Published: Oct. 10, 1991

In six months, Mercury News rock 'n' roll columnist David Plotnikoff went from being a complete gardening novice to a successful chili-pepper farmer. These are excerpts from his garden journal.

I'D LIKE to say this strange tale of love, madness and micro-gardening began with a bang -- but it didn't. The whole affair just crept up on me and before I could say "Orchard Supply," it had consumed my every waking hour and a good portion of my dreams. If I could have foreseen the squirrel wars, the aphid attacks, the drip irritation system . . . I probably never would have taken those seed packets.

It began in February, when I traveled to Albuquerque to cover the Meltdown convention, the Super Bowl of the hot pepper industry. I was talking to Dr. Paul Bosland, the esteemed chili-pepper expert from New Mexico State University, when he innocently handed me three little envelopes marked "Espanola Improved" and "Nu-Mex 6-4." Without a thought, I threw them in my convention goodie bag, which was already crammed with exotic hot sauces and pepper literature.

A week later I was unpacking an entire suitcase of convention booty when I found Bosland's seeds and a half-dozen other packets from Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Felton. I knew that in the hands of a complete black-thumb garden idiot like me, the chances of those seeds ever sprouting were somewhere between thin and none. Gardening, after all, was for old people -- old people who had far more time, patience and wisdom than I.

The packets sat on my desk for a month. Finally, on March 23, I went to the font of all wisdom: Dad. "You're not gonna grow pot, are ya?" he asked, handing me 18 little peat pots, a half-bag of vermiculite and a Styrofoam germinating tray. "Nonononono, this is just a little science project -- and I don't think it's going to last very long. I'll bring your tray back in a couple weeks." Little did I know.

April 3: The first four sprouts -- barely bigger than dog hairs -- popped up today. I put the germinating tray in a south window of the living room.

April 13: Sixteen of the 18 little peat pots have multiple sprouts. Was it a mistake to put 10 seeds in each pot?

April 27: This pepper thing is really taking off. Lately, I find myself wandering into the living room at all hours to admire the sprouts' progress. I find myself fretting about fertilizer and night temperatures and potting mixtures. My personal in-home Farm Adviser assures me this is normal behavior. Today I transplanted the heartiest eight into individual pots full of a vermiculite/Supersoil mix. Putting 10 seeds in each pot was not a good idea. The tiny roots are a dog to separate. I planted a second flight of jalapenos, serranos and habaneros in plastic six-packs, being careful to put only four seeds in each pod. Sufficient light is a big worry now, but cold isn't a problem -- yet.

May 13: It's 1 a.m. and I've just returned from a 10-day trip. The plants are magnificent -- all of the first flight are 3 1/2 inches tall and to me they look like giant sequoias. It won't be long now before they must go outside. But the nights are still dipping below 50.

The habaneros, which are used to a Caribbean climate, don't look so good. The other seedlings from the second flight germinated in two weeks flat and are looking quite stocky. Even if I lose all the habaneros, I'll still have 70 pepper bushes.

My Farm Adviser is hollering for me to stop talking to the peppers and turn off the lights. Looking at the seedlings, I feel like the apartment dweller who adopts a "cute" four-inch caiman -- only to realize in due time he's growing an alligator. Where am I going to put 70 bushes?

May 16: I began hardening off the Varsity 14 from the first planting by shuttling them outside. The wind was whipping the tar out of them, but I have to keep telling myself they'll thank me for this hardship later. I saw my first bug today -- a little green thing. The squirrels don't seem more than just curious about the pots. They'll get used to it.

May 25: The Varsity 14 seem to be toughening up in the face of the elements. They continue to amaze me. The habaneros, on the other hand, look sickly yellow -- and I can't figure out why. Like any parent, I blame myself for their failure to progress. I spent five hours over the kitchen sink today transplanting all the second planting into four-inch pots. I also planted a third set of Bosland's seeds in the germinating tray. That adds up to 119 plants. Dad asked about returning the seedling tray today. I told him to forget it. Things at my place have gotten out of hand. That's why my Farm Adviser is cooking dinner at 10 p.m. in a kitchen that smells like potting soil. Farming is a tough life.

June 1: Relations with the squirrels are going downhill fast. They dug up four pots last night and today I retaliated by sprinkling some granulated animal repellent around the pots.

June 4: Good news and bad news: The third planting cycle is coming up like a monster -- almost overwhelming the little six- packs. Those mysterious white larvae I found last week seem to have dealt the final blow to the habaneros, which had always been the class underachievers. When I examined them carefully I was shocked to find little green bugs under all the leaves. I wonder if the white larvae and green bugs represent a threat to the whole crop?

June 23: I finally got a solid diagnosis on what's making the leaves turn yellow and drop off. I sent a baggie of leaves to Mercury News garden expert Bob Chapman last week and the word came back: Frog-eye. The treatment is a fungicide called captan. Until now, I'd planned do this without chemicals. But seeing my best and brightest virtually defoliated has changed my mind. I'm mad as hell and ready to spray -- once.

June 24: After weeks of relative peace, the squirrels mounted a vicious Pearl Harbor surprise attack on the pepper patch. Six of my beautiful serrano pots are goners. I began asking around for a pellet pistol.

June 27: A heavy day. I sprayed with captan, a chemical that has more dire warnings than the handbook of a nuclear reactor. Scary stuff. I must have looked pretty scary myself, running around in a hooded plastic suit, a full-face chemical mask and rubber gloves. I also built a 4-by-6-foot frame out of lumber salvaged from Dad's yard and stretched deer netting over it. Take that, you kamikaze squirrels. I'm not sure how the enclosure will grow along with the plants, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

July 1: Seems like I've spent every weekend at Orchard Supply Hardware. Today one of the garden experts showed me a huge book filled with hundreds of disgusting color photos of bugs and diseases. It seems my green bugs are aphids. I bought more chemicals -- Ra-Pid Gro23-19-17 fertilizer and Safer insecticidal soap. "Safer" insecticide sounds like the most outrageous oxymoron since "smart bomb." Safer than what? In principle, I'm still against spraying. But every organic garden expert I consulted was unable to offer effective solutions to aphids and frog-eye. And I'll be damned if I'm going to stand by and watch all my hard work wiped out. Spray we must.

July 4: I bought some heavy clear plastic sheeting and tacked it over the enclosure today. Sheer genius. Instant greenhouse. Considering the hours I've been putting in before and after work, the neighbors and the landlord must assume I'm growing a premium marijuana crop. No ordinary garden would require that kind of attention, right?

July 12: What a difference the greenhouse and the Ra-Pid Gro make -- it's like putting my plants on steroids and steam heat. Everything looks positively lush -- even the weak jalapenos from the second planting cycle. I should have built this greenhouse a long time ago. I've been poring over Sunset greenhouse design books and doodling floor plans night and day. The Farm Adviser is getting worried about my frame of mind.

July 13: I expanded the greenhouse upward, building a larger plastic enclosure and piggy-backing the original box on top of it. So far, the 36-square-foot beauty has cost me all of $17 for hardware and plastic and $6 for a cheap thermometer. There was something about building codes in the Sunset book, but I decided not to broach the subject with the landlord.

July 28: This was a great day -- I spotted the first six tiny green peppers.

Aug. 4: The cheap greenhouse is turning out to be not so cheap. I can't afford to let the crop suffer for my travel schedule anymore, so I broke down and went shopping for a drip irrigation system. I wanted a simple set-up with a timer and a hose. What I ended up with was a "basic" system as complex (and expensive) as the plumbing on the space shuttle. The Farm Adviser and I spent a maddening evening trying to make sense of flow restricters and drip emitters that didn't flow and drip like they do on the little chart. After cursing and drenching each other for three hours, we took to calling it the drip irritation system.

Aug. 18: I came back from another 10-day trip to find mixed news: The watering system worked perfectly. And the aphids love it, too. They're back in force and using the irrigation tubing as a bug superhighway to run from plant to plant. So far, the Shepherd Superchile hybrids are living up to their name -- slender, inch-long green peppers are busting out all over. The few jalapeno fruits to develop so far are huge -- each as big as a thumb.

After all this struggle with aphids and fungus, I'm beginning to take a philosophical approach: Even if I lose half of this first crop, I'll have all winter to think about my mistakes and perfect a heating system for year-round growing.

Aug. 24: I groomed all 70 surviving plants and sprayed again with Ra-Pid Gro. The Farm Adviser and I sampled the first three green Superchiles and found them to be outrageously good. And hotter than the business end of a blowtorch. One nibble and we knocked each other over getting to the beer.

Aug. 28: I wonder if I should be harvesting yet. All the fruit -- serrano, jalapeno and Superchile -- is slowly turning into a symphony of reds and oranges. Of the five pepper books I've consulted, none seems to offer a solid rule-of-thumb for harvesting. I'll hold off for now.

Sept. 14: In a scientific supply store in San Jose, the Farm Adviser found a humidity gauge and a special thermometer that records the high and low of the day. I sure wish I had thought of this stuff in March. In a less practical vein, I also broke down and splurged on a pair of Felco clippers -- the Rolls- Royce of garden implements -- at Smith and Hawken.

Sept. 28: After 189 days, several hundred dollars and more labor than I'd care to admit, the big day finally came. I harvested my first crop of Superchiles. The little devils were so volatile I had to wear surgical rubber gloves to safeguard against burns. The deed took 25 minutes and yielded about three pounds of fluorescent red peppers.

The Farm Adviser and I split the crop into six Ziploc bags and delivered them to the friends who had patiently seen me through the throes of my pepper madness. It is a true friend indeed who will patiently look at baby pictures of potted plants and sketches of watering systems without turning you over to the proper authorities.

Counting the infrastructure investments, those peppers -- which began as free seed -- ended up costing nearly $10 per ounce. Was it worth it? Any gardener who's ever tasted the fruits of their own labor can answer that.

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