Growing hot and hotter peppers in the home garden
Story by Katharine Musso
Hot peppers are used to add heat to dishes across the globe: Mexican salsa, Ethiopian Berbere stew, and Thai red curry, to name just a few. Fresh hot peppers can be used for an authentic classic pasta sauce arrabbiata, which means “angry” in Italian.
The pungency of hot peppers – which varies by variety, growing, conditions, etc. – is measured in Scoville heat units, which are listed on the Scoville scale. We’ll look at a few hot peppers commonly grown in Alabama gardens, starting with the mildest and working up the scale.
‘Poblano’ peppers are very mild, with a SHU score of 1,000 to 2,000, making them ideal for wary diners. With just a little heat, these peppers are often served whole, either roasted or stuffed. When dried, they’re called ancho peppers. ‘Ancho 101’ seeds are widely available and produce 4-inch fruits on 2½-foot tall plants with fruit turning green in approximately 75 days.
Chopped finely while still green, ‘Jalapeno’ peppers are a familiar addition to Mexican salsas. As with all hot peppers, the heat is intensified in the seeds and care should be taken when slicing and handling the fruit. ‘Jalapeno’ peppers register anywhere between 2,500 and 10,000 SHU. If the fruit is allowed to mature to red and then ground up, it is known as “chipotle.” Plants can be harvested approximately 70 days after transplant. ‘Senorita’ is a ‘Jalapeno’-type pepper that is comparatively mild.
Cayenne varieties deliver the heat at 30,000-50,000 SHU. Fruits mature in 65 days and there are varieties with red, green, and gold fruit. In addition to culinary uses, red peppers can be dried for decoration in wreaths or swags. Try ‘NuMex Joe E Parker’ for peppers at the lower end of the heat range.
As you would expect, ‘Tabasco’ peppers are the basis for the famous sauce. Fruits mature at 80 days on easy-to-grow plants. At 50,000 SHU when ripe red, tabascos are typically used sparingly.
‘Habanero’ peppers are for daredevils only at 100,000-300,000 SHU. There are a few fanatics who strive to up the heat levels even further: ‘Trinidad Moruga Scorpion’ has 2,000,000 SHU (!) but the ‘Habanero’ is about the height of most people’s tolerance.
Hot pepper plants may be a little tricky to establish, but are worth the extra effort. Pepper seeds are slow to germinate. Care must be taken to keep them just moist enough to sprout, but not so saturated that they mold or rot. Cayenne types may take 10-12 days to germinate while habanero peppers may take up to a month.
Seedlings should be started eight to 10 weeks before transplanting outdoors. Direct sowing is not recommended. Using a heated germination mat guarantees the 70-80 F range finicky hot pepper plants require. Alternatively, place seeds in moistened paper towels and place in a plastic bag in a warm location. Check daily for germination and transplant to a soil mix when sprouted. You may want to experiment with scarifying the seed coatings of longer germinating varieties by rubbing with a very gentle sandpaper.
Transplants should be moved outdoors to a full sun site and placed 18 inches apart. With regular watering and fertilization with a well-balanced formula, plants should thrive. Be careful not to apply excess nitrogen but do supplement with calcium to prevent the development of blossom-end rot. Transplants should be planted again at the beginning of July for a fall crop.
Pepper plants are susceptible to a familiar array of pests and diseases, so a regular spraying schedule is recommended. Typical diseases include southern blight, powdery mildew, and bacterial leaf spot. Use a copper-based fungicide or neem oil spray at the beginning of the growing season before symptoms appear and then follow instructions for repeat applications (typically 10-14 days). Remember, while these sprays may be derived from nature, care must be taken in handling and storage. Read the instructions and don’t overdo it.
To avoid spreading soil-borne diseases, water at soil level to avoid upward splashing. Equally important, make sure not to plant peppers in soil that other peppers, tomatoes, or eggplant have been planted the preceding two years or so to avoid soil-borne diseases. If garden space is limited for crop rotation, consider that pepper plants are quite attractive and manageable in size and therefore can be planted in containers, flowerbeds, and other ornamental planting areas.
Arrabbiata “Angry” Pasta Sauce
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 minced ‘Jalapeno’ peppers (seeds removed)
• 1 clove minced garlic
• 1 small chopped onion
• 26-ounce box or can pureed or finely chopped tomatoes
• 2 cups chopped and seeded fresh paste or ‘Roma’ tomatoes
• 1 sprig chopped basil
• Parmesan or pecorino cheese
Heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté peppers, garlic, and onion until translucent, approximately 5 minutes. Add paste/’Roma’ tomatoes and cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add pureed/chopped tomatoes and heat thoroughly for 10 minutes. Add basil and pepper. Serve over cooked pasta with cheese to taste.