September 28, 2014

Growing Peppers in the Vegetable Garden

12 pounds of peppers harvested on July 13th, 2013. Dark green jalapeno, chartreuse Hungarian hot wax, and almost white Santa Fe peppers.
June 2013 pepper bed. Mix of sweet bell, cayenne, jalapeno, Hungarian hot wax, and Santa Fe peppers.
Santa Fe hot chili pepper
Jalapeno hot chili pepper
I mainly grow 3 types of hot peppers for use in a cooked salsa that is easy to can with the hot pack method. Jalapeno peppers have a pungent spiciness but the flavor is hard to describe, it tastes green like the way fresh cut grass smells. Serrano is what adds the heat to my salsa, much more spicy than the jalapeno it just takes a handful in a pot of salsa to add some nice heat and they have a delicious vinegary flavor. Anaheim is much milder in comparison, more pungent than spicy with a fruity mildly spicy flavor. Last year I was unable to get any of the anaheim and serrano seeds to germinate. So I replaced them with Hungarian Hot Wax and Santa Fe peppers, which I had never grown nor tasted before. Hungarian hot wax grew to be very hot in my garden much hotter than the jalapeno. The Santa Fe peppers were even hotter still, I would say quite a bit spicier than a serrano. Serrano and anaheim peppers are sometimes available in the grocery store during the summers.

Pepper seeds require warmth to germinate. I usually sprout them 6-8 weeks before planting time and put the seed starting tray on top of the fridge which is a fairly warm area in our home. It can take a couple of weeks for the seeds to sprout. Once sprouted I put the plants out in the garage under lights that are on 24 hours a day to speed vegetative growth. The lights are suspended close to the plants but without touching them, so the young seedlings stay short and bushy instead of long and leggy as they try to reach the light. The cold garage probably also helps the plants stay short and stout.

I plant peppers in the garden once there is no chance of frost, they are very sensitive to freezing temperatures. Last year I used floating row covers, also known as garden fleece, in the early spring which can protect against fluctuating temperatures depending on the grade of fleece, while still allowing sunlight to penetrate. The garden fleece increased the daytime temperatures and seemed to minimize planting shock. Once the weather is consistently warm, the fleece should be removed.

A nice thick layer of mulch around the plants will minimize weeding, and the weeds that do make it through are thin and spindly and easily pulled. Last year I also used soaker hoses throughout the garden,  which meant no more overhead watering and no more mildew and no more burnt leaves.

The stems of pepper plants can be very brittle, especially the taller varieties like anaheims whose branches can snap under torrential downpours. So staking the taller peppers that are heavily laden with fruit is probably a good idea if your area gets heavy rainfall.

Most hot peppers are harvested when they are still green which is the usual color of their immature fruit. When allowed to ripen on the plants most hot varieties will change colors as they ripen, and the more ripe the peppers get, the hotter they become. Removing the seeds and the membrane the seeds are attached to will get rid of some of the heat without sacrificing flavor. Be sure to wear rubber gloves when removing seeds and membranes from peppers, the juices can be very irritating to the eyes and skin. I use a food processor to chop large amounts of peppers. One year my rubber gloves must have had holes in them because I went to bed with very warm tingly hands.

For some varieties of peppers heat can sterilize the pollen, so you might find the blossoms aborting without setting fruit during the hottest parts of the summer. This is the reason I gamble and plant peppers fairly early under protection because it allows the plants to set fruit in early summer before the sweltering heat stops pepper production, but either way the cooler end of summer months will bring a return of peppers.