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Chiles for the Home Garden

By Robert Cox, Horticulture Agent, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension

The latest American icon just might be the chile pepper. Bright red and often red hot, the chile pepper has found its way onto T-shirts, into Christmas decorations and even on web sites, of which at least a few are devoted entirely to the growing and using of chile peppers. Some specialty stores sell only chile products. Ever tried "Hellish Relish?"

For the record, chile peppers (Capsicum annuum) that are harvested when immature and green are "green chiles;" when left on plants longer and allowed to ripen fully to a red color, they become -- you guessed it -- "red chiles."

Another for-the-record: "Chile" is the preferred spelling for the peppers; "chili" refers to chili beans or chili con carne, foods to which green chile or red chile powder has been added.

Both red and green chiles are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, along with potassium and calcium. Their pungency ("hotness") depends on how much of the alkaloid, capsaicin, is produced. Capsaicin level varies with chile variety and is genetically determined, but also is influenced by air temperature and by cultural conditions such as the amount of fertilizer and water provided to plants. Capsaicin appears as a yellowish band along the inner walls of the chile pod; the more yellowish the inner walls, the hotter the chile. Seeds inside the chile are not hot - until pustules of capsaicin burst onto the seeds.

When you choose which chile variety to grow, pick with pungency in mind. Just how much pungency do you want? Examples include:

  • Very mild - NuMex R Naky, NuMex Conquistador
  • Mild - Anaheim, TAM Mild Jalapeno
  • Medium - Rio Grande 21, NuMex Big Jim, NuMex 6-4
  • Hot - Sandia, Espanola Improve
  • Very hot - Barker's Hot, Jalapeno, Cayenne

Start seeds indoors in early to mid-April or purchase plants at garden centers, where several varieties are available. Harden off plants over a week's time and transplant to well-prepared garden soil about May 30, or when night temperatures consistently remain above 50 degrees. It's best not to plant chiles in the same portion of the garden where any peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes or tomatillos (all related plants) were grown the previous growing season. That's because disease organisms from last year's crops could remain in the soil, thus affecting peppers and related plants this year.

Set transplants about 24 inches apart. After transplanting, fertilize with a weak solution of water-soluble fertilizer or manure tea. Fertilize again about four weeks later. Water regularly through the growing season. Hot, dry weather, minimal irrigation and minimal fertilizer promotes increased capsaicin development. Excessive watering promotes root diseases, especially in clay soils.

Green chiles are ready for harvest in August when pods become firm, glossy green, and resistant to squeezing pressure. Leave some green pods on the plant to fully mature - red chiles can be harvested when a red color develops over the whole pod, by September. Use a knife or scissors to cut red or green chiles from the plants. Leave at least one inch of stem. Tie red chiles from the stem onto wire strands for drying. These "ristras" are very decorative, and should be hung outdoors in an area with good air circulation and full sun. Dried red pods can be ground up into powders or more coarsely ground pods can be used in sauces.

Remove the thin outer skin of green chiles by blistering or roasting them on an outdoor grill. (When working with larger quantities, find a local vendor to roast them in large rotating bins equipped with propane burners). Place on a hot grill and turn chiles frequently, so all sides get blistered. Then, for crisp chiles, plunge them into an ice water bath. For more thoroughly cooked chiles, place blistered pods in a plastic bag or into a pan covered with a damp towel for 10 minutes; this allows "steaming." Before peeling chiles, put on thin rubber gloves or coat hands with butter. Keep hands away from eyes. Capsaicin burns hands and eyes just as it creates a hot sensation when eaten. To peel blistered pods, start at the stem end, peel skin down. Remove seeds and stems if desired. (Leave stems if green chiles will be used in rellenos.) Peeled chiles can then be used fresh or they can be frozen, canned or dried.

One final caution - be prepared to answer questions from neighbors who ask about that "unusual but great smell coming from your outdoor grill!"

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010