Thomas Jefferson grew them. So did George Washington. Christopher Columbus brought them to Europe. A famous rock band got its name from them. Their botanical name,capsicum, may have come from the Latin word capsa or box, but those of us in the know think they are named from the Greek word capto meaning “I bite!”
Do you have the hot answer for this gardening question? Yeppers … peppers!
You may think of them as vegetables, but actually they are fruits. These days, they are — pardon the pun — HOT stuff! Peppers are everywhere, in Italian, Mexican, and Asian cuisine. The good news is they are easy to grow. You can include peppers in your backyard garden, or in containers on your patio, and add some flavor, spice, or downright heat to your cooking.
Peter Piper picked…
A huge variety is available, from the versatile and mild green bell pepper to the hottest-on-record, the fiery habanero. Planting and cultivation is the same for all types.
Since virtually all peppers, both mild and hot, are native to tropical areas in South and Central America, their growing requirements include heat. They must not be directly planted into the garden until all danger of frost is past. You can get a jump-start by starting seeds indoors about eight weeks before the last frost date in your area.
Plant seeds in containers that are at least three inches deep (old cottage cheese or yogurt cartons, half milk cartons, cut-off two-liter soda or water bottles). Use a good seed-starting soil mix, and place the containers in a warm area in your home, perhaps the top of the refrigerator or water heater.
After the first leaves appear, be sure the seedlings get plenty of light — about fourteen to sixteen hours a day. This is best accomplished with fluorescent lights, keeping the light two or three inches above the top of the plants. Don’t water until the top of the soil is dry — use the finger-poke test to gauge when it’s time for a drink.
When the plants have several sets of leaves, it’s time to move them into individual four-inch pots or into a deeper flat. Transplant them so that the soil comes up to the base of the lower leaves. Water carefully and in a week use a good all-purpose fertilizer, diluted half-strength.
It’s time to move them out into the garden when nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees. Expose the seedlings gradually to outdoor conditions by first moving them into a shady area. Transplant on an overcast day to minimize stress. Set plants two feet apart and several inches deeper into the ground than they were in the containers. Roots will form along the stem, resulting in stronger plants. Firm the soil around the plants; water well. Fertilize once a month with an all-purpose fertilizer.
Weed and water consistently (mulch will help). The most common problem with peppers is inappropriate watering. Too little will result in blossom end rot, and too much will cause root rot. Again, the finger-poke test is the best way to judge when to water.
Harvest when the fruits are large and glossy, or wait till the peppers turn red and the flavor is full. Cut — don’t pull — the fruit from the stem. Pick your peppers regularly; the plant will keep producing all season.
What to grow
Deciding which peppers to grow depends mostly on what you like. Take a look at the many seed catalogs for the greatest selection, but also visit your local garden center for peppers that are best suited for your area. In addition to the mild and versatile green bell pepper, you may also find Anaheim, ancho, banana, cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, thai, yellow wax, and the very scary habanero. If you are unfamiliar with the “heat factor” of the pepper you are considering, ask your garden representative for a look at the Scoville Test, which ranks peppers according to their pungency.
What to do with them
Picking your peppers regularly will guarantee you a long season of fruit. It may also guarantee you more fruit than you know what to do with. Here are some ideas to preserve your harvest into the cold season, when peppers may be a wonderful memory of summer.
Freezing: This is easy. Wearing rubber gloves (I don’t recommend — I insist on this!) cut the peppers in half, and scoop out the seeds. Place cut peppers on a cookie sheet and place in freezer for 30 minutes. Remove and immediately put into a zip-lock freezer bag. You can remove peppers, as needed, throughout the year for use in a variety of dishes.
Drying: Another easy option. String peppers, using a needle and thread, and hang them to dry. Called ristras,they add a beautifully decorative touch to your kitchen. Once dry, you can chop or grind them into your own chile powder.
Pickle: Pickled peppers are a wonder addition to salads, and stand well on their own. Check a good cookbook for instructions on how to pickle or preserve peppers in a brine or solution of vinegar and other seasonings.
Vinegars, Oils, Jellies: Flavored vinegars and oils have many culinary uses as salad dressings and marinades. Combine herbs with peppers to create your own trademark creation. If you enjoy making jelly, consider Jalapeno Jelly, a great cracker spread paired with cream cheese.
Colorful, flavorful, and healthful … go pick a peck of peppers!