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Garden Update, Part 3: Lots & Lots O’ Hots, O My!

Bright Habaneros

The only way the Elves here at the Underground can justify their use of the word “Chile” in their website’s name is to be sure to have plenty of peppers planted and thriving by this time of the year. Fortunately, they’re cultivating a grand spread of capsicum, hot and mild. (They grumbled quite a bit when I told them they had to put down their beer and use all their grubby little hands to do the planting. But they got’er done. Eventually.)

This will be a long report, so hang with me. Without further ado, let’s see what the hot pepper patch promises…

Beginning with the hottest first, there are four petite Caribbean Red (450,000 on the Scoville scale, more or less) plants in one corner of the pepper patch. I attempted to start some from seed, but they didn’t make the cut. I had given up on this interesting cultivar when I found four rather sad-looking little seedlings on a flat at the garden center. Yellowing leaves, droopy and despairing, I took them home and nursed them for a while, then carefully freed them from their small, square pots. Water, sun, warm breezes and plenty of fertilizer later they’re doing famously, if still a bit on the short side. It’ll be another month before they can even think about blooming, but once they get going I think they’ll produce nicely.

Last year the Habanero (275,000 Scoville) plants did splendidly well. I had nine of them, way too many in the opinion of some people whose silly ideas somehow got lost in the shuffle. This year I’m going with three plants, and they’re growing quite nicely, blooming already. They’re quite short, but then, last year they didn’t top two feet; typical of most Capsicum chinensis varieties. Listed as an annual, these plants can actually last several years if they’re protected from frost and cold over the winter. Some chileheads claim the fruit from later years are hotter and sweeter. I may attempt to pot up one or two of these (and the Caribs) and see for myself; in the meantime, we have to get through the coming hot summer. As an aside, the Caribs are also C. chinensis, and many call them habaneros. It’s splitting hairs, in my opinion; they’re both wonderful chiles for pepper jelly, and that’s my primary concern.

I’ve always heard about the Thai Birdseye chiles (75,000 Scoville), how tasty and hot they are, but I’ve never seen plants available in my area. Until this year. Suddenly, every garden center had flats and pots of them! Although they’re classed as an ornamental by many, I think they’re a “must have” for Thai food, especially the hotter curries. These bushes are a nest of spindly limbs, with plentiful flowers and lots of pointy fruit. It doesn’t take these babies long to produce a handful of useful little chiles. I started with well-established bushes and transplanted them early. They suffered a bit with the cool weather, but they’re catching their stride now.


Last year I bought and planted four lovely Yellow Cayenne plants (40,000 Scoville). Unfortunately for me, they turned out to be common reds. This year I’m trying four more, and I talked with the Bonnie Plants rep in our area who assured me they were going to be yellows. Of course, he doesn’t know any more about this than I do, but I smiled and nodded. Time will tell. In any case, the red cayennes didn’t go to waste last year, and whatever color they are this time I’ll find employment for the produce. This particular cultivar is supposed to be more like a Cowhorn Cayenne, long and heavy.

Speaking of Cowhorns, they were conspicuously absent at the garden centers near me this year. I went with three of the more classical Long Red Cayenne (40,000) plants, and they’re going great guns. Naturally they’re not very tall yet, well less than 18 inches in height. They’re already producing strongly, though, and there are plenty more blooms opening. I think these little beauties might be the prize find of the peppers this season.

The Serrano chile (25,000) is one of my favorites. Good in salsas, pepper jellies, Asian food and more, and they’re so easy to grow. Last year I had eight nice plants, a couple of which grew to over seven foot tall at the end. This year I’ve scaled back to three plants, one of which has already suffered a serious attack from some bug. They’re going okay, but I hope this isn’t a harbinger of a bug-filled war this summer. I plan to make more use of green serranos in salsas and jellies this season, as well as experimenting with some zesty green curries. Given how many chiles just three plants can give, I won’t have any trouble with quantity! No blooms yet, but it won’t be long, I bet.

Hot Bananas

Chiles from the great state of New Mexico are prized all around the world for their varied flavors and uses. Interestingly, I’ve never tried to grow any of the famous New Mexico types available. This year I’ve corrected that oversight by trying a couple of Barker’s New Mexico Red (20,000 Scoville) plants. The plant structure isn’t unique in any way, but they’ve already started blooming and producing. This morning there are 5-6 nice chiles forming, nearly a dozen blooms, and two of the fruit are an inch long. Time to feed and water!

When I was buying seed in the winter I was intrigued by a variety knows as the Kung Pao chile. Not too hot at about 10,000 Scoville, these zesty darlings are long, thin-walled and somehow specially suited to Asian stir-fry dishes. I ordered some seed and got a few plants, then after I put those out in the sunlight I found some large plants at a local garden center. Which got me to thinking: Maybe I should try some in pots? Costco had some nice planter pots on sale, quite large and appealing. I took home a couple of Kung Pao plants, then hurried to Costco to get their homes.

By the time I finished filling and situating the planters, I had eight plants in them; four in each. The Kung Paos found a home with a pair of Fresnos (more on them in a bit). So far they’re looking good, with blooms and tiny chiles already in evidence. With five specimens in the patch and two in a pot, there’ll be plenty of Asian heat to enjoy.

Mike, our neighbor, has loaned me a T-post hammer for the duration. In return, I keep him stocked with peppers and tomatoes for his salads. He loves Hot Bananas (8,000), so I planted a couple specially for him. (Sweet Bananas too; I don’t discriminate. They’ll appear in the next update.) Also known as a Hot Hungarian Wax Pepper, the fruit make nice relishes (mixed with the milder ones), pickled pepper rings and more. You can even stuff the larger ones. I plan to experiment with some of these in zesty  giardiniera as well.

Kung Pao Chiles

The Fresno chile (5,500) has been in general cultivation for 60 years now. (Yes, it’s named in honor of Fresno, CA. Not sure why.) A Fresno chile looks something like a jalapeño, but with a pointed tip and larger, rounded shoulders. There’s less flesh on a Fresno, but what’s there is plenty tasty and warm, especially when ripe. They can be used like jalapeños, including stuffing, roasting, in salsas, or just for slicing and eating. For the first time in our area, seedlings were for sale at garden centers, so I took two and put them in a large planter to keep the Kung Paos company. They’re stubby and deeply green at this point, with their leaves held well out and up, unlike other cultivars that let their leaves droop. This may change as the plant matures. I’ve never had any green Fresnos to use, so I’m looking forward to that, and to the mellow heat and tender flesh of the ripe ones.

Early in my wanderings, garden center to nursery, I came across a couple of plastic pots with some beautiful ornamental peppers in them at one store. I’d never seen anything like them before. The bushes were about fifteen inches tall, and heavy with clusters of red and yellow peppers that pointed up. I bought both pots and put them in the nursery in the house. Turns out these are Poinsettia Ornamentals (2,000), an odd name for a pepper I suppose, but they sure are pretty. The ones I had were terribly root-bound and threatening to turn toes-up unless I did something drastic, so I drank a few beers and thought it over before procrastinating jumped into action. I found some unused terra cotta and ceramic pots around the house and carefully separated the pepper stalks, then replanted, fed and watered. I now have seven pots of various sizes, chockablock full of colored ornamentals. Some stand out front to greet visitors, and the rest have places of honor around the back porch, where Archie and I can sit and admire them. So far, I’ve collected the drying chiles and put them through the dehydrator, then made some powder and flakes. I’ll try a special salsa with the bright yellow chiles, one of these days. Later. Maybe.

PS There’s a lot of confusion about the heat of these chiles. Numbers as low as 1,300 Scoville can be found on the Web. Top values I’ve found are about 30,000. Your mileage may vary…

Finally, one lonely little Poblano (1,500) plant can be found sharing space with the red cayennes. It’s a freeze survivor, and at one point had only one scarred leaf. I wanted to take it up and replace it with something else, but PJ persisted in protecting it. So welcome to the patch, Zombie! To my everlasting surprise, this plant has pulled through, put on new leaves, and is now a gigantic four inches tall. Who knows, maybe it’ll actually make it. And at this rate, we’ll have poblano peppers for Chile Rellenos. In about 2016…

The (Zesty Chile Plants) Heat is ON!


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