This article was originally published in the Austin-American Statesman
With the hot summer weather in full effect, only a few vegetable varieties continue to offer up their bounty. Some squash varieties will continue to ripen with enough water, and okra and beans don’t seem to mind the scorching temps. Peppers, both mild and hot, are one of those heat-loving crops that will produce a high yield with little effort and can withstand the hot summer months. Many vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, although alive, will reduce flowering and setting fruit when temperatures get above 90 degrees. After the weather cools a bit in September, the plants will set more fruit and you can continue to harvest throughout the fall.
Unless you have a greenhouse or are able to start seeds indoors when it is still cold, purchase pepper plants as transplants from a local nursery. The planting time for peppers in Central Texas is mid-March through mid-July when the soil temperature is at least 70 degrees. There are mild (or sweet) varieties like Golden Bell, California Wonder and Jupiter and hot varieties like Jalapeño, Long Red Cayenne and Habanero that all grow well here. They thrive best in well-drained soil with at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.
Consider your likes and cooking habits when selecting varieties and number of plants. If you like fresh, mild peppers for salads and snacking, plant multiple bell pepper varieties. If you like to add heat to your dishes, one or two of your favorite hot varieties should suffice. However, if you love to add peppers to your cooking and find that you have an overabundance of fruit, there are lots of ways to keep and use those peppers throughout the year.
Pick your peppers when they are green, or wait until they turn orange or red. They will be sweeter or hotter when they are red, but picking fruit when green will encourage the plant to set more fruit. To harvest, use a sharp knife or shears to make a clean cut on the stem. Leaving some stem on the fruit will enhance storage capacity.
If you find yourself with a plethora of peppers, there are many ways to store and use your harvest throughout the year. Always wear rubber gloves when working with hot peppers as the oil can penetrate your skin and can cause irritation, especially to the eyes. Pickling peppers is a good way to enjoy the flavor and crunch of peppers in cool, tangy brine for a side dish at a picnic or part of a pickle plate for an appetizer. Another option is drying chili peppers, which is a very common practice in Central and South America. Drying peppers removes the moisture from the fruit, allowing it to store at room temperature for months and condensing the heat and flavor. Ground or pureed dried chilies add a fiery punch to sauces. You can use a food dehydrator or oven to dry chilies, or dry them indoors or outside by just laying them flat in the sun or hanging them on a string. If you are drying them indoors, make sure the room is well ventilated, as the evaporated oil can irritate eyes.
Finally, if you leave a few fruits on the plant to over-ripen and shrivel up, you can collect seeds from the fruit to save and replant the following year. It’s very easy once the fruit is mature. Simply remove the seeds from the fruit and lay them out to dry, then package them and keep them dry until the following spring when it is time to plant.