It’s a Pepper Party

The options for using fresh garden peppers in your kitchen are as numerous as the numbers you can grow in your garden. In salsa and sauces, on salads and pizza, or even stuffed – these are all great ways to enjoy your peppers. With so many options, it is not surprising that gardeners have so many questions regarding peppers. Are there tricks to growing peppers? What is the difference between a Jalapeno and a Habanero? What is the hottest pepper I can grow in my garden? Can peppers be grown in a container?  

We might as well start at the beginning – is a pepper a fruit or a vegetable? This all depends on your perspective. Botanically speaking a pepper is a fruit as it comes from pollinated flower parts and also holds seeds. Culinarily speaking, it’s a vegetable because it is used in more savory dishes.

Peppers are a member of the Capsicum genus; they produce a component called capsaicin, which is what makes them hot. The hotter the pepper the more capsaicin it has. (The Scoville scale is a measure of the capsaicin in the hot pepper, the higher the number the hotter the pepper.) Only the bell pepper is devoid of this chemical. Capsaicin is also used in personal defense and riot control sprays. Many animal deterrents also contain capsaicin as it affects other mammals the same as humans, yet it has no effect on birds.

Pepper Types
Bell Peppers are one of the most known peppers varieties grown in the garden.  Their calm cool flavor is because they do not have the gene that creates the capsaicin. The common green pepper is a bell pepper that is picked immature and unripe. As they ripen, they will turn colors (depending on the variety anywhere from yellow, orange, red, and even purple). Orange bell peppers have more vitamin A and C and half the calories of an orange (citrus fruit).

Banana Peppers are long and yellow like a banana. They are most known for their sweet taste, and they become sweeter the more they ripen. Banana peppers are juicy, normally mild in taste, and are excellent in salads and or by themselves, as a snack.

Jalapeno Peppers are generally picked when green and about 2 to 3 inches long.  If they are left on the plant to ripen to red, their flavor becomes a little sweeter. Jalapeno peppers are best when they are firm with smooth skin and a fresh color of green. They tend to like the soil more alkaline than other peppers. It might surprise many who don’t like spicy food that Jalapeno peppers are actually considered a mild hot pepper with only a 3,500 to 4,000 Scoville rating.

Anaheim Peppers are considered a mildly hot pepper with a Scoville score of 5,000. These peppers are long (6 to 10 inches) and thin (1 to 2 inches wide). You will find Anaheim peppers anywhere from green to maroon in color. Even if you’ve never eaten an Anaheim pepper, you are probably familiar with them – they are the ones that are dried, strung together, and used as wall hanging.  

Cayenne Pepper brings us into the hot category of peppers – 25,000 to 50,000 Scoville rating. This pepper is used mostly dried and as a coarse powder. Used often in cooking and with salty food items, they should be harvested when they easily come off the stem.

Habanero Chili Pepper is one hot pepper, coming in at 150,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville rating. These come in many colors – green, yellow, pink or red – and are really quite small at 1½ inches long. If you like hot food and have a strong stomach, these are the peppers for you. 

Seed: If starting from seed, sow seeds indoors eight to 10 weeks prior to the frost-free date for your area. Seed should be planted in moist seed starting mix, watered well and placed in a warm, well lit indoor area with good air circulation.  You want to check daily for watering needs and water regularly. When the seedlings are least 5 inches tall and nighttime temperatures are more than 60 degrees, it is ok to acclimate the peppers outdoors.

Planting: Peppers need to be planted in an area with plenty of sunlight, at least six to eight hours. The garden soil should also be well drained. Plant the peppers on 15 to 18 inch centers, leaving enough room for air to circulate, sun to hit all sides, and for you to get all the way around the plant. Be sure to water after planting and remember new transplants will need to be watered more often than established plants.

Care: Water the plants weekly with at least 1 inch of water. Peppers need more water when they are fruiting. FYI, when temperatures are over 90, peppers tend to loose buds and blossoms.

Harvesting: Knowing what you are growing will help you know at what color to harvest. Use scissors or pruners, and cut the peppers off so you don’t damage the brittle branches of the plant. Harvesting often will encourage peppers to flower and fruit.

A few additional things to remember:

* Always use gloves or wash your hands immediately after working with your peppers (except bell peppers) as the capsaicin burns!
* Be careful about planting ornamental peppers if small children will be in your garden at any time. The peppers are very cute and just the right size for children’s hands to pick them, which could lead to a hysterical child with burning eyes and runny nose.
* A green bell pepper is tasty but leaving it on the plant to ripen to red will noticeably change the texture (softer) and flavor (sweeter).
* If planting many varieties of peppers and saving seeds, watch out for cross-pollination.  

Whether you stick to the mild variety or like them as hot as you can get them, peppers will give you many options in the garden – as a fruit – and in the kitchen as a vegetable.

Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.