Growing Chile Peppers
Whether you prefer chiles just a tad on the tangy side or fiery enough to send smoke pouring from your ears, you've got a multitude to choose from - each with a distinct, complex flavor. Peppers, especially hot ones, need warm weather to grow well.
- North of USDA zone 4, you'll get best results with short-season varieties such as 'Long Slim', 'Hungarian Wax Hot? and 'Gypsy'. If you garden in the country's hotter reaches, look for peppers with "TAM" or "NuMex" in their names; they've been bred to produce well in very high temperatures.
- You can grow any kind of peppers in containers, but compact varieties such as 'Jingle Bells? and 'Thai Hot? do especially well.
- Choose a site that gets full sun and has well-drained soil with a pH of 6.7 to 7.0. Raised beds are ideal for chile peppers because these plants need warm soil, as well as warm air, to thrive.
- Work a moderate amount of compost or manure into the soil, then dust the planting surface with a fine layer of Epsom salts and work it into the soil. It will provide magnesium, which peppers need for good development.
- Buy pepper plants at the nursery for planting after all danger of frost has passed. Otherwise, sow pepper seeds in 2-inch containers filled with sterile planting mix eight to ten weeks before your area's last expected frost.
- Harden off the seedlings, whether homegrown or store-bought, then plant them outdoors two to three weeks after the last frost and when the soil temperature has reached 60 degrees F. Set normal-size varieties 14 to 16 inches apart and smaller ones an inch or two closer.
- Provide support for varieties that grow over a foot tall.
- Keep the soil evenly moist; especially when the fruits are developing, peppers need about an inch of water a week. After the ground has warmed thoroughly, mulch with organic matter to conserve moisture and deter weeds.
- Spread compost or a balanced organic fertilizer around the plants when they flower and again three weeks later.
- Start picking hot peppers when they're still green if you want, but for full heat and flavor, wait until they've turned color.
Hot peppers can inflict painful burns. Always wear gloves when working with them, whether in the garden or kitchen, and keep your hands away from your face.
Insects cross-pollinate peppers with abandon. Plant hot peppers and sweet peppers at least 900 feet apart; otherwise your sweet peppers will deliver a kick you hadn't bargained for.