We've found ourselves with unplanned time at home this spring, and the discovery comes with all sorts of uncertainty about the future. When figuring out the source of your next roll of toilet paper feels daunting and you need to turn away from the latest numbers and curves and disease vectors, may we suggest turning to something ancient and hopeful?
Plant something to eat later.
The Southside condo I share with my husband and three cats has a tiny outdoor space that is largely consumed each year by our garden, so we were already planning this seasonal task before COVID-19 sent the community into tailspin.
But it's not too late for you and yours to get in on the action. In fact, it's right on time for one of our favorite annual crops: chile.
SFR caught up with Stephanie Walker, a New Mexico State University vegetable specialist, to walk us through tips for making the most of self-isolation to set ourselves up for chiles in the fall.
"With the current world situation, it really does drive home the point that local control over our food is important. For even people who have fallen off with gardening, it's a good time to do that now," she says. "Starting chile seeds inside as transplants is a great way to get a good head start on your garden."
First: Choose your seeds.
Ours are the chileptin wild chiles from the NMSU Chile Pepper Institute, which Walker says are known as "the mother of all pepper" and are very close to the wild chiles that can be found growing in Texas and Arizona.
The bad news for you is that the institute can't fulfill online orders right now. We learned this the hard way and had been waiting for each day's mail in vain. Luckily, we ordered one packet of what turned out to be NMSU pepper seeds from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co. in Missouri and they arrived. Santa Fe's nurseries also carry several varieties and as of this writing, Agua Fria Nursery remained open, for example.
Choosing a variety that is cultivated for Northern New Mexico matters, as our short growing season and chilly nights can take their toll on positive outcomes. Española Improved and Chimayo are two landrace chiles the university sells and that Walker recommends for Santa Fe. Our region's last average frost falls on May 15. Plant these seeds inside about six to eight weeks before that date (so, like, soon).
Second: Prep the soil.
Use dried peat pods or a bag of potting soil if you've got it at home already. If not, you can still bring in something from last year's container or the ground. Walker recommends baking it until it reaches 160 degrees to kill the bacteria that could thwart germination.
Third: Water, heat and light.
"If you really want to go all out for your pepper seedlings, they respond really well to bottom heat. Many real die-hard gardeners will actually have grow mats that will be placed under those germinating seedlings that keep the soil warm," Walker says. "You don't want the soil to be less than 60 degrees, that is going to really slow or stunt growth. And, really, 80 degrees soil temperature is optimum."
A sunny window rocks, but even a source like an incandescent light bulb helps seedlings thrive early on. Don't keep them sopping but don't let them dry out.
"You'll quickly kill germinating seeds or transplants that have been outside if you let the roots dry out," she warns.
It's hard to comprehend less-windy, warmer days, but they are coming. When you are ready to transplant to outside, make sure to ease the seedlings into it with limited exposure for a week or two before you make the big move—known as "hardening off."
"If you don't have a garden spot ready with soil that you have been building over the years, container gardens work great, especially for plants like chile peppers. Even a one-gallon pot, you can grow a chile pretty successfully in," says Walker, noting it's a good idea to make a soil mound to bolster the delicate stem against spring winds.
Chile research has been a staple at NMSU for decades, and even though the campus is temporarily closed, the work continues. Paul Bosland, the scientist/breeder who established the Chile Pepper Institute, retired last year, and his replacement has not been named, but Danise Coon, associate research scientist, has already made plans for this year's "show and tell plot."
Since the plot is in Las Cruces, the growing season has already begun. Walker plans to help move transplants into the field soon with other volunteers, she says, "The few of us that are out there keeping the chile research going are going to all get together to make sure that these plots get planted one way or the other."