• John R

This year one thing we grew successfully was chili peppers. We had what I’d call an overabundance of chili peppers—overabundance in Schiddyspeak defined as “more than three of anything.”

So with success warm on my heart like a puppy snuggled in a chest carrier, I have developed helpful guidelines for growing and harvesting chilies:

Guideline One: Do not touch your genitals after handling chilies.

Based on my personal experience, this is very important, especially if you are handling chilies while consuming adult beverages because those are exactly the kind of beverages that prompt nature calls and unfortunate memory lapses with regards to Guideline One.

Guideline Two: Do not touch your eyes after handling chilies.

Have you ever run around the kitchen screaming and then unnaturally contorted your body in order to get your face under a kitchen sink faucet so you could run a gusher of cold tap water directly into your eyeball? Yeah, me too.

Guideline Three: Like luggage at the airport carousel, many chilies look alike so don’t plant your chilies too close together or confusion may ensue.

We made a nice raised bed for growing chilies, and in retrospect I’d say it’s the ideal size for perhaps a dozen chili plants. We planted 34. (I say “we” so I can drag Deb into the conversation and perhaps create a little confusion as to culpability). Call it a cacophony of chilies. They grew all higgly piggly, with branches woven into each other and fruits of uncertain origin dangling all over. Is that a ripening UFO dolma? Maybe a chilhuacle? Nothing seemed to conform to the little I.D. markers we stuck in the dirt. [editor’s note: don’t forget to insert a cheesy emoticon here]

So I began tasting just-harvested chilies to see if I could tell what from what. I nipped little slices and munched them, sipping beer to cleanse my palette between morsels. Mostly they were like crunchy beer with a grassy aftertaste.

Then I tried a habanero. Clarification: an extremely potent habanero. If I had made a positive I.D. of this little pepper prior to sampling it, I might have proceeded in a less cavalier fashion. But, being ignorant in so many ways, I popped a piece about the size of a dime.

It was like chomping down on a lava bomb. Immediately my brain threw some kind of emergency switch that reduced my involuntary nervous system to a single imperative: “Save yourself!” My tongue tried to escape but found itself hopelessly attached to the back of my throat. My feet took me around in little circles as if, all on their own, they were trying to find a way out. My eyes gushed tears and instinctively (and, as it would turn out, regrettably) I rubbed them so I could see to find my cleansing beer. “Oh my God!” I sputtered. “Oh God my eyes!”

After much consternation, eyeball water flushing, and bread and beer consumption, the pain began to subside to something more bearable, like sunburned tonsils and blow-torched retina. “Whew!” I exclaimed, unconsciously using a slice of bread to wipe sweat from my forehead.

And then I went to pee.

Want good info on growing chili peppers? Check this out.

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Blossom end rot tries to crush my naive hopes for a trouble-free harvest.

What you’re seeing in the photo is an Anaheim pepper. At SG this was supposed to be the Year of the Pepper—sunless, smoke-filled skies be damned. We planted poblanos, Scotch bonnets, valleros, Anaheims, and others that I don’t really know what they are because someone inadvertently moved their I.D. stakes and now those plants are either chilhuacle chilis or watermelons, who can tell?

Eventually there were little blossoms that turned into nubby green peppers that elongated and grew and filled my heart with an inordinate amount of joy. Then one day, coffee mug in hand, I shuffled outside in my underwear and scuffs and went to the back garden (using the word “garden” generously here) to admire our crop and discovered some of our peppers had developed leathery brown butts. The tissue was wrinkled and corpse-soft and disturbingly unappealing.

“Yuck shit,” I summarized.

The malady wasn’t confined to the peppers, either. Ugly splotches had appeared on the butts of the Roma tomatoes, too, in what I take to be the tomatoes’ misplaced sense of solidarity with the nearby peppers. A conspiracy was afoot.

But being the curious if perhaps not completely effective gardener that I am (using the word “gardener” generously here), I took my coffee inside for a serious dive into the internet’s collective brain, using as my search terms “yuck shit peppers.”

The results were surprisingly targeted. The problem, the internet patiently explained, was that I was watering too much. Also, it continued rather unhelpfully, I was probably watering too little. Either way (insert internet eye-roll here), there was undoubtedly user error involved in the way our plants were able to absorb calcium due to an erratic watering regime. The effects could be seen in common vegetable plants such as peppers and tomatoes. The result was blossom end rot. Or wait! equivocated the internet. It could be sunscald. But on second thought probably negligent watering. But hold on! Insect damage is a distinct possibility and cannot be ruled out. But that calcium thing is certainly almost likely.

After the internet had covered its ass as completely as possible, there were still bad peppers hanging out in the garden. As hope-crushing as that was, I tried to view it philosophically. A garden is the Great Circle of Life placed before us, with all its conditions, trials, and triumphs—win some, lose some, birth, death, infinity.

Sunscald or smiley face?

Okay, let's not get too wiggy. I just want a few good peppers and a handful of unblemished tomatoes. I have an extremely low bar. Fortunately, we have some of both. Blossom end rot didn’t take down entire crop, and I learned how to have blossom-end-rot-free chili peppers next year. All I have to do is water more. Or less.

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  • John R

Sometimes, when everything seems to be burning and the morning sun is red behind a pall and the first thing you do is check the daily AQI and masks are once again de rigueur and you can’t tell if that person is smiling at you or scowling, sometimes you have to look for five good things. Searching for the positive in the Schiddygarden can seem like such a hopeless endeavor—but sometimes there are no alternatives.

checkered skipper Pyrgus

This is a checkered skipper, Pyrgus communis. I saw it the other day and was immediately enchanted because I’d never seen one before, although a little research reveals that this is one of the most common butterflies in North America. If you are a butterfly aficionado this pic is probably causing you to yawn and want to take a nap. It’s entirely possible our yard has been filled with P. communis for years and I have failed to notice until now, but nevertheless this little guy is adorable. And now that I think about it, I am a little sleepy.

chili pepper—a chilhuacle negro black Oaxacan mole

Say hello to my little chili pepper—a chilhuacle negro. Rick Bayless says it’s absolutely essential for making authentic black Oaxacan mole, and if there’s anything I want in this life it's exactly authentic homemade black Oaxacan mole, I’m not kidding. Rick says the authenticity of this particular mole is dependent on this very rare, hard-to-find chili, but I was able to get seeds from Refining Hot Chilis, a mail-order biz in San Diego. I started a few plants from seed, and lo and behold they have grown and are actually starting to produce fruits. The fact that a chilhuacle chili plant has survived nearly an entire growing season under my stewardship has renewed my faith in miracles. BTW, the Rick Bayless recipe for black Oaxacan mole requires 27 ingredients and apparently takes about 11 days to make. Here’s hoping I don’t screw it up.

Continus smoke tree bush

We have a smoke tree in our backyard, and a good way to describe its flowering characteristics is capricious. It sort of happens, then doesn’t, then does again. Cotinus has fluffy, 10-inch-long blossoms that apparently resemble smoke, hence the clever common name. I have seen other smoke trees in our neighborhood and they seem awfully content to offer thick, billowy layers of everlasting flowers. Ours, by comparison, doesn’t. However, every once in a while it comes up with a single gem, and there are times, like now, when that’s good enough.

black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens

This guy landed on a pepper plant leaf. I figured it was up to no good, so I took its picture to add to my pantheon of garden things that are bad, then I flicked it off. Turns out it was a black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. The BSF looks like a wasp, but it isn’t. It can’t sting or bite, doesn’t eat garden plants, and it won’t buzz about your backyard barbecue. In larval form it’s one of the most useful bugs in the world. I have more info on that topic but I’m saving it for another blog because I know if there’s one thing readers have come to expect from me it’s illuminating information about maggots.

leopard lily

The giant leopard lily in the side yard is an amazing plant and one of the more fetching things growing in our yard. It gets up to seven feet tall and in summer shows off gaggles of winsome blossoms hanging down with exotic, primal elegance. It was planted by someone else, big surprise. Here’s an example where things are better off if I leave them alone, which I have faithfully done.

Bonus good thing: Props to me for this recovering Fatsia japonica. I planted it then sort of forgot about it and during this period of neglect it tried seriously to die. I more or less rediscovered it and motivated by a guilty conscience, nurtured it back to a semblance of health. It’s still small, but it’s surviving in our side yard. If you could have seen it in its previous uncared-for incarnation—it looked like someone had doused it with kerosene and set on fire—you would have bet against me saving it. I certainly would have bet against me. But I took a personal interest in this particular plant, perhaps formed an empathetic, two-way, plant-and-human kinship. Is that possible? I gave it plenty of water and removed encroaching greenery and now it has actually turned green. Up high, Fatsia! Um, okay, down low then. Oh yeah!

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