Edible Landscaping

Edible of the Month: Hot Peppers

'Chilly Chile' hot pepper is tasty and attractive in the garden. The fruits stand above the foliage and mature in a range of colors from yellow to red.

Over the last 20 years the top ten vegetables grown by home gardeners has not changed, except for one type — hot peppers. With many new immigrants moving to America from Asia and Central America and a growing interested in international cuisines, many gardeners are now growing hot peppers for use in home cooking. They are generally easier to grow than sweet peppers and a few plants go a long way. It's hard to generalize about hot peppers. Some have tiny fruits, while others are as big as sweet peppers. Some are fiery hot and others mild. But all hot peppers add a unique flavor and spice to foods. Because you usually only need a small amount of hot pepper for cooking, growing one or two plants is often plenty. They can fit anywhere. The plants are small enough to grow in containers. Some newer varieties have dark-colored leaves and fruits, making them attractive enough to grow as an ornamental in the flower garden. Beauty and spice, what could be better?

Not only do hot pepper taste good, they are good for you as well. Capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers that gives them their zip, has been identified as an anti-oxidant, protecting cells from cancer-causing chemicals. Capsaicin has traditionally been used to treat a variety of ailments from cuts to ulcers. (It also makes a mean insect and animal repellent). Peppers are also high in vitamins A, B, C, and E. So, add some zip, flavor, and health to your meals by cooking and eating some hot peppers. Here's how to get started.

'Tabasco' hot peppers are used to make the famous sauce of the same name.

Planning

Hot peppers are a warm-season crop that thrives with soil temperatures of at least 60F and air temperatures between 70F and 85F. While sweet peppers are known to dislike cold or hot temperature extremes, hot peppers are a bit more forgiving. Plant hot peppers along with your sweet pepper crop in the vegetable garden, in a container by themselves, or interplanted with annuals in the flower garden. Since most hot pepper plants stay about 2 feet tall and wide, they can easily be moved indoors in containers in fall to extend the harvest season and ripen some green fruits. Hot peppers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and heat. To find the heat of the type of pepper you're growing, check the Scoville Heat Scale. This index gives general guidelines to the hotness of the variety of peppers. It's best used as a comparison of the various peppers.

Pepper Types Scoville Rating Range
Bell 0-100
Hot Cherry 100-500
Jalapeno 400-2500
Anaheim 500-2500
Ancho/poblano 1000-1500
Serrano 10,000-25,000
Hot Wax 10,000-40,000
Cayenne 30,000-50,000
Habanero 100,000-445,000

Here are some of the best varieties to try. All plants grow 2-feet tall and are open pollinated unless otherwise noted. Days to maturity are from transplant in the garden to harvest.

Anaheim TMR 23 (75 days) – These moderately spicy, 7-inch-long-by-2-inch-wide, smooth-skinned peppers are produced on 3-foot tall plants. They are disease resistant and the dried pods are popular in the Southwest for making ristra wreaths.

Ancho 211 (poblano) (80 days) – These mildly hot, 4-inch-long, wrinkled, heart-shaped fruits are often stuffed and served as chili rellenos. They also can be dried to make wreaths or chili powder.

Big Chili II (68 days) – This hybrid, Anaheim-type roasting pepper is 8 - to 10-inches long and mildly pungent.

Black Pearl (60 days) – This ornamental hybrid has purple leaves and stems. The 1-inch diameter fruits start out purple, but mature to bright red, making this a stunning-looking plant.

Bolivian Rainbow (80 days) – This 2- to 3-foot tall plant has purple leaves and stems. The 1-inch diameter fruits start out purple, but change to yellow, orange, and finally red. All stages of maturity are evident on the plant at once making, this a striking specimen.

Cherry Bomb (65 days) – These bright red, mildly hot, 2-inch round fruits are often canned and stuffed.

Habanero (100 days) – This is a different species (Capsaicin chinensis) from most hot peppers (Capsaicin annuum). These are some of the hottest peppers known to mankind. The 1-inch diameter, lantern-shaped fruits mature to orange or red depending on the variety. The 3-foot tall plants need lots of heat to grow and mature. 'Caribbean Red' is one of the hottest, topping the Scoville heat scale at 445,000. However, 'Zavory' is a new hybrid habanero that's as mild as a jalapeno.

Hungarian Hot Wax (70 days) – Medium-hot, 7-to 8-inch long, tapered fruits mature from yellow to red.

Jalapeno M (75 days) – Famous for use on nachos, salsa, and pizza, jalapenos produce moderately hot, 3-inch long fruits. 'Jalapa' is a newer, more productive, hybrid version, while 'Tam Jalapeno' is a milder selection.

Riot (70 days) – The 2- to 3-inch long, upward facing fruits sit atop the compact plants like candles. The fruits change from yellow to bright red when mature looking like a "riot" of color.

Serrano del Sol (64 days) – These candle-flame-shaped, 3-inch long peppers grow on 3-foot tall plants. Often used in place of jalapenos in salsa and sauces.

Super Cayenne III (75 days) – These fiery-hot, 3- to 4-inch long, hybrid fruits taste great in the green or red stage. Great for use dried as a powder.

Hot peppers can be beautiful, too. 'Black Pearl' pepper features jet black leaves and stems with purple, turning to red, fruits.

Preparation

Hot peppers, like all tomato-family crops, grow best in full sun on well-drained fertile soil. Amend the soil with a 1-inch thick layer of compost before planting, build raised beds on all but sandy soils, and in cool summer areas, lay black plastic mulch down over the beds to preheat them two weeks before planting. The black plastic not only heats the soil in preparation of planting, but also conserves soil moisture and reduces weeding. In hot summer areas, mulch the peppers with straw, white plastic, or aluminum foil to keep the soil cool. The aluminum foil also doubles as an insect repellent by reflecting light back up at adult flying insects so they can't find the plants to lay eggs on. In containers use a combination of 3/4 potting soil and 1/4 compost to create a fertile, well-drained medium for growing.

Planting

Since hot peppers take a long time to grow and mature, in most areas you'll need to start seedlings indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. Transplant the seedlings into the garden 2 weeks after that date. Harden off seedlings started indoors by gradually getting them used to the outdoor weather. Set the transplants outdoors the first day for only 1 to 2 hours — ideally during cloudy, calm weather. Each day after that for a week, extend the period of time the seedlings are outdoors until they stay out over night.

Space seedlings 12- to 18-inches apart, in rows 2 feet apart, in the raised beds. In cool areas, cover the seedlings with a floating row cover, especially during periods with night temperatures below 50F. This will lessen transplant shock and also help the plants set fruit sooner. When the temperature is consistently above 70F, remove the row covers.

Many pepper varieties can be dried and made into wreaths for decoration and stored for winter use.

Care

Temperatures below 60F and above 90F can cause pepper flowers to drop. Using the floating row cover in cool areas and shade cloth in hot summer areas helps to keep the temperatures around the plants within this range for best production. Fertilize monthly with a granular organic product, such as 5-5-5. Don't add too much nitrogen fertilizer in the form of manure, compost, or a commercial product. Too much nitrogen causes lot of leaf growth at the expense of flowering and fruiting. It will delay and reduce fruit production. For peppers growing in containers, you may need to fertilize more frequently.

Keep plants well weeded and watered. An inch of water a week is usually required to keep plants healthy, but during periods of hot, dry, windy weather more water may be needed. Water in the morning so leaves are dry by evening, reducing the chance of disease. When growing large plants, consider staking or caging them to prevent the plants from toppling during summer storms.

Hot peppers tend to have fewer pest problems than sweet peppers. Control aphids with blasts of water or insecticidal soap. To control diseases, such as Verticillium wilt, grow resistant varieties.

Harvest

The heat of hot peppers is dependent not only on the variety but also plant stress and the weather. If the plant is water or nutrient stressed near harvest time, the peppers will be hotter. If the weather is cool and cloudy around harvest, the peppers tend to be milder. As with many vegetables, the more you harvest, the more you get with hot peppers. Pick them at the immature or mature color stages, depending on your preference. Nutrient levels are higher and flavor fuller when harvested at the mature color stage (usually red). Hot peppers are quicker than sweet peppers to turn to their mature color stage. Using gloves to protect your hands from the capsaicin in hot peppers, use a sharp knife or hand pruners to cut the hot pepper fruits from the plant above their cap. Peppers will continue maturing after harvest.

Dry hot peppers by stringing them together with a needle and thread inserted into their cap, then hanging them in a dry room with good air circulation until thoroughly dry.

Other Hot Pepper Stories:

Hot Peppers and Capsaicin
Hungarian Peppers
Hot Stuff

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