Normally hot peppers grown where I live in mountainous Oregon aren't as fiery as the same variety grown in high-desert New Mexico. But you can still turn up the heat if you know which varieties to grow and if you use some simple growing techniques.
Last year I grew 15 hot pepper varieties that are both widely available and recommended for cool climates. I started seed indoors in February, then set out seedlings in the third week of May, after the last frost date in my area.
Within a few weeks, significant differences among the varieties emerged. Some, such as 'Habanero', couldn't stand our frequent cool summer nights that range between 50oF and 60oF. Other varieties such as 'Cayenne' grew well but produced only a small crop of peppers, which barely had a chance to ripen before fall weather arrived.
My favorite was 'Serrano'. It grew slowly at first, but in the end it surprised me with a mother lode of peppers that were equally hot whether picked red or green.
By summer's end, five varieties surpassed others for vigorous growth and abundant fruits with excellent flavor and heat:
'Early Jalapeno' outproduced any other jalapeno type, with many peppers on compact, sturdy plants;
'Hero' also set a heavy crop of long, thin, cayenne-type peppers that were quick to turn red and had better flavor than other cayennes I've grown;
'Mulato Isleno', a mildly hot, Anaheim type, was a winner with delicious fruit that matured to a pleasing chocolate brown; and
'Paper Dragon' was spicy, very early, quite productive, surprisingly quick to turn red, and excellent for drying.
Regardless of which varieties you prefer, if you live in a cool climate start with a soil rich in organic matter. When plants are small, protect them with cloches, and use an IRT mulch. The mulch, an infrared-transmitting plastic, lets in warm rays but blocks the ultraviolet rays that would encourage weed seed germination. The mulch also helps absorb and retain soil heat throughout the growing season.
Kris Wetherbee has been a frequent contributor to National Gardening. She lives in Oakland, Oregon.
Photography by National Gardening Association.