Early March is the ideal time for starting peppers indoors, but if time is getting away from you or if the prospect of seeds, heat mats and growing lights just isn’t your thing, then let someone else do it for you.
The International Herb Association has declared 2016 the Year of the Pepper. Capsicum annum, the most common of the domesticated species of peppers, includes sweet bell peppers and their more pungent relatives, chilies. As consumer demand grows for hotter, spicier flavours, garden centres such as Sunshine Nursery and Greenhouse in Steinbach offer an ever wider selection of pepper varieties for growing in patio pots or in vegetable plots.
Janet Blatz grows all the veggies at Sunshine and has spent the past few weeks starting more than 40 different varieties of peppers from seed. Some of the more popular bell pepper varieties, for example, will be available in cell-packs of six and will number in the thousands.
A self-proclaimed chili-head, Blatz likes to experiment with all types of peppers and enjoys even the hottest types on her breakfast toast or in scrambled eggs. This spring, Sunshine will carry limited quantities of Trinidad Scorpion and Bhut Jolokia, also known as the Ghost Pepper. Both vie to be the world’s hottest pepper. A wrinkled, lantern-shaped chili with a sharply pointed tip, the appearance of Trinidad Scorpion is like that of a witch’s hat that has been stepped on. Trinidad Scorpion matures at 90 days to a fiery orange-red.
Bhut Jolokia, a more compact plant (about 30 to 38 cm tall) when grown in our shorter growing season, produces wrinkled, thin-walled, tapered five centimetre habanero-shaped peppers. It takes longer to ripen than Trinidad Scorpion, about 100 to 120 days.
Fatalii is a blazing tangerine-orange habanero pepper. Blatz likes its strong citrus aroma and says it packs sizzling heat. Fatallii matures 90 days from transplant and is compact enough to grow in a patio container.
Chilies have varying degrees of heat, from mild to extremely hot and contain a chemical compound known as capsaicin found in the inner membrane of the chili fruit and its seeds. The test for measuring the heat or pungency in a pepper was devised in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist.
The spicy hot flavour of even the hottest chilies, says Blatz, can be tamed and brought into balance when combined with sweeter-tasting vegetables such as carrots.
Cultivated in Peru and Bolivia for thousands of years, Rocoto is a thick-walled, bright red chili pepper. Compared to thin-walled Fatalli, thick-fleshed Rocoto is smaller than a golf ball but has noticeable weight.
Difficult to obtain from seed suppliers, Blatz scoops out the seeds from her Rocoto peppers to save them from year to year. Removing seeds and membranes from extremely hot chili peppers also lessens their heat, making it easier for more cautious taste buds to enjoy their fruity flavour. Wearing rubber gloves is always advised when handling hot chili peppers as the capsaicin oil in hot peppers can irritate your skin.
Blatz says thin-walled peppers such as Fatalli and Estaceno, a hot chili pepper from northern Mexico, are generally not fleshy or juicy and are easy to dry. After harvesting, simply lay them out on a sheet of parchment paper and allow them to dry completely on your kitchen counter before storing them in a jar. When Blatz wants to add dried chili peppers to a recipe, she crushes them first with a mortar and pestle.
Chocolate habanero, new to Sunshine this year, also packs some serious heat. With an earthy flavour, the pods of Chocolate start out green and ripen to dark brown, five-centimetre-long lantern-shaped fruit.
Anaheim is a mildly hot chili pepper from California. Its smooth, tapered green fruit ripens to red in about 80 days. Blatz has been growing this variety for more than 10 years and says that, interestingly, the amount of heat varies from one pepper to the next even when grown in the same row. Providing the season is long enough for them to ripen to red, Anaheim peppers can also be harvested while they are still green. Blatz likes to slice these down the side and stuff them with cheese, rice and beans for grilling on the barbecue or roasting in the oven.
Or perhaps you would like to make your own hot pepper rings. All you need, says Blatz, is a pepper variety with medium heat, such as Hungarian Hot Wax, and some water, vinegar and sugar.
If your taste is more inclined toward bell peppers, the chili pepper’s less pungent relatives that do not contain any capsaicin, Blatz suggests a sweetly flavoured rare Hungarian pepper variety such as Paradicsom Alaku Sarga Szentes. A bright yellow, deeply ribbed pumpkin-shaped fruit, Blatz says Paradicsom has thick, crisp and juicy flesh.
A staple for the past 10 years at Sunshine Greenhouse, Jimmy Nardello is a prolific Italian pepper that bears loads of long, skinny bright red fruits with a sweet, dense flavour that intensifies when dried. Blatz says it is delicious eaten fresh, stir-fried or dried.
Peppers are heat and sun-loving plants. If you purchase seedlings early in May, wait until there is no risk of frost before planting them outside. Peppers will not tolerate cold night-time temperatures or soil that is still partially frozen. To ensure good development and production, transplant your newly purchased seedlings into a larger container (this will prevent the soil from drying out too quickly), and provide adequate light and even moisture until temperatures are warm enough outside for planting. Although peppers are heat and sun-loving plants, acclimatize them to full sun conditions by gradually moving them into their sunny location.
Soil requirements vary depending on whether you are planting your peppers into a veggie bed or a patio pot. Adding compost to the soil in your vegetable plot improves soil structure, promotes good nutrition and good drainage and increases fertility. Blatz says a vegetable bed enriched with organic matter usually doesn’t require the addition of a synthetic fertilizer.
Blatz says last year’s moist conditions in June resulted in an increase in cutworm populations. To deter cutworms from damaging her pepper crop, Blatz makes a collar for each plant using plastic yogurt or sour cream containers, which she pushes about two or three centimetres into the ground.
Peppers make excellent container plants. For the soil mix, Blatz suggests combining one part soilless potting mix with one part three-way all-purpose soil mixture typically used for garden beds. This will help to ensure the soil does not dry out as quickly. "Large pots," says Blatz, "reduce the watering maintenance for the gardener and the plant stays healthier because it has more nutrients to draw on."
Feed plants with an all-purpose fertilizer. While the plants are in flower, feed regularly with a high-potassium tomato fertilizer.
Providing your pot is large enough, peppers can be combined with annuals. Blatz shares this container recipe: combine Thai Hot, a fine, textured dwarf plant that produces between 50 to 100 tiny one-centimetre peppers with Serrano del Sol, a green, thick walled jalapeno-shaped pepper and either Orange Blaze or Gypsy, both sweet bell peppers. Underplant with annuals such as Scaevola Top Model White, trailing Dichondra Silver Falls and Verbena Wicked Hot Pink.
Enjoy your delicious peppers and attract pollinators at the same time.
The ninth annual Gardening Saturday, hosted by Gardens Manitoba, will be held March 19 at the Victoria Inn, 1808 Wellington Ave. from 9 am to 3 p.m. Featuring a tradeshow, food market and speaker presentations. For more information or to pre-register for workshops, please visit www.gardensmanitoba.com