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2006 Year of the Celosia, Chili Pepper

by National Garden Bureau

The National Garden Bureau is celebrating 2006 as the year of the Celosia and Chili Pepper. Both of these plants are heat-tolerant and perform well across North America.

Celosia
Celosias look fantastic when combined with purple amaranths, orange marigolds, and orange and yellow pocketbook plants. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

Celosia Fact Sheet

by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, National Garden Bureau

Celosias are one of the most eye-catching annuals to grow in the garden. Technically speaking, however, they are tender annuals, as they are perennial in Zones 10 to 12. The three types of celosia are easily distinguishable from each other. They are plumes, crests, or spikes; simply described as plumes of jewel-colored feathers, wrinkly-looking knobs, or elongated cones. No matter which celosia you choose to grow, the flower colors are not for the faint of heart; their vivid hues practically glow, lighting up the garden even on the rainiest summer days. Most commonly seen are dazzling red, yellow, cream, orange, rose, deep magenta, and pink. Less commonly seen are bicolors. In addition to their eye-catching magnificence in the garden, taller varieties are excellent as cut flowers—both fresh and dried. Celosia can range in size from dwarf varieties that only grow four to six inches high to vigorous types over three feet tall.

Celosias are easy to grow from seed, and young plants are readily available at nurseries, garden centers, and stores in spring. Versatile, celosias grow in most any type of soil—even heavy clay—as long as they are in full sun. With summer weather as unpredictable as it has been in recent years, you can count on celosia to come through heat and drought unscathed.

Keep an eye out for celosias as you drive or walk around the community. Public gardens, parks, the highway department, malls, and local merchants take advantage of the low-maintenance, high-impact aspects of celosias. If they can grow so successfully with so little attention, imagine what a show they can make in the hands of someone who loves plants and has an artistic eye and doesn’t grow them in the typical soldierly rows.

HISTORY

The exact geographic origins of celosia in the wild are unknown, although speculations include the dry slopes of Africa and India as well as dry stony regions of both North and South America. Wherever they first came from, we have been growing and enjoying them in North America since the 18th century. Although reportedly used by Chinese herbalists to stop bleeding, treat diseases of the blood, and infections of the urinary tract, there are no references to its use in any western herbals—modern or centuries old, European or Native American.

The name is derived from the Greek and translates to “burning,” aptly describing the look of celosias—especially the yellow, red, and orange plumed varieties— which bear a resemblance to licks of flames erupting from the stems.Before breeding resulted in larger blooms, the crested celosia, with its small, wavy, fanlike flowers, looked very much like rooster’s red combs—hence the popular common name of cockscomb.

In the Victorian language of flowers, celosias signified humor, warmth, and silliness. Goes to show how little humor they must have had in their lives. Yet, in their way, Victorians were on the right track. Even today, if you watch as folks, especially children, walk by a planting of celosia, you will likely see a grin. Their quirky flowers do beg for attention. Touch the flowers; they are amazingly soft. The cockscomb or cristata types feel like velvet on the sides of the spike. Celosia plumosa are actually tens of smaller feathery-like spikes produced in a Christmas tree-like arrangement. These feather-like plumes are almost indestructible. They remain the same shape and texture even during severe storms. Stand in the rain and Celosia plumosa look exactly the same as they do shining in the sunlight.

NOMENCLATURE

Celosias belong to the amaranth family, Amaranthaceae. Look at the plumed varieties and the resemblance to Joseph’s coat amaranth is apparent. There are about 60 species of annual or perennial celosia. The three common forms of celosia belong to only two different species, Celosia argentea (aka cristata L.) and Celosia spicata.

Celosia
Pink Crested Celosia (Cockscomb) and Plumed Celosia. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

CLASSIFICATION

Celosia argentea is comprised of two groups. Plumed celosia belongs to the Plumosa group, which bears fluffy, feathery heads composed of hundreds of tiny flowers. This group includes many All-America Selections Winners: ‘Fresh Look Red’ and its sister ‘Fresh Look Yellow’ (2004; both bear brilliant ten-inch-high feathers on 12- to 16-inch plants, producing new blooms around the old ones all summer—without deadheading), ‘Apricot Brandy’ (1981; apricot-orange plumes; 20-inch plant). ‘New Look’ won an AAS Award in 1988 due to the unique dark bronze foliage.

To many, the Cristata group, best known today as crested celosia or cockscomb, is suggestive of a highly colored brain—no gray matter there, just brilliant hues. Some varieties are wider than others; the narrow ones definitely are reminiscent of a rooster’s comb. The “crenellations” of Bombay mix (3 to 4 feet tall with 18-inch flower heads in 5 colors: purple, deep red, wine red, gold, and yellow gold) are very narrow and look like folds of elegant French ribbon—darker on the outside, lighter colored inside.

C. spicata, spiked cockscomb, is also known as wheat celosia for its narrow, spiky flower heads, reminiscent of heads of wheat. Unlike C. argentea, spiked cockscombs produce numerous flowers, with an almost shrubby look, in more muted colors. 'Flamingo Feather' is 3 to 4 feet tall with graceful spikes of rosy pink flowers and ‘Glowing Spears Mix’ makes a colorful—deep wine, pink, and white—24- to 30-inch high hedge. Twelve-inch tall ‘Kosmo Purple Red’ bears numerous narrow wine-red heads (that start out feathery and mature to fanlike cockscombs) beautifully set off by the handsome foliage—bright green, washed with purple.

Celosia
Celosias are easy to grow from seed. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

HOW TO GROW FROM SEED

Celosias are warm weather plants and take about 90 days to flower after planting. Like beans, they are not happy unless the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In cold winter areas, get a jump-start on the season by starting the seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost date. Celosias do not like to have their roots disturbed, so sow three or four seeds 1/4-inch deep in lightly moistened, sterile seed-starting mix in earth-friendly peat pots. Cover the pots with plastic wrap and put in a warm (70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit) place until the seeds germinate—10 to 15 days. Remove the plastic daily to let the plants breathe. Spritz with room temperature (not ice-cold out of the faucet) water to keep the potting mix uniformly lightly moist.

Once the seeds have germinated, move the plants into the light. A sunny south facing window will do, but fluorescent lights are best. As the plants grow, move the lights so they remain about six inches above the tops of the plants. When the plants have two sets of true leaves (not the initial seed or cotyledon leaves), pinch out all but the strongest looking plant.

When the nighttime temperatures are above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, start hardening off the plants. Gradually introduce them to the outdoors, leaving them outside—in a protected area—for part of each day. Start out with four hours and increase the time outdoors by two hours each day. By the eighth day, they should be able to remain out overnight.

Unless you plan to grow celosias in a cutting garden, avoid planting them in soldierly rows. Tear or cut off any part of the peat pot that is above the level of the potting mix. Plant the pot so the peat pot is completely covered with garden soil. Follow the directions on the seed packet for spacing the plants, ten inches apart for small varieties—16 inches for taller ones—is ample space for air circulation around the plants. Planted too closely, the plants may be stunted, with poor growth and smaller flowers. Water well.

In areas with longer summers, sow the seeds directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Follow the directions on the seed packet for spacing. For best germination, wait until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and cover loosely with soil. Keep the soil lightly moist until the seeds germinate. Covering loosely with Reemay® or other spun polyfiber fabric can help maintain soil moisture. Remove fabric immediately after germination. Once the plants have two sets of true leaves, thin the seedlings to the recommended spacing on the seed packet, leaving the largest and strongest plants.

Celosia
Celosias come in many vibrant colors. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

HOW TO GROW FROM PURCHASED PLANTS

Many celosias are available at nurseries, garden centers, and home stores in 4- to 6- plant cell packs. Purchase larger cell packs because they hold more soil. When purchasing the plants, look underneath the cell pack for any signs of roots emerging from the drainage holes. Avoid such packs, as the plants are likely root-bound and stressed. Check the roots, if possible, to see how tight they are in the cell. Look for healthy, well-colored leaves; examine them—top and bottom—for any signs of insects. Choose packs with vigorous plants growing in all cells, in soil that is not dried out.

Gently push up from the bottom of the cell pack to remove the plant; do not pull it out by the stem. If the roots are all matted together, make a vertical cut, one-quarter inch deep, through the root ball to encourage new root growth. Otherwise, gently loosen the soil around the roots. Set the plant in the ground at the same level it was growing in the cell pack. Water well. Set the plants 10 to 12 inches apart, or as directed on the plant tag.

Even though celosias will grow in poor, rocky or sandy soil, they will thrive in rich, well-drained garden soil.

GROWING ON IN THE GARDEN & GROWING IN CONTAINERS

Although the wheat celosias are almost bushy in appearance with numerous flowers, most plumed and crested celosias produce one large central flower and possibly several smaller flowers on side shoots. The tiny flower forms when the plant is small; as the plants grow, so does the flower. In the case of some of the large cockscombs, such as ‘Red Velvet’ that grows to 30 inches high with velvety crimson heads up to 10 inches across, the flowers grow so large that they make the plant top heavy, requiring staking. Otherwise, a heavy rain or wind can break the flower stem.

Celosias make beautiful container plantings—alone, or combined with other plants that like the same sunny growing conditions. Unless you grow a single plant in a container, plumes will be somewhat narrower than if they were planted in the ground. The key to a well-designed container is to include three plant forms: rounded, spiky, and frilly (or a plant that will spill over the rim of the pot and soften the edges). Plumed celosias fit the bill as spiky, and crested celosias as rounded. For containers, choose varieties that grow less than two feet tall, such as ‘Castle Pink’ (AAS 1990; plume; 12 to 16 inches tall; deep pink), ‘Prestige Scarlet’ (AAS 1997, crested; 12 inches; scarlet heads), ‘Coral Garden’ (crests look like coral reefs; 10 to 12 inches; mix of gold, burnt orange; deep cheery pink) or the newly introduced, ‘Ice Cream’ series.

GROWING CELOSIA INDOORS

Create a forest of color by growing plumed celosias in a pot. Sow the seeds thicker than you normally would (12 seeds for a 6- to 8-inch pot; 16 seeds for a 10- to 12-inch pot; thin to 8 and 12 seedlings, respectively). Within eight to ten weeks, the plants will be showing color. Since they are crowded in the pot, the plants will be more slender than they would in the garden, creating an illusion of a miniature woodland scene in its full glory of autumn color. Choose a low-growing variety (often called super dwarf) that comes in a color mix, such as ‘Kimono’ (cherry red, cream, orange, rose, salmon, scarlet, yellow, salmon pink) or ‘Kewpie’ (fiery red, deep orange, yellow), for the most Impressionistic “fall foliage.” Grow these containers indoors or out; indoors, make sure they get at least eight to ten hours of direct sunlight a day.

Celosia plumosa varieties are excellent houseplants. The potted plants will show color for a month or more under low light conditions. The new AAS Winners ‘Fresh Look Red’ and ‘Fresh Look Yellow’ have performed well as indoor houseplants and rival traditional “Mums” for fall indoor color.

FLOWERS—FRESH OR DRIED

For all celosias, whether you want to use them as fresh or dried flowers, cut the flowers when they are fully developed. Cut the flowers early in the day, after the dew has dried. For dried arrangements, remove all the leaves from the stems and wrap a rubber band around six to eight stems and hang them upside down from a coat hanger in a dark, cool, dry, airy space for several weeks or until fully dried. They will last in dried arrangements for at least six months without losing any of their vibrancy. Crafters use celosia flowers to add vibrant color to dried wreaths and swags. They are amazing in holiday decorations—imagine a turkey with feathers of yellow and orange celosia plumes. Transform a piece of bamboo or even a plain stick into a magic wand by hot-gluing some celosia flowers at the end. The uses for dried celosia are limited only by your imagination.

For drying, grow several plants of different sizes so you end up with a range of flower lengths, widths, colors, and shapes for the most versatility of uses. Once you have the dried flowers in front of you, they may spark your imagination for a project you had never thought of before. A good variety might include: ‘Bombay Mix’, ‘Century Mix’ (AAS 1985; slightly narrow, 12-inch-long plumes in colors of red, rose, yellow, fire); ‘Chief Mix’ (large 4-to 7-inch flower heads resemble coral in colors of dark red, carmine, rose, gold, red and yellow bicolor, height 3 to 3½ feet); ‘Fireglow’ (AAS 1964; 8 by 6-1/2-inch, velvety cardinal red, round crests); ‘Flamingo Feather’ (wheat celosia; with light pink spikes). You can always cut a large flower down to make it look like a smaller flower.

POSSIBLE PESTS & DISEASES

The only problems that can befall celosias are mites, leaf spots, and stem rot. They are all easily preventable by eliminating the cause—wet soil and cool weather. To avoid this, grow celosias in well-drained soil and mulch with organic material or simply grow them in a raised bed. Wait to plant until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.


Chili Peppers
Chili peppers come in lots of colors, shapes, sizes. Some are mild, and some are hot, hot, hot! Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

Chile Pepper Fact Sheet

by Rosalind Creasy, National Garden Bureau

Few edibles are harder to pigeonhole than chile peppers. To start, what’s the proper spelling? Is it chili, chilli, or chile? The South American country is Chile; cooks and chili-cook-offs use chili when referring to the dish chili con carne. The British prefer chilli, as do many folks in parts of the Southwest. To establish standard spelling for gardeners, the National Garden Bureau determined that most seed catalogs use chile when referring to the pepper, and when the pepper is an ingredient in an ethnic dish; that is the standard we’ll use here.

No other edibles have the cachet of chile peppers. There is no macho connotation to eating carrots or tomatoes—no matter the color or size. Not many vegetables have a magazine and festival solely devoted to it. From the smallest cayenne used sparingly as a seasoning to the largest poblano stuffed for a vegetable, chile peppers are outstanding among vegetables.

INTRODUCTION

What is it about a chile that has captivated humanity for millennia? Certainly, the plants with their ripe fruit in a range of colors from red through orange to yellow, green, purple, brown, and black are beautiful and eye-catching in the garden. Yet, it is in the kitchen that the passion for chiles and their diversity becomes evident. Their flavors—smoky, nutty, or fruity heat—are as varied as their looks, adding subtle to dynamic dimensions to any recipe.

There is the mystique—mostly masculine—about who can eat the hottest peppers without dire consequences. Some experts speculate chile pepper heat (and the subsequent oral pain) stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, conferring a sense of well being similar to a runner’s “high.”

Depending on the time of year, many grocery stores stock up to half a dozen different kinds of fresh chile peppers. With such availability, why would anyone want to grow their own? Cooks enjoy having a variety of fresh chiles at hand—for their range of flavors, and for more control of the heat in the dishes she/he makes. A gardener grows chiles because they are so rewarding; extremely productive, less prone to diseases than other vegetables, and beautiful. Don’t underestimate the competitive spirit—a chance to grow the hottest pepper on the block.

HISTORY

All peppers­—scorching chiles to sweet bells—originated in Central and South America. Archeological evidence in Mexico suggests that native peoples gathered wild chiles as far back as 7,000 BC; by 2,500 BC they were cultivating chile peppers.

In his quest to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus ended up in the Caribbean where he sampled a vegetable grown by the natives. Its fiery taste was reminiscent of the spice black pepper (Piper nigrum) grown in the East Indies. With the flavor connection in mind, Columbus gave the piquant vegetable the moniker “pepper.” He didn’t know that black pepper was the berry of the tropical vine in the genus Piper and that the New World peppers are shrubby plants in the genus Capsicum.

Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chiles back to Spain. From there, the Spaniards and Portuguese traded chile peppers throughout Southeast Asia and India, where they were quickly adopted by cultures already immersed in spicy foods. Use of chile peppers soon spread to the Middle East and throughout much of Europe.

Eventually chiles spread to North America—via Europe or the Caribbean; it’s not clear. Here, chile peppers weren’t an overnight sensation. Records dating to the Colonial days show that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, at Mount Vernon and Monticello respectively, grew a cayenne pepper of some type. Chiles were occasionally used in some households, but basically as regional delights. They were hard to find outside New Orleans and the Southwest until the middle of the 20th century.

NOMENCLATURE

Peppers are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, as are tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. Chiles—and all other peppers—are in the genus Capsicum. Although there are five species in cultivation, the most common chiles—Anaheims, Jalapeños, Cayennes, Poblanos, and Serranos, and almost all other chile types used in the United States are all Capsicum annuum. The most familiar exceptions are the Habañero types (C. chinense), Tabasco, and a number of the Asian hot peppers designated C. frutescens. Other chiles worth exploring: some of the wild peppers from Mexico and the American Southwest like the notorious chiltepíns and chilipiquíns (C. annuum avicular), (recent taxonomic re-classification to C. glabriusculum), fiery chiles beloved in other countries such as the Peruvian ‘Aji Colorado’ and the Caribbean ‘Scotch Bonnet’ (C. chinensis) and ‘Peru Yellow,’ as well as the milder but very flavorful ‘Peri-Peri’ from Portugal (C. baccatum).

CLASSIFICATION

There are two ways of classifying chile peppers—by their heat and shape. In 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented a test to measure the hotness of peppers by diluting the pepper until the heat was just perceptible on the tongue. The Scoville rating is measured in multiples of 100; he rated a bell pepper 0, while a Japanese chile came in at 20,000 on the Scoville scale.

Following are the 11 most common categories of chile peppers, classified by their fruit shape and their heat (in Scoville Units):

Asian/Thai: Small slender, thin-walled fruits; green ripening to red; no distinct pepper flavor; high to extreme heat (8,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). Very attractive plants are heavy producers. Use red ripe, fresh, or dried, to add heat to curries, marinades, soups, and stir-fries. (Shape H)

Cayenne: Long, curved peppers with two cells and thin wrinkled skin; generally green but can be yellow or purple; medium to high heat (5,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). ‘Super Cayenne’ (1990 AAS Winner) is especially vigorous. Harvest red ripe; use fresh or dried to add heat to marinades, pizza, stews, soups, stir-fries, and curries. (Shape G)

Chile/Anaheim/New Mexico/Paprika/Pasilla: Long and tapered, with fairly thin walls and two cells; ripen from green to red; mild to medium heat (1,000 to <8,000 Scoville Units). Many varieties, some of which grow well in short northern climates and at high altitudes. They have mild pepper flavors; best roasted and stuffed, or chopped and added to ethnic dishes; good for drying when red ripe. The Paprikas have deep rich flavors; allow to ripen fully, then dry and grind up. Add to stews and soups and use as a garnish. (Shape A)

Chili Peppers
Habañero peppers are hot, hot, hot! Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

Habañero: Small lantern shape; thin-walls; fruity taste and extreme heat (8,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). Fruiting may be erratic in northern gardens. Use sparingly when fresh in fruit salsas, ceviche, jerk sauces, and Caribbean curries. (Shape D)

Hot Cherry: Tomato-shaped, thick-walled green peppers; ripen to red; medium heat (5,000 to <8,000 Scoville Units). They have a rich, sweet flavor; use for pickles or poach them and stuff with meat or cheese. (Shape I)

Hungarian Wax/Banana: Long and conical, tapering to a point; medium thick walls; ripen yellow to red; mild heat (1,000 to <5,000 Scoville Units). Adaptable to many climates. Use yellow or red ripe for pickles and chutney, or add them to salsas and fried dishes. (Shape E)

Jalapeño: Short and stubby with thick meaty walls; deep green; medium to high heat (5,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). Numerous varieties include Jalapeños for short northern climates, selections with yellow and orange stages of ripeness, and others that are highly productive. Harvest Jalapeños green; use fresh in salsas, pickle, and grill and add to tacos or burritos. Smoke dry—either green or red ripe—to make chipotles. (Shape C)

Ornamental/hot edible: Upright, small, round or tapered, and thin walled; medium to high heat (5,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). Bred in a variety of colors and with different shaped peppers: ‘Black Pearl’ (2006 AAS Winner with black fruit), and ‘Super Chili’ (1988 AAS Winner; small red chiles borne in large numbers). Taste these peppers cautiously first, as some are bitter, some are exceptionally hot; pickle to add heat to salsas, marinades, and soups. (Many shapes)

Poblano (called Ancho when dried): Flat and round, slightly tapered with a blunt end; thin walls with three cells; dark green; mild heat (1,000 to <5,000 Scoville Units). Harvest green for roasting and stuffing; dry when red ripe and grind up for basic salsas and moles. (Shape B)

Chili Peppers
Chili Papper 'Mariachi' has a beautiful translucent quality. It's an AAS Vegetable Award Winner for 2006. Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

Santa Fe Grande: Medium-sized, tapered and conical; medium thick walls; yellow-to-red; medium to high heat (5,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). Use fresh when ripe; pickle or roast and add to quesadillas and tacos. A new Santa Fe Grande type is 2006 AAS Winner ‘Mariachi,’ a mild chile pepper with outstanding flavor when yellow or red. (Shape C)

Serrano: Slim, slightly club-shaped with medium thick walls; green; rich flavor; medium to high heat (5,000 to <60,000 Scoville Units). Use fresh in the green stage or fry or grill and use as a garnish or add to salsas, tacos, guacamole, and other traditional Mexican dishes. (Shape F)

CULTURE/GROWING CONDITIONS

The majority of chile varieties offered in nurseries and from seed companies are quite domesticated, some are hybrids. They grow in a similar manner to bell peppers and many other vegetables, but a number, like some of the Peruvian, Bolivian, and the bird peppers, walk a bit on the wild side.

Under some growing conditions, the lack of flowers and fruit set may pose a problem. Occasionally they don’t produce flowers—more often in short summer climates, especially in “wilder” chile varieties. Experts speculate that less domesticated varieties need the cooler weather of early fall to set fruit; and/or flowering may be triggered as the days get shorter in September. Avoid this problem by growing more domesticated chiles (‘Hungarian Hot Wax,’ ‘Cherry Bomb,’ ‘Marbles,’ and ‘Bulgarian Carrot’), especially some of the new F1 hybrids including ‘Serrano Del Sol,’ ‘Ancho 211,’ ‘Thai Dragon,’ and ‘Conchos’ Jalapeño. In cool weather areas, prolong the growing-harvesting season by growing chiles in containers; bring them inside when frost is threatened.

Blossom drop, which results in little to no fruit set, occurs when the temperatures are above 90ºF during the day or below 60ºF at night. When the weather is more suitable, fruits will set. Sometimes pollination is poor, in that case hand pollinate a number with a Q-tip.

PLANNING – IDEAS TO GROW THE “HOTTEST” CHILE PEPPER

It is easy to get started growing chile peppers. Many nurseries have young starter plants available in the spring; Jalapeños, Hungarian Wax, Hot Cherry, Anaheims, and an occasional ornamental pepper plant are most common.

Choose sturdy looking plants with dark green foliage. Avoid those with yellowed leaves and long spindly growth as they generally fail to thrive. For a greater choice of chiles, many gardeners, including the thrill-seeking fire-eaters, order seeds from mail-order seed companies that offer a plethora of ethnic and specialty chile peppers.

Some folks want to grow the hottest pepper on the block while others prefer their peppers on the mild side. Obviously the heat varies with the variety; anyone with a delicate palate would not tolerate even the mildest Habañero. Yet, it is possible to control the heat to a degree depending on your climate, the growing method, and by timing the harvest. For spicy peppers, start by selecting hot types from the list above. Consider the growing conditions: Peppers cultivated in a hot climate with days in the 95ºF range are spicier than those grown where days are in the 70ºs. Drought-stricken chiles are hotter than those grown with lots of water. If you yearn for spicy peppers and live in a cool climate, cover the soil with black plastic mulch or grow peppers in containers on a concrete or brick patio in full sun. To turn up the fire, keep the water and nitrogen fertilizer to a minimum. Alternatively, if you prefer milder peppers, keep the plants well watered—but not soggy—and provide afternoon shade in hot climates. A general rule of thumb is the riper the chile, the hotter it is. That said, ripe peppers have a different flavor than unripe ones. Let your personal taste and the recipe determine when to pick each pepper.

STARTING SEEDS

Chile plants are slow to get going, so start pepper plants indoors a few weeks earlier than tomatoes. Sow the seeds about 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost date.

Sow several seeds 1/4-inch deep in 2-to 3-inch earth-friendly containers such as peat pots filled with lightly moistened seed starting mix. Water well and place the pots in a well-lighted, warm area (80º to 85ºF) such as under fluorescent lights. To prevent the seedlings from damping off, keep the soil damp but not wet, and provide good air circulation around the plants. Feed the seedlings with half-strength water-soluble nitrogen fertilizer every two weeks. When seedlings are about two inches tall, thin to one plant per pot by cutting out the smaller ones. Once the plants are about five inches tall and the nighttime temperatures are above 60ºF, harden the plants off by slowly acclimatizing the peppers to the garden.

After two weeks, plant them in the garden. Peppers need full sun, rich soil (amended with compost, well-rotted manure, or leaf mold) and good drainage. Allow two feet between plants. If the peppers are starting to produce flower buds, pinch them off and continue to do this for 1 to 2 weeks; this forces the plants to put their energy into growing leaves and roots. Mulch with 2 to 3 inches of organic matter. Mulch keeps weed growth down and maintains soil moisture. Stake varieties that grow taller than 2 feet. To avoid problems with cutworms (they can chew young seedlings off at the soil line) place two-inch-tall cardboard or aluminum foil collars around the new plants—with 1-inch below soil level and 1-inch above.

Keep the plants lightly moist, but not soggy. Pull any weeds if they appear. Feed the plants with an all-purpose water-soluble fertilizer about six weeks after transplanting and again if the plants start to look pale or the leaves are small.

DISEASES AND PESTS

Chile peppers are generally quite healthy. Pests are an occasional problem. Tiny green aphids sometimes cluster on the tips of branches. In large numbers, they suck plant juices, which deform the leaves and steal energy from the plant. Aphids can also spread deadly viruses. A strong spray of water from the garden hose can knock aphids off the plants. Caterpillars, including corn earworms and corn borers, destroy the fruits; hornworms eat both fruits and leaves. For information on controlling any pest infestation, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service or ask for advice at a local nursery.

Chile peppers are prone to a few virus diseases. There are quite a few viruses in peppers; the most common is tobacco mosaic virus, which causes mottled yellow leaves and misshapen fruits. There are no cures for viruses so the plants must be destroyed. Prevent the disease from spreading by controlling aphids.

CAUTIONS

Like most other plants—ornamental and edible—melons are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, some of which may be more prevalent in one area of the country than another.

In the garden, survival of the fittest pCapsaicin (cap-say-a-sin), an alkaloid compound unique to chile peppers, gives them their heat. It creates a pleasure/pain response in the mouth, but it burns the skin and eyes.

Always use caution when handling hot peppers. To protect your hands, use disposable latex gloves. Never touch your face near your eyes, mouth, or nasal passages. Capsaicin is produced primarily in the veins/placental tissue of the pepper, but with an especially hot variety, take care when harvesting. If you accidentally get pepper juice in your eye immediately wash it out with clean cool water. And if you eat too fiery a pepper, get some relief by eating yogurt, ice cream, or milk.

HARVESTING

Most chiles are green when unripe and turn yellow, orange, red, or brown when fully ripe. Individual chiles are considered most flavorful at different stages. For instance, in Mexico, Jalapeños and Serranos are preferable when green, and Cayenne types when red ripe. For fresh eating, it is a matter of personal taste; for drying, fully ripe peppers are best. Harvest chiles once they feel firm and get a glossy sheen. Cut the fruit off with clippers, as the branches of pepper plants are brittle and break off readily.

PRESERVING

Dry thin-walled chiles in a warm, dry place or dehydrator until brittle dry. Store the dried chiles in airtight containers. If meal moths frequent your kitchen, store the peppers in zipper-style freezer bags in the freezer. Roast Poblano, Anaheim, and New Mexico chiles and then peel and put in zippered plastic freezer bags and freeze for up to six months.

CONTAINERS

All types of chile peppers can be grown in containers. Large Poblano, New Mexico, Anaheim, and most hybrids are best grown in large containers, such as a half wine barrel. Grow smaller, more compact ornamental peppers in 10” to 12” containers.

REFERENCE

A valuable resource for chile gardeners is The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, New Mexico (www.chilepepperinstitute.org), which provides much technical information on growing chiles.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

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