Got a passion for peppers?

It’s only since I began working at the Oak Harbor Farmers Market last year that I discovered people’s passion for peppers. Every variety, from the mundane but sweet Bell pepper to the hottest of chilies, is in demand. Few Whidbey farmers raise and sell peppers, but the Yakima area vendors who attend our market are happy to satisfy local cravings.

Now, I love ethnic food, especially Italian, Mexican and Thai, but when items on the menu are starred for hotness from one to five, I never venture above two. I’m one of those culinary wimps who wince at anything hotter than a Maracino cherry. But there are millions of folks who happily take the heat, the hotter the better. And they’re not just from the Southwest, either.

About three years ago, a Master Gardener friend, Lori Rhodenbaugh, planted Thai dragon pepper seeds, and raised them on a sunny windowsill. She gave me one of the plantlets, which was listed as an annual on the seed packet. The colorful little “annual” is now about eight inches tall and wide. Its woody stem bears branches laden with bright green leaves and tiny white flowers, followed by inch-long peppers that morph from green to bright red. Visitors who see this colorful plant in the kitchen window ask if it’s real, and I assure them that it is.

Last spring I repotted it in fresh potting soil with some slow-release fertilizer, and it’s rewarded me with a bumper crop of peppers. I never thought of them as anything but decorative until a friend tried one in his homemade chili. Apparently, these babies are a pepper lovers’ dream. He asked if he could harvest a few more from my plant, and I said sure, just leave enough for me to admire. This year, though, I thought I’d see if anyone at the Farmers’ Market would be interested. I packaged five of the little tongue-scorchers each in sandwich bags and labeled them as hot, hot, hot! And they sold, sold, sold!

Of course, one small houseplant can’t satisfy the north end’s need for fiery fruit, but it was interesting to see just how popular hot peppers are. You can buy them at any supermarket, but like all produce, home grown is better.

Peppers belong to the Capsicum species. Among them are Capsicum annuum, to which all Bell peppers belong. Tabasco is a member of the Capsicum frutescens clan, and the hottest peppers, including Habanero and Scotch Bonnet, belong to the Capsicum chinense species.

The substance that produces the heat is called capsaisin. It stimulates the body’s heat receptor nerve endings, and is the main ingredient in many salves and rubs used to ease muscle and joint pain. It’s also used in pepper sprays and animal repellants.

There’s actually a method to measure the heat produced by peppers. Called the “Scoville Scale,” it was developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. Basically, pepper extract is diluted in sugar water until its “heat” is no longer detected by a panel of professional tasters. The degree of dilution gives the pepper it’s rating on the Scoville Scale. For instance, a sweet Bell pepper would have a rating of zero, because no heat is detected, even undiluted. A Habanero, on the other hand, has a rating of 300,000 or more, indicating that it’s extract must be diluted 300,000-fold before the capsaicin is undetectable. My little Thai dragons are rated 50 to 100,000. While the Scoville Scale is still in use today, human tasters have been replaced by high performance liquid chromatography equipment.

Whidbey Island is not exactly paradise for pepper-growers. Like tomatoes, peppers are a warm-season crop that needs a long growing time for maximum production. Temperature also has a huge effect on plant and fruit growth, as well as development of the “hot” colors for which peppers are famous. For green peppers to turn red, the ideal temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees. If the thermometer soars higher, the coloring is yellow. If temperatures drop below 55, color development comes to a halt.

However, home gardeners can and do successfully grow peppers in the Northwest. Their “secrets” include a variety of methods, including starting plants early in greenhouses, using raised beds to improve drainage, plastic mulches to warm the soil and control weeds, drip irrigation to promote uniform water and fertilizer intake, and staking to reduce breakage and increase air movement.

I asked several Island County Master Gardeners who are also successful pepper growers to share how they do it. Here’s what they have to say:

“I’ve grown peppers for the past two years,” says Dawn Michelsen. “Last year I planted about five different types (outdoors), both hot and sweet. They started very slow, until I tented them with row cover cloth. After that, they took off, and I had quite a harvest. This year I planted a couple of different types of sweet peppers – no hot ones. I have them in the greenhouse and they have gone nuts. From three plants I am getting more peppers than I can handle. I have some very happy friends, though.”

Another Master Gardener who finds the unheated greenhouse a good place to grow peppers is Linda Sue Schoenharl. “I’ve raised green, red, banana, and small hot peppers in my greenhouse for the last four years,” she says. I just start them about the same time I start my tomato seeds, usually the second week in February. I plant them in large pots, adding compost to the soil. I leave them in the greenhouse to grow. I water them with a drip system and use fish fertilizer. I also grow eggplant in the greenhouse.”

If you raise tender seedlings in an unheated greenhouse, as does Joann Hoover of Oak Harbor, be mindful that they can still freeze. “I wait until I’m pretty sure that it will not freeze before I plant in early spring. I’ve planted as early as February, but it really depends on the weather that year as to how things will grow. I sometimes use Miracle Gro’s veggie formula with the peppers, because I think they need the extra boost.”

Those who don’t have the luxury of a greenhouse may want to construct a simple hoop house, as did Mary Fiddler. “I have a hoop house, PVC pipe arches with plastic cover, for growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil, and all do well in that. I’ve also had good luck with peppers, mostly jalapenos, in pots against a south wall, and this year, in a planter box against that wall, where I’m also growing cantaloupe and gourds.” Then there are the “strictly outdoor” pepper gardeners, such as Janice Joynt. “Last summer I successfully raised ‘Gypsy’ bell peppers in my garden. Of course, it was a warmer summer than this year, and my garden was in a very warm swale in a southeastern location. I had a truckload of composted manure dug in prior to planting. I used some fish emulsion (fertilizer) occasionally, and irrigated with a drip system.”

Dean Weldon is a volunteer at the Lord’s Garden, which provides fresh produce for those in need. “Dave Thomas and the other gardeners who have worked at the Lord’s Garden have an unusually successful crop this year,” claims Dean.” Seeds were started in a greenhouse, transplanted into an area that gets full sun all day long. The area is fairly sheltered from the wind, so it stays warmer. I believe Dave added a side dressing of fertilizer once the roots were well established. Otherwise, luck?”

Thomas, who oversees the Lords Garden, adds, “We’ve got nine varieties of peppers growing and producing heavily. My only suggestion is, plant and pray!”

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