Until recently, if you wanted to add a little fire to your food, you didn’t have many choices. You can grind the pepper on your plate or sprinkle on some dried red chili flakes. If you were really brave, you could give your food a few squirts of Tabasco. But the pickings were pretty slim.
Recently, however, the whole topic of spicy, ethnic cuisine has become hotter than habaneros. Authentic Mexican food, Thai food, and Hunan cuisine are all the rage—and they all use some form of chile for their heat. As a result, you’ll find that most supermarkets have a variety of hot chili sauces on their shelves and lots of fresh chilies in their produce section. The sudden popularity of chili peppers is good news for the vegetable gardener: Almost every seed catalog you open now lists many hot chili varieties.
You’ve probably heard that variety is the spice of life. We’ll take it a step further and say that growing a variety of chilies will add a lot of spice to your life, your kitchen, and your garden. It takes a bit of work—you’ll need a heat mat to grow from seed and you’ll have to transplant the plants twice—but you’ll be rewarded with a colorful and flavorful abundance of different peppers.
Heat it up.
- Start chile seeds in flats eight weeks before transplanting outdoors.
- Set flat on a germination heat mat set at 80°F.
- As the seeds germinate, shine a fluorescent light directly over the plants, almost touching them.
- After four weeks, transplant them into small pots and keep them warm.
- After another four weeks, harden them off and plant outside when the garden soil is warm.
- Plant to prevent tipping.
- Prune peppers as they ripen to encourage the plant to continue flowering.
Choose peppers based on your heat tolerance.
Not all types of chiles are extremely hot. Some are quite mild and only slightly tingle your tongue. And don’t confuse the heat of chile with its flavor. Flavor and heat are two separate sensations, and all peppers have both.
New Mexican chiles are only mildly warm. If you peruse a seed catalog, you’ll notice that New Mexican, Anaheim, or long green and red peppers are the same variety. Call them what you will, all varieties of this type of chile have productive, 12- to 20-inch-tall plants. Some pods hang down, while others, called Mirasols, point straight up. Expect up to 75 pods per plant. New Mexican chiles are eaten fresh as green peppers, but when they turn red, they become sweeter and hotter.
Poblanos There are large, mild-flavored peppers that are perfect in chile rellenos—whole peppers fried in a batter of stuffed eggs. Plants are not particularly productive. Even newer, improved varieties often grow less than 10 pods per plant. Poblanos have thin walls, making them perfect for drying. After they ripen, from dark green to bright red, you can tie the peppers together and hang them in the sun or another dry place, then use them year-round. When they are dried, poblanos are called anchos.
Hungarian wax chiles (photo, right) are bright yellow in color, and have a mild flavor that is more like sweet chili than hot chili. There are medium hot and hot varieties. The plants are very productive, and they set pods early, making them good for northern gardens. Most will ripen to red and orange that are deliciously sweet.
chili pepperBoth red and gold are great for adding just plain warmth to anything. The plants are small, but they produce many peppers that ripen quickly. One or two small plants will provide enough for the year. Their thin skins make them excellent drying peppers.
Jalapeños These are probably the best middle-of-the-road chiles because they’re not too hot and not too mild. These are the peppers that most people imagine when they think of hot peppers. Jalapeños are the standard salsa chiles and canned peppers you see in the Mexican food section of your supermarket. All jalapeño varieties are productive, with each plant producing about 75 pods. Jalapeños can be used green or when they are ripe
A bright red color.
Serranos There are small finger size tablets of heat. They can be used green, but we think they turn bright red after cooking in salsas, chutneys, stews, and soups. Plants are tall and wide, growing up to 3 feet in both directions. Serranos produce beans much later than jalapeños, but when they do, the plants are full.
Most people say. habaneros It is the hottest type of chili in the world. Many habanero chiles have small squarish beans with many folds and cracks. One catalog describes its ‘Golden Habanero’ as “positively nuclear”. Of all the habaneros, the Scotch Bonnet is our favorite small, fiery chile for spicy Asian stir fries, curry dishes, salsas and marinades. It still has some wonderful, fruity habanero flavor, but it’s not as hot as some habaneros. The plants are short and wide, and they set pods in large numbers, even in summers that didn’t have enough sun or warm weather to produce other habaneros.
Seeds do not make chilies hot.
Pepper’s heat comes from capsaicin (cap-SAY-a-sin): the light-colored, pulpy membrane (ribs) inside the walls of the chile pod. Capsaicin is a tasteless, odorless compound that is soluble in water. This is why drinking water or chewing ice cubes will not relieve the burning sensation especially after eating hot peppers. To minimize the release of capsaicin, cut the chile in half, remove the ribs and seeds and wash well.
Heat is essential for successful seed initiation.
To start the seeds, we spread about 2 inches of a very porous seed-starting mix in a plug tray. Of course, chile seeds need water, but chile’s tiny roots cannot tolerate wet soil and need oxygen. Make sure your potting mix provides good drainage and aeration. Sprinkle the seeds thinly over the mixture, then cover them with ½ inch of potting mix.
Place the tray on the germination heat mat, and set the thermostat so that the soil is at about 80°F. After the seeds germinate, which can take five days to two weeks, they will need a lot of light. If you don’t have a greenhouse, place the tray on a windowsill and fill in the natural light with a fluorescent bulb. Keep the lamp almost touching the tops of the plants, raising it as the plants grow.
The two cotyledons, or seed leaves, will open first. In about four weeks, when the next set of leaves open—the first true leaves—we transplant these plants into plastic pots or six-packs. We find six packs more convenient because they make the most of the space available on the heating mat.
Transplanting helps peppers develop a strong root system. Strong roots can prevent the plant from falling over when it is full of pods. Adjust the temperature of the heat mat so that the soil is about 75°F, and place the lamp over the plants.
Water the plants enough to keep the soil evenly moist. Every other watering can be a weak solution—twice the recommended amount of water—of either fish emulsion or a low-nitrogen soluble starter fertilizer (15-25-25). Nitrogen is great for leaf growth, but too much nitrogen can stunt the growth of chile plant pods.
Plant plants to protect from the sun.
Chili plants thrive in full sun. In fact, they need full sun for the pods to ripen. The problem is that the beans can suffer from sunburn, which makes them taste sour. Because chile plants—especially larger varieties, like poblanos—tend to tip over and expose their pods to the hot sun, we stake each plant right after it goes into the ground, then Push dirt around it for extra support.
Plant your chiles in the garden.
If you plant peppers in the garden too soon, they will not do well. With warm nighttime temperatures, you also need garden soil that feels warm to your wrist when you dig your hand into the ground. If you can’t wait for the weather at all, you can warm your soil by covering it with a layer of black plastic.
Hardening involves gradually lowering the soil temperature and allowing the soil to dry out slightly between each watering. Plants can spend their seventh week outdoors in their pots if you’re sure the nighttime temperature is at least 45°F.
If night temperatures are consistently above 55°F, you can transplant the chiles outside in about eight weeks. But if the soil isn’t warm or the nights are still too cool, you should protect the plants in the garden with some sort of row cover or keep the plants indoors for a while, adding a light fertilizer to the pots.
A sunny garden rich in compost is best for peppers. As before, when you’re feeding newly transplanted plants, don’t use nitrogen-rich organic fertilizers that can inhibit pod production.
To plant your peppers, poke a hole with your hand that’s a little deeper than the pots. Then transplant into these holes, burying the root balls up to the cotyledons (bottom left photo, facing page). Fill in the hole, and firm the soil. Continue to water the transplants with the same fertilizer you were using for the plants, and you’ll be harvesting before you know it.
The more you pick, the more you get.
You can start picking your peppers when they are ripe, before they reach their final color. Except for some yellow peppers, such as Hungarian wax, mature peppers are green. Find a full-sized pod, and squeeze it gently. It should be heavy and feel thick and hard. Pruning the peppers as they ripen encourages the plant to continue flowering. If you keep picking mature green chilies, your overall yield will be higher.
But don’t feel like you need to pick all the beans when you’re done. As the peppers ripen, their flavor, heat, and beauty increase until the peppers reach their final color of deep green, yellow, orange, or red, depending on the variety. When the pepper reaches its ripe color, it should be chopped. Otherwise, it will dry out and become soft. Chili beans are best cut using clippers or scissors. Pulling the pods can tear the plant.
Lee James and his brother, Wayne, own Terra Vegetables in Healdsburg, California.
Photos, except where noted: Boyd Hagen