Hot Pepper Highlight
I've come to love growing hot peppers. And as a giant wimp myself when it comes to heat, this surprised me. I love my bell peppers and my little snacking peppers and even a good charred shishito... but you won't catch me grabbing a habanero out of the garden and stealing a bite. It's not gonna happen. Not today, Satan.
But that doesn't stop me from loving to grow them! Seriously, hear me out...
Hot peppers have very few enemies. Nothing tries to eat them because of their natural defense mechanism, capsaicin. Capsaicin is the active component in chili peppers; it's what gives them their heat. It's also an irritant to many living things, including those gluttons for punishment known as Humans.
That same spiciness is also the plant's defense mechanism. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other mammals learn early on to detect the smell and avoid it. Most bugs hate the stuff too! In fact, the substance is also produced to suppress a Fusarium fungi--the fungus that likes to kill a lot of our tomatoes and peppers around here. But not chili peppers. No sir, those stubborn bad boys will be growing long after we're done with this Earth because they refuse to die.
So if you're a lazy gardener like me, you can appreciate the ease of care that hot peppers provide. The hardest part about them is germinating them. Hot peppers are notoriously finicky to start and require certain temperatures, lots of patience, and time to transplant a few times. However, lucky for my Nova gardeners, I love to do that part. I'm a science nerd who loves to collect and grow hot peppers of all kinds of varieties and I offer them for sale every spring.
Once you have seedlings, chili peppers are simple. They like to be neglected. The more you neglect them, the more they produce and the hotter they get. I only water mine just when they seem like they're about to wilt, and I leave them in the hot sun to sunbathe like the badasses they are. They reward me with high yields of spicy peppers.
Native bees love hot pepper plants. The flowers are accessible and plentiful, and they're often found pollinating our plants. That means more plants for us and more sustenance for them. You know I love supporting our indigenous wildlife, so even though our hot pepper friends aren't native, they're still beneficial to have in the garden.
They're also great for you! Research over the past couple of decades has demonstrated that capsaicinoids possess several health benefits. It inhibits acid production in the stomach and can help reduce low-grade inflammation. It's also been linked to heart health, and has been used to create creams and patches that help with inflammation and pain relief for injuries! [These are all research-based claims based on peer-reviewed medical studies, but I always encourage people to do their own homework as well!]
So if you're a lover of hot peppers, I highly recommend grabbing some and giving it a go. They take off super quickly and produce until first frost. There's a lot you can do with them, too!
Hot Sauce: seriously, SO fun to see what you can make with different peppers. There are so many good recipes out there. I recommend this hot sauce cook book, The Complete Hot Sauce Cookbook: 60 Fiery Hot Sauce Recipes from Around the World. I never realized how easy it was to make some. Even if you don't like it yourself, homemade hot sauces make great gifts!
Pepper Jelly--again, never thought I'd like this but it's so good! This easy recipe has made it easy to preserve some of the peppers from my garden in a way that stores well and, again, makes a great gift.
Dehydrate them and grind them into spices. I make my own cayenne, paprika, and smoked chili powder every year! [Insert plug about great gifts here]
Pickle them and use them in dishes. I pickle biquiniho, jalapenos, and banana peppers for my husband who puts them on everything.
Put them in fresh or canned salsa
COWBOY CANDY--OMG. These sweet and spicy morsels are swoon-worthy. Favorite recipe
Freeze them. Yup, they even come through right out of the freezer
Grill or smoke them. Poblanos, Hatch chilis, jalapenos, green chilis--there are so many that mellow out with some great flavor on the grill
Where to Plant Them
Hot peppers aren't picky. They don't need a huge pot or a ton of space, and they can be topped to make them produce in smaller, bushier plants. They're super versatile. The only thing I suggest is well-draining soil. As I mentioned before, they don't need a ton of water or upkeep.
Garden Beds (Raised or In-Ground)
If you're putting them in a bed, I have success putting them a foot apart. This does produce a more dense planting when they're full grown, so if you're going to do that then make sure you can reach them. But the heavy foliage coverages keeps them from getting sunburned!
If they're going in a container, I recommend a fabric pot. GeoPot is my preferred brand due to the thickness and longevity of the pots. I have some that are over 10 years old now! They don't even need that much space. I've found a seven gallon pot gives one the space it needs to grow to its fullest potential without sacrificing yield, but a five gallon pot would also work if you don't mind it being a bit smaller.
This isn't a plug, but rather an experience. I bought some GreenStalk gardens last year to try and maximize the space I used on my property. It held 30 hot peppers that all grew to full size and produced LOADS of peppers with a three-square foot area of my patio being utilized. I could not have been happier. So if you lack space and would like to grow some peppers, I recommend investing in one of these. I added compost to the layers this year and will be using it for the same purpose as before. I've tried other less expensive systems that look like this, but the quality of this one is worth the sticker price. It waters more efficiently and it is very high quality. Each one of the pockets can hold a full size pepper plant with ease!
In the photos below, you'll see planting day, then the GreenStalk fully assembled. The third photo shows two weeks later, and then the final two weeks after that. Impressive!
Varieties That Love Northern Virginia
OK I haven't tested this in a lab or done any kind of field tests, but I have been growing them a lot here in Nokesville. Here are the ones I love to grow and that have done well here so far:
Most of these varieties can be pre-ordered for pickup!
Poblanos: these are mild peppers that look like pointed, skinny bells. They're particularly great for roasting, but they're also thebomb.com when they're stuffed. They're usually picked when green, so they're extra mild that way. My favorite dish with poblanos? Chiles en nogada.
Habanero: these are very hot peppers that are actually very versatile. The plants produce a TON of the little demons, and their pretty colors add a beautiful element to the garden. They make a great addition to sauces or chili pastes, and I love to broil them and add them to hot sauces. They have a bright heat that can be highlighted or tamed, depending on how you cook them. This mango-habanero hot sauce is my personal fav.
Hatch Chili: OK, so technically Hatch chiles are the Champagne of hot peppers; they're only considered "hatch" if they're grown in Hatch, NM. BUT... they're amazing when grown here as well. Guys--you can do everything with these green chiles. They're huge, productive, and have fantastic medium-heat flavor. We grill them, chop them up for salsas, and put them in all kinds of dishes. If it sounds familiar, it's because Wegmans does their Hatch Chile event every year. Yes, they're so good that Wegmans centers entire events around them. Grow them! This site has incredible recipes.
Jalapenos: The classic hot pepper. Medium heat, manageable size, and very productive. They can be eaten raw, stuffed, grilled, pickled, candied, or dehydrated. They do great in Northern VA, and they'll produce until you force them to stop. I've overwintered mine by bringing it inside over the winter, and OMG. Do it. Our favorite dish with jalapenos is a Jalapeno Popper.
Scotch Bonnets: these adorable sounding peppers pack a major punch, but in a citrusy, delicious kind of way. The plants produce like crazy, and they're my personal favorite thing to grow. The peppers have a unique shape that gave them their name. They're cousins to the habanero, but are also known as Caribbean peppers due to their frequent use in Caribbean dishes. I use them all the time in hot sauces, but I know heat-lovers who will put a whole one in a simmering sauce to add some incredible flavor. Scotch Bonnets are hard to find in stores in this area, so I started growing them to provide my own and I'm so glad I did. I now have orange, red, and yellow ones that not only make my garden beautiful, but provide me with some great flavor in the kitchen. Jamaican Jerk Chicken steals the show when it comes to these peppers.
Buena Mulata: OK these are some seriously beautiful peppers. If you like a show-stopping vegetable garden, you need a little purple in that bad boy. The Buena Mulata is a very rare, extremely productive, and stunning hot pepper! It runs through the rainbow as it ripens, starting out a stunning violet and then turning pink then orange then red. The purple version tastes like green chilis, so you can pluck them and add some gorgeous color to your salsas or make a bright, beautiful hot sauce reminiscent in flavor of a salsa verde. As they ripen, they get sweeter.
Lemon Drop: this is an aji variety that also adds beauty to the garden. The lemon-yellow peppers are gorgeous, crinkly, and thin-walled. The flavor profile provides a medium, tangy, citrusy heat. It pairs really nicely with fish and chicken dishes and works well in citrus-based hot sauces or salsas that need a little tangy color. I love experimenting with these heavy producers!