story and photography by Jodi DeLong
It all began with a sweet green pepper. I’ve always loved sweet peppers, and it used to be, a generation or so ago, that you could always get green, and sometimes red, peppers fresh at grocery stores. The fancy colours, the procession of hot peppers, those were exotics from elsewhere; and besides, I didn’t like hot peppers.
How things do change.
Thanks to farmers in our region, we can get sweet peppers in pretty much every colour from white to purple. There are adorable mini peppers in red, yellow and orange that are sublime on the barbecue, and of course the big glossy beauties that invite stuffing, or being a star of the stirfry or salad.
Then there are the hot peppers, from the mild ‘sweet with heat’ varieties to the middling-hot cayenne and Tabasco peppers, to the getting-warmer Habaneros to the five-alarm Carolina Reaper, Ghost and Komodo Dragon varieties. Because I like to experiment with multicultural cuisines, I have embraced many hot peppers, although I pass on the mega-hot ones—I eat hot peppers for the flavours they bring, not to see how much pain I can endure.
This fondness for peppers of all sorts led me to start growing hot varieties a few years ago. I don’t usually grow the sweet varieties because again, thanks to the plethora of farmers in the Annapolis Valley, I can get all the sweet peppers I want, leaving me to use my limited garden space for hot peppers and other favourites like herbs, heritage and hybrid tomatoes, and such.
If I’ve got your mouth watering and you want to grow some of your own peppers this season, don’t despair—it’s not too late to get growing, provided you have access to some good transplants. Peppers take a long time to go from seed to maturity, and so many gardeners, myself included, start with transplants from local nurseries. With the ever-growing interesting in growing hot peppers, more nurseries are offering a number of varieties as transplants. Here again I’m very fortunate, because we have a local nursery, Glad Gardens in Waterville, that offers a good three dozen varieties of hot and sweet peppers, including the famous Carolina Reaper, the seeds of which they order from a company called Puckerbutt. You can’t make this stuff up!
Containing your pepper
If you have a limited space for gardening, or don’t want to take up too much of your vegetable garden with peppers, I have great news—these beauties do terrifically in container plantings. Peppers like sun, and they like heat, and they like moisture but also good drainage, and a generous sized container will keep most of them very happy. Last year I grew some in one of my raised garden trugs, and several in a black-cloth rectangular planter I got from Lee Valley years ago, and others in 10-inch plant pots. All of them did just fine, and I had a plethora of peppers until I finally yanked out the Thai chili plants in late October because I had frozen, dehydrated and given away countless peppers.
Whether you plant peppers in a garden plot or in containers, there are a few secrets to good success with them. Hopefully, as you read this the risk of frost is past for all of us and you can plant your peppers, tomatoes and other frost-tender veggies without fear, but if you’re in a northern part of the region and frost is still possible, be prepared to shelter your plants on chilly nights. If your garden soil is on the heavy side, amend it with plenty of compost before putting in your pepper plants. Here again, I solve that issue by planting in containers, using a mixture of compost (including local products like Stormcast, seaweed meal from SeaBoost, and other marine-based composts), peat moss, perlite, composted manure and potting soil; this mixture drains well, provides some organic nutrients to the plants, and is heavy enough that it doesn’t dry out as quickly as some soils. Make sure your plants are in full sun, or at least 6-8 hours of sun, and in a bit of a sheltered location from the prevailing winds.
One trick that works well with peppers is to use a black or red plastic mulch to cover the soil. I do this in my raised trugs and other larger containers, laying down the mulch over the soil surface then cutting slashes into it and planting the peppers (or tomatoes) into those cuts. These plastic mulches warm up the bed even more, plus deter weeds (especially useful if you’re planting in a garden) and keep the soil moist in hot weather.
Resist the urge to over fertilize your peppers, because they tend to respond by producing lots of foliage at the expense of flowers and fruit. Since I use seaweed fertilizers along with the compost in the soil, I don’t usually have to worry about over-feeding—the plants respond well to liquid seaweed and seaweed meal, and they certainly do produce!
Maybe because I grow in containers, but my peppers have not been troubled by insect pests or diseases. I will, however, stake some of the plants that produce larger fruit, as they can break stems when laden with peppers. Rather than twist ties or twine, use old panty hose or other fabric that has some stretch to it, so that the stems aren’t choked off as they grow.
Using the bounty
Sweet peppers lend themselves to so many recipes, from pizza and stirfries to omelettes and salads. Stuff them, grill them on the barbecue, make roasted red pepper sauce from them, add them to soups…there are endless recipes that call for sweet peppers.
Likewise, hot peppers lend themselves to everything from salsas and sauces to soups and stir-fries. I have a fondness for Thai and Tex-Mex recipes, so the various Thai and Ancho and Habanero peppers find their way into recipes every week. Even so, last year’s plants produced so many peppers, I froze some whole, others sliced, and also dehydrated both sweet and hot peppers. Dehydrating peppers concentrates their flavour—and their heat—and adds pizzazz to recipes. Plus, they store indefinitely in a cool, dry spot. As of mid-May, I still have frozen and dehydrated peppers left from last year’s harvest, which will hold me until this year’s plants begin to produce. I don’t do much in the way of preserves except for mustard pickles and tomato chow-chow, but have a great fondness for hot pepper jellies and vinegars made by local companies including Hardy Wares and Tangled Garden—that ‘sweet with heat’ combination is simply irresistible.
Have I tempted you yet? Get out there and plant a few peppers, including a hot variety or two—just try a nice mild Jalapeno or Chipotle pepper to start with. Give your taste buds a bit of a wakeup call—just hold off on the Carolina Reaper for a while.
Some like ’em hot...some do not. Pepper varieties for you to try
As noted above, sweet peppers come in a host of colours, shapes and sizes: try something different today.
Black Hungarian: When this pepper is black, it’s sweet with a little heat—as the fruit ripens to red, it gains heat but only to about 2,000 Scoville Heat Units (see right).
California Wonder and Golden California Wonder: These open-pollinated heritage varieties are delightfully sweet and make a rainbow of colour in a stirfry.
Mattadores: Currently known as the longest sweet pepper in the world, its horn-shaped fruit are deliciously sweet when red.
Miniature Chocolate Bell: I’m growing this as much as for the adorable size and unique colour as for the short days to maturity (55 as opposed to 70 or more days for many sweet varieties).
Sweet Carmen: This variety is remarkably tolerant of temperature issues that would deter other peppers. Sweet and productive.
Sweet Banana: These are just perfect tossed on a hot barbecue grill for a few minutes to accompany a main course.
Hot peppers are measured using the Scoville Scale, a rating originally developed in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville and an intrepid panel of pepper tasters. Today, the heat of peppers is measured using high performance liquid chromatography and ratings for each pepper are listed by Scoville Heat Units (SHU). For example, sweet peppers have a SHU of 0; Ancho Poblanos are mild at 1,000 to 2,500 SHU, and the popular cayenne boasts some heat at 40,000 SCU.
Ancho (Poblano): a mild Mexican heritage variety, when green and fresh it’s referred to as Poblano, and when dried, as Ancho. Very desirable for cooking with. (1,000-1,500 SHU)
Black Pearl: This is grown primarily as an ornamental because of its almost-black foliage and fruit, but when those little peppers ripen, they have some heat to them. (10-30,000 SHU)
Cayenne: A very prolific, popular pepper that packs some significant heat. (40,000 SHU)
Habanero: Hot, smoky-flavoured, essential for Caribbean cuisine. (200,000 SHU)
Hungarian Hot Yellow Wax: A fairly early pepper with mild heat. (2,000 SHU)
Jalapeno: A popular heritage variety used in salsas and other dishes, pleasantly warm at 6,000 SHU.
Thai Chili: There are numerous cultivars of Thai chili peppers, most of them long and fingerlike. My personal favourite is Thai Super Chile, which was very prolific last year. (50,000-100,000 SHU)
For the very brave…Bhut Jolokia, aka Ghost pepper. Danger, Will Robinson! This wrinkled orange critter packs a lot of heat—over 1,000,000 SHU. You really should handle even the plant with protective gloves on.
Caption Header: Give your peppers lots of sunlight, good drainage and moisture. Resist the urge to fertilize or you’ll have plenty of leaves and not as much fruit.
Intro caption: Ornamental Black Pearl has delightful and hot fruit that starts out black and turns deep red as it ripens.