Spice of Life

If you're planning to spice up your gardening this summer, chile peppers are the way to go.

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By Sandra Fish, Scripps Howard News Service

They're hot.

Or perhaps they're mild.

Or maybe pickled.

But if you're planning to spice up your gardening this summer, chile peppers are the way to go.

Now is the time to start chiles from seed indoors to plant outside sometime between Mother's Day and Memorial Day. Peppers can be grown in a garden, in raised beds or even in individual pots.

Be prepared, however, to grapple with the confusion over naming conventions.

That's what Judy Seaborn dealt with when she researched peppers in preparation to offer 26 varieties this spring through Botanical Interests, the Broomfield, Colo.-based seed wholesale company she owns with her husband, Curtis Jones.

"People would ask for poblanos, they would ask for anchos -- it's the same pepper," Seaborn says. "Ancho is when it's red and poblano is when it's green. It's the same pepper, just at different growing stages."

Chipotle peppers are smoked versions of the jalapeno. Often, the terms originate in cooking instead of the horticulture world.

"Anaheims used to be Anaheims. Then some chef in California started calling them 'NuMex.' People are confused because they want to call it 'NewMex,' " she says.
In fact, the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University calls Anaheim peppers New Mexican peppers.

Regardless of the name, the dinner plate is the ultimate stopping place for most chiles. While Mexican or Southwestern cuisine is most often considered the realm of chiles, they often flavor Asian and Indian fare as well.

Last summer, peppers spiced up Seaborn's Niwot, Colo., garden -- and her meals. She tested the varieties that are being sold by Botanical Interests in garden centers this year.

"Once people get hooked on home-grown peppers, they want to have more variety, they want to start early," says Ellen Toom, general manager at Botanical Interests.

While Botanical Interests is offering 26 varieties of seeds, the Chile Pepper Institute has more than 20 varieties developed at New Mexico State, some dating back to the 1950s.

Denise Coon, the institute's program coordinator, says peppers will grow in Colorado under the right conditions. "Environment plays a big role in the proper growing of chiles," she says.

Peppers need plenty of sun, but need to be sheltered from the wind.

A common complaint from gardeners is that their mild peppers are hotter than they should be, Coon says. But if the plants are too stressed — by lack of water and/or extreme heat -— they release a substance called capsaicin, that makes the peppers hotter.

Of course, those who like them hot may want to remember that tidbit as a way to give their chiles more heat.

Early on, however, proper watering is important, Seaborn says. "To get the thickness of the pepper and get it moist and crunchy, you have to give it water," she says. "When they start to ripen, let it go."

(Contact Sandra Fish of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at www.dailycamera.com.)

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