In this article, we want to talk to you about how to grow hot chili peppers organically, both in a balcony pot and in the garden. Together, we will discover the original variety of the hottest chili pepper in the world and the ones competing for the title. We will delve into the details of the plant and reveal the secrets to proper cultivation. Additionally, we will tell you how to enhance the “hot” qualities of these devilish and beloved fruits.
It is important not to overlook any details, so we will also discuss natural pest defense techniques. This is essential to protect the plant and ensure 100% organic cultivation.
But let’s start with the history and properties of chili peppers.
How to Grow Organic Chili Peppers in a Pot or Garden
The History of Chili Peppers
Chili pepper, scientifically known as Capsicum, is a plant belonging to the Solanaceae family. Its geographical origin can be traced to a mountainous area between Brazil and Bolivia. From there, it spread throughout the South American continent.
The earliest historical evidence of chili pepper cultivation dates back to around 5,500 years ago in Mexico, where it was widely used in food.
Christopher Columbus, after his second voyage to the Americas, imported this plant to the Old Continent in 1500. It first spread in Spain and then throughout the Mediterranean countries, especially in Italy and Calabria, where this cultivation became almost a cult.
Nutritional Properties of hot chili peppers
The nutritional and medicinal properties of chili peppers were well-known in pre-Columbian America. These virtues are due to the presence of capsaicin, one of the most stable alkaloids found in nature, which gives the spiciness we all know.
Capsaicin, concentrated mainly in the fruit’s seeds, is known for its vasodilatory, digestive, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties.
Nutritionally, chili peppers are particularly rich in carotenoids, which also give them their red color. They also contain vitamin A precursors, have a significant contribution of ascorbic acid, and are rich in minerals such as potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. Among various techniques, it is possible to preserve them in oil or as powder.
Now let’s explore the main species of chili peppers found in nature and the hottest varieties within these families.
The different species of chili peppers
Before delving into how to grow chili peppers, it’s essential to understand their biological characteristics. Let’s take a look at the various species of the large Capsicum family. There are dozens of species, and here we present those whose cultivation is more widespread.
- Capsicum Annuum: This is the most common species in Italy and the world. It has a perennial vegetative cycle, so if adequately protected, the plant can survive through the winter. The flowers have five or six petals, usually white in color, appearing in the leaf axils, one per node. The fruits are highly diverse in terms of shape, color, size, and spiciness. Some varieties belonging to this species are Piccante di Cayenna, Serrano, Paprica, the famous Piccante calabrese, Dente di cane a mazzetti, and more.
- Capsicum Chinense: This species includes notably spicier varieties. Despite the name, this variety has nothing to do with Asia; it originates from tropical areas in South America. If you decide to grow chili peppers of this variety, you’ll notice that the flowers have a white-greenish corolla. The fruits come in various shapes and colors, smooth and with wide convolutions. Varieties like Habanero have lantern-shaped forms. Others include the elongated prismatic pyramid shapes of Fatalii and Bhut Jolokia. There’s also the strawberry-shaped form with pointed tail zones, typical of the infamous Trinidad Scorpion variety.
- Capsicum Pubescens: This is probably the oldest species of chili peppers ever cultivated. It originates from the Andes Cordillera in South America. The seeds are typically dark, and the fruits are fleshy and spicy. The most famous variety within this family is Rocoto, with an ovate or irregularly spherical shape and similar in size to a small apple.
- Capsicum Frutescens: The most famous variety in this species is the Tabasco chili pepper, known for its high spiciness and excellent productivity.
The spiciest chili pepper varieties in the world
Now let’s see which are the spiciest chili pepper varieties in their native forms. To measure spiciness, the Scoville scale is used, named after the American pharmacist who developed it in 1912. The scale determines the capsaicin’s activity on the tongue’s heat receptors. The values range from 0 (for a sweet bell pepper) to 16 million (for pure capsaicin).
Carolina Reaper Peppers
The record for the world’s spiciest chili pepper goes to the Carolina Reaper variety. This variety was obtained by crossing a Pakistani Naga Morich and a Red Habanero.
It measures a whopping 1.57 million on the Scoville scale, an incredibly high value. Therefore, it must be handled with extreme care.
The fruit has a unique, round shape with a very thin tip that doesn’t promise anything good. Its intense red color and, surprisingly, fruity flavor accompany its extreme spiciness.
Trinidad Scorpion Red Peppers
Among the original varieties, the Trinidad Scorpion Red ranks second on the Scoville scale. In its Moruga version, this variety reaches a level of 1.46 million Scoville units. If you want to buy seeds of the Trinidad Scorpion pepper, you can find them here. The Trinidad Scorpion Red gets its name from the unique shape of its fruit, which somewhat resembles a scorpion’s tail. The plant has beautiful and lush foliage and grows up to 70-90 cm from the ground. While the leaves are medium to large in size, and the pepper berry measures approximately 4-6 cm.
Naga Moric Peppers
The Habanero variety, in its Orange and Red Savina variants, is well-known and widely cultivated in our country.
These plants are something every enthusiast has had the chance to taste sooner or later, partly due to their spiciness and also because of their appealing ornamental appearance.
The Scoville scale rating for this type of chili is just below one million, making it extremely hot, though not a record-holder.
The Habanero plant is very compact and does not grow to great heights, reaching about 50-60 cm from the ground.
For proper growth and maturation, it prefers a rather warm climate. The fruit colors are bright and visually appealing. The flavor is unique and, besides delivering “heat” on the palate, it leaves pleasant bitter pepper aftertastes.
If you decide to cultivate Habanero peppers, be aware that they are very productive cultivars. A well-cared-for plant can produce dozens of fruits and provide great satisfaction.
If you want to purchase the seeds for these two varieties of peppers, you can find valid options here:
Calabrian Hot Peppers
Finally, we couldn’t miss a variety dear to us, with more acceptable levels of spiciness compared to these more exotic varieties. We are talking about the classic Calabrian hot pepper.
Growing Calabrian hot peppers from local seeds will bring you great satisfaction. They are very rustic plants that adapt well to different climatic conditions.
Moreover, they have a bright green color, are highly productive, and naturally resistant to pathogenic attacks. This plant can be easily grown in pots and do not reach excessive heights: about 40-50 cm from the ground. The bright red fruits are very fleshy and flavorful, complementing every dish without overpowering its taste, but rather enhancing it.
We recommend you come and discover this pepper variety during the “Peperoncino Festival” in Diamante (CS) (you can read more about it here). It’s an unmissable event for spice enthusiasts, held every year in this splendid location on the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria.
How to Grow Peppers
After exploring the spiciest varieties in the world, let’s move on to the technical part. Let’s see how to grow organic peppers in pots or in the garden.
As we’ve seen while discussing the different varieties, peppers prefer a warm and mild climate. This has implications for choosing the sowing or transplanting period.
If you want to start directly from seeds, you should consider the germination period, which is usually about one month.
Starting from Seeds
To germinate the seeds, use a polystyrene seed tray. Alternatively, you can use a small pot with a diameter of no more than 5 cm. The seed should be buried about 1 cm deep. The soil for sowing should be very fine and kept consistently moist using a spray bottle. Be careful not to overwater at this stage, as the small seed might rot.
Another important aspect to consider is handling the seeds, especially if you are cultivating highly exotic and hot varieties. The seeds contain a high concentration of capsaicin.
Keep your seed tray in a warm place. The ideal temperature for germination is between 20 to 30 degrees Celsius. With lower temperatures, the time for sprouting may be extended.
The ideal period for outdoor sowing, considering average temperatures, is from April onwards, when the temperature usually does not drop below 15°C. If you have access to a small greenhouse, the period can be significantly advanced.
Here is a small balcony greenhouse, which can help you germinate your seedlings faster and more safely.
Once the first leaves sprout from your seed tray, the plants will need as much light as possible. Avoid excessive exposure to direct sunlight for now, as it could easily dry out the young seedling. Gradually increase the exposure to sunlight to strengthen the seedlings and allow them to grow in the best way. The absence of light can lead to the so-called “stretching” of the plant, where it grows excessively tall in search of light, sacrificing stem thickness.
Starting from Transplanting
If you don’t want to start from seeds, you can purchase a seedling from your trusted nursery. In this case, many of the precautions mentioned earlier are not necessary, as the seedling is already formed. It just needs to be transplanted into a pot on the balcony or in the garden soil. The latest period for transplanting is the end of July, hoping that the cold does not arrive too soon afterward.
Differences between Growing Peppers in Pots and in the Field
Growing peppers can be productive both in pots and in the open field, but there are different precautions to consider. Here’s how to proceed depending on the chosen technique.
Growing Peppers in Pots
When growing peppers in pots, you need to pay attention to a few aspects.
Firstly, frequent repotting is necessary. After the first leaves and the structure of the plant have formed, gradually increase the pot’s size until reaching the final transplant. Putting a seedling in a pot that is too large will slow down its growth as the roots have too much space to develop. Transplanting into pots with progressively larger diameters will accelerate growth. A suggested progression could be as follows:
- Germination in a 5 cm pot.
- First repotting after 45 days from sowing, using a 12 cm diameter pot.
- Second repotting after 15-20 days, using a 30-40 cm diameter and 35-40 cm deep pot.
By following this method, you will ensure rapid and balanced growth for your pepper plants. Keep in mind that the later you do the final transplant into a large pot, the more your plants will benefit in terms of vegetative growth and productivity.
For the soil, you can use a standard universal soil (don’t be too thrifty, look for good quality). Mix it with some organic manure. This will provide your pepper plants with the necessary nutrients during the vegetative growth period. Alternatively, you can use liquid organic fertilizers with low nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content. This will prevent excessive growth. Here is a good organic product, with different mixes for different growth stages.
For watering pepper plants in pots, it is important to keep the soil well moistened during the hottest periods. To assist with this, use expanded clay at the bottom of the pot during transplanting to improve drainage. Additionally, a bit of natural mulch with straw around the pot’s edge will improve soil moisture. This will prevent excessive drying of the soil due to direct sunlight and hardening. This precaution can be very helpful as excessively hard soil can hinder root development.
Growing Peppers in the Open Field
As mentioned earlier, peppers belong to the Solanaceae family, although they are somewhat atypical. For this reason, their cultivation in the field is similar to that of other Solanaceae plants, such as tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and peppers.
Its uniqueness lies in its greater resistance and adaptability to different ecosystems where it is grown. In our personal experience, we have never seen pepper crops affected by powdery mildew or downy mildew, the main fungal diseases. This may be due to the “exotic” origin of the different pepper species. In their genetic code, these plants already have adaptability to high humidity and fluctuations between hot and cold conditions. These elements are the basis of such infestations.
If you decide to grow peppers in your vegetable garden, you should consider spacing when planting the cultivars. For example, a variety like Cayenne Long would definitely need more space and possibly support compared to Dente di Cane Calabrese. The latter can be planted more densely. Distances can vary from 20-40 cm between plants in the same row, to 30-50 cm between rows.
As always, mulching< is fundamental, as it will save you a lot of water and keep your plants better protected. In the photo we provide, we used natural mulch with jute fabric for a Dente di Cane a Mazzetti Calabrese pepper cultivar.
Biological Pest Control
The uniqueness of growing peppers is also evident in their low attraction to common garden pests. For example, aphids, red spider mites, and whiteflies are not particularly attracted to peppers.
By systematically and preventively using nettle macerate, garlic infusion, and tomato macerate in combination, pest attacks are unlikely to occur.
Self-Pollination of Seeds
Growing peppers also have another interesting characteristic: they are self-flowering. This means they do not need insect pollinators for fertilization. Moreover, they have a remarkable ability to naturally hybridize with neighboring plants and take on their genetic characteristics. If you want to preserve the specificity of your seed, you should either plant only one variety or keep different varieties far enough apart. Alternatively, and more complexly, prevent pollination by covering the flowers with a net.
More interestingly, you can exploit this characteristic by growing different species close together. If grown perennially, the peppers will gradually acquire unique characteristics. For this reason, it is advisable, especially on a balcony, to keep a mother plant from which to harvest seeds.
Harvest, Seed Preservation, and Winter Protection
The harvesting of ripe peppers takes varying amounts of time, depending on the chosen varieties and the plant’s cycle.
When the fruits have the desired coloration, you can start harvesting. It is already at this stage that you should think about preserving the seeds. The best seeds are found in the first fruits, so choose them for seed selection and preserve them for the next season.
The selected peppers should be allowed to ripen fully, and once harvested, they should be immediately opened to extract the seeds. Be sure to wear gloves and protective eyewear when doing this, as the effects of freshly harvested seeds can be formidable.
After harvesting, let the seeds dry thoroughly (in a well-ventilated area) on a sheet of paper. Once dried, you can use the same paper or a sealed container for preservation. This way, you’ll have your autochthonous seeds to grow peppers with increasing satisfaction.
The Mother Plant
At the end of its production cycle, the pepper mother plant can rest during winter and bloom again in spring, becoming even more beautiful and resilient. Simply prune and remove old and overused branches, allowing the plant time to regenerate. Of course, you must protect the plant from frost. Ideally, you would move it indoors, which is easy for balcony plants but more challenging for plants in the garden.
- University of Colorado at Boulder – “Colorado’s spicy ancient history of chili peppers: A case of ‘the …”: Recently identified chili pepper fossils from Boulder and Denver museums challenge traditional beliefs about the history of chili peppers in the region.
- UChicago Medicine – “A hot topic: Are spicy foods healthy or dangerous?”: This article explores the potential health benefits and dangers of consuming super spicy foods, focusing on ghost pepper-based hot sauce.
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln – “How to Freeze Sweet, Bell and Hot Peppers”: A guide on how to quickly freeze raw peppers without blanching first, originally written by Alice Henneman.
- Harvard Health – “Will eating more chilis help you live longer?”: A new report suggests that regular consumption of chili peppers could have a positive impact on longevity, especially for those who love spicy foods.
- McGill University – “Why Some People Tolerate Spicy Foods Better Than Others”: This article delves into the science behind why some individuals can tolerate spicy foods better than others, focusing on the chemical capsaicin.
- Bond University – “Can eating hot chilli peppers actually hurt you?” – This article explores the potential health benefits and risks of eating hot chili peppers, including the sensation of burning and its effects on the body.
- Harvard University – “The Complicated Evolutionary History of Spicy Chili Peppers” – This article delves into the evolutionary history of chili peppers, exploring why they developed their characteristic spiciness and how humans have interacted with them over time.
- HerbalGram – “New Research Bolsters Evidence of Hot Chili Peppers” – This review highlights new research that supports the various health benefits of hot chili peppers, including their potential role in weight loss and pain relief.