At CANNA we’re excited to share passionate grower stories from across Canada that resonate with our community and inspire us to “grow big or grow home”.
Mike, please tell us a little about your origin story.
Hey, I'm Mike. About eight years ago, my wife Laura and I were in the kitchen, trying to decide what to make…And we love spicy food. We couldn't find habaneros at a local grocer, so we ended up sourcing our own and decided that we'd take the seeds and grow them at home in a little hydroponic setup for our first time. It went really well. And from there, it's gone from two plants indoors to five plants outdoors to 100 plants, and now we're at over 400 plants.
Unpack Pepper Merchant for us
Mike: So, Pepper Merchant, we're an Ontario grower for seeds, but we ship worldwide. Our focus is mostly just trying to get the best peppers before frost that we can, so that we have the most seeds available. So this year we have 120 varieties of peppers within the garden, and we're pushing around 400 plants this year.
What's at the heart of your spicy endeavor?
Mike: So about four years ago, we launched our website to sell seeds online. Initially we were trading with other growers, and our focus here at Pepper Merchant is to make sure that the seeds are true to the type or to the phenotype of the plant.
We don't keep anything that doesn't match up with what it is that we're trying to sell and I think that's where most of our drive comes from. It's being selective as to where we get our seeds from and assuring that what we grow is true to what it is we represent to the customer. Part of our expansion also involves ensuring the highest quality seeds, achieved by using top-grade nutrients.
When does your season of spicy cultivation kick off?
Mike: We start around January. Most would say it's too early, however, we like to have a good start to the spring. Super hot seeds can take anywhere between 20 and 40 days to germinate, so we like to take our time with it. That’s where we’ve noticed our best results, starting and ending our season with good nutrients makes all the difference.
What fiery finds are in your garden this year?
Mike: In the garden this year we have reapers, ghost peppers, and our most popular pepper that we sell is hallow's eve, which is a hybrid with a naga.
How would you compare the climate contrasts for indoor and outdoor growing between Southern Ontario and Ottawa?
Mike: So previously in the climate that we grew indoors in southern Ontario, you could still bring plants out and get a half-decent harvest without using any other nutrients. However, here in Ottawa we have a shorter growing season, so it's really important to us as a grower to get the highest yield possible to be using the best quality products in order to drive the plant to have yield prior to frost.
What sparked your journey with CANNA products? When did you start and what was the driving reason?
Mike: We started to use CANNA two years ago. The main reasoning behind it is it's a two-part solution instead of using a three-part solution by other vendors. Another reason is when we start our seeds inside and then they become seedlings, the products that are available through CANNA ease bringing the product into the field. For our seedlings, we use products like CANNA RHIZOTONIC XP to encourage root growth. We feed it aggressively the last week before they end up hitting the field and that helps them set better and gets us off to a better start when they're being naturalized to being outside.
A PASSION FOR GROWING
Could you detail the dynamics of your dual growing seasons, both indoors and outdoors?
Mike: Here at Pepper Merchant, we essentially have two growing seasons. We start in January and then bring them aside late April to harden them off where they'll be placed into the ground until we hit frost which is usually around October. However, in early October we also start plants inside that will grow through DWC or deep water culture. It's like a hydroponic bucket essentially. And that will grow until next year where we'll bring them outside. So we have at least a few largely established plants early in the season.
Can you share which CANNA products are part of your growing toolkit?
Mike: Currently we're using CANNA Start in the winter and spring followed by RHIZOTONIC XP. And later about mid-summer, we start using CANNABOOST through a foliar spray just to help give the plants that edge.
Walk us through the beginning of your indoor season. How does CANNA Start play a role in getting things off the ground?
Mike: We start with CANNA Start in early February. The product is mixed in at half the ratio with our water solution that we feed all the plants. It really gives them kind of more vigor than we've seen with other competitors' products in the past. And really gets a decent-sized plant ready for April for when we start moving plants into the garage.
At what stage in your growing cycle do you introduce RHIZOTONIC XP into the mix?
Mike: The RHIZOTONIC XP we use about two weeks prior to plant-out. It's fed quite aggressively, but we've noticed that the plants really enjoy it and they take in a lot better when they are set into the earth.
How and when do you incorporate CANNABOOST into your regiment, and what noticeable differences does it make?
Starting about June we start using CANNABOOST and I found that with peppers it really drives a lot more foliage to the top of the plant which is great because then you can get that nice stable canopy for all the pods to hang underneath. The plants really like the CANNABOOST and it's really easy to apply through a foliar spray.
Are there any CANNA products on your radar that you're excited to integrate into your growing process?
Mike: We're looking at using the CANNA Aqua Vega which is going to be utilized within the bucket with a bubbler and the plants absolutely enjoy it. We've used it in the past and we're going to be using it again this year.
How crucial is maintaining consistency throughout your grow?
Mike: Consistently supplying nutrients prevents the cracking or bursting of peppers. When you have that happen the pods basically unusable. So having consistent feeding schedules and consistently ensuring the plants have not too much water or too little water within the succession of a week, it leads to having a better crop at the end of the season.
In the entire cycle of cultivation, which part do you find most fulfilling?
Mike: That's a two-part answer. My favorite part has to be when the foliage first comes out on the seedlings of the spring. Looking for dark foliage plants is always a great task. I enjoy it and then waiting for the pods to ripen at the end of the summer is definitely one of my favorite parts.
Which aspect of the growing process do you find least enjoyable?
Mike: Cleaning containers.
In the wild ride of cultivation, what have been some of your 'oops' moments?
Mike: Yeah, so some of the struggles we've had here at Pepper Merchant. Number one was slugs originally. A few years ago we had most of our plants destroyed by slugs. The deer are a constant issue for us out in the country. They will eat all of the foliage but leave the peppers, which is really disappointing if you're gone for a week and you come back and your field has been fleeced. In terms of the field that we have now, everything's going quite well. We don't have any major issues, mostly due to using biological bug control.
What's the latest gadget or technique you've spiced up your setup with this year?
Mike: So now we run irrigation underneath all of the fabric that we have with the plants. That's a two-part solution because the fabric keeps the soil warm when you have a cool night like you do in the fall. The irrigations run underneath because you have less evaporation that way and the plants use less water to keep the plants more moist.
Partner in life and in peppers: What's it like teaming up with your significant other?
Mike: Laura is a great hand in the field. We wouldn't be pushing 400 plants if we didn't have two people doing this. And she's great to have around and is very patient and likes de-seeding for some reason.
What golden nugget of advice would you offer to someone just beginning their journey as a grower?
Mike: Yeah, any advice I can provide anyone is start small, do a few plants at once, no need to have 10 or 20 plants, focus on the types of peppers you really enjoy the most and just work with the plant and the nutrients to drive what you see you want out of the product.
What are the key reasons you would suggest CANNA products to fellow growers?
Mike: They seem to have a very good ecosystem with a product that is tailored to not only growing peppers, but other products out on the market. The labeling and mixing is very easy as most of them are two-part solutions or even single-part solutions.
Can you explain the differences in approach when growing peppers for maximum heat versus growing for seed production?
Mike: Yeah, so most growers grow for heat whether you're a hot sauce producer or a home fermenter. You're going to be trying to push the pods with the most oil possible. Having the most nutrients for the plant helps provide the pods to get as big as you need. For ourselves here, we're growing for the most complete pods we can. We want to have the most seeds per pod so that we can share what we're growing here with you at home.
What's a pepper-growing myth you'd love to pluck and toss out?
Mike: Not all seed vendors are the same. A lot of vendors blend their seed with products that may not be exactly true to shape. However, at Pepper Merchant, we only grow the strongest phenotype and we only save from the plants that we feel we would want to grow next season.
Second, not all seeds germinate in four to five days. A lot of jalapeno and annuum varieties will germinate quite quickly. Superhots can take up to 40 days. That is the number one question we ever receive here is, how long will it take for my seeds to germinate?
How do you go about discovering and selecting different species to grow?
Mike: We trade with other growers within the region, externally outside of the region. We find that working with people that we trust helps establish good hybridization with the plants that we have. It's great.
Where's the hot spot to catch you and your peppers? Which events are you showcasing at?
Mike: So we attend a hot sauce show in London called Heat Wave. It's widely attended by people in southern Ontario and one of the largest shows in that region. We also attend a show here in Ottawa called Heating Up the Capital that has people visit as far as Montreal to Nova Scotia and it's by far one of the largest shows in Canada.
What's the sizzling attraction that pulls the crowd to your booth?
Mike: Live plants are a huge catch. If you have live plants at your booth, people come up and talk to you about them. Quite often we bring a DWC plant with us and people will be engaging with us as to what we feed it, how it's doing. They're amazed to see a pepper plant in February in London with pods on it.
In the fiery world of pepper sales, how crucial is top-notch customer support?
Mike: I believe that the cornerstone of Pepper Merchant is our commitment to quality customer support. I really enjoy working with customers to find out what their home growing or even larger hot sauce producing needs are and working with them to meet that goal. If they have any questions through the entire growing process, that's what we're there for and we've had comments about how we work with people after we sold the product.