Growing Hot Peppers

Capsicum annuum red chillies
Red chilies ready for the picking!

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.

Capsicum annuum 'Serrano' (Longum Group)
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
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

Capsicum frutescens
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
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.

Chillies and chilli sauce


Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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