It’s easy to grow some of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ yourself

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Clean up the ‘Dirty Dozen’ by growing your own

The Environmental Working Group has just released its annual “Dirty Dozen” report, revealing which supermarket produce has the highest levels of pesticide contamination.

It’s no surprise that apples, peaches and nectarines continue to appear as high up on the list as they have in previous years; these tree fruits are prey to many pests and diseases, and their care — chemical or organic — is very complex and time-consuming. So unless you’re a really experienced gardener, it makes sense to buy your apples and peaches organically grown by experts.

But some of the other “most heavily sprayed” foods, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, are real head-scratchers; their care is not that complex — in fact, they’re easy to grow without chemicals in your own backyard.

And now’s the perfect time to start planning to do so.

The secrets of sweet pepper success

OK — first, please don’t call them green peppers. There is no such thing. All sweet peppers will turn a final color of red, yellow, orange or chocolate brown when they’re ripe. And you should allow them to ripen: Green peppers are virtually nutrient-free, while ripe peppers are packed with 10 times the vitamins A, C and many other nutrients. And they’re sweet as sugar!

Unless you have plants already up and under lights, you’ll start with purchased plants this year, as we are well past seed-starting time. But that’s good; purchasing your peppers at a local garden center or nursery will allow you to choose varieties that ripen early, which will allow you to resist the temptation to pick green.

Avoid plants that produce the big, blocky bell peppers you see in the supermarket (such as the classic California Wonder). These fruits take forever to ripen up — often 90 to 100 days from when you put the plants in the ground.

But plants that grow miniature fruits, such as baby bells, and non-bell shapes, such as sweet Italian frying peppers, produce peppers that are just as sweet, but ready to pick and enjoy much earlier in the season (around July instead of September). And they don’t require the support that the big bells need to not fall over.

Here’s the key: Look at the “days to maturity” rating on the plant tag. It may just be the words “days” and a number, or it may actually say “days to maturity.” Either way, lower numbers mean ripe fruits faster!

Build a nice raised bed for your peppers or fill large containers with an equal amount of soil-free mix and compost, but wait to plant these warm-weather lovers until nights stay in the 50s.

Make sure the spot you choose for them gets eight hours of sun a day. And then please be patient and let the fruits color up before picking. Once you taste a ripe homegrown sweetie, you’ll never look at a green pepper again.

Anybody can grow cherry tomatoes

The Environmental Working Group reports that cherry tomatoes are also among the most heavily sprayed produce in the supermarket—which is also crazy. Cherry tomatoes are one of the easiest, most problem-free crops you can grow. They grow like weeds, which in this case is a good thing.

And you don’t even need a garden — just an area that gets eight hours of sun a day, where you can place a few containers that have excellent drainage. Fill them with half compost and half soil-free mix and wait until nights are reliably in the 50s to install the plants. Then pick your ripe cherries promptly; prompt picking signals the plant to keep pumping out tasty little treats.

If you have the right kind of layout (and/or like me, you no longer find enjoyment in bending over), put a few plants in hanging baskets right by your front door. The ripe treats will cascade down and be right there at eye level — easy picking height for you to snack on as you walk by.

Cool as a clean cucumber

And cucumbers, which also made the Environmental Working Group’s newly-released list of the 12 most heavily sprayed supermarket fruits, are as easy to grow as cherry tomatoes.

Turning them into pickles is just as easy, and a great way to continue eating “homegrown” long after the outdoor growing season has ended.

Choose a couple of varieties to see what works best in your garden. Bush-style cucumbers are bred to be naturally upright, while standard varieties are true vines that require fencing or a trellis (like tomatoes).

But even bush plants will do much better with some support, such as a smallish old-fashioned tomato cage. It’ll keep the fruits clean and off the ground and help them grow longer and straighter.

Don’t let warm weather entice you into planting too early

Just don’t let a couple warm days fool you into rushing the season. You can buy the plants you want now and leave them outside on sunny days, even overnight if temps won’t drop below 50. But wait until after Mother’s Day to do your actual planting in the ground or in containers.

Just one night outside in the 30s can set your harvest back by weeks. Or maybe forever.

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