Some like it hot. Some like it REAL hot.
My husband is one of those who likes to basically scald his entire digestive system.
Me? I like hot, but not ‘wow, I’m eating a supernova’ hot.
We started our journey into growing hots when we first moved to NH. We grew only a few plants but they produced prolifically and well, each year we tend to grow more.
We’ve also learned a LOT about growing hots.
It’s not always as straight forward as it seems.
Over the years, we’ve fine tuned our selections, tweaked our growing environments and been honest about what we need when it comes to preserving (yes, we still have hot pepper rings in the pantry from 5+ years ago…. we don’t eat enough pickled peppers LOL)
The reason why this amazing crop is in our top 5?
- We use it in a TON of what we consume around here (ground, smoked and dried, sauced or as a salt or even fresh…they are ALWAYS found close to our foods)
- There are so many ways to preserve it, but the ways we preserve don’t keep them in all in the pantry (see above list… peppers are SOOOOOO versatile when it comes to preserving them… AND each method seems to enhance their properties…)
- They come on late (at least they do up here in NH), and generally are easier to preserve (or if not processing fresh to preserve, can be dried and reconstituted later on when you are ready to use/preserve.)
Also?? They are beautiful plants to grow – lush foliage with quaint little flowers that definitely don’t prepare you for the scorching heat the fruit that grows after pollination brings.
Their history is also as rich and satisfying to learn about as our other top 5 crops.
Again, we find that this amazing crop (the fruit of of the Capsicum genus plant) originated as a self-pollinated, cultivated crop in Mexico roughly in 6000BC. It’s been eaten in its wild form as early as 7500BC. It is one of the most diverse crops in terms of cultivars, particularly in Central and South America, due to it being one of the earliest self-pollinating cultivars of record.
Again, one of DBF’s favorite crops does not have the gentlest of histories… finding its ways across the oceans and seas in the 14th and 15th Centuries through massive exploitation and resource ‘sharing’ (and I am using the term VERY begrudgingly.)
More detail can be found in the Chili Peppers WIKI page HERE, but of note: many cultures known for their chili pepper usage in cuisine did not encounter Capsicum as a crop until traders brought them from ports, fresh from the ‘new world’… Asia is a great example of this, having been introduced to chili peppers (and then cultivating them and creating new unique cultivars) through Portuguese traders in the 15th Century (from above Wiki link.)
This is one of my favorite facts about chili peppers:
What makes us LOVE these fruits is it’s defense mechanism against it’s enemies in nature!
And while all fruits or veggies tend to be parsed and studied for their different attributes (acidity in tomatoes, sweetness in cherries, texture in squash,) chili peppers have something quite unique: their own heat index. Head HERE to check out more about the Scoville Scale which ranks and measures the genus Capsicum. Here is a quick overview of the Scale (references in WIKI link):
But how easy are they to GROW, Carrie??
Well, to be honest… they aren’t the easiest plant to grow in some growing zones.
These guys love HOT weather, and often times dry conditions (to increase the intensity of the heat they hold) and depending on where you are growing… these conditions are a challenge.
They also tend to take longer to germinate, requiring a heat mat longer than other seeds and KEEPING them on a heat mat throughout their entire time indoors while they establish roots and grow out to seedling size. Generally speaking, you will keep these indoors longer than other seed starts… sometimes for 3 months (8-12 weeks is average) until you harden off and then transplant them.
Now, I’m probably going to say something controversial, but if you are in a wetter or cooler climate with a shorter growing season?
GROW THEM IN CONTAINERS.
Yes, grow them in containers.
I used to get soooo frustrated when I would transplant them into a garden bed (we have raised beds here in zone 5b New Hampshire) and they would putter along, growing negligible amounts, putting out limited flowers and barely ANY FRUIT… until like… late August? WHAT? At that point, it was a nerve wracking period of time wondering if they would mature before the first frost. (Spoiler alert: most didn’t.)
A close friend (who is a hot pepper guru and crazy man who eats these puppies raw…. nutter, I say LOL) gave me the best advice: DON’T PUT THEM IN THE GROUND. These plants will set out the most insane root system and they put alllllllll their energy into root growth until other factors start to force them to flower and fruit.
So you know what? I followed that advice the following year and we had the BIGGEST and healthiest hot pepper crop ever.
- the soil stayed warmer…. giving the plant the soil conditions they LOVE
- the roots somewhat ‘bound’ but once they hit the edges of the container? These plants EXPLODED up and out and start pushing out TONS of flowers.
- The compact root system basically guaranteed that when we fed these plants, they capitalized on every last drop of that Fish Fertilizer or liquid gold…. we were not losing anything to other plants competing for resources in the same bed, or in well draining beds, losing a portion of those nutrients all together.
I love growing hots (yes, round here we call our chilis ‘hots’.)
Typically, growing in containers is as easy as this:
- select your varieties
- using a loose seed starting medium, plant 2-3 seeds 1/4″ down and keep soil moist (not wet)
- use a greenhouse starting tray so you can retain moisture (I like the 72 cell trays with greenhouse lid)
- place over a heat mat
- check daily and mist to keep soil moist (not wet)
- Once you see a sprout, prop open the lid of the mini greenhouse and continue to mist to keep moist and keep on the heat mat
- continue this until all seeds have germinated in the tray then remove the propped cover entirely, but keep the tray on that heat mat.
- once second leaves appear, you can choose to thin to the healthiest seedling (I rarely do this unless there is a clear ‘runt’ in the mix)
- Keep these little babies ON THE HEAT PAD and watered to stay moist (not wet) until at least 8-12 weeks and then begin to harden off. (I find that hot peppers harden off easier than say, tomatoes as their leaves are quite resilient to the sun’s intensity early on.) Ease your pepper babies into full sun, gradually over the course of a week and then make sure they get full sun once they’ve gone through the process.
- I find potting up TWICE is the way to go with hots. First taking the little plugs of seedlings to a pint container with good organic soil with some compost or early food so they kick start more root growth, then once you start seeing those plants grow in height and leaf production, get them into a gallon container of the same awesome soil and compost and let them GO!
- Water to keep them moist, but I also find letting them fully dry out between waterings drives both amazing fruit production and quality of fruit produced.
Harvesting is as simple as snipping, cutting or snapping off the mature fruit.
Each pepper can have different time tables to get their fruit to maturity, but a great start is to know what a mature fruit looks like, and just go by visual signs.
- Shishitos are harvested in their full yet green form, but if left on the plant will turn to red and potentially have more heat than a traditional shishito.
- Ghost peppers can range (and be harvested) anywhere from green to golden to deep red or purple, but most are prime once they reach a deep red.
The variety in the fruit from cultivar to cultivar makes for a gorgeous selection of sizes, colors and shapes… it is one of the most beautiful fruits, in my opinion.
From the long, deep red curves of the cayenne, to the knobby spikes of the ghost or scorpion, to the puckered bottom of the bright yellow scotch bonnet and deep green cone of the ripe ancho… each one has personality and a heat/flavor that is unique.
You kind of fall in love with hots once you start growing them.
And you would be amazed at HOW much you can do with them in small doses. They aren’t like tomatoes, where if you want a year of sauces, you need POUNDS and pounds of the fruit to make even a single batch of a few quarts.
No, here you can take ONE ghost pepper (just one) and incorporate it into a homemade BBQ sauce and have enough jars of it to last 6 months.
With chilis, it is not generally about quantity, but quality and knowledge of heat and use.
What are we growing this season, you ask?
- Scorpion (1 plant)
- Ghost (4 plants)
- Freeport Scotch Bonnet (3 plants)
- Shishito (5 plants)
- Fresno (1 plant)
- Ancho (1 plant)
- Long Cayenne (2 plants)
- Habanero (1 plant)
- Carbanero (1 plant from LAST YEAR! YES I OVERWINTERED THIS BABY!)
- Jalapeno (1 plant)
- Sweet Banana (1 plant)
- Blonde Bell (1 plant)
- Purple Bell (1 plant)
Yes, our patio is basically just a hot pepper container garden (luckily we have a huge patio!)
What do we use them for?
- bbq sauce
- smoking for sauces or spice grinds
- drying for future sauces or spice grinds
- Hubby’s AMAZING from scratch chili he makes every fall…
- hot sauces of ALL sorts
- grilling (grilled shishitos are just incredible)
- stuffing (stuffed bells or jalapenos are AMAZING….)
- sliced over homemade pho or ramen (or really anything that hubby eats LOL)
Yes, we use hots a lot.
SO how do you decide what to grow?
I would follow this process:
–> how hot do I like my food.. and do I like different levels for different dishes/condiments?
——-> how often do I eat spicy food or use hot sauces/ingredients?
———–>How much space do I have for containers to grow in?
Since we have a ton of space, we grow a ton of hots.
If you like mild heat and have limited space? Maybe you only grow a few jalapenos.
If you like hot sauce and eat on everything but not alot of space? Maybe you grow one of a few different degrees of hot, like a ghost, cayenne and carbanero.
One of the last things you need to ask is: Do I have the tools to make the items these fruits are for? Do you have a water canner if you are canning pickles? Woozy bottles for hot sauce? SPACE for all of it once done? Since these lil babies pack a punch, small quantities go a long way, but my last ‘small batch’ of extra hot sauce yielded 15 bottles of sauce. That needed to be refrigerated.
We have space and an extra fridge in the basement with an extra chest freezer… bevvie fridges (which have housed more hot sauce than I feel comfortable admitting…)
Why do I stress this?
Honestly, if you want bbq sauce and hot sauces for the year, you probably only need a few plants of varying degrees on the Scoville. Honest truth. Most pantries are smaller, and using a whole shelf for hot sauce (as fresh is best with no preservatives) is a bit unrealistic!
Have fun planning, and REACH OUT with questions!
Be sure to follow the blog so you see the recipes that will come out of our crop this year (think sauces, salts, pickles and some great stuffed peppers!)
Happy growing, and as you plan next year…. let me know what you want to grow!