In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
March, 2006
Regional Report

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The Japanese maple of the pepper world is 'Chilly Chili', a 2002 All America Selection.

Hot Stuff

Although I am a gringo so far as hot food is concerned, I still love to grow chili peppers. Their brilliant color is reason enough to cultivate them in flower beds and containers, and their heat makes them a very useful garden tool as well.

Capsicum is the stuff that makes them hot, and is also their botanical name, Capsicum annum. Peppers -- both hot and sweet types -- are annual plants and members of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, eggplant, and deadly nightshade. Native to tropical America, chilies require a long, hot season to thrive. Peppers need ample water during the growing season, which, here in the bay area is May through September.

March is the ideal time to start peppers indoors from seed. Select new varieties from catalogs or garden supply stores. There are fabulous pepper varieties to try. One of my favorites was an All America Selections variety a few years ago called 'Corno del Torro' translated to "Horn of the Bull." Although it looks like a mean hombre, it is mild, tender, and sweet.

The really hot chilies, including Thai, jalapeno, and habenero, require Central Valley type heat to live up to their reputation, but there are varieties that do well in our mild climate.

In the Garden
Young pepper plants should be set out in the garden when the soil is warm, usually around mid April. Ideally, you will place black landscape fabric over the planting bed to increase heat and prevent moisture loss. Once the young pepper plants have been nestled into their prepared bed, it's a good idea to cover them with floating row covers to increase heat and to keep insect pests at bay. This may not look like your idea of a beautiful garden, but your peppers will thank you. This method works well for hot and sweet pepper varieties.

Once summer arrives and the days are long and hot, you can remove the covers. Peppers only need fertilizing once or twice before they bloom, I recommend 15-30-15 applied at half strength.

Peppers grown in containers should be placed against a south-facing wall to get every bit of reflected heat. Their colorful fruit looks festive in a pot and will last through the holidays, given proper care.

Making Repellents
When the peppers are ready to harvest, you can either eat them fresh or dry them to use later for several very practical purposes. Dried chili peppers can be coarsely ground and sprinkled over garden beds and containers to prevent squirrels from digging. Or, make a sun tea from hot chilies to spray on roses to prevent deer from nibbling. Sun tea made from hot peppers can also be used to prevent pets from chewing.

One word of warning; be very careful not to touch your eyes when handling chili peppers and chili pepper seeds. I learned this lesson the hard way...


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