Tag Archive for: Pepper/Chile Tips

Roasting Peppers

The More You Know – the Better You Grow

Growing peppers seems to come naturally for some gardeners, while others always seem to struggle. Sometimes this stems from easily-avoided mistakes or accepting certain myths or misinformation as correct.

Today we’re looking at the basics of growing peppers in your home garden and some mistakes and myths to be aware of and avoid. You might look at this as a how-not-to guide because occasionally it’s just easier showing what not to do than describing and explaining the right way. Plus, seeing other’s mistakes sometimes sinks in faster.

These are our observations from our 20+ years of gardening combined with the past 10 years of gardening questions we’ve answered.


The initial conditions you choose are critical to sprouting, transplanting and growing success, no matter what seed you are planting. Here are some things to consider as you grow your peppers this season.


Chocolate Mini Bell Peppers

Chocolate Mini Bell Peppers

Starting Seeds

  • Pepper seed germination – even under optimum conditions – is often slow and erratic. Don’t compare your tomato seed germination with peppers and think they aren’t performing as they should.
  • Tomatoes can sprout in 3 – 5 days in ideal conditions, while peppers might take 14 to 21 days. This is normal, be patient, and don’t worry!
  • The two most common problems in pepper seed germination for home gardeners is soil that is too cool and not moist enough.
  • Use any readily available thermometer that will accurately read in the 60° to 100°F range and insert it an inch into the soil. If it’s 80° or above, you should have good success. Soil temperature below 75° can delay seed germination by 3 weeks or more!
    • An easy way to determine soil moisture is by touching the surface of the soil with your finger – it should be damp to slightly wet where you touched the soil, and you can feel the moisture when you rub your fingers together. If not, it’s a little too dry.
    • A good rule of thumb for germinating pepper seeds is warm, moist soil – meaning 80° – 90°F – watered from above with warm water.
  • This will consistently give you better germination on all pepper seeds – sweet or hot. Maintain the soil temperature with heat mats or placing the seedling flats in a consistently warm area such as on top of a freezer or refrigerator. Warm water from above minimizes the cooling effect on the soil as opposed to bottom watering during sprouting. Once the seedlings have sprouted, switch to bottom watering to minimize mold and fungus issues.


Alma Paprika Pepper

Alma Paprika Pepper


  • Young seedlings need to be conditioned or prepared for the outside garden environment, or they will suffer greatly or die. Seedlings are tender with soft tissues, sensitive leaves, and small root systems. They aren’t ready to be plopped into the early spring garden without hardening off, sort of like a boot camp or physical conditioning program. This usually takes about 2 weeks of setting the seedlings outside for short periods and going longer as they toughen up.
  • The ideal transplanting day is warm soil with cloud cover and little to no breeze. Seedlings need warm and moist soil, much like they have before transplanting. Give them a drink of water immediately after transplanting to help avoid shock.
  • The biggest issues with transplanting are soil that is too cold, too dry (or too wet) or the seedlings are still too tender and need more hardening off. It’s better to wait a few days to a week than jump the gun, transplant too early and lose your hard work.
  • Peppers like to be close, but not too close. 18 inch spacing between plants is a good start – smaller plants can be planted a foot apart, while larger ones will need 18-24 inches. You want the plants to grow a good leaf canopy that shades the fruit from sunscald while not competing with each other and becoming leggy or spindly.


Serrano Peppers

Serrano Peppers


  • To keep your sweet peppers sweet, don’t plant them close to your hot ones; they will readily cross-pollinate and you’ll have extremely hot sweet peppers! We learned this one summer when we had Jalapenos upwind of our bell peppers. The unexpected bite of a fiery bell shocked us; we later taste-tested and found the bell peppers were hotter than the Jalapenos.
  • Giving your peppers some space is the best solution – distance minimizes the chance of hot pepper pollen finding your sweet pepper’s flower, either by wind or pollinators. Seed growers isolate peppers by 1,500 feet, but if we’ve found planting sweets 50 feet or more upwind of the prevailing breeze is pretty dependable. Peppers also grow well in containers or large pots, so you can grow them well away from the garden if needed.
  • Peppers produce best with moderate temperatures, although they can tolerate warmer days if it cools off at night.
  • Much like tomatoes, the key to getting big harvests is night-time temperatures. Peppers set the most flowers – thus the most fruit – between 65° and 80°F at night. Above about 86°F the blossoms drop off, costing you precious peppers. High winds, lack of pollinators and excessive nitrogen – such as with synthetic fertilizers – also cause blossom drop.
  • Sustained daytime temperatures above 95°F causes the pollen to become sterile with lower harvests. Shading the peppers also reduces sunscald and the loss of immature pods from heat stress. Sunscald happens when leaves don’t protect ripening peppers from the sun and they get a sunburned appearance.
  • Pod drop happens when immature pepper pods drop off the plant, most often caused by high heat combined with water stress or excessive nitrogen fertilizer. Shade cloth reduces the heat, and a drip system on a timer moderates the moisture and avoids large swings that stress the plant, causing it to shed pepper pods. Consistent moisture is best for healthy growth – not just with peppers – and avoids the soil getting too dry between waterings.
  • A good layer of straw mulch also maintains soil moisture levels between watering. We’ve found mulch reduces the amount of time our drip system is on, by cutting down the amount of water that is lost to evaporation.
  • Peppers, along with most vegetables, like rich, well-balanced, and fertile soil to grow in. Too much of any one thing can be detrimental, and too much nitrogen leads to exuberant leaf and flower growth with little to no fruit set – most often seen in peppers and tomatoes. There aren’t enough other nutrients to support the fruit growth from all of those flowers.
  • Rotating beds where you grow peppers every year helps prevent many diseases and over-wintered bugs from attacking. Good soil fertility is the best prevention.
  • Blossom end rot in peppers is much the same as in tomatoes, caused mainly by a lack of available calcium in the plant as it starts setting fruit – often large amounts of fruit at the same time. It can also be caused by large fluctuations in soil moisture, such as forgetting to water or a rain after it’s gotten dry. The usual suspect – excess nitrogen – also plays a part here.
  • Feeding the plants with a 20% solution of milk   – 2 cups of milk in 8 cups of water – with a teaspoon of molasses gives the plants a boost in calcium and much-needed sugars for fruit production. Give each plant a cup of the solution once a week until the new fruit starts setting, then twice a month during heavy production.


Line of Capsaicin

Line of Capsaicin

Harvesting and Handling

  • Almost all peppers go through several colors before ripening to maturity – both in color and flavor. The green stage is usually the least flavorful and sweet, but sometimes the spiciest and a bit bitter. As it ripens through yellow, orange and into red, the flavors become richer and deeper, with the sweetness developing and the heat mellowing. Try picking your peppers at all of the stages to see what you like best!
  • A good rule of thumb for picking is if the pepper is easily removed from the stem, it’s ready. If you have to pull or tug on the pod, it’s still too early.
  • This changes, of course, if you are harvesting continuously to increase the harvest – you’ll be removing slightly young peppers. In this case, it’s best to cut the peppers off the stem to avoid damaging the plant by pulling, as the stem will usually break before the stem does.
  • Capsaicin – the “heat” in peppers – is located on the ribs and seeds. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny yellow dots on the ribs – this is the pure form and is concentrated. If you prick one of these dots, you’ll feel it’s effects – sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Avoid touching it with bare skin to prevent spreading it to your face, eyes, etc.
  • Some otherwise sweet peppers have a hot streak on the ribs and seeds, so now you know how to handle them.
  • Some people are simply extremely sensitive, no matter how mild!


Red and Yellow Bell Peppers

Red and Yellow Bell Peppers


One of the biggest myths we’ve seen is the one that the different number of lobes on a bell pepper determines it’s sex – such as “3 lobes means it’s female and sweeter, 4 lobes is male and hotter”…

  • First – peppers, like tomatoes, are “perfect” flowers, meaning they have both male and female organs in the same flower and can self-pollinate.
  • Second off – and this is common sense – if this was true, you would need to buy “male” and “female” pepper seeds for reproduction, right? After all, if 3 lobes are “female” and 4 lobes are “male”, it stands to reason they would produce the same sex seeds, thus the need for male and female seeds to be planted close to each other.
  • So, where have you seen “male” or “female” pepper seeds for sale? Or maybe we should capture that market share?

Another myth is that all red peppers are hot, while green peppers are sweet.

  • This most likely arises from people only seeing green bell peppers in the supermarket, and not realizing that they ripen into different shades of yellow, orange, or red and are still sweet.
  • The fallacy is easily seen with both bell peppers and Jalapeños are both green on store shelves!

Your Tips?

What are your proven, never-fail tips for growing the best peppers? Share your experiences below so we can all grow better peppers!

Resources to learn more


Chile de Agua For Sale


The Chile de Agua is a little known heirloom chile from Oaxaca, Mexico, grown in a small valley for at least three centuries and is slowly becoming better known and more popular in the US. It is one of the chile varieties grown in the ancient Milpa system of community gardening with companion planting using corn, beans, squash, amaranth, sunflowers and chile to feed and sustain the people in the community.

It is very much a local chile, until recently only grown in the valley of Oaxaca (wa-HA-ca) just north of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is not grown commercially, so the production is relatively small and rarely makes it out of the surrounding area, explaining why so few people have gotten to know this remarkable chile.

Even though it isn’t well known outside of the area, the chile de agua holds a special place among other well-known chiles like the chile de arbol, serrano and jalapeño. Traditionally grown in semi-arid lands, it was planted when the seasonal rains began by transplanting seedlings into cone shaped beds made of adobe-like wet mud filled with leaf-cutter ant manure, then capped with more mud. The cap retained enough moisture in the soil for a few months if the weather didn’t cooperate, giving the village of Hidalgo Jaltepec fame for their yearly harvest of the chile de agua and their growing skills.

Chile de Agua roughly translates as “water chile” or “irrigated chile” and is grown almost year round now, selling for a large price premium in the open air markets of Oaxaca. They are sold in groups of six to twelve, fanned out in a circle on a small flat tray or large plate lined with a large green leaf. It isn’t uncommon to see the chile de agua selling for twice the price or more of any other chile at the market, selling out very quickly.


Chile de Agua CloseupThey have a triangular, conical shape about 4 inches long and 1 to 1 1/2 inches wide at the shoulders, tapering to a pointed tip. The skin is shiny, smooth and slightly wavy with a moderately thick flesh. Almost all of the heat is located in the ribs which contain the seeds. The heat is moderated by sweet, almost herbal and slightly sour flavors overlaying the spiciness and giving the characteristic complex flavors. The chiles grow erect or pointing upwards and can be prolific in the right conditions. They have about the same heat as a jalapeño but with much more flavor, most often used fully ripe which is a medium-light green up to orange to moderate red in color.

The plants are bushy and mostly low growing, around 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. The flowers are the usual white color, with a field of ripening chile de aguas a very colorful sight with the enormous numbers of chiles turning from a light spring green into yellows and oranges, finally finishing in a deep orange-reddish. They don’t all ripen at once, as the plant continues to set more flowers as the early season progresses, so the colors come in a palette of hues.

There has been some debate as to what is the “correct” form of the chile de agua, as there are some nurseries and seed companies selling seedlings and seeds with photos showing the chiles hanging down, or pendant. The physical form looks to be correct, but after researching the markets of Oaxaca and reading descriptions in current and historical literature, as well as chefs descriptions we concluded that the erect form is what has been known in Oaxaca for centuries and is the correct one.


Chile de Agua In MarketThe fresh chiles are often fire-roasted, peeled and stuffed with a shredded meat and cheese filling; or cut into strips, sautéed with onions and epazote, then topped with fresh cheese and wrapped in warm tortillas. They are also commonly used freshly roasted in sauces, as well as being fully vine ripened and dried for a remarkably full-flavored powder, but less and less now as they are more valuable sold fresh in the market. Guajillo chiles have almost completely replaced the chile de agua as the main source of local dried chile powder, as they are more productive and less expensive in the market.

The Seed’s Journey

A search by a famous Chicago chef who specializes in authentic Oaxacan cuisine first introduced us to this unique chile. He needed the chile de agua for a special dish and couldn’t find the correct plants or seeds anywhere. One of our mentors who specializes on all things chile involved us in the search, as he thought we might be interested in finding an unknown but delicious chile to add to our offerings.

Through much searching and tapping into different networks, we came across a photographer working on a book about the restoration of the ancient milpa system just north of Oaxaca. This system has included the chile de agua for at least 300 years, as shown by Spanish documents, and most likely much longer.

The photographer obtained seeds from the local farmers, after email introductions and several explanations of why we were searching for this particular regional chile. There were initial concerns about our ethics and motives as farmers in the region had experienced theft of their seed sovereignty when corn they had grown and nurtured for centuries was obtained under false pretenses and later patented. After we explained our reasons for introducing the chile to American gardeners and restaurants, we were welcomed.

Evaluation and Grow-Out

Chile de Agua For SaleOnce seed from Oaxaca was in hand, we sourced seed from four other sources as comparisons in our grow-out trials. A grow-out is an evaluation of a potential new variety to see if it is true to its description and type, as well as if it meets quality standards for growth, vigor, production and flavor before it will be included into our growers rotation for seed production. Sometimes the initial evaluation takes a few years to really determine if the potential variety has the quality and characteristics needed.

After evaluating all four seed sources we found that only the original seed from Oaxaca met all of the standards, so it was rotated into the seed production schedule of one of our most experienced growers. Two years had been spent on the evaluations and another two years were needed to produce enough seed to be able to offer it to our market. The first year, all of the seed from the best plants were saved and replanted with the seed from the second year’s crop being offered for sale after seed from the best plants were held back as our foundation seedstock.

The entire process took four years to complete – from obtaining the different seeds for evaluation to having enough seed to offer for sale. This amount of time to introduce a new seed variety isn’t unusual in our line of work, as the last thing we want to do is race off to market with a brand new seed that we don’t have any experience with or knowledge of.

The true value of our work is shown in the comments of gardeners who rave about the flavors, production and gratefulness in being able to grow a variety which has sustained and nurtured a culture across several centuries. In choosing to grow these ancient and sometimes rare seeds over the more common and easily obtained modern varieties, gardeners continue a tradition started long ago and experience a direct connection to the flavors that could easily have been lost to history.

The beautiful thing for home gardeners today is the ability to easily choose and grow a number of heirloom vegetable varieties with amazing stories, beautiful colors, bountiful production and delicious flavors! Each time someone chooses to grow one of these heirlooms, they keep a particular piece of history alive in a real, tangible way.

Maybe you, too, will choose to grow a delicious bit of history in your garden this year!

This article was first published in Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog on January 14, 2016! 

September in northern Arizona means a few things – the weather starts to cool off and the nights become very enjoyable, the garden seems to find another gear as the energy-sapping heat begins dropping off and we harvest some of the most amazing colors and flavors of vegetables.

We’ve taken some glamour shots of the garden’s bounty and wanted to share them with you, along with tips on how we’ve enjoyed preparing them in different dishes.

Remember as you look at these vegetables to not worry if you can’t plant and taste these this year or season; see what appeals to you and either buy them now or add them to your Wishlist. Seeds are good for more than one year, so buying them a few months before planting will not have any impact on their germination next season. Just store them in a cool and dry place, then you can plant and experience all of these colors and flavors for yourself, straight from your garden!

Click on the links in the descriptions to visit them in our online seed store!

Rosa Bianca Eggplant

Fresh Rosa Bianca eggplant – beautiful, firm and tasty without any trace of bitterness. Eggplant can be quite delicious when grown in your own garden, harvested fresh and cooked soon after. We peeled and sliced this, slowly sautéed it in olive oil and added it into a fresh roasted tomato sauce. It easily stood with the intense roasted tomato flavors without getting lost or overwhelmed.


Juane Flamme Tomato

Flamme or Jaune Flamme Tomato – apricot size and color, French heirloom tomato that came on early and is still producing strong late into the season. Really a wonderfully delicious tomato with an immediate, intensely sweet flavor that is soon balanced by a smooth tartness and fruit overtones. The complex flavors last on the tongue, making a second and third bite inevitable.


Juane Flamme Tomato

A different angle on the Flamme tomatoes.


Jubilee Tomato Sliced

Jubilee tomato – Absolutely delicious golden tomato with very little gel, lots of meat and long lasting flavor. Flavor is immediate with a balanced tart and sweet profile and very full. Many yellow tomatoes have a milder or blander taste, as if the flavors were diluted – not the Jubilee! Excellent fresh as a slicer and as a unique flavor in a fresh roasted pasta sauce – doesn’t get lost in rich red paste tomatoes and adds a brightness to the sauce.


Box Car Willie Tomato

Box Car Willie tomato – Most “old-fashioned” heirloom tomatoes have a strong to very strong acid content that contributes a tartness that sometimes becomes quite a bite. Not Box Car Willie – it has an immediate, forward flavor that starts off with a moderate tartness quickly followed by a mild sweetness, balancing the flavors out. Overall the impression is a slightly tart, yet mildly sweet smaller beefsteak tomato that is really enjoyable sliced fresh or juiced. When sliced it retained most of the juiciness inside the fruit and didn’t leak all over the cutting board.



Box Car Willie Tomatoes Sliced

Box Car Willie Tomatos sliced open.


Speckled Roman Tomato

Speckled Roman tomato – Meaty and moderately sweet with little juice or seed cavity, these are great on salads or as an appetizer dish where their unique and eye-catching colors can be shown off. Their flavors back up the show, making this all the more valuable in the garden. One of the all-purpose tomatoes that we turn to – it is excellent freshly sliced, in salsas and adds a fruit note to sauces or soups as well.


Speckled Roman Tomato Sliced Open

Another view of the Speckled Roman, showing the interior.


Pepperoncini Pepper

Pepperoncini Pepper – These are pretty common peppers, but the taste and flavors when grown at home are unlike anything you’ll find in the store. This probably explains why these continue to be a popular variety that continues to find new fans each year. Mild yet flavorful, these work well in many dishes that need a bit of pepper flavor without overbearing heat.


Hungarian Hot Wax Pepper

Hungarian Hot Wax Pepper – The wilder, spicier relative of the Sweet Wax pepper! Moderately warm without being overly hot with a tangy but slightly sweet flavor. Watered well, the heat is moderate but can be cranked up by restricting water. Excellent when de-seeded and dry-fried with garlic and onions on a hot cast iron pan, then added as a topping to a pizza.

Preying Mantis in Garden

Long revered in Oriental cultures as a symbol of mindfulness, calm and patience, the preying mantis is also a good sign in the garden as a pest patrol.


Heirloom Chile Inspection

One of the wonderful things that we get to do in this business is visit seed growers. Most of the time the visit is to inspect the crops or harvest for that season, looking for potential challenges or quality issues that must be addressed. Open pollinated seed wants to “drift” or change and adapt to current conditions, and it is our job to keep true to the characteristics that made it so worthwhile to be passed down from generation to generation.

Other times we get to visit a grower or breeder to see what they are working on, which becomes a highly educational day in the fields for us. This is just such an occasion.

We were invited to south-eastern Arizona to spend the day with a world-class chile breeder. He currently supplies most of the chile seeds for the Hatch chile growers in New Mexico, and has been breeding and refining chiles for about 30 years. As an example, he obtained seeds for the “Sandia” chile from growers in the Albuquerque area almost 20 years ago and has doubled the production of that chile, while retaining it’s remarkable flavor and compact, bushy plant characteristics that have lots of leaf shade to prevent the young chiles from becoming sun scalded. He combines traditional plant breeding with extensive selection and very close observation, only choosing to keep the very best plants for seed.

We first met him at a Master Gardener conference where he presented a talk about the genetics of the breeding he was doing, explaining how much more complex a chile plant is than a tomato, with the resulting complexities in breeding and selecting to get certain characteristics to come through reliably. He has studied the DNA of the chile plant extensively, and has collaborated with university research projects working to identify and map the chile genome to better understand how and why it grows and reacts the way it does.

Heirloom Chile Fields

When we first pulled up to the growing field, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. From our conversations with him, we knew he was growing several dozen chile varieties on a few hundred acres, but we didn’t know how. Chiles will readily cross pollinate, creating a mess for growers and especially breeders. As we parked, a tractor was already pulling a flatbed trailer out of the field loaded with freshly harvested chiles.

For all of the photos, click to see them full sized.

Heirloom Chile Markers in F

Looking out across the fields, you can see fluorescent flags in the middle distance. It is easier to see if you click on the photo for the full size. These are the primary plants that show all of the desirable characteristics or traits that the breeder is looking for, so they are tagged and will be allowed to fully ripen, then the seeds will be collected to be replanted next year. All of the surrounding chiles will be harvested for use as fresh green chiles. 

Heirloom Chile Flower

This is where it all starts, with a single flower. One flower, successfully pollinated, will give you one chile with seeds. These particular chiles have a good amount of seeds, but there are some that we have grown for us that only produce a few seeds per chile pod, so they are much more labor intensive and more expensive to grow.

Chile flowers are classified as “perfect”, meaning that each flower has both male and female organs. The anther or male portion produces the pollen and is seen extending out from the flower in the above photo. The stigma is the female organ and it is beneath the flower petals and underneath the anthers.

Flowers begin appearing when the chile plant starts branching and the process of flowering is called “dichotomous”, meaning that the plant produces one flower, then two, then four, eight, sixteen and so on. There will be many, many more flowers than fruit, and a larger percentage of the early flowers produce fruit than those later in the season.

Chiles are surprisingly temperature sensitive, as they produce the most fruit when nighttime temperatures are between 65° and 80°F, almost stopping by 85°F and the pollen aborts when daytime temperatures are above 95°F. This is why home gardeners will shade their chile or pepper plants in the summer in hot locations. To read more about this, see Grow Better Peppers with Shade.

Corn Swath Isolation for Better Chiles

Gardeners with some experience often ask how we isolate the different varieties of tomatoes, peppers or any of the different cultivars we offer so they do not cross-pollinate. There are three main methods of isolation – time, distance and physical isolation. Our growers use all three of these techniques to grow more plants for seed, which increases production.

Swaths of corn are used at this location for isolation. It is planted earlier than the chiles in rows that are about 15 feet deep and seeded fairly thickly. The result is tall barriers that inhibits the travel of pollen from one plot of chiles to another and has proven itself to be highly effective through both field trials and laboratory testing.

When the corn has matured it is harvested and the stalks are removed, making it much easier to access the chile plots. By that time the chiles have flowered and produced the first couple of flushes of fruit which the seed will be saved from. Later pollination of fruit is picked and used as fresh chiles, with the seed not being saved.

Threatening to Rain

We had camped in small secluded campground the night before, with a strong weather warning for the next couple of days due to a tropical storm working its way inland from the Pacific.

This is how we started our day, with clouds getting stronger and the wind picking up until the mountains to the west were getting drenched. The rains then turned toward us and we were forced out of the fields just after noon.

Tracking Heirloom Chile Cul

Keeping track of all of the individual plots is done both by hand and with modern technology. A hand drawn map is used in the field to verify and make notes, with the information being transferred to a computer file later.

There is a team that works to keep the quality high – the breeder and farm owner, a field foreman and two highly experienced plant identification specialists that spend lots of hours each day in the field with the foreman, looking at and evaluating each individual chile plant for the characteristics that are desired. Those plants are then identified, tagged and tracked throughout the season.

If a plant continues to perform to standards, the chiles will be harvested and the seeds saved for next season. If even one trait or characteristic is found to be below standards, the markers are removed and the fruit is harvested as fresh chile to be eaten and the seeds are not saved.

Heirloom Chile Inspection

The field inspections of chiles was a highlight of our day! This chile is just starting to ripen past the green stage. There are sometimes 15 different characteristics that are desired and evaluated in a single chile – many not having to do with heat or taste.

If you click into the larger photo, you will see the thickness of the flesh better. This shows how fertile the soil is, as poor or unsuitable soil will not grow thick flesh and the skin will be slightly to noticeably bitter. The breeder has shown me photos of chiles that have a flesh 3/8 of an inch thick! This is extremely good soil for growing chiles.

This particular chile only grows two ribs down the center of the fruit where the seeds are attached to. They know to cut the chile open from the side to see into the chile for evaluation.

Capsaicin in Heirloom Chile

One thing we learned is that the capsaicin or heat is located along the ribs of the chile. Mild to moderate chiles will have the majority of the heat here. This is primarily true for most chiles, though some of the hotter varieties will contain additional capsaicin in the flesh.

Once again, clicking into the larger photo will show the yellow capsaicin better. It is located on the bottom rib and is a very light yellow color. It was very educational to taste the chile flesh, which was very flavorful and mild and then touch the rib with the capsaicin and taste it. The heat was immediate and surprising for such a mild chile and lasted for several minutes on the tongue. This is why many recipes will say to remove the ribs, as it strips out the majority of the heat!

Yellow Capsaicin in Heirloom Chiles

The capsaicin can be easily seen on the top rib as a light yellow line that follows the flesh, with the tip of the knife pointing to a heavy spot. This chile has a good amount of capsaicin on both ribs and would give an unsuspecting person quite the surprise!

His focus with chiles is on the milder varieties, such as those grown in and around Hatch, NM.

Different Varieties of Heirloom Chiles

We talked about different characteristics being selected for in the plots and here is a representation of some of them. At first glance, these four chiles seem to be all the same – large, green and fairly flat. In fact, these are all different cultivars; bred, selected and grown for different markets.

The top one is grown for fresh chile sales at Mexican markets – this is what traditional Mexican households are looking for in size and flavor for specific dishes with fresh green chile. It is too long for canning, as the chile will fold over in the can – making it undesirable for whole canned chile use.

The second from the top is grown for the canning companies – it has a “crown” where the stem is, making it easier to de-stem by machine. In fact, the term is called “de-stemability” when looking at the characteristics.

They will pick a chile, grab the stem and snap it off of the top. If it comes off whole without taking any of the chile with it, that is good. If part of the stem remains, or some of the chile is removed – that is not acceptable.

The third chile is preferred for fresh stuffing use as it is flat and wide and is perfect for Chile Rellenos.

The bottom one is perfect for fresh roasting, as it is rounder so that it will tumble in the flame roaster and is longer and wider than the canning chile. The stem is a bit smaller and tighter than the canning chile as well, which is desirable for roasting as you don’t want to lose the stems in the roaster.


Four Kinds of Heirloom Chiles

It is easier to see some of the physical differences in this shot.

Checking Productivity of Chiles

For the breeder, flavor is most important followed closely by productivity. We must have tasted a hundred chiles during our time in the field and left with both of our arms full of chiles that had been picked and tested for de-stemability or other physical traits and were then waste. We loved it!

Lots of Chiles

Another look at the production capability of a chile plant. They select for smaller, more compact plants with larger chiles and lots of leaf cover to shade and protect the chiles from sun scald and hotter temperatures. More leaf cover also keeps the soil cooler which keeps the flowers cooler, maintaining a better pollination and fruit production environment.

It quickly became apparent that there were many other traits that had been identified and were selected for beyond just flavor and size or appearance of the chiles that contributed greatly to the overall quality and flavor of the chiles. Lower plants that had thicker stems so that the chiles didn’t break the stems from the high production and large sizes were part of it. More leaf cover with larger leaves was another. Tolerance and resistance to disease, sun-scald and other challenges were more traits actively encouraged.

Isolation Cages in Field

Remember how we talked about isolation in a previous photo? Here’s another example of isolation that is being used to actively improve the chiles in the field. These are isolation cages or tunnels, put over the chile plants after they are sown to exclude any insects or pollen drift from other chile plants. This prevents cross-pollination and only allows the chiles inside the cage to do the pollination. These cages were just slightly taller than the chile plants and some were hundreds of feet long – as long as the row of chile plants.

Two Methods of Chile Isolation

Here’s another look, showing two different types of isolation in one photo. The remains of the corn row isolation between plots is next to one of the isolation tunnels, with the field manager and breeder as we saw them most of the day – heads down looking at chiles with their hands full of chiles. The yellow flags are tags of specific plants that have been identified as having the traits or characteristics they wanted.

Isolation Cage Close Up

The isolation tunnels don’t prevent sun or water from entering, only insects and stray pollen.

Heirloom Chile Seed Warehou

After we were chased out of the fields by the rains, we got a tour of the processing facility where the truckloads of ripe red chiles were cleaned, de-seeded and dried. The dried chile pods are sold to a company that makes chile paste and sauces, while the seeds are sold to the New Mexico chile canning companies and grown around Hatch, NM and surrounding areas.

We were treated to seeing how much seed is involved in an operation like this – lots and lots! The warehouse is climate controlled for temperature and humidity and is stacked full of chile seeds. Most will be sold to the commercial growers of fresh green chiles, but there is a deep store of multiple years worth of breeding stock seed. There are backups upon backups going several years back, all labelled and coded with details so that they can be easily reached if needed, or if there is a crop failure due to weather or insects.

This level of backup and redundancy is absolutely necessary as a breeder, as there is nowhere else to turn if a crop fails or things don’t turn out well. We felt very privileged to see and spend some time in the seed warehouse! 

Basket of Peppers

Peppers Like a Little Shade

Sweet peppers and hot chiles are an important part of almost everyone’s garden, though in different ratios for many! Some really enjoy an abundant late summer and fall harvest of sweet bell peppers while others look forward to the hot chile harvest for months ahead.

One of the main concerns with growing peppers or chiles is the drop off in both quality and production during the height of the summer heat. As the long, hot days of summer set in production drops while diseases increase such as blossom end-rot and sunscald. There are some surprisingly simple approaches that can make a big difference in this year’s harvest of your beloved sweet peppers and hot chiles!

Three Techniques to Boost Pepper Production

Mulching is one of the very first techniques that has been demonstrated as beneficial to both quality and quantity. Combined with a drip system on a timer, large improvements to the health and vitality of the plants can be seen quickly. These two factors improve the stability of the soil moisture levels, moderating the peaks and valleys from wet to dry. This reduces the stress levels on the plants as they are able to access water on a continuous basis. The mulch insulates the soil and top levels of roots from drying out too quickly and often brings the moisture level up to the surface of the soil, instead of a couple of inches down. Another benefit to mulching with at least an inch of straw type mulch is the temperature insulation of the soil. Reducing the heat gain in the upper levels of the soil improves the plant’s amount and quality of production.

Shading of the pepper plants was recently examined with experiments done in Mexico, Spain and Israel as well as by the University of Georgia. They studied different shade cloth levels impacts on pepper production from 2008 to 2010 with four different levels of shade alongside no shade as the standard. They measured the air temperatures and the soil temperatures and correlated these changes to improved or reduced quality and quantity of peppers. The amount of peppers lost to rejection for quality reasons were closely examined.

What the study has shown is a moderate amount of shade, such as a 30% shade cloth, is the ideal. More shade didn’t produce better peppers past the 30% shading. In fact, as more shade was applied, the plants grew more but produced less peppers with more defects that caused them to be rejected. The moderate shading reduced the heat stresses by lowering the air and root zone soil temperatures, while decreasing diseases such as sunscald and blossom end-rot.

Works for Tomatoes as Well

It is interesting for us to note that these exact same approaches have proven to be the key to successfully growing tomatoes through the hot summers in Phoenix and Tucson, where daytime highs can reach 110 – 115°F! The use of raised beds, drip systems on timers, thick straw mulching and shade cloth allows the pollen to be under the critical 90°F for enough of the day to continue producing tomatoes.

If you have had problems in the past with peppers, chiles or tomatoes slowing production and having disease issues with the onset of hot weather, try these growing tips to get you back on track!

The Benefits Of Shading Peppers | GrowingProduce

Pepper Seedlings

Are they called peppers or chiles, and why? I prefer to call them chiles and here’s my reasoning: In the Aztec’s Nahuatl native language, the word is “chilli”, which was changed to “chile” by the Spanish who were looking for a new source of black pepper and discovered these fiery little treasures. For me, chile is closer to the original name and meaning.

One of the mainstays of the garden, they are often started from seed or bought and planted right along with their travelling companions from the central Americas, the tomatoes. Humans have been eating chiles for at least 7,200 years, from archaeological evidence in Mexico and have grown them for around 6,100 years. For those that aren’t chile-heads, these sweet or hot little packets of history can be either boring or scary. Some gardeners will plant the same variety of green bell pepper year after year and not think too much of what else is on offer, while others are very concerned with the amount of “fire” some hot chiles pack. There is a lot of room to explore the world of chiles without being either bored or burned.

Chiles can be grown with great success in many varied garden climates across America. They are very adaptable to different conditions and have travelled widely, establishing themselves in many different locations and cuisines around the world. With a background understanding that they are a tropical plant originating in Central America and the following growing tips as a guide, you can have the tastiest, most colorful and most productive chiles or peppers from your garden this year. Here are some tips to help you along the way!

  • Start seeds indoors at least 8 weeks before the last frost date. This can change year to year; they can be started a bit later in a hard winter and earlier during a mild one. A soil temperature of 75 – 85F will give the best germination. They are not nearly as fast to germinate as tomatoes, and will take from 14 – 21 days to germinate at the optimum temperature. Use heat mats under the seedling tray if needed. For a more in-depth look at what seeds need for germination, read Starting Seeds at Home – a Deeper Look.
  • Peppers dislike transplanting or disturbance of their roots. Paper pots, yogurt cups or similar are a good start, having a large enough soil volume to give the root system enough time and space to develop well before going into a larger pot or into the garden. They can be started in seedling trays, but plant extra to account for those lost to transplant shock.
  • Peppers really need warm soil to transplant into and warm weather for best growth and ripening. Full sun is preferred, but a light shade for part of the day should be all right.
  • Make sure the weather is warm and all danger of frost has passed before transplanting into the garden. Daytime temps of 65F and night-time of 55F are minimums. If you find that you have to transplant under less than ideal situations, use what’s called “hot caps” or “cloches” at night to keep the termperature a few degrees warmer. These range from plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut out to glass bells made for the purpose. Another alternative is to create a temporary row cover over the new transplants, taking it off in the morning and covering them at night. Use this until the night-time temperatures are warm enough for the young plants.
  • Don’t worry about waiting an extra week or even two before setting the plants out, it will be worth it if you don’t lose half your peppers to a late-season frost!
  • Peppers aren’t particularly picky about the type of soil, preferring a sandy loam of moderately high fertility. They will grow well in other types of soil, however.
  • Critical factors are temperature and water, both factors need to be fairly steady. Don’t transplant starts from a warm growing condition into a cold soil, or let them dry out. They can tolerate high temperatures, but need a moist soil for best flavors and production.
  • Days to maturity usually refers to the time from transplanting to harvest, similar to tomatoes.
  • Magnesium is an important mineral, so add a dusting of Epsom salts to the hole when transplanting, working it into the soil around the plant.
  • Transplant the peppers about 15 – 18 inches apart for best growth and to avoid crowding. This also makes it easier to see the ripe fruit.
  • Separate sweet and hot varieties as far apart as practical, with neither upwind of the other if possible to avoid cross-pollination. If this is unavoidable, put the sweets upwind of the hots, unless you want really hot sweets!
  • A 2 inch thick dressing of well-rotted compost around the base of the plant acts as both a mulch to keep the moisture levels more constant and act as a slow release fertilizer. For more on how to create great compost, read Compost- Nourishing Your Garden Soil.
  • During the growing season, your peppers will benefit from feedings of a natural fertilizer, especially during the height of pepper production. You can make some of the best fertilizer yourself with our recipe for the Best Homemade Fish Emulsion.
  • Green peppers will keep a bit longer than fully ripe yellow or red ones.
  • Riper ones have more flavor and nutrients, are usually sweeter and have a more complex flavor. They also have much more Vitamin C. Hot varieties will have much more flavor with usually less apparent heat.
  • Harvest when you think the fruit is ripe – either green, yellow or red. Try some of each color to see what you like the best. When picking fruit, don’t pull them off the plant, use a sharp knife or scissors to prevent damage to the plant, slowing growth and inviting pests and diseases.
  • Companion plants are Basil, Carrot, Mint, Nasturtium, Spinach, Sweet corn and Tansy.

Use these tips for a great season of chiles or peppers, however you want to call them! Let us know how yours do this year, and if you have experiences or tips listed that would help others, please share them!