The Long Hot Winter

Growing first-class peppers in the city that never gets chilly

Local musician Chris DeAngelis has been growing hot peppers in his South Miami back-yard garden for five years. "Because I like to eat them," he says with a smile. Thanks to study and effort, DeAngelis is happy not to have to buy from grocery stores or even gourmet produce markets. "There's that certain satisfaction, knowing exactly where the food came from, watching it progress, the absolute satisfaction of watching it grow and prosper," says DeAngelis, who uses no nonnatural fertilizers or pesticides in his garden. "I know chemicals are necessary for the commercial guys, and that's okay," he explains. "But when you do it yourself, you have control."

DeAngelis started with a long red pepper, similar to a Thai, then moved up to Scotch bonnets and habaneros. These days he's especially proud of his "bird peppers," as he calls them. "I was in a Mexican grocery in Arcadia, Florida, and I had never seen these, sort of a Tabasco type, maybe a cross. They're tiny things, but killer."

My garden partner and I also grow organic -- no stinking chemicals, no pesticides, no bullshit. (Cow manure, however . . . )

The world goes round smoother with the organic method, in which garbage is turned microbially into the stuff of life: compost (a rotting mix of leaves, grass clippings from lawns that are never sprayed with insecticides, and vegetable matter from the kitchen). We mix our soil by hand from a dozen ingredients, a 'barrowful at a time, with love. Beyond passion, it's worth noting that sales of organic food generally in the U.S. have increased nearly 25 percent each year for the past five years; last year sales totaled $2.2 billion, according to the New York Times.

But it took my father, a hurricane, and a Beast to put that six-footer in my front yard. Thirty years ago, long before it was cool, my dad built a platform organic garden in our back yard in southwest Dade, off Bird Road. He used to trick my brothers into tilling the garden. Told them that if they were going fishing, okay, they could dig for earthworms.

My dad's side of the family, Grandma Palmer and Aunt Pat and Uncle Calvin, et cetera, had wildly productive and lovely-to-look-at platform gardens (made by framing an area with wood or concrete blocks, then filling in with soil, to provide a rich growing medium and better drainage in this sandy, sea-level neck of the world). But for the past decade, I've lived in a house with a yard short of unfoliaged space and umbrellaed by big trees, making gardening impractical.

Andrew cleared the coverage, and I began dabbling in tomatoes, having always resented paying $1.89 a pound for mealy 'maters of such flat taste and texture you figure 'em for Burger King outcasts. Taste the real thing, the fresh, undrugged magic of homegrown, and it becomes difficult not to garden.

Meantime, my friend Stephen Alvin (a fellow Miami native known to many as the Beast), had taken flight post-Andrew. His home destroyed by the storm, he spent time in California, the Southwest -- places of great pepperage. Everywhere he went, he collected seeds from the finest, most unusual specimens he came across.

Upon his return to Miami, the Beast contacted me, and we soon discovered our mutual interest in organic gardening. Then he laid the heavy stuff on me: Try this, it's called a habanero. And this one is el diablo, a purple plant whose purple pepper turns red and hot as the devil. Then came the African yellow, Thai, tiger, cayenne, jalapeno . . .

For those of us undertaking the effort to grow stuff beyond the pale offerings of the local grocer, summer is the season of preparation. That's what we told ourselves, anyway.

First we tore up the Beast's South Miami yard. Blessed with full sun, the space was covered with a blanket of thick, healthy grass, which we ripped out with pickaxes and our bare hands. (It would have been easier to drop a piece of plywood on the ground and wait a few days for the grass underneath to die, but it's amazing how fat blisters and blackened nails soothe the impatient soul.)

Once we cleared three five-by-nine-foot rectangles, we carefully bordered the bald patches with cement blocks. We bought a truckload of soil, obtained a pile of sand, purchased the manure and soil supplements we needed. Then we stood out there in the ripping summer heat: Fill the wheelbarrow halfway with soil, then three shovels of sand, dried chicken manure, fresh horse manure -- bagged from the stables of the Miami police equestrian unit -- peat, plus handfuls of bloodmeal and bonemeal and compost. Soon the bald patches were gardens.

During summer, many local organic growers rotate crops; some have lately switched to sunflowers, which they sell in bunches at local markets. If you're lucky, you can also persuade squash and okra to endure the unfriendly climate. That's what we did. And our squash, okra, and sunflower plants all grew big -- until the rains came.

As times go, we'd chosen about the worst to dive headlong into our attempt to grow the finest hot peppers to be found in Miami. At first our effort was not unlike attempting ice sculpture in the desert. Summer is to South Florida growers what winters are to corn and tomato farmers in the Midwest. Pepper bushes usually refuse to set fruit unless and until daytime temperatures drop below 89 degrees. And while they like a consistent supply of water, peppers do not take to it in abundance, being moderate drinkers.

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