My Red Hot Chile Pepper Addiction

OK, I have an addiction to peppers, specifically hot peppers. I love them. I need them. I want to look at them, smell them, touch them, and eat them.

Ever since I had my own garden, I have grown some hot peppers. These days, I typically grow about 200 plants. The majority of my gardens are planted with hot peppers.

I start thinking about next year’s garden in the middle of winter. What kinds of peppers will I grow? I like to think of my crop in terms of three categories of hot peppers:

There is the “main crop” of Capsicum annum, the species which includes mild bell peppers. This species is believed to be entirely descended from tiny-fruited wild peppers found in the tropical Americas.

For me, main crop peppers, or chilies, are the varieties I most often cook with. They produce the most mass of the overall crop of peppers. I will select several varieties of chilies for roasting green chilies (Anaheim and Mew Mexican types), some for drying (Paprika, New Mexican, and Mexican types), several varieties of Jalapeno and Serrano, and some novelty types such as Thai chilies, chile de arbol, Tabasco, etc. The main crop peppers I grow are in the 10,000 to 60,000 Scoville heat unit (SHU) range.

Jalapeño peppers

In summer, I want fresh jalapeño every day. That is the taste of summer. I grow different varieties to get different shapes, sizes, and heat levels.

I will roast, peel and freeze several gallons of green chilies each year. We eat a lot of these over the summer, too. When the grill is fired, a few chilies go on to roast as a side to the grilled meats. Over the years, I have been expanding the types of chilies grown for roasting and peeling. This year, a new, and delightful, addition has been the Spanish Piquillo chile. It is not hot, and is known as the chile most often used in Spanish cooking, often garnishing a paella.

Spanish Piquillo
Green Chilies to Roast
Roasting Green Chilies

In late summer, as chilies ripen and turn red, I will dry some (some with a smoke treatment first). Some of these are ground to powder, others kept as whole pods.

Smoking peppers
Homemade Chipotles

Green jalapeño and serrano chilies are eaten fresh, added to salsa, pickled and candied. A lot of red jalapeño and serrano chilies are used in my fermented hot sauce. They add a lot of color, a lot of volume, and they ameliorate some of the heat of the hot and super-hot types.

Canning Salsa
Candied jalapeño or “Cowboy Candy”

The novelty main crop peppers are normally just a few added plants. These chilies I will use to flavor dishes, dry and string into ristras, eat fresh, or add into my fermentation crock.

Ristras of Chile De Arbol
Fermenting Peppers for Hot Sauce

Category number 2 is what I call “hot peppers” for hot sauces and condiments, kicking up the heat level of dishes, and adding tropical notes to foods. This category is primarily Capsicum chinense, but can include some C. baccatum types. Chinense chilies include the famous Habanero, and are thought to trace back to a species of yellow lantern chile found wild in warm climates in the Americas.

Make no mistake, the peppers in this group are hot, in the 100,000 Scoville heat unit range, but the main feature is the flavor. I fell in love with the flavor of the regular, orange habanero pepper as soon as I tasted it. I gradually added more, and tried some experimental seeds. I discovered a whole range of fruit flavors that add fresh and tropical elements to many foods.

Capsicum baccatum peppers go into my hot mix. C. baccatum peppers have been used for over 6000 years, tracing back to ancient Peruvian culture. This year I have added a new Capsicum baccatum type to my hot pepper mix. This pepper is called “Sugar Rush Peach.” It is very productive, the peppers are a beautiful pink blush color, and they have a delicious citrus-y flavor I find irresistible.

Sugar Rush Peach — I like them so much I picked before they were fully ripe

I still grow orange and red habaneros, but have added Jamaican Scotch bonnets and others. I will select the varieties by flavor description, color (I prefer yellow), and peppers with thicker walls.

Hot and Super-Hot Peppers

Hot peppers are made into my hot sauces, my wing sauce, 1-2 get added to batches of salsa or a pot of chili. I use some in my jerk rub to freeze and have at the ready for spare ribs on The Porkulator. Some I will dry and powder to add a little zing to certain dishes. I make a jerk powder with dried habanero, and it is very addictive when ground to fine dust and mixed with nuts.

Last, but not least are the so-called “Super-Hot” chilies. These are 500,000 to 2,000,000 Scoville heat units. As soon as I heard about Ghost Peppers, I was set on growing them. Even before then, I was a fan of the Red Savina habanero (500,000 SHU).

Avenir Peppers (500,000 SHU)
Butch T and 7-Pot Brown Peppers (2,000,000 SHU)

Now, you can’t eat a lot of these peppers, but they do add some unique flavors and, yes, they do add a lot of heat. For those of us who crave the heat, these peppers are the ticket!

As an added benefit of these super-hots, they just look angry, but beautiful. They dare you to eat them, and of course I will do that.

Here’s a breakdown of what my gardens hold this year.

I find it hard to resist adding new types, but at some point I find a way to draw the line and stop buying seeds. I like to start peppers in February so they have plenty of time to grow before being set in the garden. Peppers being tropical plants require a long growing season, and I am in Zone 7a. Getting an early start means stronger plants and earlier fruiting.

The seeds are then planted in 72-cell flats. I use high quality seed starting mix. Some of these seeds are expensive, so I need to make sure they are given good conditions to grow. I place the flats on heat mats, cover with a plastic dome, and arrange the flats on a table under my 1000W metal halide grow light.

I used to use fluorescent grow lights, but over time they go dim and need to be replaced. I found that I was replacing bulbs pretty frequently and the quality of the growth was erratic. Since I have been using the metal halide bulb, I have had to replace the bulb twice: once because I failed to wipe off a fingerprint from the bulb so the glass bulged there and the second time because I tried to run my Hobart mixer on the same circuit and it blew the circuit causing the bulb to shatter. Anyway, these bulbs are inexpensive to buy, and typically very reliable.

Some of the annum types will germinate within a week or two. Some of the chinense types will take several weeks to germinate. I plant two seeds in each cell, so if a neighboring cell fails to produce a seedling, I carefully move one of the seedlings from a cell that has two. Sometimes I need to add another seed to get a start in each cell.

It is critical to not over water at any point. The soil must be kept moist, but not wet. Wet soil will cause seeds to rot before germinating, and may cause disease or stunted growth in the plants.

When the majority of the cells have seedlings present, I remove the domes and place a fan in the room for air circulation. I water mainly by misting. I add a small amount of kelp solution to the water for misting. Later, I will add a drop of Super Thrive to the water as the plants get true leaves.

When the plants are strong in their cells and roots have pretty much filled out the cell, I transplant the plants first to 38 cell star flats, and then later move up to 4 inch square deep pots. For the most part, these 4″ pots will be the last stop before going into the garden. However, if any plants need a new home before the time is right to transplant to the gardens, then I will move them one more time to a gallon pot. At these stages for transplanting, I use Pro-Mix soil. I give the plants water when they look like they need it, and now water the soil as well as mist the foliage.

38-cell Star Flats
Ready to move to 4″ Pots

A week before planting in the garden, I start moving the plants outdoors to harden off. This reduces transplant shock when they go in the ground. Plant in the garden about two the three feet apart, leaving room to move through the plants for harvesting. I put 2T of Espoma Tomato Tone and 1/2t of Root Blast in every hole. Side dress with Tomato Tone about every month. Our garden soil is rich with compost and very friable. The last few years I have not bothered to till the soil; I just work in some fresh compost and then mulch around the plants with partially rotted leaves.

Hardening Off

I then just keep an eye on things to looks for pests or diseases. I have to fence my gardens to keep the deer out, too. Deer will even eat plants full of super-hots; not sure how they can do that, but it happens.

Soon the harvest comes, and I am a kid in a very spicy candy store!

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