Growing hot peppers at home in Oklahoma

Story by Dee A. Nash, Photos by Bob Westerfield

Hot peppers sport names as interesting as their flavors and colors. From the medium-hot ‘Bishop’s Crown’ to the exceedingly hot ‘Carolina Reaper’, there’s a hot pepper to suit anyone’s taste buds. One way to decide which hot peppers to grow is by using the Scoville scale, which measures peppers “heat” according to their capsaicin concentration. Most seed companies use the Scoville scale. 

Because of our long, hot summers, growing hot peppers is fairly easy. Start plants indoors from seed or buy transplants from your local nursery. Plant hot pepper plants deep because, like tomatoes, they develop roots along their buried stems. When planting outdoors, fertilize pepper plants with an all-purpose organic fertilizer. Just sprinkle some in the planting hole according to the package directions. Work fertilizer into the soil around the drip line again once the pepper plants bloom.

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

To grow the most unique peppers, start from seed. By growing your own seeds, you control how peppers are grown. If you’re an organic gardener, it can be hard to find organic plants. Start seeds eight to 10 weeks before Oklahoma’s average last freeze date, which, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, can be anywhere from March 26 to April 25, depending on where you live in the state. 

No matter how you grow them, hot peppers are delicious and add spice to most dishes.

Starting seeds is simple. Although pepper seeds sometimes have a low germination rate, if you buy your seeds from a reputable company, you shouldn’t have much trouble with germination. To make sure seeds are viable, you can use the wet paper towel method. Wet a paper towel and wring out excess moisture. Place seeds inside the paper towel and fold it over. Leave some space between the seeds. Place the paper towel and seeds in a labeled, unsealed plastic sandwich bag. Keep seeds in a warm spot inside your house, around 65-70 F. Check seeds daily and moisten paper towels if necessary with water in a spray bottle. Pepper seeds usually germinate in one to two weeks. If the seeds have longer roots and grip the paper towel, just cut around roots and plant the paper towel along with the seed into good quality potting soil. 

An alternative seed-starting method is to use small, clean containers. Clean recycled lettuce containers are great for sowing seeds. Potting soil made specifically for seed starting isn’t required. Any good potting soil will work. Make sure each section is marked with a tag or otherwise labeled. Moisten potting soil and plant seeds ½ inch deep and cover and then water with non-chlorinated water. Cover containers with plastic bags or other similar material to retain soil moisture. Place plants on a heat mat under full-spectrum lights. Once the plants have germinated and started growing, remove the plastic cover. If plants outgrow their containers before it’s time to transplant outdoors, move them to larger containers. 

A ‘Cayenne’-type pepper can be very hot depending on the specific variety.

Don’t transplant peppers outside until nighttime temperatures are in the mid-50s. Peppers, as other hot weather vegetables, appreciate long warm nights and even warmer days. Check your local weather forecast before deciding when to transplant. Oklahoma’s spring weather is unpredictable. If you absolutely cannot wait to move them outside, protect young plants with covers at night. If you can wait, later transplants will soon catch up with any planted out earlier. 

Peppers prefer well-drained garden soil in an area that receives six to eight hours of sunlight every day. You can also successfully grow peppers in raised beds or large containers. Don’t use terra-cotta pots, however, because they dry out very quickly in hot weather. Although you can water with a hose-end sprayer, drip irrigation is most efficient.

Peppers can be harvested at each stage of fruit development once fruit reaches full size. You can eat peppers when they are green if you can’t wait until they’ve reached their ripened color. Many chile peppers get hotter as they ripen. ‘Jalapeño’, ‘Serrano’, ‘Poblano’, and their related varieties are often sold unripe (green.) When ‘Poblano’ peppers are ripened and dried, they are known as ancho chiles. 

No matter how you grow them, hot peppers are delicious and add spice to most dishes. Try them in eggs, salsas, cheese dishes, with sausage for a delicious bite, even in chili … the possibilities are endless.

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