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Monday, September 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gardening: Hot peppers tricky, but worth a try, Pat Munts says

Hot peppers of several varieties hang heavy on the plants Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in the fields at Eleven Acres farm at Green Bluff. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Hot peppers of several varieties hang heavy on the plants Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in the fields at Eleven Acres farm at Green Bluff. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Growing really hot peppers is very popular right now. Just check out YouTube for dozens of methods and sure-fire schemes. However, all advice aside, the question really comes down to whether our growing season is long enough to grow a respectable Carolina Reaper or ghost pepper. The basic answer is maybe, if you plan ahead.

Just what makes a hot chili hot, and how is that “heat” measured? Peppers contain compounds called capsaicinoids that are found in the white part of the pepper and the seeds. The chemicals bind to pain receptors in your mouth, and the brain, sensing the pain, reacts by sending out chemicals that increase perspiration to cool the body and increase circulation to raise metabolism to process the capsaicinoids and endorphins to dull the pain. In other words, the brain wants to rid the body of this invader quickly.

The “heat” in a pepper is measured by Scoville Heat Units. Developed in 1912 by chemist Wilbur Scoville, the original Scoville unit was a measure of how much sugar water it took to dilute the pepper to a point that trained tasters couldn’t detect any heat. This test, while usable, was subjective. It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists developed a chemical test that measured the units more precisely. Bell peppers are rated at zero Scoville units and jalapeños come in at 2,500 to 8,000 units, while the Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper in the world, registers at more than 1.5 million Scoville units.

Hot peppers are a challenge to grow here. First, we generally have about a four-week window in July and August when the nights are above 55 degrees to set fruit. Second, the hotter peppers take 75 to more than 100 days to ripen. Our season is often too short to get them fully ripe. But it’s worth a try.

Starting hot peppers from seed isn’t easy. Instead, buy plants locally or online to arrive here in mid-May. At the end of April add compost to your planting bed. Hold off on fertilizer as peppers won’t produce well with high nitrogen levels. Lay out a drip irrigation system in your bed and cover the bed with black plastic or a solar mulch film. The mulch will help warm the soil by as much as 10 to 15 degrees by the time you plant in late May. The drip system under the plastic will keep the plants evenly moist and control weeds. Peppers like to be crowded, so plant them about 6 inches apart.

Cover your planting with a tent of floating row cover over polypipe hoops to hold heat around the plants, but let in light, air and water. Leave the tent on until the plants begin to flower in early July, then remove it so the bees can pollinate the plants. Lightly fertilize the plants at this point. After the fruit sets, cover the planting with row cover again to help with ripening. Chances are they won’t be completely ripe, but they will still be hot. .

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