Ezequiel Lopez-Reyes will never forget how good fresh fruit and vegetables from his father’s farm tasted when he was a child in Mexico. In Oregon, he started his plot to honor that memory.
Lopez-Reyes has been growing a garden at home for five years. He is the student success coordinator for the Oregon State University Extension Service Open Campus and Juntos. Peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, epazote, and cilantro are all in it. He has so many pepper plants that they often get too big for their pots. All of his harvests go into meals he makes with foods that are important to their culture.
Lopez-Reyes was a guest speaker in a webinar series put on by the Washington County Master Gardener Association. He talked about what he had learned about gardening. To learn more, check out the recording of “Hot Peppers! From Seed to Salsa.”
“I love to cook,” said Lopez-Reyes, who has gardened since he was 10 years old. “I was one of four brothers and when I was young, I was the one who used to help mom cook. Not because I had to, but because I was interested. Now I love to experiment. My girlfriend loves it.”
Lopez-Reyes grew up in Michoacan, Mexico. He now works with Latino families and students in Washington County to help them prepare for life after high school. His love of gardening comes from a good place. His father was a farmer, and his mother worked for 30 years in the nursery business.
“Dad bought me a small cherry tree when I was 8 from Home Depot,” Lopez-Reyes said. “I was so fascinated with growing. We didn’t have much money. We were lucky to have enough food because it was costly. Summer was my favorite time. For three months, I felt so rich.”
Peppers are some of his favorite vegetables to grow and eat. Lopez-Reyes said in a recent interview that he loves guajillo chile peppers, which are dried mirasol peppers that look like serrano peppers but turn red when ready. Guajillo peppers are used a lot in Latino culture, add flavor to the foods he grew up loving.
“I use them in posole and enchiladas,” he said. “They are not the spicy kind. When dried, they are such a beautiful red. They give color, flavor and a little spice. They are mixed in a blender with garlic and onion and added to the sauce.”
Chile de arbol, which means “pepper on a tree” because it grows as a big bush, is another plant that always grows in his garden. The dried version of serrano, called chile de arbol, is spicy and can be added to chilquiles, salsa rojas, camarones a la crema, and other Mexican dishes.
Lopez-Reyes chose a long list of peppers, including guajillo and chile de arbol. He also grows rat tail pepper (cola de rata), fatali, ghost, habanero, Carolina reapers, cayenne, and jalapeno. It’s not hard to find pepper seeds for these plants.
He says to shop locally first and then use websites like Pepper Joe to get what you need. When it’s time to plant, after the soil has warmed up to at least 60 degrees, usually in late May or June, many peppers will be sold as starter plants in nurseries.
Lopez-Reyes likes hot peppers because he grew up eating them, especially in eggs and beans.
“We have to have fresh peppers,” he said. “They’re like a pickle. We probably have peppers with every single meal. I’ve always been fascinated with how they grow, their aroma, and what’s growing around them.”
In the maritime Northwest, peppers are more complicated to grow than in Mexico, which has a semi-tropical climate perfect for hot-weather vegetables like peppers. Lopez-Reyes thinks that will change if the climate gets warmer.
If he can’t wait to get started in April or March, he starts seeds indoors to prepare for the season. He saves the plastic strawberry containers from the grocery store and puts them to use. The lid seals the pot and is see-through, so you can watch the peppers grow and know when to move them to bigger pots before planting them in the garden.
“It puts people off because they don’t know when to plant,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we have to consider. Not every year is the same. We have to adjust to the weather. You may get something one year and not another. We have to be OK with that.”
Like last year, when western Oregon had an unusually wet spring, Lopez-Reyes and many others ended up with green pumpkins and fewer peppers that were ready to eat.
Lopez-Reyes wants people to feel comfortable growing peppers, but he knows that they take a long time to ripen, so there is some fear.
“I hope they understand that everything takes a little work, but trying something new is important,” he said. “You’d be surprised what you can do. It’s important we all try different foods. A lot of good conversation comes out when talking about gardening and food.”
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How to Grow Peppers and a Recipe for Salsa Verde?
He gives these five tips on how to grow peppers and a recipe for salsa verde.
- Make plans. From Seed, pepper season starts early. Ensure you buy seeds at the end of December or the beginning of January.
- Growing from a seed can be hard and take a lot of practice over many years.
- Don’t be afraid to buy starter plants from a local nursery.
- Your best friend is the Weather Channel. Monitor the weekly temperature forecast to ensure you have everything
- the plants need. If you do this, you will surely get a good yield.
- There are good years and bad years. Don’t be hard on yourself if your crop isn’t big. We can’t always stop things from happening.
- You might not get much food from your garden, but it will look nice and provide food for some animals, especially bees and pollinators.
- If you’ve never grown a garden before, start small. Don’t try to do everything immediately and make a big garden immediately.
- Getting good at anything takes time and practice. Plants are like kids. They need to be loved and cared for a lot. When you have hundreds of plants that need your care, it’s hard to do that. Take your time, enjoy the process, and your garden will grow slowly.
For salsa verde:
In a small pot with 2 to 3 cups of water, cook 3 to 5 serrano peppers and 2 to 3 medium tomatillos until soft. To a blender, add peppers and tomatillos. Add 14 of an onion, 1 cup of cilantro, 12-1 clove of garlic, and salt to taste. Add a little bit of the water you used to cook the peppers to the blender. If you add too much water, the Salsa will be thin, but it should be thick.