Comments Off on Planning a Sustenance Vegetable Garden
A well-planned vegetable garden will sustain your family with a variety of fresh produce from spring to late fall. Serious gardeners will even cold-frame garden into the winter months for a steady stream of fresh greens and root vegetables. Sustenance vegetable gardens save money and ensure produce is organically grown. Careful planning and timing are essential for season-long garden-fresh produce for eating, canning, freezing, and drying. (more…)
Comments Off on Traditional Asian Vegetables for the Garden
Many prized vegetables originate from or were bred in Asian countries, from India to Japan to Malaysia. Great emphasis is placed on the beans, cucurbits, greens, and root vegetables, and many are very old, select varieties collected and grown for generations. The best are flavorful and great for any home garden.
Local climate often dictates growth preference. For example, vegetables bred in Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia are heat and drought tolerant, while the vegetables of northern China prefer cooler climates. Many of these crops are unknown to American gardeners, but consider trying a few this season, if you like Asian cuisine or simply delicious garden-fresh food.
The asparagus or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) is both attractive and delicious—sporting red flowers and beautiful winged beans. It is a warm season crop that produces long twining vines that produce edible beans just 75 days after planting. It is grown in tropical regions due to its marked tolerance to high heat. The unusual looking pods taste like a cross between peas and asparagus. Asparagus bean has added value because the leaves are eaten like spinach, and the edible roots have a nutty flavor.
Also well-adapted to high heat and summer growing is the yardlong bean (Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis). Its vigorous vines bear loads of very long beans that reach 12- to 16-inches and taste delicious. They have been grown for centuries in China and are best sautéed or stir fried.
Japanese cucumbers are unique in that they are very long, thin skinned, and crisp. They grow on rambling vines that are best trellised to accommodate the cucumbers that can reach between 8 to 12 inches. Try the open-pollinated variety ‘Sooyow Nishiki’, which has thin, warty skin and crisp, sweet flesh.
Many Asian melons exist, which are bred and selected to be remarkable sweet. The open-pollinated Japanese variety, ‘New Melon’ is golden, smooth skinned, and was developed in the 1950s for Japanese growers. Each vigorous vine produces between four to eight melons. Be sure to plant them as early as possible, because vines take between 110 to 120 days to produce fruit.
Most westerners know luffa as a natural sponge for bathing, but in China the young gourds are a popular vegetable. The angled luffa (Luffa acutangula) is commonly referred to as Chinese okra and has a sweet taste (much like zucchini) when harvested young. Give the vines plenty of space, or trellis them for easier growing and harvest.
Greens & Cabbages
Bok choy (pak choi) is a mild, cool-season green that produces rosettes of green leaves with fleshy white bases. These are fast-growing and typically eaten stir fried. Some varieties are very small and others large. The super small variety ‘Extra Dwarf Pak Choi’ is very fast growing , reaching full size in just 30 days, and is just right for edible container gardening.
Valued as a spring vegetable across Asia, Korean minari is a leafy green that tastes much like watercress. It is closely related to celery and is a vital ingredient in Korean bibimbap bowls or can be prepared as a spicy vegetable side dish. It grows best in cool weather and slows growth in temperatures above 70 degrees F.
Chinese cabbage is a well-known, cool-season crop that produces large heads that may be barrel-shaped or loose headed. Try the old Japanese variety, ‘Aichi’, which is a large, barrel-shaped variety that produces dense heads with a sweet cabbagy flavor. These grow and taste best in the mild temperatures of spring or fall.
Radishes play an important role in the cuisine of many Asian cultures. These include watermelon, daikon, and hot radishes as well as those used for microgreens. All radishes are fast growing and best suited to growing in cool weather. When temperatures are hot, they don’t develop substantial roots and taste very hot. Watermelon radish types are some of the most beautiful with their red interiors and greenish-white exteriors. They are also fun for kids to grow. Try the Chinese radish ‘Red Meat’, which is thin skinned, sweet, and ready to harvest 60 days after planting.
Turnips are a common root vegetable, but most western gardeners are not familiar with red turnips. These fast-growing, sweet root vegetables are popular in Asia and eaten fresh or cooked. They are typically red on the outside and white or pinkish on the inside. Try the traditional Japanese turnip ‘Hidabeni‘, which has flattened roots with scarlet exteriors and white interiors.
Green Japanese eggplant
Eggplant is essential to Asian cuisine, from India to Japan. Most are elongated, mild, thin-skinned, and have few seeds. This warm-season crop bears many fruits over the season. One of the easiest and best varieties to try is the Taiwanese eggplant ‘Ping Tung Long‘, which is very heat tolerant and has bright purple fruits that reach over a foot long. The equally large green fruits of the Japanese ‘Choryoku‘ are also firm, sweet, and delicious.
Favorite Thai eggplants are a bit different in that many are smaller and oval or round. They may be green striped or deep purple. The small, round variety ‘Petch Siam’ is grown from India to Vietnam. Its small green striped fruits are numerous, and the plants like high heat.
There are many squash grown and favored across Asian countries, but some of the sweetest and best tasting are kabocha winter squash. These somewhat flattened, globe-shaped squash typically have dark green skin and gold to orange flesh that is smooth and very sweet. The open-pollinated kabocha from Japan, ‘Kuri Winter’, has very sweet, thick, golden flesh and dark blue-green skin. Plant it early as vines take 95 to 110 days to produce good fruit.
For high vegetable yields be sure to feed your crops with a granular organic vegetable fertilizer early in the season. Amendments such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend also ensure high soil moisture and aeration to encourage vigorous root growth. Double–digging is another great way to optimize deep root growth to help plants withstand moderate drought and high heat.
Eggplant is a staple in African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines, where growing temperatures are hot. Think beyond the standard purple varieties you find at the grocery store. Green, ivory, rose, and magenta types of various shapes and lengths exist, and the best are mild and have few seeds. Some are even ornamental. The biggest challenge to growing them is battling a few common pests. Once these are tackled, plants will reward you with lots of fruits for Szechuan eggplant, eggplant Parmesan, ratatouille, and baba ganoush.
The Indian ‘Petch Siam’ is a round, green eggplant favored for curries.
There are many unique types of eggplant grown in Africa, most being variants of the African eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum). The ‘Striped Togo’ is an ornamental variety of African eggplant sold in the US, which has small, egg-shaped fruits of electric orange with green stripes. They are edible but have a very strong flavor, so most opt to add stems of the pretty fruits to late summer and fall arrangements. ‘Turkish Orange’ (Solanum aethiopicum ‘Turkish Orange’)is another African variety with fruits that age to brilliant orange red. These are larger and edible when green.
Several African eggplant varieties are popular in Brazilian cooking and classified as Gilo (or Jiló) eggplant. They are small, bitter, harvested green, and include the small, pear-shaped ‘Comprido Verde Claro’, and round, more bitter ‘Morro Redondo’. Due to limited demand, these unusual eggplant have yet to be adopted by American seed companies, so they are hard to find in the US.
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Eggplant
‘Black Beauty’ is the most common eggplant variety grown in the US.
The common eggplant or aubergine (Solanum melongena), is the most familiar eggplant to western palates and gardens. It has been grown and selected for hundreds of years in southerly regions of Europe and throughout the Middle East. One of the best from the Mediterranean is the classic Italian heirloom ‘Rosa Bianca’, with its broad, short, mild fruits covered with thin, lavender and cream skin. The French heirloom ‘Ronde de Valence’ is another unique but delicious eggplant that is deep purple, grapefruit-sized, and almost perfectly round. For a large-fruited, heat-tolerant eggplant, choose the Iraqi variety ‘Aswad’ (meaning “black” in Arabic), a new offering from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Its dark, pleated fruits can reach a massive 3 lbs.
Eggplant ‘Gretel’ (Image by AAS Winners)
One American eggplant with a classic pear shape and purple-black skin is ‘Black Beauty’. The 1902 heirloom from Burpee has large fruits with good flavor. Two more American varieties include the AAS winners ‘Gretel‘ (2009 winner), which is petite and has white fruits, and the compact ‘Fairy Tale’ (2005 winner) with its small stature and white-striped purple fruits. Both are very productive and good for small-space gardening.
‘Pingtung Long’ eggplant
Eggplant varieties from Asia are noted for their elongated shape, low seed count, and mild flavor. Many were bred in Southeast Asia and have an unusually high tolerance to heat and drought. The brilliant purple ‘Machiaw‘ is a tender, mild, thin-skinned variety that always produces well. For exceptional heat tolerance, choose ‘Pingtung Long‘ an heirloom from Taiwan that produces loads 16″-18″ long magenta fruits through the hottest days of summer. The dark purple ‘Orient Express‘ is an early, tender variety popular in many gardens. Finally, for something more unusual, try the Indian ‘Petch Siam‘, a small, green, striped eggplant favored for curries.
Growing and Harvesting Eggplant
Flea beetle damage on an eggplant leaf.
Growing eggplant is not too complicated. Provide them with full sun, warm summer days, good soil with adequate drainage, a little vegetable fertilizer, and water, and they will grow well. (Amend their soil with Fafard Garden Manure Blend before planting, and they will grow even better!) The biggest challenge to their success are two common pests: flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles. These two pests will destroy plants if given the chance. Flea beetles are tiny, shiny black, and invade in large numbers, hopping from leaf to leaf sucking the juices from the foliage, leaving behind a mass of pock marks. (Read more about these pests here.) To reduce populations, clean old plant debris in fall (where these pests overwinter), till beds in spring, and plant eggplant in late spring to early summer to avoid spring hatches of this pest. Spraying with insecticidal soap or pyrethrin sprays will kill adult beetles and protect plants from summer damage.
Striped Colorado potato beetles lay masses of yellow eggs on the undersides of eggplant leaves in spring. Brownish orange larvae emerge that aggressively feed on leaves. As they grow larger, they cause more damage and can completely defoliate young eggplants. The best protection is to inspect plants for egg masses and remove them on sight. The beetles and larvae are also easy to remove by hand. (Learn more about these pests here.)
Most fruits are ready to harvest when they are fully colored and firm to the touch, while giving slightly when pressed with a finger. Fruits that are too old begin to turn yellow. At this point, they are too seedy and strong to eat.
Eggplant are delicious, easy to grow, and make a great addition to any summer garden. Add them to pasta sauces or your favorite eggplant dishes! They also freeze well for winter storage.
Orange ‘Striped Togo’ African eggplants in a harvest bowl with tomatoes.
Comments Off on Best-of-the-Best Spring Vegetable Varieties
‘Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Sugar Snap’ peas (trellis) are two recommended spring vegetable varieties.
Sweet crunchy carrots, crisp snap peas, and tender lettuce—vegetables like these just shout out, “It’s spring!” This is the stuff gardeners clamor for as they peruse new seed catalogs for the first vegetables of the season. But, with hundreds of varieties to choose from, it’s hard to know which are best for taste, yield, and good performance in the vegetable garden. This is where experience helps.
My top ten “favorites” list includes some of the best spring vegetable varieties. For over 25 years I’ve grown hundreds of vegetables—choosing new favorites, losing duds, and keeping superior standbys along the way. My findings are corroborated with university seed trials, seed catalog customer reviews, and award programs, like All-America Selections. If you aren’t sure what varieties to choose from, let this be your go to source great spring vegetables!
Candycane ‘Chioggia’ beets
When choosing beets (Beta vulgaris), I go for tasty, early, productive and pretty varieties. Of the reds, ‘Merlin’ (48 days) and ‘Red Ace’ (50 days) are the most reliable and sweet and have performed well for me. Both also received some of the highest ratings for taste, uniformity and performance at a recent University of Kentucky Beet Trial Evaluation. Of the golden beets, ‘Touchstone Gold’ (55 days) is an outstanding performer that produces the sweetest golden beets. For looks and taste, the red and white candycane striped ‘Chioggia’ (55 days) is the heirloom of choice.
Broccoli ‘Artwork’ (image care of AAS Winners)
Good broccoli (Brassica oleracea) varieties for the garden must be heat tolerant and reliably produce large heads fast. My favorite spring broccoli is ‘Gypsy’ (58 days), which has reliably large heads with small beads and good heat and disease resistance. It produces well and develops lots of sideshoots after the first harvest. Gardeners interested in broccoli with extra-large heads should try the commercial standard ‘Imperial’ (71 days). It take a little longer to develop, but plants are super heat tolerant and high performing. Those seeking thin-stemmed broccoli should choose the 2015 AAS winning, ‘Artwork‘ (55 days). It produces many thin, flavorful, cut-and-come-again broccoli stems over a long season.
Space-saving ‘Caraflex’ cabbage
Small, crisp, sweet heads are what I look for in a spring cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Smaller heads are easier for me to store and finish, and they develop faster, which results in less damaged from cabbage loopers and slugs. The small savoy cabbage ‘Alcosa’ (60 days) is a reliable variety with sweet, deeply savoyed, blue-green leaves. Another small-head cabbage with good performance and taste is the conical ‘Caraflex’ (68 days). It’s heads look like perfect little cones and are perfect for small-space gardens. Gardeners interested in a slightly larger cabbage should choose the mid-sized ‘Tendersweet‘ (71 days). It’s flatted heads are comprised of tightly bunched, thin, sweet leaves.
Sweet, crisp ‘Adelaide’ carrots
There are many carrot (Daucus carota) varieties and some are much better suited for spring sowing than others. The perfect spring carrot is fast-growing, crisp, and very sweet. The best I have grown for flavor and texture is the baby carrot ‘Adelaide‘ (50 days). Its small carrots develop quickly and should be plucked from the ground before weather warms. Of the many new varieties available, ‘Yaya‘ (55-60 days) is a mid-sized “sugar carrot” that’s getting top marks for performance and super sweet flavor. The equally sweet ‘Napoli‘ (58 days) is another mid-sized super sweet carrot that always yields perfect roots.
Crisphead ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce
There are many lettuce (Lactuca sativa) types, but my favorites are small, sweet, fast, and crisp. My very favorite is the little gem romaine ‘Tintin‘ (55 days). The little heads are all crisp, sweet, heart and they consistently perform well. Of the crisphead type lettuces, the French heirloom ‘Reine des Glaces‘ (62 days) is flavorful, slow to bolt in the heat, and has loose heads of coarsely serrated edges that look pretty in salads. Salanova® has a high-performing line of designer mini lettuces that are really nice. Of these, try the fast, frilly red Salanova®Red Sweet Crisp (55 days). Its tiny cut-and-come-again heads are wonderful in containers or small gardens.
Classic French ‘D’Avignon’ radishes
Most think that radishes (Raphanus sativus) are spicy and make you burp, but good spring radish varieties are mild and sweet if you grow and pick them at the right time. When it comes to classic French breakfast radishes, nothing beats ‘D’Avignon‘ (21-30 days). The early, sweet, red and white radishes should be harvested as soon as they reach 3-4 inches in length for best crisp texture. The new purple radish ‘Bravo‘ (49 days) is reliably sweet, very colorful and slower to bolt, making it good for late-spring culture. Of the white radishes, ‘Icicle‘ (27-35 days) produces long, crisp roots that remain sweet with little bite, even when subjected to heat.
Reliable ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas (image care of AAS Winners)
Snap peas (Pisum sativum) are a must in my spring garden, and those that remain stringless, crunchy, and sweet are my favorites. The classic top-notch variety is ‘Super Sugar Snap‘ (60 days). Look no further if you seek a prolific, high-quality snap pea produced on 5-foot vines. Those interested in short-vine peas that bear early should pick ‘Sugar Ann‘ (52 days), which bears lots of sweet snaps on 2-foot vines. The 1984 AAS winner is a classic coveted by gardeners with limited space.
Ensure your spring vegetables have a great start by enriching your garden beds with the best amendments. Mix a liberal amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost into your garden soil. Turn it in deeply to better support root crops and encourage vigorous root growth all around.
Fall time is winter squash time. Whether you plan to make squash soup, a pie, or pasta, some varieties taste better than others. Here are some of the very best to seek at the market and consider growing in the vegetable garden. Many are beautiful and all have outstanding flavor.
Winter Squash Types
Several of the varieties mentioned were bred outside of North America, but all winter squash originate from the New World. Species were first cultivated by Native Americans and developed over thousands of years. There are three primary culinary species known to cultivation—C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. True pumpkins and acorn squash are C. pepo, butternut squash are in C. moschata, and turban and kabocha squash are in C. maxima.
Across the board, the winter squash on this list rate at the top for flavor, according to countless formal and informal trials and reviews. Gardeners can be confident in choosing any one, if good taste is what they value in a squash. Most are also high performing in the garden.
Kabocha (C. maxima) are squat, orange, green or gray-green squash that originates from Japan. They have dense, dry flesh that is bright orange. Two of the more common, and nicest tasting are ‘Red Kuri’ (92-100 days) with its orange-red skinned fruits and smooth flesh that is less sweet but nicely flavored, and the gray-skinned ‘Winter Sweet’ (95 days), which has dry, sweet flesh.
Acorn squash (C. pepo) are wonderfully sweet, deeply lobed, acorn-shaped, and great for roasting. The cream-, gold-, and dark-green-striped cultivar ‘Jester’ (95 days) is just as pretty as it is tasty. Another comparable variety with super sweetness is ‘Sweet Dumpling’ (90-100 days) with its smaller, squatter, ivory and green fruits, and honeyed orange flesh. A less sweet, but colorful, variety is the orange-, cream-, and dark-green-splashed ‘Festival’ (90-100 days). ‘Cream of the Crop’ is a pretty ivory colored variety with good, mild flavor.
One of the finest pumpkins for pie is the tender-skinned C. pepo ‘Winter Luxury’ (105 days). Each year this variety, and the small, pie pumpkin ‘Baby Pam’ (105 days), are the pumpkins that I choose for making homemade pie. The ‘New England Pie’ pumpkin (105 days) is an old heirloom from the 1800s that is also highly recommended. The unusual, lumpy, blue-gray-skinned C. moschata ‘Marina di Chioggia’ (100 days) is an Italian heirloom turban squash with dense, sugary, orange flesh great for pies, soups, and desserts.
Butternut cultivars are pretty consistent when it comes to flavor. All have richly sweet, nutty flesh favored for all kinds of fall and winter cookery. The compact variety C.moschata ‘Butterbush’ (75 days) is short-vined and bears small butternut squash that are dark orange, dense and very sweet on the inside. Vines are quite productive and early to bear.
Other Winter Squash Types
The cream- and green-striped, elongated fruits of Cucurbita pepo ‘Delicata JS’ (100 days) are thin-walled and have sweet, nutty, golden flesh. The small, ornamental fruits of ‘Sweet Lightning’ (100 days) look like tiny pumpkins striped with cream. Its sweet, stringless, pale orange flesh is said to be even better tasting than that of ‘Delicata JS’.
Cultivating Winter Squash
Winter squashes need to be started in spring for fall harvest. Be sure to plant them outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. It pays to plant them on berms (click here to read all about berming) amended with lots of organic matter. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, and Fafard Garden Manure Blend are recommended for spring soil enrichment. Full sun and space are essential for these sprawling, vining plants. Many may require as much as a 12’ to 15’ patch to grow to their fullest. You will know the fruits are ready to harvest when they are hard, have full color, and their supporting vines start to wither.
Comments Off on Border Veggies: Edible Ornamental Bulbs
Chives are pretty in the garden and on the plate. Their flowers are edible, too! (photo by Jessie Keith)
Edible ornamental bulbs (or is it ornamental edible plants?) are wonderful garden playthings. As welcome in a recipe as in a mixed border, they appeal both to our love of beauty and to our utilitarian, subsistence-gardening roots.
No plants go more to the root of edible gardening than the ones we know as flower bulbs (although most are not roots or bulbs in the strict botanical sense). From the moment humans discovered that many plants grow from nutrient-rich underground storage organs, we’ve been scratching the dirt harvesting and cultivating that subterranean bounty. At the same time, we’ve been captivated and seduced by the colorful things that many bulbs do above-ground. They’re a feast for the eyes and the palate.
Siberian native Allium obliquum has edible bulbs and yellow, early-summer flowers.
Several other alliums make more handsome garden subjects. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) has long been treasured for its attractive clumps of hollow, quill-like leaves and its late spring to early summer globes of purple to white flowers. The somewhat similar (but much later-blooming) Allium chinense is a favorite potherb in its native East Asia, where it’s garnered a host of common names, including rakkyo and Jiao Tou. Also from East Asia, Allium tuberosum (commonly known as garlic chives) bears larger, looser heads of white flowers on 18-inch stems in late summer. The leaves and flowers make tasty and eye-catching embellishments for salads and other summery repasts. Whether eaten or not, garlic chive flowers should be deadheaded to prevent the prolific self-sowing for which the species is notorious. All the above thrive in sun and fertile, friable soil (amend heavy or sandy soil with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend).
Shadier niches provide ideal habitat for two woodland onions traditionally harvested for their broad, piquant, short-lived leaves. The greens and bulbs of bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) have played a part in European and North Asian diets for many centuries and still find their way onto menus (especially in chic restaurants). In eastern North America, the tasty, trendy woodland onion is Allum tricoccum, subject of traditional “ramps” celebrations over much of its native range. Over-collecting has rendered it relatively scarce in the wild, but ramps (as well as bear’s garlic) is usually prolific in the garden, spreading vigorously into large leafy clumps. An ideal way to slow it down in cultivation is to sacrifice a few leaves to a springtime omelet, stir-fry, soup, or other morsels. Its flowers are also edible; they appear on 15-inch scapes in early summer, after the foliage has withered. Bear’s garlic produces similar (but slightly showier) flowers in spring, while still in leaf. (Click here to read more about growing ramps at home.)
Springtime greens of a different sort are the stuff of Ornithogalum pyrenaicum. This high-rise star-of-Bethlehem is famous (at least in the neighborhood of Bath, England) for its succulent immature flower stalks that resemble asparagus spears. Formerly gathered from the wild and sold in markets in its namesake town, Bath asparagus is enjoying something of a culinary revival as a cultivated plant in Southwest England and elsewhere. Unharvested stalks mature into 30-inch spires of starry white flowers, which themselves are well worth a place in mixed borders and cottage gardens. Native to Southern Europe, Bath asparagus was likely introduced to England by Roman occupiers (who apparently also had good taste in ornithogalums).
Southern Europe is also the home of what is almost certainly the most valuable edible bulb: saffron. Several thousand Crocus sativus flowers are required to produce one hand-harvested ounce of this precious seasoning, which is literally worth its weight in gold. Most of the world’s saffron crop comes from Iran, but it’s been cultivated for centuries in many other areas including Pennsylvania’s Amish country. It is not known in the wild.
Bath asparagus in full bloom. (Photo by Garrytowns)
Crocus sativus has three sets of chromosomes and is unable to produce seed, suggesting that it probably originated as a hybrid or mutation of another crocus species (Greek native Crocus cartwrightianus is the leading candidate). Several other close relatives (including C. pallasii and C. oreocreticus) of saffron crocus also occur in Southeast Europe, all of them carrying the characteristic fragrant, orange-red stigmas at the centers of their purple to lavender, mid-autumn blooms. Crocus sativus and its relatives prosper in full sun and rich fertile soil in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9. They’re perfect for planting near an entryway, where their tasty stigmas can be readily harvested for that next loaf of saffron bread.
Edible bulbs offer possibilities for all sorts and sizes of ornamental plantings, from a container of herbs to a permaculture landscape. Dig in!
By summer’s end, I am generally picking hot peppers by the bucket. Three years ago it was the pasilla chili ‘Holy Moly’, last year it was ‘Hot Portugal’ and ‘Serrano’ and this year (with a little luck) it will be ‘Pasilla Bajio’, ‘Hot Lemon’, and super spicy ‘Red Savina’ habanero. As long as summers are hot and relatively dry, I can count on them. And friends and family reap the rewards of the many hot sauces, pickled peppers and relishes that will follow.
The popularity of hot peppers has grown with the hottest of the hots taking the limelight. The legendary Bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), ‘Naga Viper’ and ‘Carolina Reaper’ are three of the hottest peppers in the world, hence their wide popularity. Many others have outstanding flavor with more tolerable heat for the average pepper lover. But buying hot peppers is expensive, and some of the best are not sold in stores, so with pepper madness in the air, it pays to get to know and learn to grow these fruits.
An unripe green serrano pepper.
Hot Pepper History
Even though peppers are a staple in cuisines worldwide, they are New World plants that did not exist in the Old World until they were first brought to Europe by the Spaniards around 500 years ago. A close relative of tomatoes and eggplant, peppers hot or sweet are defined by the generic name Capsicum and have several things in common. The smooth-leaved annuals or perennials bear fleshy, hollow, edible fruits with a spongy central rib lined with flattened oily seeds.
Fruits can be red, yellow, orange, purple, brown or green and may be elongated, round, or blocky. For gardeners and cooks, sweetness, flavor and heat are the most defining characteristics of the fruit. And, when it comes to chili pepper heat, Scoville Units are where it’s at.
Hot, Hotter, and Hottest
Round ‘Cherry Bomb’ hot peppers are pretty and only moderately spicy.
The Scoville Scale measures Scoville Units, the formal unit of measurement for a pepper’s heat. They measure the presence of a suite of 22 chemicals called capsaicinoids—the best known being capsaicin. The concentrations of these spicy compounds are analyzed for the scale, so the higher the Scoville Units, the hotter the pepper. For example, the Carolina Reaper maintains 2,200,000 Scoville Units while the poblano measures an average of 1,000 to 4,000 Scoville Units.
Environmental factors can also impact a pepper’s heat. Hot, dry weather tends to generate more intense fruits with more intense spice and “bite”, while cooler, moister weather yields milder peppers. So, it’s important to know how to grow these fruits if high heat is what you are aiming for.
Growing Hot Peppers
Truly, the hotter the weather and brighter the sun is, the happier your pepper plants will be. Choose friable soil of average fertility and a slightly acid pH. Amending with a fertile, slightly acid amendment like Fafard’s Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, is a good choice.
When planting peppers, be sure to stake or cage them to help support the broad, bushy plants and their fruits. Plants with larger, heavier fruits are at greater risk of toppling over in rain and wind. As with most vegetables, fertilization is really important to encourage the best growth and fruit output. Choose a quality fertilizer formulated for tomatoes, like Black Gold Tomato and Vegetable Fertilizer. A light sprinkling with garden-grade Epsom salt will also keep plants from suffering from Magnesium deficiency, a common problem with peppers.
Hot Pepper Types
Tabasco pepper flowers
From the Guinness Book of World Record’s hottest ‘Carolina Reaper’ pepper to relatively mild poblano chilis, hot peppers come in all colors, shapes, sizes and heat levels. Peppers are heavily cultivated plants, so most botanists have thrown away any attempt to formally categorize them. Cultivated plants like these are named and classified by horticulturists. To keep it simple, it’s cultivar (a.k.a. cultivated variety) names, like ‘Ghost’, ‘Naga Viper’, ‘Holy Moly’, and ‘Spanish Spice’, and essential common names, like Jalapeno, Habanero, and Cayenne, that define these peppers.
Harvest and Hot Sauce
When harvesting really hot peppers, protect your fingers. The spicy compounds can actually burn your skin. Snipping them with a pair of fine shears is a good method. The skin should also be protected when cutting and preparing peppers for cooking. A pepper’s heat is most concentrated along the inner lining and seeds, so remove them if you want less heat. And when it comes to cooking, homemade hot sauce is a great choice.
Homemade Garlic Sambal
Chiles ready for sauce making!
We eat a lot of sambal, a spicy Southeast Asian chile-based condiment. At its heart, it simply contains chiles and salt, but other ingredients can be added to liven it up, such as garlic, vinegar and sugar.
I made my own version of garlic sambal with a couple surprise (non-traditional) ingredients. The result is really good, though I also credit the positive outcome to the quality of the fresh-picked chiles from my garden. The peppers chosen (‘Hot Portugal‘ and red jalapeños) are only moderately hot, so this sauce can be eaten like a spicy, slightly sweet, garlicky ketchup. I make small batches, but the recipe can be doubled.
1 pound fresh, red chile peppers, whole with tops removed
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon agave syrup
1 small apple, peeled and sliced
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon salt
Add the chiles to a medium saucepan and put on medium to medium-low heat. Add 1/3 cup of the vinegar, salt, and cover. Cook the chiles for around 15 minutes or until they have softened. Next add the water, remaining 1/3 cup of vinegar, agave syrup and apples. Cover and cook for another 15 minutes or so until the apples have softened and the liquid has reduced.
Allow the mix to partially cool. When it’s still warm, transfer it to a blender or food processor along with the fresh garlic cloves. Mix it until smooth, then taste. Adjust the flavor with more agave syrup and salt as needed. If it’s too thick, add a little water or vinegar. Place in a lidded glass jar and refrigerate.
Use as a condiment or as an addition to marinades and sauces.
While we have made every effort to ensure the information on this website is reliable, Sun Gro Horticulture is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information. All information in this site is provided “as is”, with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or of the results obtained from the use of this information.