Some Like It Hot

By Susan Littlefield

As interest in Mexican, Thai, Indian, and and other ethnic cuisines grows, so does the interest in growing the peppers that are an important ingredient in so many of their dishes. Not for the faint of heart, the peppers that spice up this kind of cooking run the gamut from mildly warm to blisteringly hot.

How hot is hot? The heat of peppers is rated using the Scoville Heat Scale, developed in 1912. The scale goes from 0-100 for mild bell peppers all the way up to 100,00 to 500,000 for some of the fiery habaneros. Here are some suggestions for choosing and growing the best five-alarm peppers.

Fiery Fruits

All peppers, mild or hot, need the same basic conditions in the garden. First and foremost, peppers want it warm. Wait until the soil had really warmed up before setting pepper transplants out in the garden; two or three weeks after the last frost date is recommended. Then put them where they'll have full sun and well-drained soil that is high in organic matter with a pH near neutral (6.7 to 7.0). Give them a steady supply of moisture as they are getting established, then hope for lots of sunshine.

Hot peppers develop heat as they mature. You can pick them when they are green, but they will be hotter and more flavorful if you let them develop some color. The heat will vary with the variety of hot pepper (habaneros are hotter than jalapenos), as well as the weather and the stress the plants experience as the fruits mature. Hot weather produces hotter peppers. You can't do much about the weather, but you can refrain from fertilizing hot pepper plants as they set fruits and keep watering to a minimum as the peppers ripen for maximum heat. It's important to keep peppers picked during the growing season so your pepper plants will continue to produce new fruits.

Cultivating Heat

Tips for Cool Climate Gardeners Hot peppers like hot weather, so don't rush to set your plants outside too soon. Wait until the soil has warmed up to 60 degrees F, usually two or even three weeks after the last frost date in your area. Pepper plants that have been exposed to too-cold temperatures early on will be set back and never produce a good yield. Black plastic laid down in the pepper bed to warm the soil will help to speed up spring soil warming. If you're starting your own seedlings, plant seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before you plan on setting them out in the garden, and set the containers on a heating mat to keep the germinating mix at the toasty 70-80 degrees that seeds need for good germination. Be sure to harden off seedling well before they go in the ground, then cover the newly set-out plants with fabric row covers for a few weeks. This helps to protect them from chilly winds, any dips in nighttime temperatures, as well as hungry insects like flea beetles.

Hot Pepper Care Peppers need a consistent supply of moisture as they grow, especially when the fruits are developing. Drip irrigation under black plastic mulch is ideal. If you are using an organic mulch like straw to conserve soil moisture, let the soil get good and warm before you spread it. But for maximum heat from the peppers, stop watering plants about a week before harvest or give them just enough water to prevent wilting.

Don't over-fertilize your pepper plants. Too much nitrogen will encourage lots of leaves, but fewer fruits. Side dress plants with a balanced organic fertilizer when they begin to flower and again when the first fruits are starting to form.

We've said peppers like it hot, but it can get too hot for good fruit production, although this is usually more of a problem with large-fruited, sweet types. If daytime temperatures stay above 90 degrees, you may see a decline in fruit set. As soon as the weather moderates, pepper production will pick back up.

Picking Peppers Keep on pickin'! The more you harvest, the more peppers your plants will produce. Peppers can be picked at their immature green stage or left on the plants to ripen to their mature color. The more mature they are when harvested, the hotter they'll be. The branches of pepper plants are brittle. To avoid breakage, cut the fruits from the plants with scissors. When harvesting the hot types, wear gloves and avoid touching your eyes.

To preserve hot peppers, freeze them whole in plastic freezer bags. The smaller hot peppers, or chilies, can be dried individually when mature or strung into ristras or long ropes of dried fruits for use through the winter.

Question of the Month

Feel the Burn

Q: Ouch! I cut up my hot peppers without wearing gloves and now my hands feel like they're on fire. What can I do?

A: Hot peppers contain high levels of capsaicin, the compound that gives them their heat. It isn't water-soluble, so washing your hands doesn't help remove it. Instead, try using milk, yogurt, vegetable oil, or tomato juice to neutralize the capsaicin.

In the future, always wear disposable gloves when harvesting or processing hot peppers and never, ever touch your eyes (or anywhere on your face) until you are sure you have no traces of peppers on your hands! Also remember to clean knives and cutting boards well after chopping peppers.

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