The Long Hot Winter

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

Peppers are time-intensive, fragile, dependent, like children. Though the plants are annuals, well-maintained specimens can survive for years, and most gardeners grow them as perennials. Pepper life begins, naturally, with the seeds. The better the seed, the better the chances for pod success. One rainy day the Beast and I went indoors with our starter mix and planting trays. He pulled out a huge bag, which was filled with smaller bags, which were filled with the seeds of exotic peppers. We had bought a special mix of peat and finely ground vermiculite, which we scooped into small cups and trays. We carefully planted the tiny pepper seeds, and kept them constantly moist A but not too wet. After maybe ten days, certain varieties began to poke themselves out of the starter mix, and three weeks later most of the seeds had sprouted. For the next couple of weeks, until the plants formed two sets of leaves, we kept them sheltered from rain and wind. Then we transplanted them into four-inch pots and waited for the rains to abate.

There we were, our platform gardens built, filled handful by handful with a mix of soil and compost and peat and sand and manure and perlite and potash and bloodmeal and bonemeal, our seedlings begging for unpotted freedom, and the storms kept coming, raging straight through October and leaving our peppers all grown up with no place to go. Ten inches of rain fell in October -- double the average.

"Don't worry, you'll see," the Beast kept saying as we tore the rotted squash plants from our garden. "As soon as this rain stops, we'll have peppers coming out our ears."

When the rain did finally stop, the transplanting sessions came, and by early November the small hobby garden at my house and the three big platforms in the Beast's yard were rowed with pepper plants -- tiger, firecracker, el diablo, cayenne, banana, Cubanelle, African yellow, habanero. The cold fronts of late December and early January rattled us a bit, their chilly winds burning the leaves and putting many plants into a state of virtual hibernation. Though the recent bout of overcast days hasn't helped much, either, most of our plants have begun setting fruit. We've started to harvest the scattered ripe peppers, and by the end of this month we'll have more peppers than we know what to do with.

One of my brothers drew a picture of a big ape holding a pitchfork, tomato and pepper plants twining around. Guerrilla gardeners. That would be us: We cleared this land, we conquered it, and now we're going to monkey around in it.

Our only war is with pests. Aphids, leaf miners, caterpillars. Some fight them with big doses of poison, but not us. We go out and kill the suckers with our dirty hands. We plant marigolds to attract predator bugs to eat the bad bugs. We make an insecticide from -- you guessed it -- capsaicin. We work within the ecosystem because we respect it. It's what gives us our peppers, the dirt and air and sun and water nurturing our babies, our leafy little children.

And then we eat them.

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