HE’S FINALLY CONFESSED: Joseph Tychonievich is growing 280 pepper plants in his garden this year. And then there is his breeding program aimed at creating winter-hardy gladiolus that don’t need staking.
Regular listeners will remember my winter conversation with Joseph about shopping the seed catalogs–when with his Joseph-style enthusiasm he got us all madly poring over his list of unusual sources, and confessed to such addictions as dwarf tomatoes, and zinnias.
What he didn’t admit to then were the pepper and gladiolus addictions, and he failed to tell us about his recently self-published book of kooky illustrations about guess what? The state of garden obsession, when gardeners find themselves powerless over plants, plants and more plants.
Joseph Tychonievich is author of “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” an inspiring book that will get you looking around your yard in with a new eye for its genetic potential. (Our interview about that book, and backyard plant breeding, is at this link.) His next book, on rock gardening, is due out later this year.
When I need a shot of invigoration–and who doesn’t at midseason, with the heat and weeds and dragging hoses?–one of the people I like to call is Joseph, so we talked peppers—including how to boost yield dramatically, make your own hybrids, and save and store your seeds—plus glads, and plant-mad gardeners.
Read along as you listen to the July 25, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my pepper and gladiolus q&a with joseph tychonievich
Q: OK: Before you wriggle out of full disclosure again: How many peppers? How many plants out there?
A. I think it’s 280 this year. [Laughter.]
Q. OK, now wait a minute: plants, or varieties?
A. No, 280 plants, individual plants. And because I love to breed plants, most of those are my hybrid populations. They’re all a little bit different, though they’re not actually varieties. They’re various hybrids and crazy things.
Q. You’ve gotten very good at growing, and I was fascinated to learn about some gear you use—so tell us about how to grow a pepper, the Joseph way.
A. I love peppers, and I’d grown them for years. But in a cool climate like mine [in the Midwest] and yours [in the Northeast], especially with big bell peppers I never got very good yield off of them.
Several years ago when I was in grad school, I saw someone doing research at Michigan State on peppers. They had a black plastic mulch they’d put down over the field, and they were planting in that. I’d seen that before, but there they had some in the black plastic and some just in the field. The ones in the black plastic were literally twice the size of the ones in the soil.
That got me thinking, and looking at research, and it dramatically increases the rate of growth and the size of the plants, how early they are, and the amount of yield you get. That black plastic absorbs the heat of the sun, warms up those plants and really gives them that kick of vigor they need to grow, especially in a cool Northern summer.
So I knew that worked, but I didn’t want to do that at first, because I didn’t like the idea of having big sheets of black plastic in my garden that I would have to tear out and throw away every year.
Q. Garbage, garbage, garbage.
A. Right. A few years ago, I found at Johnny’s Selected Seeds—and you can get it elsewhere—a biodegradable black plastic mulch that’s made from cornstarch I think. In the spring I take my bed, and roll out the black plastic, you bury the edges so it stays firm and doesn’t blow away. Then you just cut holes to plant the peppers in, and they grow like crazy—and I get much better yields. In the fall, I just put a layer of mulch over the black plastic, and over the winter it breaks down and I don’t have any trash to deal with in the spring.
I do two rows down the plastic, so I can come at them from either side. It comes in big, long rolls, and I do long rows of it, because I am growing by the hundreds. It’s relatively inexpensive, and it lasts a long time—you get a big roll and it lasts for several years. It really has made a big difference in peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, melons. All those summer heat-loving things really love the boost from the black plastic.
Q. So this is a better “black plastic,” and it’s not really plastic.
A. It’s not a petroleum product and it biodegrades; you’re not destroying the environment while you get your extra peppers.
Q. So you said a lot of the 280 peppers are sort of children of crosses you’ve made—not ones I’m going to see in the catalogs. But where did you begin? What were the favorite varieties that you used as the beginning of this mad-scientist breeding program in the backyard?
A. [Laughter.] I’ve grown a lot of different ones trying to find my favorites, and the best yielding. I love big bell peppers, but they don’t give a very good yield in a short-season Northern garden. The best one that I have grown so far is ‘Flavor Burst’ [above]. You can harvest it green, and it’s yellow when it’s ripe.
I don’t know that the flavor is particularly different—it’s marketed as being super-flavorful. It’s good, but not distinctive to my tongue. But it’s definitely a high-yielding bell pepper for me.
And then a close second would be one called ‘Ace,’ that yields quite well, too.
For hot peppers, I think my favorite is one called ‘Aji Cristal.’ It’s not too hot; I don’t like a Habanero hot pepper, because I think then I can’t taste the pepper—it’s just hot. [‘Aji Cristal’ photo above from Seed Savers Exchange, which sells seed.]
This one has some heat, and it’s actually a different species than most other peppers, Capsicum baccatum [versus Capsicum annuum]. It has like a citrusy flavor to it, like a tartness that I think is really delicious. And it yields and grows like crazy—it’s one of the highest-yielding peppers that I have grown.
Q. What do the peppers look like?
A. They’re maybe 2 or 3 inches long, carrot-shaped, and they’re sort of a light green when they’re immature and then they eventually ripen to red. I like them actually at either stage, but the flavor’s a little different. Like many peppers, they’re a little sweeter when fully red ripe, and also a little hotter. I like the immature light-green stage because the heat is a little less and the flavor is really nice.
Q. I could get out your, “Plant Breeding For the Home Gardener,” and look up how to breed a pepper—but how does it work? What happened before all these 280 pepper plants appeared, and what’s going to happen next? How are you controlling things in your breeding experiment?
A. I got inspired because I was reading, as I do in the winter, some obscure research papers. [Laughter.] Someone had characterized all the chemical compounds in Habanero peppers, and it turns out they have all these flavor compounds that are in common with fruits. Lots more diversity in flavor and chemicals than regular bell peppers—but they’re so hot, I feel like I can’t taste all those interesting flavors.
So crossing a Habanero with a sweet bell pepper, to see if I could get some of the interesting favor from the Habanero into something that was not so hot so I can actually taste it—that was what inspired me.
Q. I see.
A. To do that, you simply grow both the plants, and when they start flowering you take the pollen from one flower and out it on to the other flower. That will develop into a pepper, and the seeds inside it will be the hybrids between your two parents.
Q. So when you say “take,” what’s the vehicle you’re taking it with—paint brushes? Q-tips?
A. I just use a pair of tweezers and grab the actual anther. So you know there is going to be a ring of petals, and then there is the ring of anthers—which is the male part of the flower—and in the center is the stigma, which is the female part.
I just grab the anther, the male part, with my tweezers, and smash it open to get the pollen out, and smear that onto the stigma of the other parent.
Q. This is a violent thing you’re doing. My goodness.
A. [Laughter.] I’m not seducing them into having sex and making babies.
Q. It doesn’t sound very romantic, Joseph; jeez.
A. Nope, just getting it done.
Q. So you’re manually cross-pollinating them; you’re deciding to join the genetics of these two plants, because you want to get this complexity of the flavor that the hot one has, though it has too much heat to taste.
A. That’s the plan: to combine the traits of the two. When you’re hybridizing, you’re shaking up their genes and their attributes into new combinations.
Q. But you could get a lot of different fruit sizes, for instance…
A. You get all kind of different sizes and shapes, and plant sizes—some are like 6 inches tall, and some are like 3 feet tall from the same hybrid. All kinds of variation comes out, and of course the heat is all over the map, too. Some are sweet, and not hot at all, and there is no way to tell unless you taste them. So that’s an adventure.
Q. How many years have you been doing this with peppers?
A. About three or four years now.
Q. And do you end up with more plants every year?
A. I keep doing more and more. The first year I made one hybrid, and that was fun, and then I made two more…and this year I’m making five or six more. Nothing every gets smaller in my garden—it’s just more, more, more. [Laughter.] It’s a problem.
Q. Are you like buying three neighbors’ houses and using their backyards and knocking down the houses or what? [Laughter.]
A. I am really lucky. I actually live in an apartment and have no land of my own, but I have a friend who has about 5 acres that she doesn’t use that she lets me play on. That’s really wonderful.
I always say to people that if you don’t have a place to garden, you can find a place. I’ve moved around and I just put it out on Facebook—“Hey, I’m looking for a place to garden”—and I got lots of offers. So I have lots of space, and it’s more like a farm than a garden. It’s not at my home, or pretty, but just rows and rows of plants I’m growing and playing with.
Q. I don’t know why I didn’t know this—that it was at a different location.
A. It’s an away location, which is a problem because I’m not there at night, and all the deer and woodchucks and everything have parties in the garden in my absence.
Q. Now woodchucks will go in their burrows at night, but everybody else—like rabbits come out, and deer. The night shift.
Last night out my bedroom window, which was open because it has been pretty hot, there were some blood-curdling screams. I think somebody bit the dust last night—someone lost the fight in my garden.
Q. It does get wild out there in the darkness.
So we’ve taken the male parts from one pepper, and put it on the female parts of another, and made a hybrid cross. Do we cover the flower or anything?
A. What I usually do is do all that when the petals are still in bud—before the flowers have actually opened. I’m actually ripping the flowers open, to get in there before the bees have.
And then I pull off all the petals. That’s not 100 percent, but usually the bees are not going to be attracted to the flowers if the petals are not there. I’m sure some bees do get in with errant pollen now and again, but I find that if I pollinate in bud, and pull off the petals, I’m pretty safe. My pollen is in there first, and the bees aren’t going to be attracted.
Q. So we go fast-forward, and get some peppers, and we can talk in a minute about what you’re going to do with 280 plants worth of peppers. But you taste them, and some have great attributes on the plant, and you choose the best ones—and then save seed. How and when?
A. You want to harvest it from peppers once they’re ripe. All peppers are green when they’re immature, and we sometimes eat them at that stage, and then they go yellow or orange or red when they’re fully ripe. And then they’re really easy. Tomato seeds are suspended in slime, and you have to go through a lot of effort to get the seeds clean. But peppers you just cut them open, scrape the seeds out, and put them in your envelope. They don’t have to be treated or anything, so it’s easy to save seeds from them.
Q. You scrape them out, and put them on a plate or paper towel or…
A. I just put them straight into a little coin envelope from the office-supply store—little brown paper envelopes. I store all my seeds in sealed plastic boxes in the refrigerator with a layer of silica gel. It comes in those little packets that say “do not eat” in the shoes when you buy them. It sucks out all the moisture out of the air, and keeps them very dry.
Seed store best when they are cool and very dry, so I put them in the sealed plastic boxes with the silica gel, and that goes in the refrigerator.
My husband always says, “I wonder what it would be like to have the bottom shelf of the refrigerator?” because it’s all given over to seeds.
Q. And you say, “Forget it, don’t even think of it.”
A. You knew what you were getting into when you married me.
Q. So I’ve got this pepper, I split open the pepper, which is fully ripe—as in not green. I scrape out the seeds, but I don’t have to dry them first, before I put them in that coin envelope?
A. I don’t, because I use the silica gel, which is going to finish drying them. But if you were going to store them in a glass jar, you’d first want to make sure they were fully dry. But I really like the silica gel because the paper envelope isn’t going to hold the moisture, and any residual moisture will get sucked out by having the silica gel in the box.
That’s why I like that silica gel, because I don’t have to fuss over drying everything, which often I’m harvesting seeds in August when nothing is dry here—100 percent humidity. So I can seal them up in that and they’ll dry quickly in there.
Q. So let’s go back to the harvest. Do you invite everybody over for a pepper tasting? What do you do with all these peppers?
A. I need to figure out a way to trick people into helping me taste them, and figuring out which ones are hot. Because of the genetics, about three-quarters are going to be hot, and one-quarter are not. I break open the pepper and just touch my finger to the seeds, because that’s where the heat is, on the seeds themselves. And then I touch my finger to my tongue, and I can do about four spots on my tongue before everything’s just burning.
So I just do a few at a time, and I mark the plants—this one’s hot, this one’s not. And then I can just harvest them into big bins of hot peppers and try to sort them out by hotness, but that’s difficult sometimes.
And then luckily, and my husband pickles them, and he made hot pepper jam last year, which you can give to people.
Q. You can drop it off at every neighbor’s doorstep in the dark in the middle of the night for about a month because you’ve got 2,000 jars of it. [Laughter.]
A. And they freeze really well.
Q. They do.
A. This year I want to try making chili powder—drying and grinding them.
Q. A lot of friends are doing that, and they’re loving it. I want to say they’re using the dehydrator, or putting them in the oven at like 250F, is that right?
A. That’s what I’ve been seeing. I want to try that, especially when you dehydrate stuff it makes it much smaller, so a lot of peppers could become a reasonable amount of chili powder.
Q. Now that we have established your irrepressible nature with peppers, what about those Gladiolus?
A. I love gladiolas a lot, and I started breeding them five or six years, maybe longer. But I’m a lazy gardener; I don’t like digging stuff up and I hate staking things. So I’ve been breeding winter-hardy gladiolas, that come through the winter just fine, with shorter stems that don’t have to be staked. After this thunderstorm, I’m going out and seeing which seedlings are still standing tall, and which ones got smashed down in the mud by the storm.
I’ve been breeding winter-hardy glads for quite a few years now, and they’re such great, tough plants and wonderful cut flowers, of course, to have in the garden, and just fun to have in the garden.
Q. And winter-hardy—that’s genius, because digging and storing them is the drag.
A. Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina has been selling some more hardy varieties for a few years now, a few of them. It turns out some of the older varieties are actually quite winter-hardy. Apparently back in the 1940s or something, breeders selected against winter hardiness. They selected for ones that couldn’t survive a winter, to force people to re-buy bulbs every year.
Q. Right. [Laughter.]
A. So going back to some of these more antique varieties, and then a variety actually found by an abandoned house up in northern Michigan, I’ve been able to breed ones that come through my winters just fine.
Q. Interesting; I love it. How about a little example of your crazy book?
A. I titled the book, “The Complete Guide to Gardeners,” so it’s written as an explanation of how crazy gardeners are, to normal people. So if you have a spouse or a parent who doesn’t get gardening, it’s an explanation of al the crazy things we do.
So it’s like these silly illustrations—little cartoons—and one example is a picture of a deer, and two people looking at it. The normal person is thinking, “Aw, Bambi!” and the gardener is thinking, “Hosta-eating machine.” So there is a whole section on cute, furry animals, and how gardeners are not into cute, furry animals the same way normal people are.
Or, the way plant-shopping isn’t just shopping, but it’s a whole production—an obsession of collecting all the plants. I have an explanation of the types of gardeners: there are the collectors, the designers, the people who are just into one genus, or who want food. All the different subspecies of gardeners.
It’s just a silly sort of exploration of all the crazy things that gardeners do.
Q. I know all your friends on Facebook love when you post your illustrations, so it was a great idea to combine them into this book and augment them.
enter to win joseph’s newest book
I’LL BUY TWO lucky readers a copy of Joseph Tychonievich’s “The Complete Guide to Gardeners.” All you have to do to enter is type your answer to this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
What would the perfect pepper–hot or sweet–be like in your opinion? What do you do with peppers in your cuisine or kitchen?
I freeze enough wedges of seeded peppers, hot and sweet, for a year’s worth of batches of chili and such, and also roast peppers to eat on sandwiches or crackers (which I can freeze, too).
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will–but a reply is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, July 31. Good luck to all.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 25, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission. Photos courtesy of Joseph Tychonievich.)