Peppers aplenty for the summer

Gardeners ready for heat of this year's harvest

Gardeners ready for heat of this year's harvest

August 12, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Gardener Bill Dorman doesn't need to eat a hot pepper to make his face light up.

Simply talking about peppers makes his face red, happy and cheery.

"These go good with pizza," said Dorman, 81, holding up a jar of pickled jalapenos that came from his garden in a prior season. "They're not as hot when they're pickled."

Dorman is a Master Gardener who lives just outside of Greencastle, Pa., and spends at least seven hours a week in his garden. He has roughly 20 pepper plants in his backyard garden and has several jars and pepper shakers full of his homemade spices.

But this year, he's having to wait longer than usual for fresh-picked peppers.

Caught in the suspense of a growing season delayed by wet, cool weather, some gardeners are ready to feel the heat from the fruit of this year's chili pepper harvest.


But now that a few ripe peppers are coming in, local pepper growers are ready for the next step - spice making - something that's almost as easy to do as peppers are easy to grow.

Blame it on the rain

In this area, peppers are planted three to four weeks after the first frost. Local extension agents say peppers are easy growers in the Tri-State region's typical conditions. They can even hold their own in Washington County's clay-rich soil, said Annette Ipsan, a horticulture educator for the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

"The nice thing about peppers is there are so many varieties," Ipsan said.

But this year's cold nights and rainy days have deprived peppers and other plants of oxygen, causing them to mature later than normal, if at all.

"We're just getting to see some of the produce that we would have normally expected to have seen by now," said horticulture specialist Robert Kessler, an educator for the Franklin County (Pa.) Cooperative Extension.

What to (eventually) do with your hot peppers

Dorman and his wife, Ruth, make their own spices from the peppers they grow. They put peppers in most everything they cook.

"I never liked paprika because I never liked that blah taste you get when you buy it from the store," said Ruth Dorman.

But try homemade paprika.

"It's as if you've never tasted paprika," Ruth Dorman said. "All of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh, you have a taste.'"

If you dry a pepper, then pulverize it, bam!, you've got homemade spice, Bill Dorman explained. That's how paprika is made - by grinding dried paprika peppers.

Once ground, you can come up with your own blend of heat. The Herald-Mail tried a fingerprint-size sample of the Dormans' mixed-peppers spice - a blend of jalapenos , habaneros, serranos, Thai peppers, tabascos and cayennes. It was a slow burn and just grazed the boundary of being too hot to stand.

Some like it hot?

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the hottest, a jalapeno is about a 5, said Robert Schueller, spokesman for California-based food distributor Melissa's Produce, a brand under the umbrella of World Variety Produce whose distribution reaches grocery stores such as Weis and Giant in the Tri-State region.

The average U.S. citizen can't handle the bite of a jalapeno, Schueller said.

Even spicier Latin and Caribbean palates tend to max out with serrano peppers - which are somewhere between the jalapeno and habanero on a relative scale of hotness. Schueller said, to many foodies, the habanero is a 10.

"With habaneros, the heat almost has a might of its own," Schueller said.

Mike Burkhart, a 53-year-old produce farmer in Martinsburg, W.Va., likes his peppers hot - "the ones that will burn you," he said.

He and his wife run the family farm, Burkhart's Farm & Orchard, which grows 800 to 1,200 pepper plants a year. The Burkharts sell peppers and other produce at farmers' markets in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

For decades, it used to be that the sweet ones outsold the hot ones.

"Now it's about 50-50," Burkhart said.

Your peppers aren't ripe right now. So?

The Dormans' homemade paprika was the mildest of their pepper mixes, with a smell and taste similar to that of a bell pepper but with a prick of heat so small that even the wimpiest of spice wimps could have handled it.

During a quick tour of the Dormans' garden, many of the paprika peppers were still green. But in the past, immature peppers weren't enough to stop the Dormans from making homemade paprika.

"I dried them anyhow and ground them up," Bill Dorman said, "and Ruth said they still have the same flavor as the red ones."

Where do your peppers grow?

According to Annette Ipsan, a horticulture educator for the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County, three groups of peppers grow well in the mid-Atlantic region:

Sweet varieties



Sweet cherry

Italian frying peppers


Hot varieties







Southwestern/Mexican varieties





Peppers: Fact or myth?

1. The hottest part of a hot pepper is the vein. Fact or myth?

2. Peppers are a fruit. Fact or myth?

3. There's no scientific way to measure the hotness of a pepper. Fact or myth?

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