Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Gardens!

Pick a peck of peppers...

I miss my garden.  By the end of January every year, I would pay significant amounts of money for an afternoon spent with dirt between my toes, a hoe in my hand, and sun on my shoulders.  Luckily, if I can't have that, I can at least have the beginnings.  It is time to start seedlings!

Growing an edible plant is one of the best hedges against economic misfortune one can undertake, at least in terms of percentage return on investment.  The other day, I saw a 3 oz. jar of basil pesto in the grocery for $3.39, or $1.13 an ounce.  Last year, I grew 2 basil plants that yeilded enough basil for me to put up 14 8-oz. jars of pesto, or 112 total ounces of pesto, not counting the basil I ate on sandwiches, in salads, and in fish marinades.  I did contribute some olive oil to the pesto (I freeze just the basil and oil, adding salt and cheese when I prep my meal), but I got over 37 times as much pesto out of plants whose seeds cost about the same amount as that one expensive jar of store pesto.  Try making your mutual funds give you that kind of return.

I'm a serious gardener, but anyone (even if you have no land) can grow at least one edible plant this year.  If you really want to see a significant ROI from a plant you can enjoy for months, I recommend you grow peppers.

I call peppers my "big babies."  I start them on Groundhog Day (because I have a greenhouse and can put them outside earlier; if you don't, aim for Valentine's Day for seed-starting), and I keep them under grow lights in the house for months, slowly moving them to bigger and bigger pots until I finally move them into the big outdoor containers in which they will give me pounds of peppers for a small initial investment.  As this year goes on, we'll follow that process in these posts, but trust me, it is inexpensive and easy.

For right now, if you want to join me (and you are in growing zone 5/6 or north), go ahead and pick your peppers.  I like to grow mild chiles, because they have more flavor than green bell peppers and are fairly expensive to purchase, even from farmer's markets.  This year I picked these varieties from Burpee:

Salsa Delight, $3.95 for a seed pack:  My favorite pepper, these go straight into salsa, chili sauce, and fish and pasta dishes.  They bear well and freeze beautifully, as do all peppers.

Big Daddy, $4.75:  I tend to grow lots of experiments, and this is one for 2010.  Supposedly a big, sweet Marconi pepper, I'm hoping for peppers that are good for stuffing and grilling.

Bananarama, $4.95:  Banana peppers are fabulous frozen, which makes them so easy to throw on veggie pizzas over the winter with sun dried tomatoes and cheese.

Hot Zavory, $4.95:  One of Burpee's experiments for the year, this is supposedly a mild habanero.  We'll see.  Given that I can get peppers to produce every molecule of the spicy compound capsaicin that their DNA allows, I give even odds that by August these will be too hot to touch.  If not, they could be a lot of fun.

Paprika, free:  I saved paprika seeds last year, which is the only way I will grow paprika from now on.  I found the process of drying and grinding the peppers to be too laborious, but I'm willing to eat them fresh.

There you go.  We'll follow the process as time goes on, but for $18.60, we should be able to mess with peppers from the first of February to the first of November if not longer.  Just over $2 a month for a lot of pleasure.

The Analysis

Fast:  No.  Remember, I'm starting these things in February in hopes of eating some peppers on the Fourth of July.  Then again, it isn't like I actively have to do much with them, just give them time to grow.

Cheap:  Investment up front.  $18.60 is actually pretty expensive for seeds, but I wanted these particular varieties.  I'll still get my money back and more from the harvest, and the seeds are certainly cheaper than the antidepressants I would be taking otherwise to get through the winter without something green and growing.  (You can do better price-wise on pepper seeds at your local hardware store, as long as you are flexible about variety.)

Good:  Oh, just wait until that first batch of salsa this summer!
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