Peppers

The humble cayenne began my passion for peppers.

Friends and family know that I like things spicy. Indian, Mexican, Thai, Cajun, Southwestern cuisine… I enjoy them all. Many restaurants these days do not believe me when I order something spicy. So it was just a matter of time before I started growing my own hot peppers. Around 2004, before we bought our own house, I experimented with growing some cayenne peppers and from that point I was hooked. It was easy, fun, and gave me something to do outdoors – off of the PC. Even with only a few plants, I usually had more than I could possibly use, so I would just give away peppers or dry them for the winter months.

In 2005 we bought a small place in Bloomsburg, PA with more space for a garden, allowing me to expanded my pepper empire. Audra choose to grow tomatoes, which are a bit more versatile and also a great complement to peppers. Our small yard provided a nice patch for our plants, though we also supplemented that with containers. Jalapenos were next for me.

Then, in 2010 I had my first experience with a bumper crop of habaneros. There’s only so much fresh salsa one can make. Audra had been wanting to explore canning, based on fond memories of family traditions with her grandmother. So we decided to explore preserving the habaneros as a jelly. We made a small batch of seven jars, then pickled some jalapenos and banana peppers too. The result? For one thing, grandma wouldn’t go near this stuff. We also discovered my brother Justin’s crack-like addiction to habanero jelly.

2010 Habaneros. We’re not #%@&-ing around.

Obviously we had to make more in 2011! We doubled the habanero crop in 2011, and continued with the usual collection of jalapenos and cayennes. But I didn’t stop there. Audra had become allergic to pretty much everything except tomatoes and parsley over the years and was cutting back on her own gardening. So I was left with much more real estate to use. Using a combination of containers and the perimeter of our yard, in total we had 14 varieties of hot peppers growing. Let’s see if I can name them now:

Habanero
Mild Jalapeno
“Regular” Jalapeno
Cayenne
Mammoth – really just an overground jalapeno
Thai Hot
Hot Cherry – these were mislabeled, and in the end appear to have been jalapenos
Poblano
Tobasco
Serrano
Sweet Bell
Hot Banana
New Mexico
Cajun Belle

This was getting serious (some may say insane). A slug infestation at the beginning of the season set back the habaneros a bit, but that was quickly overcome and before long everything was growing very well. Despite the insane amount of rain in 2011, we had a very good crop allowing us to branch out to jalapeno jelly. We did a pickled batch of sweet and hot peppers (as we did the that first year). My brother Justin soon got in on the action helping with processing and spreading the word about our offerings. We froze the rest for the mid-winter inkling for some heat.

Scoville Scale as of March 2018 – Click image for most recent Wikipedia details.

Traveling took my attention away from my peppers in August and September 2011. Still, everywhere I went, I was surrounded by pepper fans. In Ireland, our friend Bela could eat peppers whole. While I was away at Electro-Music 2011, I met some other pepper enthusiasts, including a guy from Kansas, and a father/son team from England who actually packed their own habaneros when they came to the US. We talked for quite a while about Scoville units, heat vs. flavor, recipes, and growing methods.

I scaled back my varieties in 2012. The extra work required to water and maintain so many plants took some of the fun away. Our small yard also didn’t allow enough room for some plants to truly flourish. I was surprised at how high the mammoth’s got – up to my shoulders.

Mammoth (large jalapeno)

In 2013 we moved to Millville, PA and did not plant a garden due to the timing of our move. But peppers were with us in spirit as I got Pepperhead Studios off the ground.

For 2014-2015 we continued with container gardening and a small pepper patch in our new inner yard. The introduction of a sizable compost box has also helped along the way providing rich raw materials for great peppers. The containers allowed us to continue with our staple offerings. We experimented with a limited edition ghost-pumpkin cooking butter, and I grew the hottest pepper in my collection, the Carolina Reaper.

Containers are fine, but at this level they can be a pain. They do not allow full root development, and placing them in the yard is a hassle. In 2016 we built an 8 x 16 raised bed. Details of that project are shown here. The raised bed substantially increased our yields – so much so that we have begun to sell directly to local food trucks. Some plants were more like small trees, requiring reinforcement.

2017 was another great year for pepper growth and we are looking forward to 2018. Aside from jalapeno and habanero jelly, other hits include our tomato pepper jam, and we’ve branched out into a few chilli powders and special items.

Box set of habanero jelly 2010-2015!

Through the years, I’ve learned the ins and outs of watering, weather, pests, soil composition, and plant placement. Each year brings a different challenge, but getting out in the sun and getting my hands in the soil remains enjoyable. Gardening gets me off the computer, and gives a satisfaction of making something ourselves. In 2016 we joined other makers at the Bloomsburg Mini-Maker Faire, and returned in 2017. Will be back again in 2018!

Below is a photo journal of some highlights along the way.

Instructions for chefs at Indian restaurants.

PS: Hot peppers are serious things, and should not be underestimated. I had an aunt once who burned her hands on them, requiring medical attention, and it took a long time for them to heal. You should always use gloves, eye protection and (in the extreme cases like habanero) face mask with plenty of ventilation. Keep some milk on hand for emergency rinse (water doesn’t work). Do not touch your eyes or… well, other parts, if you have been working with peppers!