver roof.

The Problem With Pollinators Part II – Good, Bad And The Nasty

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – US

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – Canada

It’s the middle of April, so time for my second post on native pollinators. This year I again purchased a handful of mason bee cocoons to get a jump on pollinating until the bumblebee and honey bee populations can find the roof. I should mention that last year several of the tubes in my bee houses were filled and sealed by the mason bees introduced at that time. Unfortunately I didn’t properly take care of them over the winter, though I intend to do so this year if I’m given a second chance. For anyone else in a similar situation, here’s a handy guide to harvesting your mason bee cocoons at the end of the season: https://crownbees.com/harvest-cocoons

The Good. As mentioned above, the cocoons we set out last year hatched (not all, but many of them) and were seen happily pollinating the flowers across our roof. After a few weeks I started to see a few of the tubes closed off with mud. All in all perhaps a dozen tubes were closed in this fashion.

The Bad. First, I noticed many small insects around one of my bee houses in particular, this being the one housing the leaf-cutter bee cocoons. They were almost certainly predatory wasps, and looked like this. Their presence might explain the very low hatch rate for the leaf-cutter cocoons that I’d purchased. Also, as mentioned above I didn’t properly harvest the mason bee cocoons, and instead left them outside over the winter. Fortunately for me, almost all of the plugged cocoons appear to have hatched this spring, and I’m seeing bees buzzing about the bee houses even though the newly purchased cocoons haven’t yet emerged.

The Ugly. While most of the bees I’ve seen up close this spring have looked healthy, I’ve encountered a couple that were absolutely INFESTED with mites. If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you’ll see 6 mites hitching a ride on the bee’s back. In one instance there must have been HUNDREDS of mites on the poor bee. As such, I will be absolutely sure to properly harvest the cocoons this year, and will at minimum continue to replace all tubes with new bamboo, and possibly replace the houses themselves.

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – US

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – Canada

Growing Cape Gooseberries – Physalis peruviana

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

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – US

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – Canada

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.

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – US

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – Canada

Improving Your Soil – Worm Composters

Worm composter 360. Separate trays for staged composting

Buy Worm Factory 360 Composter – US

Buy Worm Factory 360 Composter – Canada

As I mentioned previously the soil in the planters that we use is less than ideal. We’ve taken to amending it with purchased compost and manure each spring, which has had a noticeable effect on production. While purchasing soil amendments is fine, we’ve also set up a worm composter on the roof to provide additional, free nutrients to the soil.

First, we don’t have the smaller, apartment worm composter that is provided by the city following their composting courses. We’re currently using the Worm Factory 360 Composting Worm Bin which we were lucky to pick up on Craigslist. This bin has 4 separate trays that stack one inside the other which lets you build your compost in stages, and makes separating the worms out easier. Additionally, there is a final, lower tray used to catch the compost tea, and a spigot to let you drain it when desired.
Using the Worm Factory 360 has come with learnings that I will share here.

  • Keep the compost bin in a somewhat sheltered location. The trays aren’t sealed, and water hitting from the side will get into the trays. We live in Vancouver, and it rains A LOT. To prevent the trays getting too wet, we’ve positioned out bin where it is open from above to allow some moisture to hit the composter, but where it is protected from the sides.
  • Keep the composter’s spigot open. I know, this robs us of the compost tea, but we’re not diligent enough to keep it drained enough to avoid the lower tray from getting soaked. If you’re checking on the bin daily, then maybe closing the spigot is fine, but otherwise consider keeping it open. It also helps that our bin is on a grassed area, so the tea doesn’t cause any mess.
  • Do not compost large pieces of bread, and any meats/cheeses. We don’t have rodent pests on the roof, so the typical rodent risk related to meat/cheese isn’t an issue. That said, we do like to avoid smells, and further we’ve found that any dense break/cake etc tends to not break down and instead just mold.
  • Rotate the compost trays. We keep the trays with the freshest material in the bottom, and the oldest/most ‘ready’ tray at the top. I’ve found that the worms in that top tray, once they’ve finished the available organic matter start to migrate down to lower, more nutritious trays, making worm extraction much easier.
Photo of a worm factory 360 staged compost bin
Worm Factory 360 Composting Worm Bin

So far we’ve made due with a single Worm Factory 360 Composting Worm Bin but given interest from others in the building, we’ll be looking at purchasing additional, or some other, larger bin to accommodate the available vegetable waste. At this point I’m thinking about either a tumbler / rolling composter, or one of the more pleasantly designed aerobins like the ones on offer at Amazon.

Buy Worm Factory 360 Composter – US

Buy Worm Factory 360 Composter – Canada

Surprising Tomatillo Production on a Vancouver Roof

Tomatillo fruit grown in a rooftop planter

Buy tomatillo seeds – US

Buy tomatillo seeds – Canada

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.

Buy tomatillo seeds – US

Buy tomatillo seeds – Canada