how to grow a wide world of peppers, with adaptive seeds’ sarah kleeger

Pepper_Tasting1SOMEWHERE LIKE MEXICO might come to mind first, if the question asked is about the places that peppers originate from. When the answer you get is “Denmark,” though, things get interesting.

And that’s where the seed for ‘Liebesapfel’—the pepper that began Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still’s fast-growing Capsicum annuum collection—arrived from, or more specifically, Germany via Denmark.

LiebesapfelOn their first Seed Ambassadors trip to search out potentially Northern-adapted seed from Europe in 2006, Sarah and Andrew carried ‘Liebesapfel’ (left) back to the New World themselves—though admittedly to their Oregon farm that’s far north of the species’ native range in the Americas. Soon after, when they founded the Adaptive Seeds catalog, the pepper was on their first list of offerings.

‘Liebesapfel’ is the kind of pepper that makes you smile: a ruffled, squat red pimento type that’s sort of the miniature cheese pumpkin of peppers, shape-wise. “It was the first one we got, and we fell in love with it,” says Sarah. No wonder.

The seed, shared along with other treasures by the couple’s friend Søren Holt of Frøsamlerne, the Danish seed-saving organization, had originally been developed by a small seed company in Germany. ‘Liebesapfel’ is very early to ripen, at about 70 days—and that’s no accident.

Those years in Europe helped, and especially in the Danish climate, says Sarah, who describes Denmark as “a bump in the sea where it’s often gray, windy and cool.”

2015_catalog_cover_2It was good practice for what the pepper would experience in its new homeland with Adaptive Seeds, where it now shares the pages of the 2015 catalog with 16 other peppers, both hot and sweet.

‘Gypsy Queens,’ is one that Andrew is working on “dehybridizing,” which involves sowing seed of a hybrid variety, seeing what you get, and gradually selecting in hopes of establishing a stable open-pollinated variety (whose seed will reliably come true when saved year to year, unlike the original hybrid). He’s also doing this with some tomatoes, and a pac choi. (My interview with Joseph Tychonievich delved into dehybridizing deeper.)

Another of the peppers, Adaptive Early Thai Grex, is genetically more like a population, says Sarah, diverse and purposely maintained that way, but with a theme (such as earlier ripening).

And the peppers at Adaptive fit a range of culinary uses:

Bácskai FehérA rich-flavored and bright-colored Hungarian sweet version like ‘Bácskai Fehér,’ is a standout for fresh eating (left). It’s also suited, Andrew learned in the kitchen last harvest season, to making ajvar, a Serbian pepper paste-like relish served as a spread or side dish. A number (including all these) are easily dried and powdered into paprika—from sweet to hot, hot, hot—including ‘Maria Nagy,’ a long, thin hot pepper that “looks like a cayenne but tastes altogether different,” and was the second Capsicum they acquired.

‘Pointy Kaibi #1’ “might not win the taste test for fresh fruits, but it smelled really good,” Sarah recalls—and wasn’t as juicy as others. Those qualities pointed to the potential for paprika that proved irresistibly delicious. The jar they made at harvest season? Already gone. Kaibi is an early-to-ripen Bulgarian heirloom, and one of Andrew’s favorites, shared with him by a Welsh seed company.

Horn-shaped hot little red peppers in the catalog—whose whole 2015 features peppers (order a copy, or browse it online now in a pdf)—hail from Thailand, and Korea, and even Transylvania. The famous, not-too-hot New Mexican chile from Chimayo, so good and important as a source of chile powder that it is listed in the Ark of Taste as a threatened American food tradition.

ChilhuacleAnd what about the dark brown, “chocolate” pepper called ‘Chilhaucle Negro,’ I asked? It’s so stunning-looking (photo at left).

“Well, that’s not a pepper from Denmark,” Sarah says of the pepper that stars in mole sauce, chuckling at the path of making selections that she knows lies ahead at Adaptive Seeds, to gradually get this one to fruit earlier. “It’s late, but so very good.”

how to grow peppers

15475118002_4eb51b5bb4_zTHE ADAPTIVE SEEDS CREW likes a big, sturdy seedling for transplant around June 1 in their Oregon fields. Counting back to about 10 weeks earlier, seed is sown in the greenhouse, using heat mats to help create the cozy conditions peppers crave until the seedlings are big enough to pot on to 4-inch pots.

Home gardeners can start under lights indoors, planning for about eight weeks inside, timed to transplant out one to two weeks after final frost. (My seed-starting calculator can help you get the timing right for your location.)

Ideally, pepper seedlings would be maintained at 70F daytime and 60F nighttime as they grow, but Sarah admits Adaptive’s unheated greenhouse in Sweet Home, Oregon, just isn’t that consistent.

“It can fluctuate a lot,” she says, “and even get to 80s by day and 40s at night. If you can keep them warmer than we can, they will like it much better. Our lack of good temperature control is probably the main cause of the frequent issues we have with aphids on the peppers.”

If the young plants start to flower in their pots, the blooms are pinched off, waiting until they are settled in the ground for the reproductive cycle to rally get under way.

A week or so before set-out date, begin hardening off the plants to adjust to cooler temperatures and general outdoors.

At transplant time, each plant gets a dose of Adaptive’s secret ingredient–fish-bone meal—in the planting hole. Their farm soil is Phosphorus-deficient, Sarah says, and the meal also helps add fertility and also seems to help prevent blossom end rot. Seedlings are placed in the holes at the same depth as they were in their pot, and plants are spaced 18 apart in the row, with 2 feet between rows.

They don’t stake or cage their peppers, Sarah says, but admits that having something like 100 plants greatly softens the potential blow if a couple suffer broken limbs, or topple under the weight of heavy fruit set.

“If I had only a couple of plants in my home garden,” Sarah says, “I’d be staking or caging them.” Maybe even with a Florida weave (a.k.a. basket weave), like tomato growers do?

Besides full sun, regular and thorough watering is essential for a good fruit crop, so all the pepper plants are on drip irrigation. The ones adjacent to emitters that get two to three waterings a week are more prolific than others where the dose is stingier.

Reemay tents, meant to exclude insects who’d perform unwanted cross-pollination between varieties–no worry for home gardeners, but a total loss for seed farmers–were just too hot inside for good pollination, so last year Sarah Andrew decided to stop using the fabric. And besides, Sarah says, “the plants under them were sort of out of sight and out of mind—not the best way to keep track of them.”

Swapping out the Reemay fabric for fine netting that would keep bugs out but not build up so much heat or hide the contents was another possibility, but instead, Andrew and Sarah calculated. Carefully, very carefully.

“We’ve calculated that we can have 11 isolations spaced 500 feet apart on our farm,” says Sarah, referring to the too-far-for-pollen-to-move recommended distance that can insure saveable seed. “So in the middle of nowhere around the place, we’ve set up some drip and now you come upon a random row of peppers.”

Though not thought of as a storage crop by any means, pepper fruits may prove surprisingly long-lasting, says Sarah, something she learned by accident.

“A lot of things we learn about hardiness and durability are about neglect,” she says. “We had an abundance last year of peppers, so a couple of cases, in wax boxes, went into the barn and got forgotten about until January. Many fruits, unexpectedly, were still good.”

Adaptive Seeds in the field

more from adaptive seeds

THE ADAPTIVE SEEDS team also has a passion for kale and many other crops. Read an interview from last year on some of their other favorite edibles, and also this piece with Sarah Kleeger on how to grow kale. All their seed is grown following organic practices, and is open pollinated. (Above, Andrew and Sarah with the squash harvest.)

  1. Rachelle says:

    This is so important! This is something seed savers should all be thinking about in climates where it is cool yet gardeners want to produce a crop of peppers or tomatoes or other heat-loving crops. Even 100 miles north of where I am in central WI, a reliable tomato harvest is not counted on.

    Dehybridizing is another important aspect! I am glad some others have been having these same thoughts on providence.

  2. Shelley says:

    I have never seen or heard of brown “chocolate” peppers or mole sauce- this is why I love your blog! Peppers are always a struggle for me- will be trying some new things this year! Thanks for the interesting read!

    1. Joe says:

      I grew some chocolate pasilla peppers last year. They took forever to mature, but they made a great salsa de molcajete in October. One word of warning — “chocolate” is totally a euphemism for the color. If there are small boys around, the jokes will quickly become tedious.

  3. Vesna says:

    Hi, while I never tried Bácskai Fehér for making “ajvar” that you mention, I found that commonly found Marconi Red peppers work perfectly as well. The authentic cultivar for making this wonderful pepper preserve is actually from the central and southern Serbia, and Macedonia, where the climate for pepper growing is a bit warmer than in Hungary. While you call it a Bulgarian specialty, it is commonly known as a Serbian specialty (as is also clear from the link you give), while the Bulgarians are known for their equally delicious “ljutenica”. It takes a lot of peppers to make it, but it’s an absolute winner whenever we serve it at our parties.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Vesna, for your fixes! Noted. It sounds delicious, and a good reason to plant a few “extra” pepper plants, right? Nice to “meet” you, and thanks again.

      1. Vesna says:

        Indeed, very nice meeting you as well. I very much enjoy, and learn from, reading your blog.
        (P.S. I now remember that my Hungarian aunt used bácskai-fehér peppers to make one of their national dishes, lecsó – a stew of peppers with tomatoes and onions. So many wonderful pepper varieties and dishes! Definitely worth growing, I think.)

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this, and for the other seed companies you’ve been profiling. I am beyond thrilled to find more sources for rare and open pollinated varieties. Also exciting to read more about “dehybridizing”–something we’ve been thinking of trying with some of our favorite hybrid veggie varieties that we’re moving away from in the name of seed-saving. Off to read your interview with Joseph :).

  5. Leia says:

    For ours, we use a Tablespoon of Epsom salt in the hole, add a bit of soil, then the pepper plant. Our peppers are always prolific and the plants gift us with peppers all the way to frost. Since the plants get tall, knee high for most, we stake and do the Florida wrap for all peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. Gusty winds taught us to try to salvage heavily loaded plants.

    Thank you for such good information.

  6. Al Kapuler says:

    In the 1970’s I began purchasing F1 hybrid seeds of tomatoes, growing them out, saving the seeds and repeating the process for more than a decade. In this way Peacevine Cherry Tomato arose from the F1 Sweet 100 Cherry Tomato. This technique is now called ‘dehybridizing’.
    One must reckon that all diploids are hybrids. Tomatoes are generally diploids. People are diploids. Hence all people are hybrids.
    And what is called ‘dehybridizing’ is genetic, generational selection. If one wants all the plants and their fruits to be the same, ie. homozygous, then it may take many years to achieve.
    If you go into a place where wild, native species still exist you can still find Phaseolus species. For thousands of years people have been doing this, putting the seeds in their pockets, bringing them back to their communities and planting them for years to come. When we go to native peoples and obtain some of their bean seeds we call them landraces. They come from wild collections and have been domesticated by growouts, selection, human values and attitudes.
    When we take cultivated varieties of interbreeding plants like kales, peppers, corns which have been grown and selected for a long time and remix them by growing, flowering and seeding them together, they intercross. If one saves the seeds from the mixed intercrosses, plants them again and saves the seeds again, one can continue the process for many cycles making a grex. The first generation of the crosses is the F1. Then the next cycle and its generation of crosses is F2. With each generation it gets more complex. F1 plants crossing to F2 plants, for example. After many years one has opened up the genome pool and increased genetic diversity while increasing adaptability. The original parents and all the generations of their progeny, taken together, is also a grex.
    In many ways humanity is also a grex.
    Grexes are the way we solve the issue of how to adapt our foodplants to our local ecosystems and to the exigencies of radical climate change.
    Landraces have some aspects in common with grexes. They are not the same thing. They have very different meanings and relationships.
    While the term ‘grex’ comes from the latin for ‘flock’ as Margaret Roach so wisely points out and that it was first applied to Paphiopedilum delenatii and its interspecies crosses, the ‘flock’ of birds encompasses the complexity of generation after generation after generation of breeding, all flying in the sky at the same time.

    (Dylana Kapuler, Mario DiBenedetto and Linda Kapuler provided critical commentary and their contributions are appreciated.)

    1. margaret says:

      What a treat to hear from someone I so admire, and whose seeds I have enjoyed growing for so many years. Thank you for taking the time to give us more background on “dehybridizing,” and the concept of a grex, and all of it. I will be back in touch offline to say a proper hello, but thank you!

  7. Harriet Robinson says:

    My Ace green pepper crop is my most reliable success every year here in Maine. I grow 6 plants each in two Earthboxes perched on a timber that forms the edge of a raised bed. I use an Espoma fertilizer according to the Earthbox directions (3 cups since it is an organic fertilizer), and water. Even though the seedlings aren’t started any sooner than my other seedlings (mid April), I put them out in the Earthbox at the end of May and have an amazing harvest later in the summer and into the fall. I think the secret is the Earthbox, which provides warmer temperatures. Surprisingly, this treatment makes no different for tomatoes, but when I compare peppers in the Earthbox with ones planted directly in the garden, the difference is incredible. My freezer is full of diced peppers that will last all winter.

  8. Linda says:

    Pimentos are my favorite sweet peppers. I’ve been growing the same variety from saved seeds so long I can’t remember the name of it anymore. It’s not the most prolific pepper I grow, but so delicious and beautiful.

    1. Brittney says:

      I am with you on that one Linda. I thought I was the only one obsessed with pimentos, but im glad to see im not alone. I also plant the most of that pepper every year.

  9. Rosemary says:

    My sweet green peppers are getting larger at the moment the plant itself is about 10ins high but the individual (2) peppers are getting bigger. This will be my first crop.

    Must sound funny to everyone else but I have just started my new garden.

  10. Lynn says:

    I grow Liebespal in containers at an elevation of about 860 ft in the Coast Range of Oregon. I plant them closely, 4 plants to an 18 gallon container in rich potting soil. I put a small tomato cage in the center of the container in case I have issues with heavy set later in the season. (Remember to fertilize well.!! You must feed your plants so they will feed you.) If the peppers get heavy it is really easy to tie them to the tomato cage in the pot.They are the most wonderful pepper I have grown. Thick walled, sweet and juicy. I can really control the environment with containers by covering the plants on a cold nights and I have harvested the last peppers late November to Early December. An amazing pepper to grow. All my friends call in late spring to see if I have extra starts!!! A must try from Adaptive seeds. Thanks

  11. Patch says:

    One of the peppers I am growing this year is Grand Bell Mix which includes shades of red, purple and chocolate—all of which are new to me! I like the look of that Liebesapfel mentioned in the article so I’ll have to look for that one for next year. Happy gardening everyone!

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