Growing your own hot peppers at home
Story and Photos by Jennifer Williams
Peppers are among the easiest vegetable plants for the beginner gardener and a staple of most home gardens. Popular peppers include ‘Anaheim’, cayenne types, ‘Serrano’, ‘Habanero’, and large cherry peppers. Not only do these peppers spice up the table, but they spice up the garden too. Typically, hot peppers are allowed to ripen from green to a variety of reds, oranges, yellows, and even purples. For an unconventional use, bring chile peppers into the landscape or in pots to add some spice to your curb appeal.
For a successful harvest, start your pepper plants indoors about eight weeks before the last frost. Using a good starting medium, sow seeds ¼ inch deep and water gently. Pepper seeds need a warm start – using a heat mat will help keep the soil in the desired 80-85 F range. In addition to warm feet, place seed trays in a southern or southwestern exposure or provide supplemental light.
Pepper plants can be temperamental as they get close to setting fruit. Nighttime temperatures below 60 F or above 75 F can inhibit fruit growth. Waiting to set plants outdoors until two to three weeks after the last frost will give them a head start. Prepare garden beds with well-draining, fertile soil. Plant rotation is important for maintaining healthy, disease-free plants. Do not plant your crop where other members of the Solanaceae family have been located over the past several years. Plant 12-24 inches apart in rows 24-36 inches apart in a full sun location.
To ensure a healthy crop, maintain a steady water supply and be careful when fertilizing. Too much nitrogen on your plants will inhibit fruiting. Keeping soil rich in phosphorus, potassium, and calcium will help production. Using soaker hoses will provide water where it is most needed, at the roots.
Mulch with black plastic or similar material to maintain heat and moisture in the soil.
Taller varieties will need to be staked for stronger growth and production. As the season goes on, covering with a light fabric on cooler nights will extend your harvest as we head into fall.
Harvest & Storage
The average hot pepper reaches maturity at 65-95 days, depending on the variety. You want to wait to harvest the fruit until the pepper reaches a uniform color. However, make sure to keep a close eye on your plants to prevent peppers from over-ripening, cracking, or sunscalding.
Wash your harvest and dry before storing. When stored in a cool (45-50 F), moist (95 percent relative humidity) environment peppers, can last two to three weeks. You can freeze your hot peppers, either whole or sliced. When freezing, they will become slightly mushy when thawed, hence using in place of fresh peppers is not recommended. You can also dry your peppers for a variety of uses. One method is to string up peppers and hang in a cool, dark, dry location. Peppers stored this way can take up to four months to fully dry out.
Members of the Solanaceae family are prone to several diseases, including tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), bacterial spot, and anthracnose (a fungal disease). The easiest way to prevent disease is to purchase disease-free seed or transplants, as these are the most common places to find TMV and bacterial spot. Keeping garden beds free of plant debris that harbor the fungal spores and disease is also essential.
Common pests that may attach your plants include aphids, flea beetles, cutworms, and European corn borers. You can use insecticidal soap to remove aphids, or simply spray mature plants with strong streams of water to knock insects off. Hand-removing pests can also be helpful for smaller infestations.
The last major problem you may encounter is blossom-end rot. This condition is characterized by a dark, rotting spot at the end of your fruit. This damage can be caused by several factors. The first is calcium deficiency, which can be a soil fertility issue or because the soil pH is too low, which prevents calcium from being taken up by the plant. Blossom-end rot can also be caused by high overnight temperatures (over 75 F) or excessive fruit set on the plant.
How to Make Homemade Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Pick the peppers! When choosing the peppers to use in your crushed pepper mix, make sure you taste (carefully) your options for not only heat level, but also for flavor. Determine how big a batch you want to make. It takes a lot of hot peppers to make 1 cup of crushed red pepper flakes. (For example, it can take 71 serrano peppers to make 1 cup of flakes).
Drying your peppers will take time and can be done utilizing a dehydrator or a conventional oven set at 170 F. Carefully remove the stems from your peppers and slice them in half, placing them in a single layer on an ungreased cookie sheet. Do not remove the seeds, as they carry a lot of the heat! If using an oven, turn off the oven after six hours and leave the peppers in the oven overnight. If using a dehydrator, continue with heat until peppers are completely dried.
Use a food processor or your hands to crush the dried peppers. If you are going to crush them by hand, make sure to use gloves or crush them in a sealed plastic bag.
Store crushed pepper flakes in an airtight container and serve as needed with your favorite culinary dishes.