FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Mark R. Vogel
A Hot Little Farm in New Jersey!
Ask anyone where you’re likely to find the largest variety of
chile pepper plants in America and you’re sure to obtain responses in the
Southwest. But the answer is New Jersey, the aptly named Garden State. Cross
Country Nurseries, located in Rosemont NJ, boasts the largest variety of chile
pepper plants grown by any purveyor in the country: 445 and rising. “My ultimate
goal is to hit 1,000,” declares Janie Lamson, who owns the 54 acre farm with her
husband Fernando Villegas.
Cross Country originally grew perennials, ornamental grasses
and ferns. But in 1993 Janie’s brother handed her six packages of hot pepper
seeds and asked her to grow them for him. This hot idea blossomed into their
current enterprise. The perennials were eventually abandoned and now Janie and
Fernando’s sole focus is the growing of chile peppers. All 445 varieties can be
purchased as live plants ready for transplant into the home garden, or just the
pods themselves are available from 75 of the 445 varieties. Cross Country can
ship anywhere in the United States.
Cross Country’s plants are grown from seed beginning in
January. They are started indoors on heating mats under lights. Three weeks
later they are transferred to a greenhouse and in April they are ready for
Chile peppers are a tropical plant and very sensitive to
cold. Janie warns about transplanting them too soon. An early frost can kill the
plants or at the very least, stunt their growth. However, eschewing an early
frost is not enough. The ground must reach a certain degree of warmth before
transplanting or the pepper’s development and eventual harvest will be
curtailed. Very generally speaking, this means planting in mid May for southern
NJ and late May to early June for northern NJ. Interestingly, chiles
transplanted in June will grow faster and provide more fruit than ones
transplanted in May. The most prudent course of action is acquiring the plants
at the best time to plant for your area.
Cross Country buys seeds for many of their plants. However,
seeds for some chiles, particularly the more exotic ones, are not always
available. To ensure a yearly supply of these chiles, a special greenhouse
called the “motherhouse” is maintained. Seeds from these varieties are harvested
each year and planted in January along with the purchased seeds.
There is also a special outdoor field where the
aforementioned 75 varieties of chiles for harvesting are maintained. These are
some of the most popular chiles for customers who wish to purchase just the pods
and not the live plants. The field contains their four top sellers: Red Savina
habaneros, Chocolate habaneros, Devil’s Tongue, and Fatallii.
Red Savinas are listed in the Guinness Book of World records
as the hottest pepper on earth. However, a study by the University of New Mexico
awards the crown to the Chocolate habanero, which derives its name from its
brownish color. The Devil’s Tongue Pepper, was “discovered” growing amongst
other habaneros in Pennsylvania. Its exact origins are unknown but it is clearly
in the habanero family based on its taste and heat level. It is a two to two and
a half inch long by one inch wide, wrinkled, yellow pepper. The Fatallii is an
African variety, similar to the Devil’s tongue except somewhat longer, and also
a habanero relative. These four peppers are the favorites for one very simple
reason: they are the hottest. “People want hot,” explains Janie, “The milds do
not sell as well.”
The number of types of chile peppers is constantly growing.
The main reason for this is hybridization. Sometimes this is done by design. But
frequently the actions of insects, birds and other natural forces can cause
chiles to cross-pollinate. New varieties are then discovered as the
aforementioned Devil’s Tongue. Janie and Fernando have also visited a number of
Caribbean nations in the quest for new peppers.
Cross Country exclusively employs organic means to fertilize
their plants and control for pests. Fish emulsion and seaweed are utilized as
fertilizer. Fish emulsion is high in nitrogen and promotes strong growth and
deep green leaf development. Seaweed is high in potassium, (beneficial for the
roots), and many other micronutrients and serves as a “multivitamin.” Ladybugs,
among other insects, are released in the greenhouses to eat aphids and other
pests. A small manmade pond in the motherhouse assists in maintaining high
humidity that repels spider mites.
Cross Country Nurseries is located at PO Box 170, 199
Kingwood-Locktown Road, Rosemont NJ 08556. They can be reached at 908-996-4646
or at their website at chileplants.com. The website contains beautiful color
photos of all of their peppers. They are open to the public April through June.
Shipping of live plants occurs during the same months, and fresh pepper pods in