Make your summer even hotter with hot peppers

Story and Photos by Bob Westerfield

When it comes to the summer garden, peppers are certainly a favorite. They are almost as ubiquitous as tomatoes and I would venture to say there are an equal number of available varieties in an abundance of shapes, sizes, and colors. Most gardeners’ favorite peppers are the sweet bell varieties, as well as some of the mild banana types. But for an adventurous few, there is also an abundant selection of hot peppers that can spice up the many dishes you will serve this summer.

Hot peppers, commonly called chile peppers, are divided into categories depending on the intensity of their heat. The heat actually comes out of the seeds of the peppers and is measured in Scoville units. On the “cooler” side of the hot peppers are the jalapeños that usually measure in the 3,000 to 5,000 Scoville heat range. From there, ‘Tabasco’-type peppers move up to the 30,000 to 50,000 range. On the highest end of the hot scale are the torturous ‘Habanero’ types that can hit intense heat levels up to a staggering 300,000 units or more. Fortunately, there are many varieties between all of these that should allow you to select one that is perfect for your culinary needs.

Let me clear something up that I often see confused when it comes to peppers. The color of the pepper has no bearing on how hot the fruit will be. Even the super-sweet bell peppers will turn from bright green to deep red if left on the vine long enough. The color change does not alter the heat intensity at all and being left on the vine usually makes bell peppers sweeter. 

Another word of caution: Some of the hottest peppers, such as ‘Tabasco’ and ‘Habanero’, should be handled with care. The intensity of their hotness can actually burn your skin, particularly if it gets near sensitive areas such as your lips, eyes, or nose. I have personally witnessed a few brave, or should is say, seemingly clueless, individuals that bragged about how they could eat the hottest of peppers raw without a problem. While I felt their pain, it’s kind of amusing to see someone drink ½ gallon of milk to put out the fire in their throat. Most of these hot peppers are best used in preparing other foods and as a seasoning. At my house, we love to use the mid-range varieties for making salsa and taco sauce. My wife is great at canning these and they make great small gifts for Christmas and other occasions. ‘Jalapeño’ peppers are mild enough that they can be eaten alone or in the raw state. It is a popular topping on pizza and other dishes.

Regardless of which hot pepper you select, good garden practices will help you to achieve a bountiful harvest. While in the same family as tomatoes, peppers are not quite as problematic in terms of disease and insect issues. However, even they are a little easier to grow, they still need well-amended soil and full sunlight. Peppers will do poorly if direct seeded in the garden. Start your own transplants indoors about six weeks before time to plant outside. You can also purchase transplants at your local garden center, however, variety selection may be limited.

Soil fertility is also important, so have your garden soil tested before planting. A pH of 6.2-6.8 should be perfect for growing your peppers. In the absence of a soil test, begin feeding them at planting time with 2 teaspoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer, spread a few inches from the base of the plant. After the blooms have been pollinated and begin to form tiny peppers, give them another equal shot of fertilizer. You then can continue to fertilize lightly every few weeks throughout the growing season. In my garden, spring-planted peppers have lasted as late as the first frost in the fall. 

A ‘Jalapeno’-type, which can range from mild to hot.

Your pepper plants will require approximately 1 inch of water per week and probably more if growing in raised beds. While I mentioned peppers are easier to grow than tomatoes, you still need to watch them for potential disease and insects.

It would be impossible to list all of the available pepper varieties in this article even if I just focused on the hot types. As you’re looking through the catalogs, just be aware of what you’re ordering as they should be categorized in relative heat pungency. In general, here is a guideline of the categories you will see:

• Some of the milder hot peppers are ‘Anaheim’, which are mildly hot, long green peppers and ‘Ancho’, also known as ‘Poblano’.

• Medium-hot ‘Jalapeño’ peppers can be dried and smoked to create chipotle. There is also the medium-mild pasillas and the small ‘Serrano’ chiles.

• The red and gold ‘Cayenne’ varieties are very pungent.

• ‘Habanero’ types are some of the hottest and there are several varieties to select from. Most people say the habaneros are the hottest chiles in the world, although ‘Thai Hot’ and ‘Chiltepin’ can give almost any ‘Habanero’ a run for its money.

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