Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Picking peppers that taste just right

Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard of the Oak Park Crop Swap oversaw recent taste-testing of peppers commonly grown in the region. Among them are, clockwise starting from left, Mariachi hot peppers, Tequila Sunrise peppers, Costa Rican wweet peppers and Padron peppers.
Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard of the Oak Park Crop Swap oversaw recent taste-testing of peppers commonly grown in the region. Among them are, clockwise starting from left, Mariachi hot peppers, Tequila Sunrise peppers, Costa Rican wweet peppers and Padron peppers. www.seedsnsuch.com

Just like the weather, we can’t wait until spring. Recent warm weather has us all in a planting mode. We’ll see how those early bird Early Girl tomatoes pan out in June.

While we Sacramentans are obsessed with tomatoes, peppers rank a close second among our favorite home-grown summer crops. But which peppers grow best here? And which ones will sizzle our palates or just plain taste great?

Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard of the Oak Park Crop Swap started testing peppers along with tomatoes at his popular summer taste tests. (See the Feb. 14 Home & Garden.) Rickard now has his pepper results compiled and ready for gardeners’ reflection.

His volunteer testers sampled dozens of pepper varieties, all grown in Sacramento. Among Oak Park’s top-rated peppers (in terms of taste): Costa Rican Sweet, Carmen and Tequilla Sunrise (all very mild); Numex Chili Pepper and Corno di Torro Rosso (for pepperoncini types); Garden Salsa and Mariachi (both in the poblano heat range); Padron (for “mild pepper people”); and Bulgarian Carrot (very hot, but not too hot).

His testers rated the peppers on overall taste, not heat. The hottest pepper they tested was Super Chili, which scores between 40,000 to 50,000 points on the Scoville heat scale. By comparison, pepperoncini peppers rank 100 to 500 on that scale; jalapeños hit from 2,500 to 9,000.

Rickard is now ready to share his complete “Sacramento Tomato and Pepper Report” with anyone who requests. For your free copy, send an email to sactomatopepperreport@gmail.com.

But wait on putting those pepper plants in the ground. They prefer much warmer soil.

New Green Acres

The wait is almost over. Green Acres Nursery and Supply is about to unveil its fourth local nursery.

The newest Green Acres – at 9220 E. Stockton Blvd. in Elk Grove – will celebrate its grand opening March 21-22 with a Dig Into Spring Ideas Fair.

This garden party will feature fresh approaches to getting more enjoyment out of the great outdoors. That includes edible landscaping, water-wise plants and much more. Appropriately, that’s also the first weekend of spring. Find out more at www.idiggreenacres.com.

Eating natives

UC Davis butterfly expert Art Shapiro, a professor in the university’s Department of Evolution and Ecology, shared several observations about last week’s column on edible native plants. He started with what he knows best: butterflies.

Like many experts, he is concerned about the plight of the Monarchs. Their numbers have been drastically decreased in recent years.

Monarchs need milkweed, which is why many gardeners are adding this native plant to their landscapes. Shapiro points out that not all milkweeds are the same and, in order to benefit butterflies the most, that backyard milkweed may need a little extra attention.

“There is no shortage of milkweed in California,” Shapiro said. “The problem is in the Midwest, where planting of ‘Roundup-ready’ corn and soybeans has allowed farmers to eradicate ‘weeds,’ including Asclepias (milkweed species), by promiscuous use of herbicides.

“There’s no harm in planting milkweeds here, though it isn’t necessary,” he added, “except that the usual species available from nurseries is the tropical A. curassavica, which doesn’t go winter-dormant. In coastal areas, both in Southern California and in the Bay Area, Monarchs have begun breeding on it in winter. We do not understand why … but they’re doing it.”

The butterflies are breeding “again and again on the same plants, which become heavily contaminated with the microsporidian parasite Ophrocystis, with the result that the breeding fails,” he continued.

“The most rabid native-plant activists are advising that people should get rid of non-native milkweeds that don’t go winter-dormant,” he noted. “But that’s not necessary. Just cut your curassavica back drastically two or three times a year. You get clean new growth, heavier flowering, and you get rid of the oleander aphid mess – at least for a while!”

Shapiro also added his personal tasting notes on edible natives.

“I eat Sambucus mexicana (Mexican elderberry) berries myself, but it should be noted that leaves, twigs and buds contain both a bitter alkaloid and organic cyanide,” he said. “There have been a few reports of poisoning from ingesting green parts. If crushing the berries for juice or wine, one should be careful to exclude green material.

“Red-berried elder in the mountains is another story: The fruit should not be eaten raw – period,” he said.

As for wild blackberries, he prefers the Himalayan blackberries that grow rampant along local waterways. But he wishes they would go away and does not recommend them for home gardens.

“The juiciest, tastiest ones around are the Himalayaberries (Rubus armeniacus),” he said. “They are delicious – and exceedingly invasive – and should never be introduced or tolerated in a garden.

“I gather all I could ever use along the American River bike trail, and in the process help to reduce the number available to seed the landscape via bird poop,” he said. “A lot of other people do, too. Himalayaberry is actively suppressing riparian forest regeneration and crowding out the entire understory. Tasty as it is, if I could wave a magic wand and make it disappear, I would.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie

Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at sacbee.com/debbie-arrington.

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