Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chiles and Aphids and Ants, Oh My!

This has not been my most successful season so far as chiles go. First my Friarello di Nocera seeds were not viable - not one single seed germinated. Then my Rocotillo plant met an untimely death - cause unknown. Then the aphids hit most of the chinense peppers so I hit back with an insecticidal soap and pyrethrin combo spray. Unfortunately the weather got hot and I learned about phytotoxicity. Do not spray with insecticidal soaps and oils when the weather is hot - bad idea. Some of the plants dropped a lot of leaves and flowers so my crop will be severely short. And the aphids came right back along with an army of ants to farm them. Now I'm trying other organic control methods. I tried neem oil on a couple of plants a few days ago. Neem can also cause phytotoxicity so I made sure that we weren't expecting a heat wave and I shaded the plants to be sure they didn't get too hot - just in case. But neem doesn't seem to have helped... it seems that I probably have the Green Peach Aphid and neem and other oils are not very effective against this particular pest. They are really getting out of hand on some of the plants so I have one more thing to try. UC lists pyrethrin as an organic treatment for green peach aphid. So I'm going to try the pyrethrin without the insecticidal soap.

Ants - oh how do I hate ants. There are trails of them leading to all my aphid infested chile plants. I put out some homemade ant bait of sugar water with boric acid. 1 cup water + 2 cups sugar + 4 tablespoons boric acid powder. They lost no time finding the stuff and nearly emptied the containers in a few days. The good news is that the bait seems to have distracted the majority of them away from the chiles. The bad news is that the trails are still running all through the garden. Am I making any dent in the population or am I just feeding them?

It's not all bad news though. I finally tracked down an Aleppo chile plant this year and, as you can see below, it is doing ok. The aphids are there and I did spray. Fortunately, the annuum plants don't seem to be as susceptible to damage from insecticidal soap sprays as the chinense plants. I had the plant caged earlier in the season to isolate it for seed saving and there are a few pods that developed from that time that I've marked. I haven't tasted the dried chile yet - can't wait to try.

Another chile that is doing well this year is Ciliegia di Calabria. I was worried about the viability of those seeds since I got them from the same source as the Friarellos but I got three plants to grow. Unfortunately I did not isolate the plants for seed saving. I've picked a number of pods already and have been drying them in the sun. They have a nice heat level, something like a jalapeno (the hot ones not the wimpy ones).

One of my favorite chiles is Pimento de Padron. I've been growing them every year now for 6 or 7 years. My plants are doing quite well and I'm harvesting enough to fry up a generous panful once or twice a week. If you become as addicted to these chiles as I have you will have to grow them for yourself since they are quite expensive and hard to find. There's a few chiles on the plants shown below that are nearly ready to pick. The chiles are picked when they are very young so the plant keeps blooming and pumping out the pods over a very long season. When picked young enough they have no heat but will develop some hotness as they get bigger.

Another Spanish chile that I started from seed this year is the piquillo. I've been experimenting with Spanish cuisine for a while now and had to try growing this chile for myself. It is a delicious pepper. Roasting it to peel is a tricky business though. It is a thin fleshed pepper so it is easy to get the flesh too soft when roasting so that when you peel it the chile disintegrates. I've found that placing the peppers directly on the hot coals of a fire - no flames - burns the skins quickly enough to not roast the flesh too much. I roasted some recently to use in a calamari salad from Jerry Traunfeld's book The Herbal Kitchen - delicious!

The Czech Black pepper seems to be happy also. It was described as having heat something less than a jalapeno. Considerably less to my taste buds. It is, however, a pretty thing. The pods ripen up to red and black. If left on the plant to ripen to full red they get wrinkled. When the pods that still have a lot of black are cut open the flesh inside turns out to be red.

It is not unusual for some of my chile plants to survive the winter and produce for another season. That's why I grow a lot of my chiles in large terra cotta pots - not that that improves their chance of survival, but it makes it easier to rotate my beds. I really don't want to have to dig up the survivors so that I can rotate a different type of plant into that bed. This year there was only one survivor and not the one that I expected. My thai chile is back. It died down to just a few stems a few inches tall and now look at it down below!

So, one more chile plant that I photographed this morning. One of my favorites that I've been growing for about three years now - Datil Sweet. It is infested with aphids at the moment. You can see the shine on the large leaf on the right that is the aphid honeydew. Normally the ants would be all over the plant "harvesting" the honeydew. I tried something on this pot - not strictly organic - a desperate measure. You can't see it, but I put a band of brown duct tape around the pot and then took a double length of garden twine that I placed in a plastic bag and doused with nasty horrible (effective) ant spray. The twine then got wrapped around the pot (wear gloves!) over the duct tape. The ants will not cross the twine. So long as the chile plant is not in contact with something that the ants can use to bridge over the twine they can't get in! This particular chinense plant seems to have been less affected by the insecticidal soap/pyrethrin spray. It didn't lose nearly as many leaves and flowers. You can see some green twist ties that are marking stems that had unopened flowers when I caged it for seed saving. There are a number of pods that can't be seen that are marked for seed saving.

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