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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Peppers, Potatoes & Cherry Tomatoes; Heavily-Sprayed Produce that's Easy to Grow at Home
A few weeks ago, the Environmental Working Group released their annual "Dirty Dozen" report, revealing which supermarket produce has the highest levels of pesticide contamination. (My radio show's producer just told me that she has the list from a previous year posted on her refrigerator, to remind her of which things are the most important to buy organically!)
Now, if you've been listening to that show and/or reading our articles here at Gardens Alive, it's probably no surprise that apples, peaches and nectarines take the top three spots on the list, as they are difficult to grow. But some of the other most heavily sprayed foods, like cherry tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and cucumbers are real head-scratchers, as they're VERY easy to grow organically. (The other exceptions are grapes, which like fruit trees, require a lot of attention and care; and celery.)
It's a surprisingly tricky crop that really only grows well in a couple areas of the country that have very unique climates—the temperature can't drop below 55 degrees for a solid four months and it can't get too hot…and the plants needs to be kept constantly moist, and…
….You get it. Now, by all means give it a try if you like—and don't feel bad if it doesn't work out. I'll just say that I buy organic celery at the supermarket—and I can grow peaches without chemicals!
Now let's move on to a few of the easy things on the list, like sweet bell peppers, which are fun, tasty, and easy to grow. And some types and shapes are even easier to grow than others, especially if you garden in a region with a 'normal' (whatever that is) to short growing season.
I probably should put 'bell peppers' in quotes in this section, because you need a long season to ripen up big-fruited, blocky bells like the classic variety California Wonder (which is a great pepper, but grows best in the long seasons down South—and, of course, in California!) Varieties with smaller fruits (like 'baby bells') and non-typical shapes (like sweet Italian 'frying' peppers) produce much more good eating over the course of a season; and they'll produce their first ripe fruits much earlier in the season. (Look for varieties with the shortest number of 'days to maturity'; they'll be the first peppers to ripen up.)
Just wait to plant any of these warm-weather lovers until nights are reliably in the 50s. (Peppers should be the last plants to go outside in the Spring.) Make sure they go into a spot that gets eight hours of sun a day, don't feed them chemicals (just compost, worm castings or a nice fish and seaweed mix) and let them color up fully before picking—green bell peppers have zero nutrition and sugar, while ones that reach their final colors (like red or orange) are super-sweet and nutrition-rich!
Potatoes: Of all the foods on the list, it seems to me that potatoes might be the easiest to grow—and one of the most rewarding! In fact, if you've never grown your own, you have no idea how delicious the humble spud can be! Fresh-picked home grown potatoes are sweet and juicy; as tasty a treat as a fresh picked tomato! Just be sure to start with certified disease-free planting potatoes (often called "seed" potatoes). Regular supermarket potatoes can harbor disease; and conventional ones were probably treated with sprouting inhibitors.
Now, I always plant whole potatoes (the conventional advice to cut them up into little 'coins' for planting seems to encourage rot in my garden). Plant each one a couple of feet apart and at least six inches deep in your loosest, best draining soil or container. (You don't have to wait for really warm weather; potatoes can be planted as soon as the soil is unfrozen and dry.)
In a couple of weeks, you'll see green leaves appear above ground. Mulch around the plants well at this point to keep the developing spuds in complete darkness; and then watch for the flowers.
That's right--potato plants produce flowers! Beautiful flowers; yet another reason to grow your own! (And the flowers reflect the color of the potatoes growing below, like red, purple and golden yellow!) Anyway, when those flowers fade, pull them off and mark the date. A month later, you can dig up super-tasty small "new" potatoes. Or let the plants continue to grow until frost and get full-sized ones. Either way, dig carefully but also dig deep and wide; you sometimes find the best ones pretty far away from the plants!
Cherry Tomatoes: I can't believe that cherry tomatoes are on the 'heavily-sprayed' list! That's just crazy; cherry tomatoes are one of the easiest, most problem free crops you can grow! And you don't even need a garden! Just an area that gets eight hours of sun a day where you can place a few containers that have excellent drainage. In fact, don't waste precious garden space on cherry tomatoes; they grow great in containers—even big hanging baskets. Keep them close to the house so you can grab a few sweet treats whenever you go outside.
Fill the containers with half compost and half soil-free mix and, as with peppers, wait until nights are reliably in the 50s to plant these warm weather lovers outdoors. And then pick them promptly; removing the ripe ones right away signals the plant to keep pumping out lots more of the tasty little treats!
OK—now, do I really think that people shouldn't try and grow their own apples and peaches?
No. They can absolutely try—and succeed! But I want them to know up front that it takes time, space, attention and patience. Peaches ain't cherry tomatoes; and a lot of my trepidation comes from the many emails we receive from people who buy cheap trees at a big box store, plant them poorly, ignore them for seven years and now want me to fix it. Can't be done.
But if you plan the site, pick dwarf or semi-dwarf, disease resistant varieties, prune them yearly, thin the fruits, and spray with clay a couple of times a season, you'll enjoy many pounds of (non-pesticide-polluted!) fruit. Same with grapes: the key to success is choosing a disease resistant variety that grows well in your region, planting in the right location (morning sun!), pruning and thinning (and trellising, in their case).
Ready to try? Read this fruit growing basics article and this one on fruit tree pruning and let the orcharding begin!