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Extend Your Hot Pepper Season and Make Monster Mash

Q. I grow a variety of hot peppers and use them to bottle up my famous Hot Sauce. I amend the plants' soil every winter with eggshells and coffee grounds, and in the spring a little organic fertilizer to get things started. I normally have enough peppers to make my sauce, but I'm getting very little fruit this season. A neighbor is having the same problem, and my local nursery said it's probably due to the unusual amount of rain in the Philadelphia area. Have you heard of any similar complaints this season?

--- Reggie, "a long-time listener and WHYY member in the Germantown section of Philadelphia"

A: First, I have to thank Reggie for his support—financial contributions from listeners like Reggie account for half the total operating budget of Public Radio stations like Philadelphia's WHYY; and make shows like You Bet Your Garden possible.

OK—to answer Reggie's question.

Actually, no; we have not had a lot of similar complaints this season; and I (whose garden is after 50 miles North of Reggie's) am personally looking at a record harvest of peppers both hot and sweet.

I do agree that much of the mid-Atlantic region—and many other places around the country—were drenched this summer, which is unusual; July and August are typically hot and dry. But at least in my garden, all that rain just meant my not having to water—or worry when I was away for extended periods of time…like the weeks I took off to crash in Asbury Park to swim and play pinball—and to camp out at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where you stay up late every night and then fall asleep in your tent in the cool nighttime breeze to the sounds of talented people playing guitar and singing softly in the distance.

Ah, but vacation time is over—so let's talk about Reggie's peppers…

You may think that it's too late in the season for him to do anything, but it is not. This is the PERFECT time of year to get ready to bring those plants indoors. As we like to remind you every fall, peppers are perennial plants if you protect them from frost. And bringing them inside is a great way to extend the harvest—especially if the plants themselves are leafy and healthy. You might wind up making your hot sauce in December instead of September, but you'll still get to make it.

Pepper-bringing-in in a nutshell: Get a good-sized plastic pot—with good drainage—for each plant. "Ten-inch pots" are ideal; that's ten inches high and ten inches in diameter. Big enough for good root growth but small enough to be able to fit four potted plants under a four-foot long fluorescent fixture without overcrowding.

Then dig up each plant you want to overwinter now; don't wait—keeping as much soil as possible around the roots. Fill in the bottom and the sides of the pot with a 50/50 mix of compost and high-quality potting soil, water well, let the newly-potted plants rest outside for a few days and then attack the annoying aphids hiding on those plants! (Aphids love coming inside by hitch-hiking on pepper plants!)

Use a strong spray of water to blast every leaf and branch. Repeat this every day for several days and then bring the cleaned-up plants inside and position them under a four-foot long shoplight (or other bright-but-not-hot light) so that the tops of the plants are almost touching the tubes. Better to have the top leaves touching those (cool to the touch) tubes than for them to be multiple inches away. Give them 16 hours of light and eight hours of dark each day. Any flowers on the plants will become peppers; any baby peppers will get bigger; and any big peppers will ripen up.

Then I suggest using your extended harvest to make both your normal hot sauce and my "Monster Mash". Whiz the peppers up in a blender with vinegar (white, apple cider or red wine). About a half-gallon or so of vinegar for every 50 to 60 medium-sized peppers. Pour the result into a big pot, heat until it just starts to go from a simmer to a boil, then strain the liquid portion into bottles that have just been through a hot water wash—preferably in a dishwasher. That hot sauce will stay safe to use for a long time because of the high-acid content of the vinegar.

Then spoon the solid mass that's left over in the bottom of the pot into equally clean jars. That's your Monster Mash. People who like hot sauce go CRAZY for The Mash! When I was the Editor in Chief of Organic Gardening magazine (at what was then called Rodale Press), the president of our division would stop by my office every day in the Fall asking if 'The Mash' was ready. It's the absolute best to add to soups, stews, mix into stir-fry…anything you'd use hot sauce for.

And to avoid future repeats of Reggie's slow pepper season:
Grow in raised beds; not flat earth. A wet season dooms flat earth plants.
If the opposite kind of weather occurs and rain is scarce, water deeply and slowly once or twice a week. Do not water daily or otherwise overwater. And don't water at all if you have received an inch of rain in the previous five to seven days.
Mix those high-nitrogen coffee grounds and calcium-rich eggshells into big piles of shredded fall leaves to make great compost, and then use that compost to feed your plants. Don't use coffee grounds alone; they'll make the soil too acidic and nitrogen-rich, both of which will inhibit fruiting.

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