Here in Canada, there is enormous interest in cooking with peppers. We are not surprised that the interest in growing them is also exploding. They love full sun and heat, whether it is a hot pepper you wish to grow or not.
Here’s our six-step recipe for the best possible pepper crop.
- Remember that size matters. If you’re buying your plants from the garden centre, buy the shorter ones. The stockier the better, and look for dark green foliage.
- Prepare the soil. Dig a hole, about three shovels wide and deep. Fill the hole with triple mix or vegetable soil.
- Water with a compost-tea solution. This works well if you have a composter and a rain barrel. Simply take an old pillowcase and half-fill it with compost. Drop it into your rain barrel and leave it there for 24 to 48 hours. The water will be infused with nutrients from the compost. Another option is Pro-Mix organic-based fertilizer for vegetables and fruits (3-6-12).
- Water deeply—in the morning and at the soil level. Peppers prefer to dry to a depth of about 5 cm (2 inches) between watering. When you do water, do so deeply, ensuring that the roots make contact with the water.
- Apply mulch. All vegetable crops produce best when they are kept free of weeds. We recommend that you mulch peppers with shredded cedar bark mulch after they have been in the ground for a few weeks. Lay it about 4 to 5 cm (1 1/2 to 2 inches) deep. Bark mulch insulates the soil from the drying effects of the sun and prevents many weeds from germinating in the first place. When weeds grow through it, as they will, they are easy to pull from the loose mulch. You will find that you are applying water less frequently, too.
- Harvest often. The more often that you pick your ripe peppers, the more peppers the plant will produce. This is true for all fruiting plants, including beans. Words to live by.
The Scoville scale is used to measure the heat, or spiciness, of peppers. Hot peppers are rated by their Scoville heat units (SHU), which is based on their capsaicin content. The well-known jalapeno pepper rates 2,500 to 8,000 on the Scoville scale, while the Carolina Reaper scores between 1,400,000 and 2,200,000 on the scale.
When it comes to hot peppers especially, handle with care. Even those daredevils who are accustomed to eating hot peppers can have adverse reactions to touching them. A good friend of ours is famous for his ghost pepper intake (855,000 to 1,041,000 SHU). While preparing a light meal, he touched a plate that contained residue from a ghost pepper. Within a minute, his eyes were swollen and the tears were flowing. Lesson learned.
Wiri Wiri (300,000 SHU). It’s fun to watch these 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) round peppers as they ripen. They turn from green to orange to bright red. Commonly used in sauces.
Scotch bonnet (300,000 SHU). These are also known as Jamaican hot peppers. If you have the opportunity to attend the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, we can guarantee you will find Scotch bonnet peppers in much of the amazing food being served there.
7 Pot (900,000 SHU). We found this pepper at Valleyview Gardens (valleyviewgardens.com) in Markham, Ontario, in its Pepper Club. Intrigued by the name, we asked Valleyview’s experts for details. This pepper is so hot, you only need one pepper for seven pots of stew. Enough said.
Ghost pepper (1,000,000 SHU). Also known as the Dorset Naga. It has an intense flavour, if you can stand the extreme heat.
Bhut Jolokia (1,100,000 SHU). Named the hottest pepper in the world by Guinness World Records in 2007. Available in red, white, yellow and chocolate.
Carolina Reaper (2,200,000 SHU). Currently holds the Guinness World Record for Hottest Pepper. We are told that these peppers have a fruity flavour with a hint of cinnamon. Honestly, how can you possibly taste a hint of cinnamon when the heat is so intense? We’re not willing to test this one. Perhaps you will provide a report to us? We can be reached at markcullen.com.
Hot & dried
As with any produce, cooking with the freshest peppers is part of what makes growing your own so rewarding, but living in Canada, we know that every growing season is fleeting. That is what makes hot peppers so great—they become chili powder, chili flakes, cayenne powder and paprika.
The difference between those four kitchen ingredients, which are all derived from dried peppers, is the type of pepper and the parts.
To dry your peppers, cut them into 2.5 cm (1 inch) pieces and put them in the oven on its lowest setting, around 135°C (275°F). Scatter the pieces on a baking sheet and flip them every half-hour or so. It is good to leave the oven door open as much as possible so that the moisture has somewhere to escape to. Drying times vary, so keep an eye on them until they look like they could be crushed in a mortar and pestle without smearing. You can also dry in a dehydrator or air-dry in a well-ventilated room with perforated paper bags.
If you’re working with hotter peppers, the crushed pieces can be screened through a sieve to give you chili powder. The larger pieces of skin with seeds give you chili flakes, for dressing the top of a pizza. “Cooler” Hungarian and Spanish peppers can be crushed and screened in the same way to give you paprika, a key ingredient in chicken paprikash, the winter comfort food made all the more comforting with homegrown paprika. Making cayenne powder is the exact same process as making chili powder but, you guessed it, you start with cayenne or similarly spicy peppers.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster and tree advocate
and holds the Order of Canada. His son, Ben, is a fourth-generation
urban gardener and a graduate of the University of Guelph and Dalhousie
University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @MarkCullen4
(Twitter) and @markcullengardening (Facebook) and look for their latest book, Escape to Reality.
Follow them at markcullen.com, @MarkCullen4, facebook.com/markcullengardening and biweekly on Global TV’s national morning show, The Morning Show.