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By Janna Field
In the December 2003 issue of Growing for Market, I wrote about my pepper wreaths and swags and how popular they were at the farmers' market. This month I will describe how I grow and produce these beauties.
The variety of pepper I prefer to use is called Thai Pepper. There is a variety called Thai Dragon which is much larger, but I like the small ones best. You can use any Chile pepper that dries well. Thai peppers dry very well and are used in many Asian dishes. They are wickedly hot and should be used sparingly. The beauty of these wreaths and swags is that you assemble them fresh, they dry beautifully, and are very useful and decorative.
I start my seeds around the end of March and grow them on until frost has passed in our area. It is usually safe to plant them outside around May 20. In southeastern Michigan, where my farm is located, the growing season is short for hot peppers, so I have to help them mature. I used to plant them in plastic, but I hated cleaning up the plastic every year and it bothered me how wasteful it was to throw away every year. About two years ago, Growing for Market had an article on using landscape fabric for vegetables, and I switched over to this method and love it. I have used the strips of landscape fabric for two years now, and they still look brand-new. The black fabric heats up the soil, keeps weeds down, and helps the peppers grow bigger and mature faster. I have grown Thai peppers side by side both on fabric and not, and there is a big difference in plant size and pepper production.
Peppers are very easy to grow and are very low maintenance. I don’t have any problems with pests. They pretty much take care of themselves. As frost approaches at the end of September or early October, I extend the season by making small hoop houses over my pepper rows. I pound 2-foot sections of rebar into the ground, and slip each end of a 10-foot section of PVC pipe over the rebar to create hoops over the rows. I then recycle old greenhouse plastic stretched over the hoops to create mini-tunnels. This allows those peppers to ripen to a gorgeous red. Once they are red, I yank up the whole plant. I pile them up on a bench in the barn until I am ready to deal with them.
To assemble a wreath, I generally use a 10” wire wreath frame (although any size could be used). I start by striping the leaves off each branch. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but you can yank large bunches off at a time, and you don’t need to be fussy about removing every little leaf. I gather about 6 full branches, cluster the peppers together in a group, and trim the branches to about 6”. I use floral wire to anchor one end to my wire frame. I take the bundle of peppers, lay them in the wire frame, and start wrapping close to peppers. Wrap the peppers and frame, then wrap at least twice more. I take my next bundle and place it so it covers the stems of the previous bundle and wrap at least three times. I continue this process until the wreath is completely filled. The last bundle can be a little tricky to fit in without creating a gap. Try lifting your first bundle so you can wrap wire on the last bundle. I then finish the wreath with a raffia bow. Raffia is purchased in any craft store and lasts a long time. I take about 8 strands and attach them to a wire, then attach the wire to the wreath where desired. I then tie a pretty bow and fluff the bow. Voila!
Making a pepper swag is even easier. Taking your cleaned branches, bundle a large cluster. I usually leave the branches hanging down, so I can see the effect better. Then start adding branches, so that only the peppers are showing by covering the branches as you build up the swag. Once you have a nice bundle started, attached your floral wire close to the peppers and wrap tightly several times. Keep adding branches as you go up the handle, wrapping with wire as you go. I usually keep going until the swag is about a foot long. I then trim the handle so it is even. Next, I tie off the floral wire. Take your raffia, starting at the top of the handle (farthest away from peppers) and wrap the entire handle so that the branches are covered. Finish with a raffia bow close to the peppers.
After my wreaths and swags are finished, I keep them cool and dry on shelves in my basement. This also protects them from mice, which seem to like hot peppers, too.
Pepper wreaths and swags are colorful, fit in with Christmas sales, and are very useful. I sell these wreaths and swags the first Saturday after Thanksgiving and sell out within a couple of hours. I sell the wreaths for $25 and the swags for $15. You could probably get more, but as in most markets, you only have a short time before others are copying your ideas. I hope these wreaths add to your holiday sales.
Janna Field is the owner of Fieldfarms in Dexter, Michigan. She sells at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market.