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Chili Pepper Gardening
General Information | Obtaining the Seeds | Planting the Seeds | Preparing the Soil | Growing Your Plants | Weeds and Pests | Harvesting Your Bounty
Sunset Western Garden Book on Peppers
Scientific Name: Solanaceae
All peppers grow on 1 1/2 to 2-ft.-tall handsome, bushy plants. Use plants as temporary low informal hedge, or grow and display them in containers. The two basic kinds of peppers are sweet and hot.
Sweet peppers always remain mild, even when flesh ripens to red. This group includes big stuffing and salad peppers commonly known as bell peppers, best known of these are 'California Wonder' and 'Yolo Wonder'. Hybrid varieties have been bred for early bearing, high yield, or disease resistance. Big peppers are also available in bright yellow and purple (purple types turn green when cooked). Other sweet types are thick-walled, very sweet pimientos used in salads or for cooking or canning; sweet cherry peppers for pickling; and long, slender -Italian frying peppers and Hungarian sweet yellow peppers, both used for cooking.
Hot peppers range from tiny (pea-size) types to narrow, 6-7-in.-long forms, but all are pungent, their flavor ranging from the mild heat of Italian peperoncini to the near-incandescence of the 'Habanero'. 'Anaheim' is a mild but spicy pepper used for making canned green chilies. 'Long Red Cayenne' is used for drying; 'Hungarian Yellow Wax (Hot)', 'Jalapeno', and 'Fresno Chile Grande' are used for pickling. Mexican cooking utilizes an entire palette of peppers, among them 'Ancho', 'Mulato', and 'Pasilla'.
Buy started plants at nursery, or sow seed indoors 8-10 weeks before average date of last frost. Set out when weather becomes warm, spacing plants 11/-2 ft. apart. Feed once or twice with commercial fertilizer after plants become established, before blossoms set. Sweet peppers are ready to pick when they have reached good size but keep their flavor until red ripe. Pimientos should be picked only when red-ripe. Pick hot peppers when they are fully ripe. Control cutworms with baits. Control aphids, whiteflies with all-purpose vegetable garden dust or spray.
There are a variety of ways for obtaining chili pepper seeds. In America chili peppers are coming into general acceptance by the public and out of the hands of fringe lunatics such as... myself. This means you can go into any nursery or garden section of a home improvement store and buy chili seeds. This also means you won't have to wade through weird people with fingers growing out of their heads dressed in black wax paper who jabber like monkeys... like me again, just to get your dang seeds. You can even find vegetable seed packs that include hot chilies in grocery store display stands. There are many seed and gardening catalogs and web sites out there.
Catalogs and Web Sites:
Geo. W. Park Seed
This is a gold mine of resources for you chili farmers out there. Seeds, tools, fertilizers, sprouting kits, supplies.
Gurney's Seed and
Excellent source catalog. Seeds, tools, fertilizers, sprouting kits, supplies.
Atlee Burpee & Co.
Lots of different types of chili seeds.
Lots of different types of chili seeds, some tools and supplies.
A useful variety of chili seeds and gardening books.
Organic seed catalog offering some hot chilies and sprouting kits. This is a site for those of you more fastidious than the cannibals of Pango-Pango but less fanatic than the berserk Save-The-Plants/throw-sap-on-you-if-you-eat-a-carrot sect of the Sierra Club.
Redwood City Seed Company
Heirloom vegetables, hot peppers and herb seeds.
Vigilante Seed Sources:
Sounds scary eh? This is just another way of saying that you can scrounge up your seeds yourself.
There are schools of thought for planting seeds that range from tossing handfulls of seeds onto the dirt to transgenetic test tube cloning in high tech labs. Again I fall somewhere in the middle. Gosh I'm reasonable! I AM reasonable aren't I?? Please tell me I'm reasonable. Please?? You WILL tell me I'm reasonable or or or... I'll OJ you on your front porch!!
::pound punch pummel:: "Stop dat blubberin' Nicole!!" ::hack chop slash slash slash gash::
Wait, where the heck was I? Did I just black out again? Must be all the peppers. Planting pepper seeds,THAT''S it. Focus Gary focus. I am pretty careful about planting my seeds because I have had some very spectacular failures in the past and by using the technique presented here, you can avoid all of that pain and waste.
First off you must plant at the correct time of year. If you plant too late, the sun will bake your seedlings to death, too early and they will freeze to death. Brutal isn't it? I start 5 to 6 weeks before the last frost of the season. You have to guess this according to the area you live in and the weather you are having that year. You are better off starting too early because you can always leave them inside until it is safe to put them outside. It is warm here in zone 9 so I started this year on the first of March.
I use peat pots to plant in. These are small 2"-3" deep pots that are made out of compressed peat moss. You fill them with dirt and when the time comes to plant, you can just put the entire peat pot into the garden soil and the roots are not disturbed even a little. The roots grow right through the peat pots into the garden soil. The peat pot will eventually break down and be good for your soil.
It gets pickier. I have had problems with organisms in the soil eating my seeds. Look at it from the soil organisms point of view. You had a long, hard, cold winter. You just woke up and are starving and freezing your hinney off. Just then somebody sets a hot turkey dinner down right beside you and walks off. The only way to guarantee that this scenario does not transpire is to use sterilized potting soil available at any nursery, gardening department or home improvement store. Buy a bag, fill your peat pots and press the soil down firmly with your thumbs.
Dig the seed holes in the filled peat pots 1/4 inch deep and wide. Use a toothpick or pencil point and using a circular motion with downward pressure, hollow out a shallow hole for the seed. Put one seed in each hole then push the soil firmly over the seed. The seed must have good firm contact with the soil. I put 2 to 4 seeds in each peat pot if I have obtained the seeds from chili pods. These "vigilante" seeds aren't as dependable as the seeds purchased from a seed supplier. If they are store bought seeds, then one seed to a pot generally works fine. If too many seeds sprout in a pot, you can pinch off the weakest looking sprouts. Pinch now, don't pull, you can damage the roots of the remaining seedling. Take this opportunity to threaten the remaining sprout, shake the dead carcass of his brother at him and tell him he will get the same if he doesn't grow up big and burn the hell out of your mouth.
OK now you have the seeds planted. What now? Now you need to keep them warm and moist like the rains have passed and the spring sunshine is beckoning them forth from the ground. How do you do that? Small table top greenhouses! You can buy these at most of the supply web sites above. Look for "seed starting" or "greenhouse" etc. Basically I just buy the 10X15X4 inch deep bottom pans and the clear top covers and put my own peat pots inside, then set them on a shelf or countertop. Feel free to buy the entire kit and follow their instructions, I'm sure you will have good results.
Buy enough of whatever you are going to get to hold all the seeds you require. That number is totally up to you. How much room do you have? A window sill? A patio? A backyard? A ranch? A Class-M planet? Figure it out yourself.
So they are planted and housed, do we just let them set there abandoned while we spend all day showering and Q-tipping and exercising and munching and primping and whizzing and pasting and pooting and fussing with our hair? No, we make them more at home than we do our spouses. Put enough water in the bottom pans to moisten the soil, don't get it soaking wet or it will rot, too little water and the seeds won't sprout. The soil is moist enough if it sticks together when pinched between your fingers and released. The soil needs to be warm so I bought a waterproof thermometer for an aquarium from a pet store. Put the thermometer under the clear plastic top and set it on top of the peat pods. What temperature is it? For chili peppers it should be about 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 degrees centigrade. If it is cooler than that, set a lamp stand near it so that the incandescent bulb shines on the little greenhouse you have set up. Check the thermometer often at first and move the lamp closer or farther until the temperature is right.
What's left? Well pepper seeds don't need light to germinate but they do need light after they emerge from the soil and an incandescent bulb isn't going to supply the right kind of light. What I did was to buy a cheap florescent shop light at a home improvement store. DON'T get the "quick start" variety or you won't find the bulbs you need. You can find florescent plant lights to fit your shop light at nurseries and pet shops. Hang or prop this light so the bulbs are about one foot above the top of the greenhouse setup. If you are smart you will put these lights on an automatic timer and let them shine for 16 hours a day. After the seeds sprout disconnect the heating lamp, the sprouts will do better with room temperature.
Expect seeds such as Bird Mouth to come up in a week, Habañeros take about two and Thai chilies can take up to 3 weeks so you see there is not a set time for the seeds to sprout. Be patient and enjoy the experience! You might see a little mold, this is almost always harmless. Remember it is very hot and humid in the greenhouse. It helps to wash your hands very well before you handle the seeds, peat pots and potting soil. Whatever lived on your fingers during planting time has now multiplied a billionfold!
As promised, this tutorial will focus on container gardening. The containers I use are black plastic 5 gallon pots that are available at any gardening store or nursery. You may have to ask for them if you don't see them. Often they have some of these containers stacked up in the back from returned potted plants that died or whatever. Usually you can find them brand new as nurseries are learning that folks are starting to embrace container gardening. You can use larger containers if you want but I wouldn't recommend using smaller containers as you will stunt the growth of your plants. If the pots do not have large drain holes in the bottom, then make lots of holes, at least a dozen 1/2 inch holes.
The soil in my 5-gallon pots is about 7 years old. I keep reusing and amending the same soil over and over. When I started the containers I prepared the soil in this manner:
If you have very sandy soil you might want to replace the shovel of sand with a suitable portion of clay laden soil. Dirt is different everywhere. If you have what is considered a problem soil that you don't think can be worked as above, you can just buy bags of potting soil at the nursery and you will do very well by it, you can still amend it yearly as described below. To start with, it would be best to put at least a handful of dirt from the garden or yard into each pot to seed it with heathful soil organisms. Add the soil to the 5 gallon containers as you finish mixing each batch in the wheelbarrow. Firmly compress the soil in the pots with your hands. Pack it down firmly, don't be shy. Fill the containers to about 1 1/2 to 2 inches below the rim of the container.
Each year thereafter when I am refreshing the soil for the new season:
I installed a drip line to water my pots, I highly recommend this. The installation of a drip line is beyond the scope of this lesson. If you are up to it, now would be the time to either install the system or give it a yearly testing to assure yourself that it is functioning properly for the coming season.
Chili peppers are a pretty hardy plant and don't require much care but there is an optimal way to treat them that will give you the best results and a bountiful harvest. Healthy plants require healthy soil with a variety of natural organisms to help process organic material in the dirt, converting them into nutrients that the plant needs. You may notice that much of the instructions here help you maintain the health of the organisms in the soil. If you have followed all the instructions above then you have a great start on a healthy plant but you must still pay attention to some key aspects of plant life: planting, sunshine, water, and fertilizer.
Lions and tigers and bears oh my! Now that your babies have been sent out into the world, there are all manner of predators hopping, crawling, slithering, skulking and slinking around them looking for a meal or an easy mark to beat up and take their lunch money from. I'm talking about weeds, pests and diseases. There is no one way to handle the vast variety of garden villains you will encounter. I always try to use the least invasive or toxic method first. One thing I have found generally effective in fighting insects is not radioactive sodium-cyanide flavored napalm bombs delivered by gamma ray satellites in geo-synchronous orbit... but simple water. Many times the solution to insect problems is to knock them off with a fine spray of water! They hate that and the looks on their faces are worth it!!
Systemic pesticides are harsh chemicals that are poured into the soil so that your plants roots may absorb them and kill the bugs that are eating the leaves. That is overkill pure and simple. The first time I poured systemic insecticides into the ground, and watched dozens and dozens of earthworms suddenly burst from the ground and trash frantically only to die a moment later, was the last time I used it. These and other toxic pesticides do as much harm as they do good. Sure I killed the thrips in my roses, but I murdered the ground all around it and it took years before the earthworms and other beneficial fauna returned to the soil. Garden soil is not just dirt, it is teeming with plants and animals living their tiny, sometimes microscopic, lives while enriching the environment around them.
Insecticidal systemics and sprays and baits all have one thing in common: they are generally non-selective in what they kill. They kill the good insects as much as they kill the bad insects. What's a dead bug you say? It's an animal that will not pollinate your flowers, scavenge the dead creatures, break down the waste, convert organic detritus to plant food or attract beneficial insect predators to your garden. It is a broken ecosystem that will not function properly. It is you wasting your time and money and resources when you could be doing it better and safer.
Trust me, I'm NOT one of those crazy environmentalists, and I DO believe petrochemicals and poisons play a vitally important role in modern gardening. I'm just saying to use restraint, educate yourself fully about the products you intend to use and use them only when it is appropriate to do so. Do yourself a favor and try to find the least toxic cure to your plant's ills as possible. That goes for weed killers and sprays for plant diseases too. You will be repaid with healthier and happier plants producing more of what you are nurturing them for... pain in your stupid mouth, gurgling lava guts and flames shooting out your butt!
Let's just say on the off chance that your crop has survived to fruition, and that you are nuts enough to want to go through with harvesting the chili pods. This final section on gardening will supply you with some tips of harvesting and drying your chilies.
WHEN TO HARVEST:
HOW TO HARVEST:
OK bunkies, there you are. Go out and grow your own and may your lips throb, your neck sweat and your face turn red. May your ears itch, your mouth roast, your guts roil with lava, and may your poo-poos be smoking hot!
(If you think ahead - throw a couple rolls of toilet paper in the freezer!)
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