Growing Heirloom Hot Peppers

I love heirloom plants and hot peppers are no exception. The fact that the genetic makeup of a vegetable or fruit can be traced back in time many years makes the special. In some cases they have a historical context, but the main reason I like them is that they usually have a better flavor than those that are commercially produced. In my garden there is no plant easier to grow than a hot pepper. I grow several different varieties of hot peppers which range in spiciness from mildly hot to extremely hot. I love a nice hot jalapeno pepper on a sandwich but generally shy away from partaking of those that might require hospitalization!

Hot peppers (and other peppers) are fairly carefree once established. Early on in their growth cycle it is a good idea to give them a little nitrogen fertilizer to encourage some green growth and lots of branching. Pinch back the first sets of blooms to send the energy back into the plant. It’s emotionally hard to do but the results will pay off later with more blooms and more fruit. Only use the nitrogen fertilizer toward the beginning of the growth cycle then lean toward a fertilizer with more phosphorus and potassium (The P and K of the NPK ratio). P and K help form fruit and roots on the plants while N is good for leaf growth. We want to eat peppers not pepper leaves!

Once the peppers are of sufficient size you can eat them at any stage. I prefer to allow them to ripen and color on the plant which improves their flavor and nutrition. Hot peppers are measured using the Scoville Heat Index which grades the peppers on the intensity of their heat. Individual peppers can vary quite a bit on heat within the same variety depending on the growing conditions so use the Scoville Scale as a guideline. The ‘Ghost’ pepper  (‘Bhut Jolokia’) is graded around 1,000,000 Scoville heat units whereas a Jalapeno is only around 5,000. Hot peppers extend beyond the range of the ‘Ghost’ pepper but I’ve always thought that a pepper has to be able to be enjoyed in order to have value – I wouldn’t enjoy a ‘Carolina Reaper’, nope – not one bit!

There are lots of ways to enjoy a hot pepper. Fresh peppers are great to add to your dishes but dried peppers can bring you some good flavor when fresh peppers are out of season. Dried peppers can be ground up into a powder for use in cooking. I enjoy throwing a couple hot peppers into our fall chili recipes. I usually dry them whole then put them in a jar to use as needed. I’ll write more about drying hot peppers in a post very soon.

You can propagate peppers through stem cuttings and preserve the plants through the winter. You may not get any produce from them over the winter but when warm weather appears you will have larger already established plants you can move into the garden. You can also dig up your favorite peppers and grow them in a pot indoors until spring. I was harvesting jalapenos in early May this past spring – you could too!

Here are a few peppers from one of my recent harvests!

Serrano Hot Pepper
Serrano Peppers – Up to 23,000 Scoville Heat Units
Chocolate Habanero Hot Pepper
Chocolate Habanero – 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat Units 
'Scotch Bonnet' Hot Pepper
‘Scotch Bonnet’ – 100,000 to 225,000 Scoville Heat Units
Lemon Drop Pepper – 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units

We have a few others not picture here which I am still waiting on to fully ripen including a ‘Thai Yellow’, ‘Pasilla Bajio’, and ‘Paprika’. When selecting peppers to grow always lean toward flavor rather than heat.

What hot peppers are your favorites?