Spice Up Your Life With Backyard Peppers

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hot peppers

In 2014, pepper farmer Jeff Stratton of Jonesborough grew more than 50 different varieties of peppers from 15 different countries. It may seem like a lot, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as there are more than 9,800 pepper varieties known to man.

And while it’s easy to stock up on your favorite peppers at the local farmers market, whether you like them on the mild side or close to scorching, Stratton says it’s actually not that difficult to grow peppers in your own backyard.

hot peppers

Pick a Peck of Peppers

“Most people’s exposure to peppers is bell, jalapeño and banana,” Stratton says. “I would suggest you start with what you know and like. Then, educate yourself and decide how you’re cooking them. Then it’s a question of your heat.”

Stratton grows his peppers from seeds, buying them online from seed companies that have good germination rates, or the percentage of seeds to sprout. Optimally, the germination rate should be 80 to 85 percent. His favorite online companies are the Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. in Missouri.

Stratton starts the seeds on heating pads under lights in his basement in early February. They stay there until they grow two sets of leaves, which can take up to four weeks, depending on the variety of pepper, he says, before moving to a small greenhouse.

“I babysit in the greenhouse until past the last day of frost,” he says. Depending on the part of the state, this date could vary, but in northeastern Tennessee where Stratton lives, it’s usually around Mother’s Day.

hot peppers

While still inside the greenhouse, the plants grow to between 6 and 8 inches high.

“After the last frost date, I take them out,” he says.

At this point, the peppers are ready to be planted. If you’re not keen on starting from seed, Stratton says you can always purchase plants at your local nursery.

He adds that good soil is key for a healthy crop.

“Don’t add manure during the growing season,” he adds. “When the growing season is over, that’s the time to work your soil.”

hot peppers

Early on in the planting process, Stratton says you’ll have to deal with pests. Spraying them with mixture of cayenne pepper and dishwashing soap will suffocate insects and deter four-legged creatures, which don’t like the taste. Another challenge that could arise is mildew, which can be caused by planting too close together and watering overhead in the evening.

The best way to water, Stratton says, is through furrow irrigation or root feeding, which refers to watering very slowly so that the water seeps to the roots. Water the plants when you see them wilting. As a simple fertilizer, he suggests alternating Epsom salt and fish emulsion, which can be found at your local gardening center or even grocery stores.

The Daily Grind

By early July, depending on the pepper variety, you should have a healthy crop, ready for sautéing, stuffing, roasting – or however you prefer to eat them. For Stratton, this also means time to dry and grind them into chili powder.

Peppers with thinner walls (cayenne or chile de arbol, for example) are ideal for drying. Wear a surgical mask and gloves to protect you from capsaicin, the chemical that causes peppers to be hot. Split the peppers open down the center to help get the moisture out. You can use a dehydrator or simply put them on a cookie sheet in an oven heated to 180 degrees. Make sure to leave the oven door open.

hot peppers

“You’re not cooking it,” Stratton explains. “You just want to draw the moisture out.”

Depending on the thickness of the pepper, the oven-drying process will take a couple of hours. “Then you can grind them,” he says.

Stratton suggests purchasing a small, stainless steel grinder to use just for grinding peppers rather than using a coffee mill. (Otherwise, your coffee may have a bit of a kick.) “Store them in a cool, dry place,” he says. “Keep them out of the heat, out of the kitchen.”

Remember that as with all spices, ground peppers have a 6- to 12-month shelf life.

Most importantly, growing your own peppers should be a positive, rewarding experience. Make it fun, and enjoy the deliciously spicy (or mild) fruits of your labor.

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