GARDENING - OCTOBER 1995
by Terry Kramer
Some like it hot, and chili pepper grower Glen Pitsenbarger is no exception. In his Weitch-pec garden he grows more than 22 varieties of chili peppers. And the hotter the pepper, the better he likes it.
"I like the flavor and the glow chilis give you. I get high from them, I swear," he says.
"The really hot ones make your body release endorphins, which is a pain killer, natural morphine. As a matter of fact, there is a sauce made of the habañero chili called Endorphin Rush," he says.
Pitsenbarger is owner of Weitchpec Nursery, a wholesale bedding plant operation. He grows chilis for pleasure and each autumn sells his surplus at the Saturday Farmers Market in Arcata.
His table is a cornucopia of orange, red, green and yellow peppers in all shapes and sizes. Some are less than a half inch long, like the red, hot Thai pepper. Then there's the 12-inch long Big Jim pepper, a mellow green variety.
The names of the chilis, like Jingle Bell, Fresno, Anaheim, Cascabel, Red Savina Habañero and Nu-Mex, are as diverse as the peppers.
"I've been enjoying chilis forever," Pitsenbarger says, "and I have always grown them, but the last three or four years I've been growing a lot of them." He sweeps a hand across the table laden with bright, shiny peppers. "Look how beautiful they are. The plants are beautiful. The fruit is beautiful. They are diverse. There are so many sizes, shapes, colors, textures."
Although chilis are grown throughout the world, they go back a long way, originating in South America, according to Pitsenbarger, who knows chili history. "Originally chilis came from South America. All the chilis in the world originated there. The little pequin chili is the one Columbus took back to the Old World," he explains.
"Everybody thinks of chilis as being from Thailand, or some place, but they are not. The Mayan Indians are the ones who really started using chilis. They have found chili artifacts in ruins in the Yucatan, which is where the habañero is native," Pitsenbarger says.
Growing chilis is easy for Pitsenbarger, whose garden is in a hot summer area of Humboldt County. Peppers are grown in greenhouses and the field. Among the many varieties he produces are habanero, bell, Thai, Peter and poblano. "The key is chilis like the heat more than they do anything else," he explains.
"The only thing I grew in my vegetable garden this year was six rows of corn and chilis, and about a dozen tomatillo plants. I grew about 700 pepper plants this year, 400 in the greenhouse and 300 in the garden."
Pitsenbarger takes great pride in growing the hottest peppers on the North Coast. "Last year I had those tabasco peppers in the large containers and I sold them here at the market, and some girl came and bought one from me.
"Two weeks later she came back here and she said to me, 'Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I finally bought something my boy friend couldn't eat.' He was always bragging that he could eat anything, but these he couldn't eat."
Chili peppers can be grown on the coast because not all of them need hot weather. "You can grow the hot ones in a greenhouse. Sweet bell peppers, jalapeños, Fresno and seranno will probably grow outside."
For greenhouse culture, he suggests growing plants in three-gallon nursery containers. He uses a special mixture of chicken manure, bat guano, bone meal, dolomite, greensand and kelp.
Pitzenbarger grows all his peppers organically, using natural fertilizers and no pesticides. "You can get a lot of peppers, two to three pounds at least (out of a three-gallon can). And with hot peppers, like the habañeros, three pounds goes a long way," he says.
Chili peppers are not without their problems. "Aphids are a magnet, but ladybugs will take care of them," Pitsenbarger says. "And don't smoke cigarettes around peppers because they get tobacco mosaic virus. If you do smoke, wash your hands before touching plants."
Pitsenbarger likes to eat the hot chilis he grows. "With the milder New Mexico chilis, I roast and peel them and use a side dish. I love 'em that way. I also make chili rellenos with the New Mexico. But the poblano is the one they use in Mexico for chile relleno. It's kind of hot," he warns.
Pitsenbarger's favorite pepper is the habañero chili, orange and round like little lumpy pumpkins. "I really like the habañeros. I make a sauce with them and I chop them up and dry them. The ground dried powder is wonderful because you can use as much as you want."
His plans for chilis include making and marketing chili pepper sauce including a potent favorite made from the habeñero. And while most people use chilis in cooking and sauces, Pitzenbarger has another unique way of consuming them.
"Something I do with Thai chilis is I put 100 of them in a quart of Stoly vodka for 10 days. Then I strain them off and it (the vodka) is hot, very hot," he grins.
"But it smells like Juicy Fruit and the flavor is just wonderful. It has a wonderful fresh fruit smell, a wonderful aroma. You just sip it straight, in little shots. Don't drink it like a shot of whiskey, 'cause it will close your throat," he cautions.
Pitsenbarger eats chilis all of the time and says he seldom gets colds.
"Chilis have more vitamin C than oranges, pound for pound. They also have vitamin A. They warm you up and make you feel really good."
CLEAN UP -- Remove empty pots, containers, boards and any garbage lying around the yard. Leaving them lie about will attract slugs, snails, sowbugs, earwigs and other pests which will breed and become a nuisance later on. Weed.
PREPARE THE SOIL -- Till barren planting beds and plant cover crops like fava beans, buckwheat, alfalfa and clover. These plants will crowd out weeds, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Blanket bare areas with a thick layer of mulch. Use straw, spoiled hay, rotted manures, garden compost or leaf mold. Spread the materials 3 to 6 inches thick. An easy way to prevent weeds from growing all winter is to cover beds with black plastic or thick cardboard. Simply lay the material on top of existing weeds, if they are less than 12 inches high. Mow before smothering if weeds are tall.
PLANT BULBS -- It is not too late to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Plant garlic, the edible bulb.
GROOM AND DIG -- Don't neglect summer-flowering shrubs and perennials. Cut chrysanthemums back to 4 to 6 inches above the soil when bloom has completed. Mulch for winter protection. Lift gladiolus. Cut tops and store corms in a cool, dry place. Use dry sawdust or vermiculite for storage. Cut back dahlias to 6 inches when flowers are spent. Dig tubers, clean away old soil and let air dry. Store them with gladiolus. Trim back ratty foliage on summer blooming perennials and mulch.
PLANT SOME MORE -- Perk up a few flower pots with colorful primroses and pansies. Fall is a good time to sow cool-season grasses.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and the owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.
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