Lefty’s Soap Box: Spring planting, starting chiles, and other gardening tips (Feb. 1995)

Scannable Document on Feb 3, 2019, 12_34_52 PM
Phil Hall showing off a prize tomato from Linda Richmond’s garden.

Note: Lefty’s Soap Box, a gardening column by former Canyon Echo editor Phil Hall, ran each month throughout the 1990s.

If the weather keeps up like this February may become my favorite month. Good moisture, beautiful blue sky days, nights with crystal stars.

During the week of the Presidents’ birthdays we planted peas. The soil was wonderful and rich and a deep sense of optimism permeated everything. After we put in the triangular towers for the peas to climb and put away the tools, there were still things to start in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse is rich now in tomatoes, chiles and ornamentals and it stands open in the daytime to allow the warm, fresh air in side.

Bob Howell has been out in the field on the east side of his place tilling lately. He tills such straight rows with his small machine and I can’t figure out how he does it. I’m out there with the tiller borrowed from Charlie and Susan DeLorme, going ninety miles an hour (it seems), all bustle and fury, while Bob just goes along nice and slow and gets twice as much done.

Early spring planting
With the weather so nice it is difficult to resist the urge to plant things. Last year was the first time we planted potatoes. The effort was well worth it. Many people had told us that potatoes didn’t do well here, or not worth the trouble when they are so cheap in the stores. I have heard the same argument for corn. The answer is this: taste.

There is nothing like a homegrown potato, or going out to the rows and getting a few ears of corn for dinner. Besides, we know the things we grow are organic, and we are pretty sure that the vegetables we buy in the store are not. We don’t need any more reasons than that.

We grew Russets last year, and Red Pontiacs. They are not hard to grow. Plant them in moist soil about two feet apart and mulch around them a little. When they have grown up to about a foot tall, then hill up around them on all sides and add more mulch. Leave only an inch or two of the plant sticking up. Then, when they have grown up about another foot or sixteen inches, hill them up again and mulch some more. Potatoes seem to respond real well to a drip system.

A mistake we made last year with potatoes was to plant them in a bed that had a lot of other things growing up in it, many of which were volunteers. As a result, we had a hard time finding all of our potatoes. This year, I think I will plant potatoes in a straight row and will not let anything else grow in that row.

I like big, fat potatoes, the ones you can bake or smash or boil. Bill Davis and Debbie Westfall like very small early potatoes, the size of half dollars. You can have them either way or both. If you want “new” potatoes dig around in your potato bed in June and see what you have. If you have a lot of small potatoes and that’s what you hunger for, dig them up and eat them. If you want them bigger…wait.

You might try experimenting with cold weather crops now. Lettuce, broccoli, cilantro, kohlrabi, onions, garlic, and cauliflower are some of the vegetables that like a cool climate.

Chiles for summer
Now is the perfect time for starting your chiles from seed. The magazine, Organic Gardening, reminds us that “there are two big advantages to starting from seed: 1) You greatly expand your choice of varieties: in fact the only way you’ll be able to grow many of the peppers we’ll be recommending is by starting them yourself; and 2) You choose when to start your seeds, so you can make sure your transplants are the right size at the right time for your plans. The pepper transplants you buy at a garden center are often not at the ideal stage of growth for transplanting and you often end up with fewer (or no!) peppers as a result.”

On the Utah Strip you want to set chiles out when they are seven or eight weeks old sometime between May 1 & 15. Here are a few tips that might help you with growing chiles if you haven’t much experience at it: choose a variety that is easy to grow. Do you like hot chiles? Then try Super Chiles. They are 7.5 on a 10 scale, small, and very prolific. They are also a choice chile if you like to grow ornamental chiles. If you like to grow large, mild chiles, then one of the Numex varieties might be to your liking.

Bells may be the best all-round mild pepper. They are sweet enough to use in salads, and prolific enough that just a few bell pepper plants will provide plenty of peppers for your personal use.

Planting corn out
Some people argue that, like potatoes, you can’t afford to grow corn because that wonderful Olathe sweet corn can be purchased just over in Colorado. I don’t know. First and foremost is the flavor of the corn, and it just tastes better picked five minutes before you cook it, and I know that the corn I grow has not been sprayed with pesticides. Besides, corn is such a truly American thing. Even Rush Limbaugh probably likes corn.

Corn will grow in cool soil, but will not germinate in it. We learned this little-known fact last year. If you start your corn indoors from seed you can plant it outdoors when the soil is still cool, thereby getting a jump on the season, and having corn to eat early.

No matter what you’re planting, learning how to water may be the most important thing a gardener does in this part of the world. The secret is to water enough but not too much.

With regard to chiles: they do not like to be soaked. Moist, not soaked. In fact, chiles never like to be completely saturated.

If you have sandy soil, use a drip system and a timer, and mulch around your chiles when you set them out, you may only have to water your chiles ten or fifteen minutes a day.

Watch out for droopy leaves. Chiles have an amazing capacity to bounce back from shock, but if your chiles start to look bad, then you know something is wrong, and that something is usually that you have let them dry out.

Sometimes when you transplant chiles outdoors they will look terrible for as long as two weeks. Have faith, though, and don’t overwater in your anxiety, and they will usually bounce back, no matter what variety they are. You might try to provide some afternoon shade, and some sort of windbreak.

This unpredictable desert: the summer of ’94
Everyone who gardened around here last year remembers what it was like. It was almost as if to fulfill Roy Pearson’s prophecy: “It goes from too cool to too hot around here in a hurry.” March and April were blustery and cold. We had hail and snow and near-frozen rain. It seemed like the soil would never warm up. Then, boom. The heat.

The soil was so hot by June that anything you had not planted by May would not germinate. The tomatoes suffered all summer long. The Italias that we like to use for salsa had blossom-end rot throughout the season. A Master Gardener I met from the West Slope of Colorado told me that it was because I had allowed the Italias to dry out at one point. Well, I don’t know. The Early Girls and Big Picks I had on the same watering system didn’t get blossom end rot. Joy Keeling, from Fours Seasons Nursery, suggested supplemental calcium, but it doesn’t work for a quick fix.

The situation became so desperate in July that I took to giving the tomato plants a shower in the evening just to cool them off. That seemed to help the plants but it didn’t help our tomato production. And other people had similar problems: too much bush and not enough fruit. I still haven’t figured it out.

Walls O’ Water
Whether it is tomatoes or chiles I like to use Walls O’ Water for two functions. 1) To warm up the soil before transplanting seedlings outdoors, and 2) to keep the seedlings warm and protect them from “snap” frosts during May.

Walls o’ Water are not very cost effective. They cost about $2.50 each and the goatheads poke holes in them, but we keep using them because they work so well.

Of course, if you are not desperate to rush the season in putting out your seedlings, then you don’t need Walls o’ Water.

That’s what Bob Howell does. He doesn’t use Walls o’ Water; he waits ’til the time is right.

–Read more from the Canyon Echo archive.