Growing spicy peppers in your Tenenssee garden
Story and Photos by Cindy Shapton
Whether you love food with a little kick or so hot it brings tears to your eyes, having fresh peppers (Capsicum spp.) in the garden or in containers right outside your door is downright handy when you have a hankering for some extra heat in the kitchen.
Peppers come in many shapes and colors and have varying degrees of heat. The “hotness” of a pepper comes from a compound called capsaicin, which is analyzed and rated on a scale of 0 (bell peppers) to over 2 million (‘Trindad Moruga Scorpion’) Scoville Heat Units (SHU).
Those who like their peppers fiery say the secret lies in hot nights, which stress the plant, concentrating more sizzle in the fruit. Although a run of 90-plus F days along with nights over 75 F can result in pepper plants dropping their blooms, producing less or no fruit. I’ve talked to gardeners who tell me that if the daytime temperature is higher than 85 F they will cool the plants with a sprinkling of water.
Growing Pepper Plants
Start seed indoors eight to 10 weeks before the last frost or buy starter plants from a reputable, locally owned nursery.
Choose a sunny spot in the garden with good drainage and add compost. Peppers will also do well in containers with good potting soil. Do not plant peppers until the soil is warm (70 F). Peppers just stand still in cooler weather, so no need to be a big hurry.
Space 12 inches apart in raised beds and 18 inches apart with 2-3 feet between rows in a conventional garden. Peppers like to just touch their pepper neighbors; this also helps shade out weeds.
Water regularly throughout the growing season, at least 1 inch a week, avoiding overhead irrigation. Fertilize if necessary; I add good compost to the soil before planting.
Pests – such as like aphids, hornworms, cutworms and cucumber beetles – can cause problems so be vigilant and treat organically whenever possible with insecticidal soap, Bt (hornworms), hand picking, and stem collars (cutworms). Plant pollinator-friendly plants in your plot to encourage beneficial insects to live in your garden and help you out by preying on bad bugs.
Diseases problems can be greatly reduced by planting in healthy soil; buying quality, disease-free seed and plants; keeping weeds out; watering at the base of a plant rather than overhead; crop rotation; and watching for any wilting, leaf spot, or drop.
Saving pepper seeds is fine if you are growing open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, as it is rare for cross-pollination to occur. Do not save hybrid seeds, as they will revert to one of their parents. Will sweet peppers become hot because they are growing next to hot peppers? No worries, that’s just an old wives’ tale.
NOTE: Wear gloves when harvesting or cooking hot peppers. If the heat gets to be too much while enjoying your hot fruit, I’ve heard some advise eating sour cream or a banana to stop the burn.
FROM MILD TO HOT
Poblano (C. annuum) peppers are like a “gateway” pepper to hotter peppers and my personal favorite when I need a capsaicin fix. About 65 days from transplant to first green pepper, poblanos can be eaten dark green or red. Roasted and peeled green fruits are used chile rellenos. Dried fruits turn a dark reddish brown and can be ground into classic chile powder. Freeze whole fruits for winter use. Try them sautéed with sweetpotatoes. 1,000-2,000 SHU
Jalapeño (C. annuum) peppers are tasty and ready to harvest at all stages of maturity, but the best flavor is usually when they develop cracks on their shoulders. There are large, disease-resistant hybrids as well as smaller heirloom varieties available. Easy to freeze – just place whole in freezer bag. 0-50,000 SHU
‘Serrano’ (C. annuum) peppers can be harvested green in about 60 days or wait until they turn red. Disease-resistant hybrids are available. Freeze them whole for winter use. 6,000-23,000 SHU
Cayenne (C. annuum) peppers are easy to grow and easy to dry. I carefully grind the dried fruit and keep at the ready next to the salt and black pepper for adding just the right amount of heat to whatever I’m cooking or eating. 30,000-50,000 SHU
‘Tabasco’ (C. frutescens) is an heirloom pepper introduced in Louisiana in 1848 and the main ingredient in Tabasco Sauce. This pepper reaches 4 feet tall and doesn’t mind a little relief from the hot afternoon sun. Harvest begins at about 90 days when they are the perfect shade of red. 30,000-70,000 SHU
‘Thai’ (C. annuum) are small pointy fruit that are ready in about 75 days green or can wait until they turn red. Dry or freeze for winter. 30,000-50,000 SHU
Habanero (C. chinense) are the hottest of the peppers listed here and are available in many varieties and colors. Early, late, hot, hotter – you can choose. They usually take 70-90 days to full maturity. Can be frozen whole for winter use. 0-500,000 SHU