Tips and how to for growing hot peppers in your own home food garden.
Peppers, one of the most popular vegetables grown in home gardens, are available in an astonishing variety of colors, shapes, and heat levels. Peppers are not difficult to grow, but most gardeners find that the hotter the pepper, the warmer the weather they need to produce their best.
Choose a variety of hot pepper that suits your taste, and according to the purpose you have in mind. Some “hot” peppers are actually quite mild, but others are so fiery that you need gloves just to harvest them. The heat in peppers comes from a chemical called capsaicin, and is measured in Scoville Units. Seed catalogs often rank their varieties by Scovilles, so you’ll know how hot the peppers (also called “pods”) will be. Much of the capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds, so if you’re using the peppers in a recipe you can choose to either include or discard the seeds to control the level of heat in the finished dish.
Peppers are rarely direct-seeded into the garden soil; most growers plant them in seed flats or other seed starting containers early in the spring. If you start your own, make sure they’re in a warm spot with lots of sun or bright grow lights. Peppers can be difficult to germinate; applying bottom heat helps. An ideal spot for the seed flats is the top of the refrigerator – but move the flat as soon as the seeds sprout so it can get plenty of light. Exposing the seedlings to a light breeze or brushing your hand over them several times a day will help them to grow stocky stems.
If you choose to purchase seedlings from a grower, select stocky, bushy plants with a deep emerald green color. Avoid plants with yellow, mottled, or black speckled leaves, as these are signs of disease. If your seedlings have blooms or peppers already developing, you should remove them. This will give your pepper plants a bit more energy for root development before more pods are produced, resulting in a higher yield later on.
Plant your peppers in a location that has fertiled, well-drained soil and gets full sun for at least eight hours a day. They like plenty of nutrients in the soil, so be sure to amend it with plenty of compost or fertilizer. Peppers are not cold-hardy, so you’ll need to wait until you’re certain there will be no frosty nights. The season can be extended somewhat by using plant shelters, but since warm soil is needed too, gardeners in northern climates may need to apply black plastic or landscape cloth for additional heating.
Pests that may nibble on your pepper plants include aphids, flea beetles, and hornworms. If they invade, you may want to apply a spray containing pyrethrins. Alternatively, let them defend each other – make or purchase a hot pepper spray. This hot stuff will defend your peppers, and other garden plants as well, from most pests from bugs to hungry bunnies. This is a great reason to grow hot peppers, even if you don’t want to eat them!
Your peppers are also susceptible to diseases such as tobacco mosaic virus, blossom end rot, verticillium wilt, anthracnose, and bacterial spot. To prevent these diseases from affecting your garden, take the following precautions:
- If you smoke, wash hands before handling seedlings.
- Only purchase seedlings from reputable sources, or grow your own.
- Don’t plant peppers near related plants, such as tomatoes, potatoes, or eggplant.
- Water thoroughly, regularly, and make sure it’s early enough that the plants have time to dry out before dusk.
- Space plants properly to allow for good air circulation.
- Destroy plants that show signs of disease immediately.
Most pepper varieties can be harvested either green or later, when they change their color – whether it’s red, yellow, or even purple. It may be difficult to wait for them to ripen and mature, but ripe peppers have a more complex, full-bodied flavor and are more attractive in dishes.
Once you start growing this versatile, beautiful plant, you’ll want to experiment with every variety there is and with the many ways to serve them. Chances are you’ll run out of garden space long before you run out of hot peppers to grow there.