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Grow Your Own Hot Peppers
By Eric Vinje, Cosmic Chile
If you're an aficionado of hot sauce and salsas, chances are you've thought of growing your own chile peppers. You're not alone. More backyard farmers are growing peppers. According to Colorado State University (CSU), cultivating peppers is second only to growing tomatoes in terms of popularity. CSU cites two reasons for the surge in chile pepper cultivation: the hundred of varieties available and the fact that peppers are prolific producers.
If you've successfully grown tomatoes, you can grow hot peppers. They require similar care and conditions. Here are some tips on how to grow the chile peppers that you love.
Warmer is better both for hot sauces and for growing conditions. Hot peppers crave warmth. Ideally they need temperatures between 60 degrees Fahrenheit (at night) and around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (during the day.) They don't do well when the temperature dips below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They germinate at soil temperatures of 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures of more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit during flowering can result in the plant's blossoms falling off and affecting yields. (A shortage of water can also diminish your crop.) In areas where warmth is a problem, consider growing them indoors and then transplanting outdoors once the threat of frost is past. When starting plants, also consider using a heating pad to keep the soil warm. Keeping a plastic cover over your soil until your seeds sprout is another good idea. If you live in the northern latitudes of the United States like Cosmic Chile, which is based in chilly Bozeman, Montana, consider keeping your pepper plants indoors, growing them in a cold frame or cultivating them indoors in either a sun room or in a greenhouse. Remember to cover your plants if the temperature dips below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Picking planting time. The Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University recommends starting seeds indoors about eight to 10 weeks before the last expected frost in your area. Generally that will mean starting plants in mid-May to late June.
Matching your climate to the right pepper. According to eHow.com, if you live North of United States Department of Agriculture Zone 4, you'll get better results with short-season varieties such as Long Slim, Hungarian Wax and Gypsy. The Ohio State University Horticulture and Crop Science department also recommends Long Red Cayenne and Large Red Cherry for cooler climates. If you're blessed with hot weather, consider planting peppers with a "TAM" or "NuMex" in their names, eHow.com says. "They've been bred to produce well in very high temperatures," the web site notes. Regardless of what variety you choose, look for disease and insect free plants.
What about water? While chile pepper plants don't need a lot of water and dislike soggy water-logged soil, they do need moist soil to thrive. A shortage of water at bloom time can result in blossom drop or a failure to "set" fruit.
Soil wars. Chile peppers prefer well-drained, sandy or silt-loam soil. Soil should be moist, not wet, when planting. Before planting your chile peppers, enrich the soil with manure or compost. Most peppers prefer soils with a pH range of between 6.0 to 8.5. Also consider dusting your planting surface with a fine layer of Epsom salts and work it into the soil. According to eHow.com, the Epsom salts will provide magnesium "which peppers need for good development."
No shocks to the system. If you start plants indoors, get them adjusted to outdoor temperatures slowly. Don't just plunk them in soil outdoors. Instead, let them sit outside in their containers for ever longer lengths of time so they can acclimate to the great outdoors and its cooler temperatures. Start the acclimation process about two weeks prior to planting in the garden. Try to avoid root damage when transplanting from containers to soil. Soil should be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit before transferring plants outdoors.
A site for hot chiles. Choose a garden site that gets full sun and has well-drained soil. Raised beds are a good idea since chile papers need warm soil and air to thrive. Plant your peppers 18 inches apart with rows three feet apart, according to CSU.
Perfect planting. Provide support for varieties that grow to more than a foot tall. Also keep different varieties apart. Not that they'll squabble, but peppers crossbreed easily so if you're growing a hot variety as well as some bell peppers keep them far apart (at least 900 feet apart) or put in a buffer plant. If you plant sweet and hot peppers too close together, your bell peppers may end up being hotter than you want and your hot peppers may be more like lukewarm peppers. If you are using seeds that are older than a year, sow more plants to ensure a good crop and then thin if necessary.
Controlling pests. Ohio State University recommends controlling weeds by hand-pulling or shallow cultivation to avoid injury to the plant roots. To avoid your plants becoming diseased, properly space plants and water sufficiently and early in the day so leaves dry quickly. Growers also have to be on the look out for aphids which may carry viral diseases that can infect pepper plants. European Corn Borers are a special threat since they can drill small holes near the pepper's steam and cause internal fruit rot.
When to pick a pepper? Start picking hot peppers when they're still green if you want a milder flavor or for use in salads, relishes or stuffing. For full-throttle heat and flavor wait until they've turned their final color. Be careful when picking peppers as their branches are usually brittle. Hand clippers or pruners can be a good choice in order to avoid excessive branch breakage. Once you've picked a pepper, it will only last one to two weeks. Keep picked peppers in the fridge under cool, moist conditions to increase shelf life.
Follow these tips and you'll have your pick of peppers from your own garden.
The Care and Storage of Seeds
The good news is that pepper seeds are the "geezers" of the plant world. They are known for their longevity and can be fertile for five years or more. That said, the better you care for them, the longer they will live and be fertile.
When it comes to seeds, first bought should be used first. Try to plant seeds within a year of purchase. Don't hoard different varieties. Instead plant and then harvest seeds at the end of the growing season to use the following year. If you buy plants from a supplier, check the date on the packet. The package directions should indicate when the seeds were packed and should also give a deadline for when they should be used.
Store seeds in a dry and cool place. For example, put them in an airtight container and then keep that container in your refrigerator. You can also try putting silica gel packets, powdered milk or even dry rice in with them to keep humidity levels low. When you're ready to use your seeds, let them warm up inside the storage container before opening. (This will minimize condensation on the inside of the container or on the seeds themselves.)
Where to Buy Seeds and Supplies
The web is well populated with hot chile pepper seed purveyors. Here are some sites to get you started on your quest to grow your own. Most of these give some interesting background on the peppers, where they are suitable to be grown and, perhaps most important, most list how hot they are:
Burpee.com. The mother of all seed sites, Burpee offers reliability, a well-recognized name and a decent selection (around 22 varieties) of hot peppers including the Hot Pepper Biker Billy Hybrid which Burpee bills as "A blazingly hot jalapeno - the hottest we have ever tasted."
PepperJoe.com. This web site proudly displays kudos from newspaper sites such as the Los Angeles Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Arizona Daily Star. It features drawings rather than actual pictures of peppers, but it has an interesting assortment, which includes the Bulgarian Carrot - so named because it looks remarkably like a carrot - as well as the Tazmanian Habanero and the Yellow Jellybean. The site designates "organic" peppers.
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