Magazine article Sunset


Magazine article Sunset


Article excerpt


No other warm-season crop can stir up so many of your senses all at once. Within a few seconds of biting into a hot chili pepper, your mouth catches fire, your tongue turns numb, your nose may water, your ears may ring, and beads of sweat may break out on your forehead. Yet this chili-induced rush triggers your appetite for another bite. So indulge: chili peppers contain few calories and plenty of vitamin C.

To enjoy the freshest - and hottest - chilies, you need to grow them. You'll be following the tradition of ancient Aztec farmers, who were among the first to cultivate these plants of the genus Capsicum. While most nurseries carry a few kinds of chilies in sixpacks or on seed racks, catalogs offer a much wider range, often including peppers from Africa, Guatemala, Mexico, and Thailand as well as the southwestern United States (for seed sources, see page 96).

Like tomatoes, chilies are tropical plants, and they can be finicky about temperatures. If it's too cold, seeds may not germinate and plants may not set fruit. Other factors also influence growth, flavor, and hotness. Or, as Paul W. Bosland, professor of horticulture and the resident chili breeder at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, puts it: "If you grow an 'Anaheim' chili in Santa Maria, California, and another one in Hatch, New Mexico, they won't taste the same. There is something about New Mexico's high altitude, warm days, cool nights, and intense light that gives ours a distinctive full chili flavor and nice tolerable heat."

Regional chili pride aside, you can still get tasty results if you pick the right kinds and follow the growing tips below. Note that catalogs and seed packets usually state the number of days to harvest based on the date you set transplants out in the garden. While you can grow most of the chilies we list on pages 46 and 47 throughout the West, some aren't suited for areas with short or cool summers. For example, habanero likes the hottest weather, and depending on the area, it may take anywhere from 85 to 100 days to produce mature fruit. (If it's too cool where you garden, habanero won't set fruit.) Serrano chilies are no speedsters, either; most kinds take 80 to 90 days, often too long in short-summer areas (see the box below left).


Six to eight weeks before planting chilies out in the garden, start seeds indoors by sowing them in plastic flats, sixpack cells, or small containers filled with potting mix or a mixture of peat moss and vermiculite. Keep the soil temperature between 80 [degrees] and 90 [degrees] if possible (use a heating cable under flats, or set pots on a water heater or atop a refrigerator). Make sure the soil remains moist. When seeds germinate, move the containers into bright light (cool-white fluorescent lights work well) and maintain the soil temperature between 70 [degrees] and 80 [degrees]. Once seedlings have developed two sets of true leaves, feed them with a dilute solution of a complete liquid fertilizer (20-20-20, for example, mixed at the rate of 1/2 teaspoon to 1 gallon of water), then transplant them into 4-inch pots.

Set plants outdoors after all danger of frost is past and when the soil has thoroughly warmed (mid- to late spring). After hardening off seedlings by gradually exposing them to ever-brighter sunlight, plant them in a site that gets full sun in well-drained soil amended with compost or well-aged manure, or work a complete fertilizer into the soil below each plant. Space the plants 18 inches apart, and the rows 2 feet apart.

Water to keep the soil evenly moist. To reduce blossom end rot, avoid overhead watering (consider using drip irrigation or ooze tubing).

For more about growing chilies, see The Pepper Garden, by Dave DeWitt and Paul W. Bosland (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 1993).

A Gallery of Choice Chilies


This California chili has 6- to 8-inch-long thick-walled pods 1 1/2 inches across. …

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