Edible House Plants



Some of you may have wondered about the chili pepper featured in Survivor: The Office Plant (Issue 98) . I certainly did. Here’s the whole story.

all pictures: Offices of Dr Nichola Bott, Stamford CT 2003-2004

Last winter, here in Stamford, CT, I spied a pepper plant growing in a friend’s kitchen, on the floor, out of direct sun, next to a heat vent. This was not one of your wimpy, toxic ornamentals but a full-fledged, real-eating, garden chili pepper!

Since chilies are a full-sun, warm-weather garden plant, I assumed that over-wintering one in the house, even in full sun, would be great for spider mites and the like, but the chili would be begging for a merciful death by Christmas. However, inspection showed the plant to be healthy and happy; great leaf color and lovely chilies. Surprise. Who knew they’d do so well indoors? My friend says “oh, we got it from a friend, and it’s nice to have fresh chilies handy. We put it on the balcony in the summer”. Huh?

Sometime later, I discovered TWO similar peppers doing wonderfully in the offices of Stamford, CT, healer Dr. Nicola Bott. She also said that she got them from a friend.

In an ideal world, we’d all be at least semi-vegetarians, eating only locally-grown, organic produce. We’d be saving the planet (and ourselves) from untold waste of our finite fossil fuel supplies, and many other environmental and health hazards. A “house chili” might not save the planet but any vegetable that can easily be grown in the average apartment has great potential. Imagine if you could grow, year-round, all the tomatoes, peppers, greens, and squash you needed in your living room window. Fresh, chemical-free, and cheap, with CO2 – oxygen exchange at no extra charge.

According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden , which even has an annual chili pepper festival, you can grow chilies indoors, IF you have a greenhouse or use grow lights 16 hours a day. It helps to keep the peppers warm, too. OK, that makes horticultural sense, but the plants I saw were thriving under ordinary household (or worse yet, office) conditions.

Finally, I meet the pepper-giving friend, who turns out to be a professional performing artist from South Texas, who we’ll call the “Texas Pepper Man”. And the X-peppers? Well, he says, he’d bred them to grow indoors. What?

Chilies are a big deal in Texas, that’s true; but the guy moves north and doesn’t just grow his own. No, he creates his own hybrid just to get a decent chili hit in the winter? Isn’t this a bit extreme even for a Texan? Does he, by chance, have a degree in horticulture? No, in fact, before he started the chilies, he’d never even had a houseplant.

picture: The Texas Pepper Man inspects the crop at Dr. Bott’s

He explains that in South Texas, chilies, descendant from the Bolivian Ur-chili, are a common sight. They grow wild, their seeds spread by birds. The wild chilies are hard to germinate (unless passed through a bird’s stomach, then kept hot and moist in good light). Then, the seedlings have to survive all 10 hot, dry months of summer. Those that reach maturity are tough, shrubby plants capable of producing chilies for several years. Chilies freely cross-pollinate so there’s lots of variety in the gene bank. It’s not unknown for South Texans to “adopt” a particularly flavorsome high-producer by digging it up and taking it home to the garden.

In South Texas, he says, chilies are such a part of the cuisine that women carry them in their purses as a New Yorker might carry a bag of her favorite tea or a hit of chocolate. (Dr. Bott explains that chilies, like chocolate, stimulate production of feel-good brain chemicals. Technically, it is known that chilies contain capsaicin which causes the brain to release endorphins but, according to Dr. Bott, there’s more going on chemically but it’s not fully understood as yet.).

So meanwhile, the Texas Pepper Man can’t get “good” chilies up here in the North Country except for a few weeks in the summer. Apparently chilies, like corn, lose their magic soon after being picked. (He says that you can keep them in the fridge for a bit or freeze them or turn them into “keeping” dishes like salsa.) So, the Texas Pepper Man’s making periodic chili runs to Texas.

Then, in the mid 1990’s, his mother shows him a nice cross-bred plant she’d found, with peppers so juicy that they actually squirt in the mouth. Yum. So he brings some seeds back to Connecticut and starts about 30 in pots on his deck, weeding out the less desirable plants as the summer progresses. By first frost, there’s a couple of good plants left. He brings one in but, predictably, it languishes and dies. So next spring, our Texas Pepper Man starts selecting seedlings with the eye to over-wintering one indoors….

Today, the Texan who never owned a houseplant, but who now can chatter endlessly about cross-pollination and seed germination, has successfully created a true indoor chili pepper.

Fortunately, there’s more to come: he has the patent application papers on his desk and perhaps, in a few years, all Monday Garden readers will be lucky enough to own one of Texas Pepper Man’s (totally delicious) eco-chilies.

©Susan W. Sweeney 2004.

Easy Orchids



My friend Kevin sent me this fuchsia-colored moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) in October 2001, at a time when its beauty was sorely needed. It was a big, healthy plant in full bloom, and it continued blooming until May 2002. It then took a well-deserved rest until February 2003, and started over. It was wonderful but later I learned that I shouldn’t let it bloom so much.

A mature moth orchid blooms spring and, often, again in the fall; the flowers last for weeks. Just one or two blooming Phalaenopsis decorate an entire room for half the year. Moth orchids have become a bit of a decorator’s cliché because, like pearls, they go with everything.


The trick is to get quality plants. Not everyone agrees, but for me, while many mass-market plants do fine, mass-market orchids have not done as well for me as better quality plants. From what I know I believe that the mass-market orchids are often one-year olds that have been pushed too quickly into bloom, seriously weakening the plant. For the same or a little more money, you can get a healthy 2- to 3-year old plant that has been raised for long-term health from a reputable dealer.

The second key: do not over do it. 
–Do not over-water your Phalaenopsis. Usually watering once a week is enough; the potting mix should be almost dry. If the leaves are shriveling, go to twice a week.
–Do not get water in the plant’s crown, it will rot.
–Do not over-fertilize. Use diluted fertilizer weekly (skipping a week once a month) when the plant’s in active growth. I use a flower fertilizer in early spring and a balanced organic fertilizer in summer and fall.
–Do raise the humidity (see Issue 38).

The third thing: do not let your orchid over-bloom. 
–Ignore the common advice to force your Phalaenopsis to re-bloom by cutting back the flower stem. This will sap the plant’s energy. Do this only if you’re stuck with a cheap orchid that’s not worth keeping.
–Likewise, don’t let your orchid bloom for more than 6 week or so – if the flower hasn’t died naturally by this time, cut it off at the base. If you converse its strength, each year you should get more and bigger flowers.

Lastly, temperature. 
Orchids need to be 10F cooler at night to flower, so put your Phalaenopsis near a window with bright light but shade from hot sun.

Further tips:

Natural growing conditions: Moth orchids are epiphytes, that means that they like to grow in tree crotches, high in the tropical forest canopy with their roots dangling in open air and their leaves dotted with filtered light. The tropical rains soak the orchid but then it dries out quick. It hangs downward so that water doesn’t settle in its crown.

picture: “Kevin’s orchid” a Phalaenopsis enjoying its filtered sun light.

Potting: Moth orchids like either a commercial orchid bark chip mix (medium texture) or plain sphagnum moss. The pot size should usually be between 3 and 6 inches. Only very large ones will need a bigger pot. Let the new roots run around outside the pot – they like it like that.

Pots: Most orchid pots have slits up the side to let more air into the roots and to help the medium dry out quickly. Many use terra cotta pots for Phalaenopsis; some use opaque plastic pots. A newer theory is to use clear plastic so that sun gets to the roots. This works for my Phalaenopsis and for my pocket book since I can skip the cost of a pot and recycle a clear plastic food tub instead. Just remember to cut plenty of holes in the bottom and slots in the sides for air and drainage.

Location: Filtered sun, fresh air, and the 10F night-time temperature drop are critical. Most of us keep our orchids at table level, so they’re easy to water. If you want to baby your Phalaenopsis, hang it from near the top of the window, where it feels more at home, with plenty of bright light, little direct sun, and the rising heat during the day. You would have to take it down to water and drain, which may be too bother. (I use a nice, stiff bent coat hanger as a hanger, so I can get the plant down easily.)

Phalaenopsis go great with ferns and African violets which like the same conditions (except the African violets don’t chills and drafts, so place them a little farther from the window.)

Easy Cacti



“In My Garden”, late Spring is cactus blooming time. Here’s a tiny cactus in a one inch terra cotta saki cup from Jade Garden, a bonsai pot importer in New York City’s China Town.

Cacti and succulents are prefect for an easy-care, cheap miniature garden with lots of variety. I have around 100 on my 4-foot long bedroom window sill. They get watered only once a week except during their winter dry period. Since they’re right next to the window, they also have the cooler temperatures that they like in the winter, particularly at night. Cacti like good light but don’t have to have all day full sun – mine get by in a west window with afternoon sun.

Most of mine come from Woolworth’s, K-Mart and Shop & Shop, with some of the most expensive ones (about $4.00) from the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. This one will follow its flowers with red berries.

Posted by ssweeney44 at 05:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 03, 2002

Winterize the Cacti

Eco-gardening is at its best in The Monday Garden
issue #32 November 3, 2002

Winterize the Cacti

It’s November already and time to put the cacti on winter schedule. This cactus blooms on my windowsill May to September. Here it in late August. To bloom like this, it needs a good winter rest, starting now.

In the desert, winter means bright sun, no water, and cool but non-freezing temperatures. You can mimic these conditions for your cacti by using the “EZ Bloom Cactus Formula” (In My Garden # 11). Starting now, reduce water and place the plant right next to a window where it will be as cool as possible in good light.

The winter watering schedule:

November: cut water by half; for example a bi-weekly rather than weekly watering.

December: cut water by half again; for example give the plant only half its regular water every other week.

January: no water unless the dormant cactus starts to shrivel and then just a few drops to keep it alive.

February: same as January

March: Water lightly once a week to wake the cactus up.

April: Start regular watering and give the cactus its once-a-year fertilizing.

Over the winter, succulents (thick-leaved cactus relatives) need a bit more water than the cacti. I continue to water mine weekly but use just enough water to half-wet the soil rather a weekly soaking. They also benefit from a bright, cool windowsill.

The shorter days are also putting your leafy houseplants into winter slo-mo, so stop fertilizing except for the winter-blooming tropicals (jasmine, abutilion, orchids, African violets, etc.). The leafy houseplants also need a bit less water but will be naturally drier since indoor heated air is drier.

PS If you want your amaryllis to be blooming at Christmas, start them this week and next.