"How to Start Your Garden Now." Doug's lecture Monday 3/10, 5pm, Home and Garden Show

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog sprouting peas in marchSprouting peas in peat pots is one way to get started early. Once they are up, there's nothing Mother Nature has in store which can stop them. Photo by Doug OsterMy first first thought for today's presentation at the Duquesne Light Home & Garden Show was, "Don't Start Gardening Too Early."

But after looking at the 10 day forecast, I decided, I'm going to plant some things tomorrow. If you happen to be going to the show today, stop by at 5 p.m. for my talk.

If not, I'll be filming the planting on Tuesday and you can see the results in the next Digging with Doug video on Saturday, it posts here. You can also see past episodes there too.

I might be crazy putting cool weather crops in the garden now, but I don't care. Usually things like spinach, lettuce and other greens survive all winter. I didn't get quite as much to overwinter as in past years, but there's still onions, spinach and other greens still out in the garden. I've got a lot of tricks to get things planted early. One thing I won't be doing is turning over the garden. It's way too wet and the soil structure will be ruined if I got in there with a shovel.

I've never started this early, but I'm throwing caution to the wind. I've got a good feeling though, regardless of the weather, I'm going to be successful.

Wish me luck!


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Hot peppers rule! They will wake you up!

Written by Doug Oster on .


Dave Foreman stood on his deck last summer holding a glossy green 'Carolina Reaper' pepper freshly picked from the garden. His wife Kelly stood ready with a camera as Mr. Foreman, 55, bit into one of the hottest peppers in the world.

He took one big bite and threw the stem into the yard, fearing his dogs might try to eat it if he passed out from the fire in his mouth. The face he made was priceless and captured for eternity by his wife.

Sources for hot pepper seeds

• Pepper Joe's Hot Pepper Seeds, phone number for orders only 1-843-742-5116,

• Redwood City Seed Co., 1-650-325-7333,

• High Mowing Seeds, 1-802-472-6174,

"It was about 20 minutes of pain," he said, laughing. "I was happy I did it. I just had to know what it was like to eat the hottest pepper. I couldn't grow a pepper like that and then not eat it."

'Carolina Reaper' is rated anywhere from 1.4 million to 3 million Scovilles, depending on who you ask. To put it in perspective, a jalapeno runs about 2,500-8,000 Scoville units.

Mr. Foreman's passion for heat began as a child. His mother would never let him touch the hot sauce his father enjoyed. So when he got out on his own, he began trying hot sauces and was captivated by them.

In the late 1970s, he began growing his own hot peppers. "I was becoming obsessed with hot sauce, and you really couldn't buy good hot sauce back then."

Mr. Foreman started growing the relatively mild jalapenos, then moved on to cayenne, Thai peppers, and eventually Habaneros and Scotch bonnets. He finally found the heat he had been searching for when he discovered India's Bhut Jolokia, also known as the Ghost Pepper. Rated at 1 million Scovilles, it was the hottest pepper in the world at the time.

Last season, Mr. Foreman grew the even hotter 'Carolina Reaper,' using nine peppers to make three gallons of his famous homemade salsa. After the first tasting, "it was already up there," he said of the heat. His wife and his brother will enjoy it with him until this summer's harvest comes in. He also makes a sweet hot mustard with the peppers.

His pepper seeds are started toward the end of February or early March. They take about 10 days or so to germinate using an Aero Grow unit, a small growing system with lights. The heat of the lights is enough to get the peppers going until it's time to transplant them into the garden. Because they love warm soil, Mr. Foreman waits until mid-June to plant them outside.

Each season, he plants only the hottest peppers he can find. He grew a dozen 'Reaper' plants last year, but only four went into his garden and provided way more than he needed. He gave the other seedlings to friends. Mr. Foreman says one plant would suit his needs, but he grows extras just in case the deer get to them before they fruit. He left a few plants in the garden over the winter, and the deer never touched them.

"I know people think I'm crazy, but I've developed this tolerance [to the heat] because I keep eating them. People think there's just heat there, but there's flavor, too. They have unique flavors, but you get the heat along with it."

20140225dopeppers4magMatthew Hirsh, greenhouse manager and grower at Chapon's Greenhouse in front of flats of peppers. He's growing the hottest peppers in the world. Photo by Doug Oster

In one part of Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin Borough, there are "handle with caution" warning signs over the seedlings alerting gardeners interested in super-hot peppers. Greenhouse manager and grower Matthew Hirsh started to see an interest in extremely hot peppers about two seasons ago. It was the Ghost Pepper that really seemed to get gardeners talking.

When he and his crew plant the seeds, they use a plastic seeder to avoid getting the spicy oils on their hands. It can wreak havoc if it gets into the eyes.

He's growing a wide range of hot peppers from jalapenos all the way up to the 'Carolina Reaper.' Mr. Hirsh has learned a few lessons over the past two years about growing them.

He starts some seeds as early as Christmas because many can be stubborn to germinate even when using heat benches to warm the moist planting mix in the seed trays. Others are started later, but he says home gardeners should start seeds as soon as possible.

"You definitely want to get a head start on them. They aren't hard, but you need to be patient with them because they are slow."

Many take nearly 90 days to reach maturity and should be planted outside when all chance of frost has passed. At Chapon's, all vegetables and herbs are grown organically.

Some growers will use landscape fabric on their beds to heat the soil; others will tent the planting area with floating row covers or plastic to create a greenhouse effect on the bed. Wall O' Waters are season extenders that are filled with water and surround each plant. Gardeners will put them out a couple of weeks before planting to warm the soil.

Mr. Hirsh overheard a couple looking at the Ghost Peppers. When the wife was surprised that her husband was interested, he said, "Oh, they're not for eating. They're for giving to your friends." That could provide quite a surprise for "friends."

Mr. Hirsh enjoys hot peppers such as 'Super Chili'(50,000 Scovilles) and has even used dried Ghost Peppers in the kitchen. "But I'm a bit of a chicken when it comes to eating them raw," he said with a smile.

20140225dopeppers1magSteve Peckyno of Jefferson Hills doesn't even like peppers, but has grown the Ghost pepper for years. Photo by Doug Oster

In Jefferson Hills, 76-year-old gardener Steve Peckyno has grown Ghost Peppers for years. "It was the hottest pepper in the world, and I don't even eat peppers but that fascinated me," he said.

He bought his seeds the first year they became popular. Back then the only way to get them was from the University of New Mexico at 50 cents per seed. He bought 10. He starts his seeds in early March under fluorescent shop lights, which hang from his homemade PVC light rack. Mr. Peckyno cautions fellow gardeners to always start the seeds in a sterile planting mix to avoid damping off. It's a fungal condition that causes seedlings to rot at the base and collapse.

Once the seeds sprout and get a few inches tall, putting on true leaves, he pots them up into bigger cups filled with his homemade potting soil. To make it, he combines his compost made from leaves and grass clippings with perlite.

His gardening friends have had dismal results trying to bring the pepper to fruition. To succeed, he puts three plants into one 8-inch pot filled with his potting soil. The peppers grow on the heat of the driveway in front of a low brick wall.

Conventional wisdom dictates one plant should be put in each pot, but Mr. Peckyno gets tall, healthy-looking plants loaded with peppers. He fertilizes regularly with Miracle-Gro.

Once while standing outside with his wife, Evelyn, they watched a squirrel grab a Ghost Pepper and run away. "He stopped after about 10 feet, spit it out and kept going. I think he was hurting for a while," he said, laughing.

Mr. Peckyno has gardened for more than 40 years and now gives most of his plants away.

"I like the satisfaction, to see them grow. When you think about it, you take a tiny, tiny seed. It grows into a full-sized plant. That's phenomenal, it's God's work."


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Free seeds at Home and Garden show Friday and Saturday with Doug

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog fred limbaugh 37The late Fred Limbaugh with his 'Potato Top' seedlings. Photo by Doug Oster

It's the official start to the gardening season as the Duquesne Light Home and Garden Show begins at the Convention Center. I'll be there Friday from 4-6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 12 noon answering garden questions.

I'll also be giving away packets of 'Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top' tomato seeds and other seeds. The tomato is  a favorite around our area and the world. I ask people to grow out the seeds and send some back to me at the end of the season. Here's the full story about the wonderful Pittsburgh Heirloom Tomato.

Hope to see you there.

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Growing plants on the windowsill might keep you sane!

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog window lettuceEvery morning I wake up to these lettuce, spinach and chive plants. Photos by Doug Oster

35 overallThese succulents grow in faux moss containers.Afternoon light streams through inside windows to illuminate beautiful, green plants. As the days get longer and the sun gets higher in the sky, windowsill planting is a great idea to try and keep us sane until the gardening season finally breaks.

It's been a tough winter which just won't quit. I've been filling my house with more plants to help me cope.

The latest planting is 'Black Seeded Simpson' lettuce along with chives and some spinach. I found a nice sized plastic planter which fits the space and also catches water in the bottom so I don't ruin the wood (again).

I've also had a wonderful time planting these cool faux moss planters. There's one which looks like a purse and another is a shoe.

Those are filled with interesting succulents. I use them in small containers because they don't require much care and they're beautiful.

There have also been a few new houseplants added (don't tell my wife). A new variegated pothos and  an old favorite, goldfish plant.

Everything came from Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin. Just walking around that place helps cure cabin fever.

I'm looking forward to the day when they can live outdoors in the shade, but that's still a few months away.

Since we're getting more light with longer days, it's time to fertilize indoor plants with a half strength, liquid organic fertilizer.

With more sun, the plants might need a little bit more water too. Most houseplants though are killed with kindness so get a good feel for how much water they require.

Although nothing can compare to working outside in the garden, there's solace in caring for plants which fill our homes. They are the prescription for sanity.

blog purseAbove is a purse of faux moss, below a high heeled shoe.

blog shoe window

blog window wideNot only are these houseplants pretty, they filter the air too.

blgo goldfish plant windowThis goldfish plant will enjoy the summer out in the garden and will bloom all season.




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Chilling temperatures may have killed many outdoor stink bugs

Written by Doug Oster on .


oster stink bug photo2Good news from Virgina Tech, outdoor stink bugs might have been killed off by the cold. (Doug Oster/Post-Gazette)

Virgina Tech researchers think the Polar Vortex might have killed up to 95 percent of the outdoor stinkbugs according to the National Geographic.

The brown marmorated stink bug, which is an invasive species , was first found in Allentown, Pa in the late 1990's. Since then gardeners and farmers alike have battled the pest.

My garden was ravaged a few years ago, but since, hasn't been bothered.

The National Geographic article quotes Virginia Tech scientists who while studying the insect saw most killed outdoors in their experiments. They were housing bugs outside in insulated buckets which simulate the areas in homes where they wold overwinter.

After the cold weather most of the stink bugs were dead. You can read the whole story here.

I hope the research is right, it almost makes this cold winter worth it.






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