Cultivating Chilis from Seed to Spicerack

It is not possible to effectively grow tropical peppers like Capsicum Chinense (e.g. varieties Habanero, Fatalii, Scotch Bonnet, Barbados) in the ground in the Northern latitudes. The earth, even in the summer, is too cold on the average and the time between frosts (May-October) is not long enough to allow vine ripening. By tricking the plants into feeling that they are in the tropics, however, you may have a fine crop of peppers that are larger, riper and every bit as fiery as those actually grown in the tropics. Here's how.

  1. Obtain Seeds

    This is the obvious first step: Obtain seeds to grow your chilis. There are many commercial sources for seeds which you can research here: General Plants and Seeds Address List and The Redwood City Seed Company. I would call particular attention to the former reference and in there find the information on Seed Saver's Exchange - which is a phenomenal network of gardeners worldwide who exchange their heirloom seeds for all vegetables. This contains, by far the largest variety of seeds I have ever seen.

  2. Germination

    Around Valentine's Day or early March, plant seeds (1-2 per pot) in 2"x2" peat pots. Use 'seed starting soil' and plant about 1/8" below the surface. Place these pots in a seedling tray that comes with a clear plastic lid. You can fit 36 pots per tray. Water the pots, making sure that they are uniformly moist, but not saturated (i.e. they should not be sitting in a level of unabsorbed water). Too much water can encourage molds. The ideal germination temperature is about 80ºF, but if you place the trays in an upstairs sunny window, the greenhouse effect caused by the plastic lid will provide an ideal environment. The seeds will sprout between 1 and 3 weeks after planting. After that, you may remove the lids and then you only need to make sure that the soil never dries out completely. You should also give them their first fertilizer. Peters 'Root and Bloom' is good for this stage. Especially watch out for mold on the soil and pots at this time. If you see any white cottony substance, you should use a Captan based anti-fungal solution. In May, after the plants are well on their way, you should ideally place the trays outside as much as possible to 'hardy' the plants. Bring them back in at any time when the temperature goes below 50ºF. You can leave the plants indoors until they are ready to plant, but the stalks will be long and withery and not fare as well in the elements.

  3. Planting

    You must plant your chilis in pots for two reasons. First, in the fall, you will need to bring the plants indoors as the first frost will come before all the pods have ripened. Since chilis are actually perennials, you can also move your plants back outside the following Spring. They will bear pods year after year so long as the plants never freeze. Secondly, tropical peppers need warmer soil than we have in the North and by planting them 'above ground', the soil will be as warm, if not warmer than that of the tropics. You will also have less trouble with pests such as rabbits and crawling insects as when they are planted in the ground.

    You need not have an enormous pot, I usually plant four plants in a single 10" pot. If you do this, however, you will need to drench your plants most every day in the heat of the summer, and fertilize every week or two. Place rocks or pebbles in the bottom of the pot first, mainly for weight so that the plants won't easily blow over in the wind. The soil mixture I use is as follows: 3 parts rich potting soil, 1 part sand, 2 parts Michigan Peat Moss, 1 part cow manure and a few tablespoons of lime. Plant the peat pots in this mixture and drench. Make sure that no part of the peat pot is above the soil, even if you have to tear off the top edges. Otherwise, the water will 'wick' out into the air and 'locally' dry out the area around the plant even though the rest of the soil may be relatively moist.

    The primary consideration with these plants is that if they are subjected to even a light frost, they will die. So if you are planting in pots, make sure that you aren't going to be moving the pots inside too frequently. If planting in the ground (Capsicum Anuum will do fine in the Northern Spring and Summer) make sure that the last frost is behind you.

  4. Sun and Water

    The plants should be in direct sunlight at least half the day. They can take total sunlight, but the most crucial thing to remember is to never let them dry out completely. Make certain your pots drain out onto the ground or else you risk root rot. Ideally, you should drench each pot whenever the soil starts to become dry and powdery, but not yet bone dry. If the leaves start to droop, then you will lose blossoms as well. A lost blossom is a lost chili pod. You must check the soil every day in the summer, especially if they get a full day of direct sun and you crowd more than one plant in a small pot.

  5. Feeding

    I like to feed the plants every week or two alternating 'Miracle Grow for Tomatoes' and 'Alaska Fish Fertilizer'. If you feed and water your plants liberally, you may easily support four healthy plants per 10" pot. The advantage of this is that you will not break your back when it comes time to carry them inside, and you will be able to harvest far more pods per square foot from these attractive bushy plants.

    Capsicum Chinense, variety Habanero

  6. Harvesting

    For the richest flavor and most concentrated heat, let your chilis ripen on the vine, even if they ripen at Christmas time in your living room window. Each species and variety will have a terminal ripening color which will always be something other than green. Most peppers ripen red, but many will ripen to a bright lemon yellow or orange. Some rare varieties will be black, white or even purple. Make sure you find out what the terminal ripening color is for each variety you grow. You should pick them soon after the pod has completely turned color. You do not want the pods to get soft, shrivel or dry on the vine.

  7. Seed Saving

    If you are going to save your seeds to share with others or to replant next year, simply cut out the seed bearing tissue and place on paper towels on the windowsill to dry. Seeds should never exceed a temperature of 90ºF. Plants of the same species may cross-pollinate unless care is taken to isolate the blossoms by using nylon bags or sheer distance from other plants of different varieties of the same species. Although the pod of a cross-pollinated blossom may be identical those of its parent stalk, the pods coming from plants germinated from those seeds (hybrids) can be very different from both parents. This can be very desirable or undesirable. If you are certain you want to keep a variety pure when saving seeds, make sure that there are no other varieties of the same species within 500 feet of your plant while it is blossoming.

  8. Preservation

    If you pick the pods correctly, they will keep well fresh for several weeks in the refrigerator. You may freeze chilis, but I've never bothered. You may pickle with vinegar and/or salt water solutions and even blend to make 'hot sauces'. You can make 'hot oil' by slowing sauting chopped peppers in any oil. Capsaicin, the compound which produces the hot flavor in chilis is a non-polar compound which makes it soluble in oils, not water. This is why drinking water is not very effective in quenching the fire when you've eaten too much of the wrong chili pepper. My favorite method of preservation, by far, is dehydration. You may dry your pods in a dehydrator by first slicing them in half, or quartering if larger, then at 140ºF for about 2 hours and a day at 130ºF. After the pods are completely dry with no soft spots, you may superdry them in a dessicator. A dessicator is any airtight container with about a 1" layer of rechargeable Silica Gel on the bottom. I use ammo boxes from the Army/Navy store and have constructed small stackable wooden frames with screens to hold the peppers. (When the Silica Gel is laden with moisture, I simply remove the lids of the ammo boxes, and place them in the oven at 300ºF for 3 hours.) After a few days in the dessicator, your pods will be ready for a time capsule if you desire, crumbling to dust with a little pressure. In this state, they are ready for grinding. I use a standard coffee grinder or spice grinder for about 30 seconds. You may then sift and funnel the powdered spice into a spice jar. Beware of the airborne dust, however, this powder is very irritating to the eyes, throat and lungs.

    Variations - One of the finest flavors I have experienced is that of smoked peppers. After initial dehydration, you may 'quick smoke' the dried pods on a screen inside a 'smoker'. Two to three hours of constant flowing hickory smoke at 200º-250ºF will produce a wonderful result. If you have access to a smokehouse, cold smoking at 85ºF for several days would produce an even finer result.

    All gardening items mentioned in this paper are available at better gardening centers.

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Copyright © 1997 by George Clay
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