The number one garden question that I receive is seemingly simple, “when do I plant in Hawaii?” In reality, it is a very complex question, especially with our changing weather patterns. What is my answer? Frequently. Get new plants started as frequently as you can, and try a range of edible plant types. This year was a tropical storm year which brought a wild range of growing conditions at 2700ft elevation. Colder, and wetter than normal, and we cannot forget the seemingly endless winds. Though the combination caused a diminished squash crop, other vegetables thrived. Let me explain.
When temperatures and humidity levels shift rapidly, some plants refuse to set fruit. Squash is well known for hitting the pause button when it isn’t getting what it needs. Some plants need it to be warmer, some need it to be less windy, and other plants are more impacted by day length. Observation is the key to understanding this. Some of you may recall my transplanting many stunted Aji Limon chili peppers a few days before Christmas, 2015. Though slow to grow, the wet season that December (sometimes) brings was just right for them. They became big, full plants, and then fruited profusely in June. This had them producing chili just in time for pairing them with mango. It is now October, and those one time stunted, and seemingly mistimed plants, have remained in continuous fruiting. I am sharing this to remind us that every day, every plant, and every challenge, gives us an opportunity to learn. Most mainland planters may have kept those peppers in pots until March or April. I was tempted to try to over winter them in pots. As it turned out, these Peruvian peppers liked the cooler temps, and additional humidity that an upcountry Winter can bring. I learned that not all peppers are alike. Weather that made some chili plants dormant, made another double in scale.
Just this week we had snow on the mountain, known as Mauna Kea volcano. Though the snow is at 14,000ft, and I am at 2700 ft, it impacts my growing, by bringing cool winds down the slope. In order to make the most of this endlessly cold year, I am getting out the seed flats again, and getting a lot of leafy greens going…again. Swiss chard, a variety of kale, collards, peas, and favas will all love this season. Since the temperature is changing rapidly from day to day, I am also using this window of time, where we still have quite a bit of warmth, to start some more tomatillos. I am taking the risk to try a few more pepper starts that all need quite warm days to germinate. Will it work? Only time will tell, but I do know that having a wide variety of plants will keep you, and your community well fed, no matter what season holds in store. Just like these loveable heirlooms, we can adapt, and we will be better gardeners for it. Aloha!
Alright, so you may have thought this was going to be a steamier post than it is, so let me explain. Some of you may have seen those Latin names in the seed catalog, or on the packets and you have simply glazed over due to bad experiences in school. You may be thinking that you do not need this Latin in your life, and it is just there so to look good. I encourage you to learn what it means in the context of your garden. This extra effort may make you succeed beyond measure. Seed packets have limited space, so we should assume any information found there is quite important. The packet can begin to lead you to your future success. So I recommend reading them, but also taking the extra step of understanding what they mean.
This year, before you buy all of your seeds, I ask you to look into the Latin names of the varieties that you want to grow. It is fun ordering seeds, and heirloom growers get really carried away in our celebration of plant diversity. You may like to select based on color, or taste, or select to grow only rare plants. I try a lot of seeds, and test them out each year. The results have been extreme. My growing history is pretty rough, for every one that succeeded, 20 may have been a total bomb. Part of that is where I am growing (Hawaii) part is our multitude of microclimates, altitudes, come and go seasons, and drought…or floods. So what I have decided to do is to stop torturing myself with the “oh maybe this year” denial, and just accept that some will not do well where I am, and others may thrive. I am an optimist by nature, but enough is enough, and I have to accept defeat when it comes to certain plants. The key to future success is not to stop with a success or failure, but to understand what those results had in common. That is where the Latin name of the plant comes in.
On “research Sunday,” I stayed awake into the early morning hours as I plotted which varieties I hoped to grow for the season. I took it one step further than your average grower, by making lists of the plants I grew, then looked up their scientific, aka Latin name. This was the year to reorder chili pepper seeds, but with some doing great, and others performing poorly, I would not allow myself to order another seed, before understanding if there was a trend behind my successes and failures.
I searched for the Latin (scientific) name of the plant variety, then checked several sources to make sure that they were listed as the same name. Check a few sources, because mistakes do happen. Two of my favorite vegetables to grow are categorized into more than one species (example squash and chili peppers) compare what varieties(also known as the common name of the plant) are within each species. Example for the Triamble squash, the species is Maxima, and the variety name is Triamble. Triamble is what the pumpkin is most commonly called, but Maxima is its Latin (scientific) classification that categorizes its genetic lineage. It is necessary for plant breeders, but it can also lead you to success as a grower because it helps you to understand the relationships between plants.
Chilis are a love of mine, so lets look at how this applies to chili peppers. Below, you will see two comeback stories. They were plants that nearly died when I was away travelling. When we look at these peppers, you see that they are very different in their structure. They are, in fact, in different species, but both are hot peppers. The plant on the left shows more vigor, and the plant on the right looks healthy, but rather average, if not below average. The plant on the right I consider so-so in its production of peppers. I happen to adore the taste, so I grow the plant, but I would never consider growing these peppers commercially. The pepper on the left has vigor, and it is putting out triple the blooms of the other plant. This species seems to really want to live in my microclimate.
Black Hungarian Wax
I have struggled year after year with Poblano, Jalapeno, Anaheim. My CA growing buddies sometimes laugh and give me a concerned look, as if I am a chili pepper growing “hack.” But when I mention my success with Ghost peppers, they listen up, because Ghost is one of the most challenging peppers for many to grow. For one, it needs a very long season to produce. Secondly, it can be very challenging to germinate. In CA, and beyond, Jalapeno may be one of the easiest to grow, so it becomes confusing, until you look to the species names, and you will see where the line between successful and so-so pepper plants is drawn.
The beauty in plant diversity is that one size, or in this case one seed, does not fit all. If you are optimistic, you move forward knowing success is out there, you just need to find it. Hawaii farmers are constantly told that we cannot get our production numbers up high enough. The problem is in part due to the fact that many of the plants that have become commercial “sweethearts” do not grow well in Hawaii. Yet other plants in other species, thrive, and produce crops. Because of the way our distribution channels work often times, only the common commercial varieties are seen on the produce order form, so chefs do not use the wonderful, unique fruits and vegetables that thrive here. (more on that is another post) In fact, they may not even know that it grows here.
So what I encourage you to do, especially those in Hawaii, is to study what did well (or failed) for you, and then look into its genetic make up. Are there plant “cousins” that are in the same species that you can also try? To follow with the example, Ghost peppers are in the same species as the pepper image above on the left, Jalapeno is in the same species as the pepper on the right side photo. So I can be relatively certain that if I select more from the same species on the left, I may have further successes! I have never felt that the key to agricultural success in Hawaii lies in creating new seeds in a lab, or trying to grow and compete within the narrow scope of commercial hybrids that are shipped in by the hundreds of tons. Our success is right before our eyes, written in an ancient language. By learning from our success and our failures, we can make better seed selections in the future, and we will certainly move forward with confident strides.
So become a Latin lover, and begin the journey of the plant family tree. You will understand how plants are related to each other, and then maybe explore the possibilities that you may not have tried. Fail too! Yes, fail and make note of what did not do well, then use your new research skills to understand that as well. I say, if we learn from both our mistakes and our failures, we learn twice as fast. Guaranteed, you will love Latin (scientific names) when you have a more successful growing season. When your harvest overflows, with plants needing so little care, you are going to be happy that you took the time to do a little botanical research. Understanding plant genetics is as easy as reading the plant’s seed packet, or catalog description, so give it a try.
It is an interesting year for chilis in Upcounty Hawaii. Cold, wet, Winter weather has changed their schedule. This is normally time for their big growth time, but this year the season is different. Am I ok with it? Sort of. This is why I plant so many heirloom varieties. Some are loving this weather, while others are waiting for their time. I learned many things this year. The importance of pruning, and timing the pruning to the plant’s growth cycle. I also learned how to grow chilis from cuttings. Though only one lone Thai Dragon Pepper was a successful grow out from a cutting, it is a lovely plant, and I learned that the method does work, and that I should try it throughout the year to find ideal times.
I also did two rounds of grow outs from seed despite my Spring travels. I have two new success with orange Habanero, and Purple Cayenne. Then back to making sure to care for the varieties that have already shown potential. Like Black Hungarian, and Aji Limon (Lemon Drop.) Two peppers from two different parts of the globe, but both like the highly variable conditions at the farm.
I love to plant and transplant when it rains. Though it is bright and sunny in the video, the skies opened and closed several times in the past few days as yet another tropical storm spins by. I decided to start an absurd number of chilis this summer, knowing that it was now or never. Germination becomes more difficult in the months ahead. Many chilis go semi-dormant in Winter, unless we have a warm Winter. I get them going when we still have longish days, then we will see what the fall brings. It may get hot in Aug and September, which would set them up with strong growth. Or we may be having our Winter now. We never had Winter rain this year…so in many ways this is our Winter.
What I am learning, is that I may love chilis as much as I love squash. They too vary in heat, texture, and flavor. They also have lovely foliage, and flowers. They also are more tolerant than I would have ever guessed. They let the squash smother them, then appear alive and well from under the vines. I have some plants that are 2.5 years old now. They love my homemade fish fertilizer, and the Ghosts seems to like more water than I would have ever guessed. I harvested about 15 Ghosts off one yearling plant that is set right out with the squash. I have it in a container tub, and let it get some of the spray in route to the squash. It is a great way to have them be accessible, while also lifting them up above the squash leaf shade so they have optimal sun. Not to mention, it is easy to collect them so to cook with them, and one watering will water the whole lot. Containers can dry out quickly, so this is ideal. The peppers are healthy, happy, and thriving.
So here is a video to give some beginning farmers and gardeners an idea of how to make your own soil mix for your container garden. I recommend that everyone grab up large pots and tubs when they seem them being discarded. They come in handy, and it allows you to have a garden on your lanai, doorstep, or in my case, containers mix right in with other plants on the farm.
I choose to transplant my chili peppers when they get a couple pairs of leaves. That gives them a more substantial root system, and they are less likely to wilt and die after transplanting. I get several plants going in each big container, if they all take, I can always transplant some of them, giving the others more space. I often add a squash vine to the mix ( I know I know) or a basil plant, so to get a variety going. These containers will be put on a wire mesh table top where nutrients, and water will drizzle onto the squash vines. I give them fish emulsion monthly. It works wonders. The two year old plants have over 100 blooms this year…even in partial shade, and unusual weather.
I began fermenting this past week, and I am excited about the flavor of the orange Habanero in one of the squash ferments. More on that later…I am just throwing that out so to encourage you all to grow more than you think you will use. Many people struggle with growing a variety of peppers, so they may be likely to trade for some of your chili bounty.
I plant close, I’ll admit it, too close. I am a chronic over planter, but I have my methods. One is making sure that, as one farmer summed, ” feed the heck out of your plants.” Yes, I do. Exactly. I set those plants up for success by giving them a lot of micro nutrients, worms lolling about, mulch to hold it all in, and you cannot forget my homemade fish emulsion. Like all good things, success comes from a layering method giving a strong base to grow just about anything.
So it is mid July, it is now finally hot and sunny in upcountry Hawaii, and my May plantings are beginning to sprawl. What do I do? Prune the inner leaves and let the air circulate. Let the other plants like corn, tomatoes and flowers get to see the light, by removing the squash leaves that are very close to each other. A healthy squash plant will have “choke” (Hawaii slang for a lot) leaves. So cut off the ones dusted with mildew, give the bed a good soak with diluted fish emulsion, and let ’em sprawl. In the weeks ahead, they will smother the entire area where I shot this video.
Bear with the video, it is hot and mid day as I deliver this squinty, yell at the camera squash tip. But it is sent to you now, so that you can fully benefit from it. The extra fish emulsion will give it a boost of energy at week 6, a heavy vining time in the squash’s life cycle. So prune, put the leaves in hot compost so to rot it down. Don’t leave the leaves in the garden or you will encourage the powdery mildew. Bag the leaves in an old garbage bag, tie it shut, leave it in the sun to cook and kill the mildew before moving them to your compost.
I happen to breed varieties that are naturally resistant to Hawaii’s bouts of mildew, they are often unaffected, when a new trial plant is suffering in it’s first season. Only the strong plants survive my plant editing.
Powdery mildew is common here in Hawaii, even in dry up country. I mean very common. If a plant is getting a lot of natural nutrients, good air circulation, sun and water, don’t fret, maybe try a different species or variety of squash.
Only a small percentage of the squash varieties that I trial even like their VIP care. So many varieties simply don’t like growing here. Hawaii has a little bit of everything pests and disease, with the highly unpredictable growing conditions for plants, none of which is welcomed by many squash varieties. I tried to grow the super dependable Hubbard, and it didn’t like the farm conditions at all. Now that the soil is really soil instead of half rotted compost, it may like it. Sometimes it is the time of year that you plant, or even the day that you choose to plant on. If at first you do not succeed, try again. You will be a better farmer or gardener if you fall on your face a few times. Trust me. I do it all of the time.
Ghost peppers don’t align themselves neatly with other vegetables. They are one of the few veggies that you can simply name and people respond with fear. I am not going to pretend that I am any different. You might wonder why I decided to grow them, and nurture them even. Why I would put so much love and energy into a plant whose fruits I was scared to even touch. Well, it has a lot to do with my brother, the chili aficionado. He lost most of his sense of taste due to an accident years ago, but like many others in similar situations, he can “taste” chili peppers. So chili peppers quickly became his thing.
It seems to be a family affair, because years ago as I trekked through the volcanic regions of Sumatra, I earned my nickname of Sambal, or chili sauce in English. I took the heat in more ways than one, as I insisted on eating local in every regard. I love food, and travel led me to more and more dishes around the world. Some of the Indonesian regional cuisine is so spiced that redness would appear as a creeping line that progressed up my neck until reaching my face. It didn’t help that though I only have a slight natural touch of red in my hair, to the dark haired Indonesians, my hair was a chili top of sorts. I was munching away on chili pepper sambal sauces, with tears running down my face, and my hair seemed to get redder in the process. One could say that I earned the respect of the community one chili pepper at a time.
On a subsequent trip to Indonesia, I climbed a remote volcano in pre-dawn darkness with a man who was traveling the globe in search of chili peppers. I will never forget his gregarious personality that lit up all that surrounded him. I should note that years later, I often took an hour and 20 min subway ride in NYC in order to get Brooklyn’s best Jerk chicken. I also once took a near daily schlep through dangerously off kilter Medan, Sumatra in order to eat the sambal sauce soaked eggs over rice that the bicycle taxi men ate for lunch. I called them “fire eggs” and that says it all. Over the years I have eaten a fair bit of cajun food, soul food, and the like, but rarely do I pick up a bottle of hot sauce. I am more inclined to use fresh chopped chili peppers in a dish, or make a fresh salsa verde on the spot. I like the handmade over the store bought. Over the years when I asked many a restaurant server to bring me “their” sambal sauce, glowing faces would return with tiny bowl of pastes in colors to terrifying to be food.
So it is with all these people in my heart that I put on my mechanic’s safety glasses and make a seasonal series of chili sauces that would make any Indonesian, and also a certain family member, or volcano climbing chili explorer very proud.
Remember this? Well….I am very pleased to report that it is now this!
I used EM-1 to add even more rich microbes to the heathy new compost and replace any that may have gotten burned out when the fish composting really heated things up. The fish composting was a success! (yeah! Thank you to Redwater Cafe and their continued donation of green waste and fish bits, Merriman’s for cardboard, and Starbucks for the donation of coffee grounds to help me build the soil!) The compost is a bit chunky due to my using a lot of sticks, but after a little bit of sifting out large pieces, the new compost was ready to be added to one of the beds. This will give a Spring makeover to a well used bed.
Honored to say the least, it was a pleasure hosting the Gettle family as they toured Hawaii. I began my farm with Baker Creek Heirloom seeds, and I continue to this day with their company. Last April 1st, I took a chance by growing only heirloom seed as a means of trying to bring back squash growing to Hawaii Island. I thought that maybe I could avoid the many pests and disease here in the islands by using historic varieties. Bingo…it worked and with a great deal of style, beauty, and flavor to boot.
I loved the Gettle’s company, and I believed that they were an honest company that I wanted to do business with. Who would have thought that they would visit my pumpkin patch just prior to the farm turning one year old. Some times dreams do come true. That “chance” I was taking put me on the map for local produce. I grew exceptional, big, flavorful squash and worked directly with chefs to make a market for them.
Thank you Jere, Emilee, Sasha, and wee baby Malia!
Some of the take aways from their seed: Great germination, wonderful flavors, pure seeds, history, a wide variety of Winter squash and so much more.