Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Growing My Own

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. -- Henry David Thoreau

Sitting on my window sill in my sunny front room are two pots filled with pepper seeds. I am being rather adventurous with what I hope to grow -- long cubanelle peppers, some hybrid bell peppers, a couple of mildly hot peppers and a lot of my favorite, a sweet, long frying pepper called Italia. 

Last year I managed to get two Italia seeds to grow and put them outside with the previous year's pot of peppers that I thought I had killed when I brought it inside, not knowing it was infected with white flies. It lived despite my hacking it back and then spending some time in quarantine on my enclosed but not insulated back porch, and provided me with extra peppers. (I tried to keep them inside over this winter but the white flies were fierce and they all had to go.)

So far this year I have had little success with the seeds.

This year's pepper seeds. (Margo D. Beller)
I gave a friend seeds from one of last year's Italia peppers and hers are growing. Of course, she has a nice window sill over her sink facing in a direction that provides bright light. She also planted them in mid-February, which is not the usual planting time in NJ but we had a spate of April-like days. She was lucky. By the time I put a few older seeds in a pot, warm February became a cold March and, despite being on a sunny window sill, nothing came up.

So now I have two pots filled with seeds that are not quite as old, and I am waiting. If any seedlings come I will wait for them to get big enough to be put in larger pots and then put outside, protected from digging chipmunks and hungry deer. 

Why do this? Because it costs me nothing but some time, soil, a pot and water and in return I get some peppers for my cooking. I buy fewer peppers and know exactly what is going into growing them. And like my flower gardening, I find I enjoy growing these vegetables.

Two of last year's Italias. (Margo D. Beller)
My grandfather was a gardener, and while I have an affinity for flowers and house plants I inherited from him, I have never been as successful as he was in growing tomatoes. Peppers have been another matter. Several years ago a friend insisted on us all going to a pepper farm he'd read about in central New Jersey. We bought plants. I potted mine and it grew and produced very well, though I wasn't crazy about the type of pepper I had bought. 

It was several years later that I bought, and grew, an Italia. Its fruits have a lot of seeds and some little voice told me to save some of them. Good thing I did because as this pepper farm got more writeups in the local foodie press, more people ordered peppers online or came to the store, as we did, to buy plants. Italia is usually sold out now. I've grown it from seed ever since. One pepper can create a garden of new plants thanks to all those seeds.

I tried other peppers but the results were mixed - one potted pepper plant grew to the size of a small tree and produced no peppers. I kept it over the winter just to see what would happen and the next year got all of four peppers, none of which were any better than the Italia. 

So that is why I grow my own.

Meanwhile, I know there are ways to induce growth. There are special potting mixes, special lights. I don't bother. My friend has bright daylight and potting soil containing her own compost. So do I. The only thing that might make a difference is the age of the seeds. Usually that is not a factor unless I've been storing them - in little packets made from paper toweling - improperly.

Anyway, I have no room for these grow lights, either in my front room or in my half-basement, where the plants would get too much heat from the furnace. 

As The New Yorker's Katharine S. White says in her 1959 column "Before the Frost" about taking care of house plants in winter without using grow lights, "Though I am willing to be a floor nurse, I have no intention of becoming an electrician."

So I watch and wait and hope April gets warmer and at least one seed sprouts. If it is an Italia, so much the better.