How to choose the right chili pepper for your garden

There are hundreds of chili pepper varieties from which to choose for the home garden, so it pays to know which deliver the most flavor and which pack the most heat. Others are popular simply for their looks.

“Color is a big factor,” said Robert Westerfield, a horticulturist with University of Georgia Extension. “People are very color-conscious. Most peppers in the garden are green but if you leave them in the ground long enough, they change colors. They sell a lot better with color.”

Curiosity also drives purchases, said Dave DeWitt, an adjunct associate professor at New Mexico State University and co-author of “The Field Guide to Peppers” (Timber Press, 2015). “There’s something appealing about taking visitors out to the garden and showing them ‘the hottest pepper in the world,’” he said.

Super-hot varieties, in fact, have become the most popular of the 500 different sweet and hot pepper plants sold by Janie Lamson, owner of Cross Country Nurseries in Rosemount, New Jersey, and co-author with DeWitt of “The Field Guide to Peppers.”

“While some buy one super-hot for curiosity, others do enjoy them and buy in quantity,” Lamson said. “Gardeners are making hot sauce like crazy now and giving it as gifts, using all sorts of varieties.

“They also are experimenting with more unusual and different varieties, using them to make new dishes, often from other ethnicities. It does seem that our tastes for different cuisines have evolved and expanded.”

Peppers are tender perennials, but most are grown as annuals because of their vulnerability to frost, Lamson said.

“We do have customers in Alaska,” she said. “As long as there is decent weather for 60 to 70 days, you can grow early season varieties.”

Peppers need sun and warm temperatures, but very hot weather will cause plants to abort their buds. “Folks in Florida have issues when the heat is high,” Lamson said.

Peppers can be grown from seed but most gardeners choose transplants for easier planting, she said. “Seeding takes a long time and is not always easy, especially for beginners.”

Some chili pepper varieties to consider for:

— roasting. Colorado or California reds, Giant Marconi.

— eating raw. Jalapeno and Jimmy Nardello. Both are relatively mild, especially when young.

— canning and pickling. Banana (Big Bertha, Camelot), cherry and Serrano. The latter makes a good salsa.

— heat. Habaneras are real tearjerkers. “Unless you dilute them tremendously, the super-hots are not very edible,” DeWitt said.

— ornamentals. Chili peppers may never outsell poinsettias for holiday decorating but they’re becoming a hot alternative. Try orange and black species for Halloween, red and black for Christmas, or pink to red for Valentine’s Day.

Be careful, though, when processing super-hot varieties for the kitchen, DeWitt said.

“Always wear gloves when cutting them open,” he said. “Capsaicin (a colorless, odorless irritant found only in peppers) will get onto your hands and other sensitive parts of your body. The pain is extreme although temporary after flushing with water, but it’s not something you want to do.”

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