Cool nights and nippy mornings ring out the pepper season. Immigrants from the moist hills of Central America, peppers stop growing and lose their blossoms once temperatures dip below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. One cold windy night, and they are done for.
Harvest your peppers now regardless of their size.
Unlike other vegetables, peppers can be eaten at any stage of their growth. They can be fried or cooked, dried or pickled, ground into chili powder or paprika, or saute'ed into a paste. Mild or fiery, they are nimble enough to complement any style of cooking, but they have a rich taste when eaten raw, by themselves or with cheese, particularly after you waited long enough for them to turn red or orange.
If you put them on a wicker tray so they don't touch one another, the thin-walled varieties, such as Cayenne, will turn red in a few days. They keep fresh for a week if kept out of direct sunlight.
One gardener who has a lot of peppers to harvest is John Edwards. A past president of the Men's Garden Club of Montgomery County, he is called Mr. Pepper behind his back.
In his Rockville back yard, this year Edwards grew 42 pepper plants, each a different variety supported by a three-foot oak stake. The hybrid's name is punched out on a plastic label glued to the stake.
"I have no favorites," he says. "I think of them all as peppers."
When he comes to the pepper grower's dilemma--should it be sweet or hot?--Edwards is evenhanded. He has 21 sweet and 21 hot peppers. To prevent cross-pollination he keeps the two patches 25 feet apart, with a strawberry bed between them. The plants are set in rows, 18 inches apart, and there are 30 inches between the rows. Every two years, he changes the location of his pepper patches.
Edwards has never had any problem of sweet peppers turning into hot -- hot is the absolutely dominant trait. He says he does "nothing special" for them, except for adding some compost to the soil every year. In the five years that he has been "a serious pepper grower," he says he has lost only one plant, probably to a cutworm, and has had no problems with pests or diseases. To keep the weeds out, he uses a carpet of black plastic, which the dense foliage renders all but invisible.
A retired radio and TV newsman, Edwards keeps his garden as orderly as a picture book. He has some tomatoes in cages, a few rows of lettuce, a stand of cucumbers and a hedge of beans. But, he says, he likes growing peppers best, though he is not sure why. When people ask him, as they often do, how come he grows so many peppers, he says that peppers are "nice little plants, easy to grow and pack into small spaces." Some of his pepper plants qualify as ornamentals, and he grows three of them in a planter placed on a deck. "The more you pick them, the more they grow," he says, half as a complaint, half as a boast.
Edwards grew up in the Midwest, in a city.
Today he is a voracious eater of peppers. His wife Imogene cooks them in every style, makes relishes out of them, freezes them. They give away much of their harvest, but, they say, people take tomatoes and cucumbers gratefully but are embarrassed by a gift of peppers. "What can we do with peppers?" is the question they often have to answer.
He raises all his pepper plants from seeds and orders most of his seeds from Horticultural Enterprises, P.O. Box 43082, in Dallas, Tex., a firm specializing in peppers. In addition, globe-trotting friends have brought more varieties, such as tiny, extra-hot Priki Nu from Thailand and a pungent, nameless pepper from India.
Edwards' recommendations to Washington area gardeners are Ancho, a mildly hot hybrid also known as Chile Poblano; Gypsy, "mild and the most productive pepper I know"; and Mulato, mildly hot, dark in color and the last to fruit. He is also in praise of Lady Belle and Better Belle, two less exotic varieties offered by most seed companies.
Having sampled about half of Edwards' peppers, I would add to the list Colorado (longish, hot) for those who savor an intriguing mix of hot and sweet. Then there is Red Cheese Pimiento (squat, thick-walled and sweet) for people who just like a plain good pepper.
Q: Coming back to Washington and our house finds us facing roses and evergreen bushes that have not been touched since we left nearly eight years ago. Could you give me a timetable for transplanting, fertilizing and trimming?
A: October is a good time to transplant most bushes and trees, but some trees like dogwood require more than just a few weeks to establish themselves before the frost. Make sure you water the plants generously and you improve the soil all around.
Late fall is the time for applying fertilizers, to strengthen the roots before winter; early spring is the other recommended time, to help foliage and flowers. But wait until after the first frosts of November to prune evergreens, particularly if you intend to do heavy pruning. To prevent damage to the trees, it is best to prune in the winter when the sap is not rising.
As for roses, February is the best time to prune, but if the branches are very long and there is a risk of wind damage, cut them back in November or December.