Gardening with Xpress: Cucumbers, peppers and eggplants — oh, my!

THE RIGHT VARIETY: Peppers are particularly susceptible to a disease called anthracnose. But some varieties, including Ashe County pimento, featured, are better suited to our region’s climate. Photo courtesy of Raleigh Seed Co.

Soggy salutations, mountain neighbors. This summer sure turned the corner from drought to deluge! It’s still gardening season, especially if you’re planting for fall harvests. You can email me your questions at

This month we’re discussing when to save a plant and when to let go, along with a look at ideal pepper varieties for our region and how to handle a surplus of eggplant.

My cucumbers and beans look pretty bad, but they still have some fruit on them. Should I leave them, pull them out or try to save them?

Ah yes, the beautiful poetry of annual vegetable gardening. Together with the plants, we ride the arc of youth, growth and senescence. In all likelihood, your cucumber and bean plants are reaching the natural end of their life cycles. On top of that, all of this rain has brought an increase in fungal pathogens, which spread rapidly by abundant insects taking advantage of the hot moistness of late summer.

If you’re still getting a decent harvest, and you’re willing to witness the less beautiful part of these crops’ lives, then you can leave them in the ground. If, on the other hand, you’re picking a few puckered and pinched cucumbers and a handful of disfigured beans every several days, it’s time to say goodbye. Simply pull up the plants and bring them to your compost pile. If you spot signs of disease such as mosaic virus, which is characterized by yellow to brown patches, consider burning or bagging the plants instead. But in most cases, composting the plant residue will be fine.

One advantage of pulling up these aging vegetables today is that you’ll create space for some fall gardening. There are loads of delicious greens and roots that grow well into the fall and even into the winter with a little additional coverage. If that’s your plan, it’s a good idea to boost up the soil a bit after removing your beans and cucumbers; the latter are particularly heavy feeders. Mix in a bit of compost, manure or an all-purpose organic fertilizer like Plant-Tone (all available locally at Fifth Season, LOTUS Urban Farm and Garden Supply, Reems Creek Nursery, etc.).

Once you’ve got your bed prepped, you can either direct sow or transplant fall crops right where your cucumbers and beans once were. For a full list of fall and winter crops, including guidance on whether to direct sow or transplant, see my article on fall gardening at Some of my favorite fall crops are carrots, radishes and turnips (all direct sow) and broccoli, kale and cabbage (all transplant).

Another option, if you don’t want to begin anew with growing a fall crop, is to cover crop the area, or put it to rest under a layer of mulch. Now is the time to sow winter cover crops like Austrian winter peas (my personal favorite), vetch, crimson clover, winter rye, tillage radish and winter rape. These will grow until it gets cold, then hold out through the winter and finish their cycle in the spring. Once they start to flower, cut or crimp them back and prepare the space for spring plantings. Mulching simply means covering the ground with something like straw, leaves or wood chips so that weeds don’t grow and the soil texture and biology is protected.

I have beautiful bell pepper plants with lots of flowers and fruit, but nearly every pepper rots before it ripens. What’s going on, and what can I do?

First of all, I really feel for the sense of disappointment, shock and frustration you must be dealing with, having watched your plants grow and fruit only to yield inedible peppers! This is a hard thing for any grower to experience. Unfortunately, peppers are particularly susceptible to a disease called anthracnose, which thrives in warm, moist environments like ours. On top of this, blossom-end rot is more likely when periods of drought are followed by periods of heavy rain, as we’ve seen this summer. Both cause lesions in pepper fruits that lead to rot but don’t have major impacts on the foliage.

One way to tell the difference between anthracnose and blossom-end rot is to look at where the rotten spots are showing up. Anthracnose causes lesions on any old part of the fruit, while blossom-end rot always begins at the blossom end, or butt, of the pepper.

While anthracnose is a fungal disease that’s spread by splashing water and conditions like we’ve got right now, blossom-end rot is actually the result of calcium deficiency. It’s very hard to treat anthracnose, even with the use of heavy fungicides (which I don’t recommend). If possible, protect your pepper plants from excess water and splashing by planting them inside a greenhouse or hoop house. They’ll also benefit from the added heat in these environments, which will extend the season, too. If you’ve already got anthracnose ravaging your crop, try harvesting and learning how to enjoy green peppers, before the wounds set in.

In the case of blossom-end rot, one remedy is to feed calcium to your plants. You can do this by watering them with a 1-to-1 ratio of milk-to-water. Powdered milk works fine here. Depending on how bad the deficiency is, this may completely remedy the situation or only make a small impact.

Some other factors in this problem include how much nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients the plants are getting, along with the soil pH. In the long term, I advise you to get a soil test and incorporate calcium-rich materials into your garden beds for slow-release support. Some examples are: eggshells, bone meal, hi-cal lime, oyster shell and crab shell meal.

Finally, certain varieties of peppers are more or less susceptible to these issues. One I love that seems to be better adapted to our climate is called Ashe County pimento (yes — from Ashe County, N.C.). This delicious, flavorful and resilient little pepper was revived by local (Boone) grower and seed saver Rob Danford. The fruits are smaller than your typical bells but very thick walled, abundant and tasty.

Generally speaking, spicy peppers tend to be a bit heartier than sweets. So, if you like it hot, be sure to plant some of them, too. For other locally adapted pepper varieties, check out Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. It’s up in Virginia, but its staff does lots of on-farm trials and collects interesting crops that, in my experience, tend to be well suited for our hot, humid climate.

Wow, eggplant — they took a while, but now I have more than I can handle! Are there ways to preserve them?

My top three ways to preserve abundant eggplant are freezing, pickling and/or making and freezing baba ganoush.

To freeze eggplant, simply blanch slices in salted, boiling water for five minutes, then cool and pat dry before sealing in freezer bags. Since most eggplant dishes involve thoroughly cooking the vegetable anyway, there is no loss of flavor or texture as there can be with other veggies like green beans or zucchini.

Pickled eggplant is heavenly and with many recipes lends itself to simple water-bath canning for longer shelf life. To explore the world of pickled eggplant, I suggest going down the Italian and Indian roads. Both cultures have thoroughly embraced this vegetable, along with the art of pickling.

Another cultural region that really honors the delectable eggplant is the Middle East. Arabic manuscripts from as early as the 13th century bathe the eggplant with much praise. This is also the birthplace of baba ganoush, a roasted eggplant-based dip that is fairly easy to make and freezes well. Enjoy!


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