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In the Garden: Doctor has just the prescription for growing peppers

The doctor is in – in the garden, that is.

Jim Gaddy may have retired as a family practice doctor three years ago, but his caregiving skills are still apparent in his vegetable garden.

“I’ve been gardening continuously for 42 years, ever since I moved to Spokane from Texas in 1975,” he said. “When I bought my first house on the South Hill, it already had a garden. I decided I would give it a try and it worked out great.”

Twelve years ago, he and his wife, Meridith Molter, bought 30 acres in southwest Spokane County. His wife doesn’t tend the garden but plays an important role nonetheless.

“Meridith and I have settled on a great division of labor,” Gaddy said. “I plant, cultivate and weed. And when I get tired, she swoops in and does the harvesting, freezing, and putting up of the vegetables. It’s a great relationship.”

While he enjoys growing tomatoes, melons, corn, squash and other crops, peppers are his favorite. That’s not surprising considering his Texas upbringing.

Before moving to his current home where he has a greenhouse, he would purchase pepper seedlings from local garden centers. A chance encounter in 1981 opened up a whole new world of options.

“I was on a plane flying to Texas for a week of fishing and saw a woman wearing a hat that said ‘The Pepper Gal’ on it,” he said. “Of course I had to go talk with her.”

It turned out she and her husband own the seed company, The Pepper Gal (peppergal.com) and were heading to a national pepper convention in Texas.

“She has seeds from over 300 varieties from all over the world,” Gaddy said. “So I started buying from her and have ever since.”

While touring his garden, I was impressed with the variety and vigor of his pepper plants. Gaddy was more than happy to share his pepper-growing tips:

Start seeds indoors eight to 10 weeks before planting, which allows time to harden them off. “My goal is to get them planted the third to fourth week of May.”

Mix organic chicken manure into the soil. “I don’t use any chemicals or fertilizer in my garden but I do use lots of compost.”

Use infrared transmitting mulch to get a jump on the season. “I’m a true believer in IRT mulch from the University of Vermont. It’s a cold-weather mulch that you lay out on your soil two weeks before planting. It has the advantages of black plastic – such as weed suppression – and gives me two weeks on the season.” (Learn more at uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/factsheets/plasticprimer.html.)

Use floating row covers over the plants early in the season. “It’s like having a little greenhouse out there.

Crowd the plants. “I’ve found the closer you plant peppers together, the better they do.

Use drip irrigation.

Stake the plants, since they get top-heavy with peppers.

This year, Gaddy grew Hatch (multiple varieties), Cubanelle, bells (Minibell, Chocolate Bell and Mexibell), Italian peppers, mole, ancho, jalepeño, and Fooled You (it has the appearance and taste of a jalepeño but not the heat).

When it comes to growing vegetables in the Inland Northwest, Gaddy has learned an important point:

“You can grow all the warm weather crops here but you have to be on the ball from day one,” he said. “A week lost is a week lost in our short growing season.”

Susan Mulvihill is co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Pat Munts. Contact her at Susan@susansinthegarden.com. Watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden” video at youtube.com/c/susansinthegarden.