|By Jay White
Each season one particular vegetable seems to outdo all of the rest. Last year, the award for most amazing production in my garden went to the poblano peppers. I planted three poblano transplants in early April. By late May the plants had grown to about three feet and were beginning to provide me with a steady supply of tasty and spicy peppers. These plants produced well through the heat of July and August. Then, when the temperature dropped slightly in September, pepper production skyrocketed. After that I began harvesting (and sharing) a grocery bag full of peppers every week from those three plants.
I know not everyone loves hot peppers — but I do. I am pretty certain that I did not eat them as a small child, but I honestly cannot remember a time when hot peppers were not a regular part of my diet. In fact, I just about refuse to eat chicken without a couple of pickled jalapeños on the plate. As much as I love eating them, I have never really understood why. It just seems illogical to me to purposely put something in my mouth that is going to make my brain think my tongue is on fire (and this is literally what happens to your brain when you eat hot peppers). However illogical it is, I still stick hot peppers in my mouth several times a week.
It is fairly common knowledge that capsaicin is the chemical in peppers that makes them hot. However, the whole burning-mouth thing is a little more complex than that. Capsaicin belongs to a family of chemicals that bind to very specific receptors on the tongue called VR1 receptors. These receptors are a key part in the system that allows our body to detect heat and cold. So, when capsaicin binds to one of these heat receptors, our temperature-sensing system sends a message to our brains telling them that our tongues are on fire!
Now I am not one of those people who like extremely hot peppers. In fact, that is why I have become so fond of poblanos. While they have enough heat to let you know you are eating a hot pepper, they fall between pimento and jalapeño peppers on the Scoville Heat Chart.
The poblano pepper originated in the state of Puebla, Mexico. It has become a very popular pepper throughout Mexico. Most of us gringos learned about these peppers when we ordered our first chile rellenos. Poblanos are often used in molés, and each year they help Mexicans celebrate their independence as the green ingredient in the red, white and green dish called chiles en nogada. Poblanos are sold both fresh and dried. In their dried form they are called ancho chiles. The dried ancho is often much hotter than the fresh poblano. Because of this, the dried peppers are often ground into a spicy chili powder that is used in many dishes.
There are three ways to grow peppers. The easiest and fastest way to enjoy fresh poblano peppers is to buy transplants. Peppers are in the same plant family as tomatoes. Because of this, pepper transplants show up at your local nursery, feed store or big box at the same time as the tomatoes. In my part of Texas, vegetable transplants start showing up on dealer’s shelves in late February or early March. While that is a little too early to plant them, I recommend buying your transplants at this time. The transplants are at the peak of health when they first arrive in the stores and they sell out quickly. To ensure you get the varieties you want buy them as soon as they arrive in the store. Once you have them, take them home and repot them in at least a 6” pot. Keep them in a warm, sunny place and feed them every other week with a diluted liquid fertilizer or fish emulsion. Do this for a month and by April you will be able to plant a fairly large plant that will often be covered in flowers. In Central Texas you can plant pepper transplants from the middle of March through the middle of May. I prefer to wait until April to plant my transplants. Like tomatoes, peppers need warm soil to stimulate their growth. March temperatures can be unpredictable. However, by the middle of April temperatures are stabilizing and soil temperature is beginning to warm.
If you prefer to grow your own transplants, then you can start seeds inside about three months before soil temps reach 70 degrees. For me, this is early January. I regularly grow several varieties of tomatoes and peppers from seed. I use special planting trays that have little indentions that hold those dried peat pellets that expand with hot water. To start my peppers I make sure the pellets are fully expanded and then I use tweezers to put three seeds in each pellet. I then place the clear lid over the tray, place in a sunny window and wait.
Pepper seeds can take 10 to 14 days to germinate. I leave them in the trays until the end of February. At that time I take little scissors and cut out the smallest plants, leaving only the sturdiest. I move the plants into large Solo cups. I use a lighter or a soldering iron to burn drainage holes and then I fill them with a high grade potting mix. Once they are in the pots, I move them under the fluorescent lights of my grow center. By March we are getting more and more warm days. At this time I repot my plants into bigger containers and get them ready to go into the garden. To harden off the little plants, I place the tray in a large, clear plastic storage bin. This bin allows me to water with abandon and the sides of the container protect my tender seedlings from wind damage.
Sometime in early April, when soil temps are right and nighttime temperatures are staying above 60 degrees, I plant my pepper transplants. It is not unusual for my pepper plants to already have several flowers on them by this time. Peppers require full sun. They also need at least an inch of water per week and a well-drained soil that is very well worked with organic matter. If the soil, sun and water are right, you can expect to start harvesting your first peppers 45 to 60 days after transplant. Peppers will produce well until temps go above 90 degrees. Then their production will fall. If you add more organic material at this time and continue to water, your peppers will continue producing right up to the first freeze. Last year, we had no real freeze in Brenham, and Houston did not receive a freeze at all. Because of this, I have heard from several of my gardening friends who swear they got two years of pepper production from the same plant.
While I have never tried it, it is technically possible to grow your peppers from direct planting in the garden. However, direct-sown pepper seeds will not germinate until the soil warms up to about 70 degrees. Because the soil does not warm to 70 degrees in most parts of Texas until at least April, direct-sown peppers will not generally start producing fruit until the fall.
Poblanos are ready to harvest when they are 4” to 6” long and their skin has a glossy sheen to it. Technically, poblanos at this stage are immature. That is fine, though, because they are less hot when they are green. However, if you want to dry or smoke your poblanos, leave them on the bush until they turn red. If you leave them long enough they will eventually begin to shrivel and turn a deep purple.
A ripe poblano will snap right off into your hand when it is ready to be picked. However, pepper limbs are brittle and if you try and pull a pepper that is not ready you can get a lot of foliage along with the pepper. For this reason I always use a sharp pair of shears or scissors to harvest my peppers.
Aphids, cutworms and hornworms can all be a problem for peppers. Aphids can be controlled by regularly applying a good shot of water to the underside of the leaves. Cutworms can be controlled by “wrapping” the stems of the young plants in cardboard. Simply cut a toilet paper or paper towel roll into three-inch sections. Split these up the sides. Loosely wrap this around the base of your plants after transplant. Stick an inch or so of the tube into the ground and leave an inch or so above ground.
Hornworms are always a double problem for me. I know they can wipe out my tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. However, they are the immature form of the hummingbird moths that I love to watch feed on my datura. Regardless of my fondness for hummingbird moths, I pull all hornworms that I find and quickly squish them. If you have a bad infestation, you can apply Bt, but it is really only effective if applied when the caterpillars are small.
While jalapeños were my first hot-pepper love, poblanos have now replaced them. They are not as hot as jalapeños, they taste better (in my opinion) and they are much more versatile. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my pickled jalapeños. However, when my wife and I cook at home, we now substitute poblanos for jalapeños in all of our recipes.
One thing we often cook is stuffed bell peppers. The last time we made them we used poblanos instead of bells. The results were outstanding! For us, summertime is grill time. Now, when we grill our burgers, we also grill poblanos. We cook them until their skins blister and then we remove the skins. Place this on your burger with a little cream cheese and you have a burger that will make your friends beg you for the recipe.
Because we have chickens, we eat a lot of omelets. To make our new favorite omelet we cook a couple of poblanos in a little hot oil on the stove and then mix them in with our sautéed onions and tomatoes. The flavor and the heat from these peppers make our omelets (and breakfast burritos) truly outstanding.
Poblano peppers are easy to grow and they produce well. They are also fairly resistant to pests. While they are technically classified as a hot pepper, their heat falls somewhere between a banana pepper and a jalapeño on the hotness scale. Plus, they taste great whether you serve them fresh in a salad or cooked into your favorite recipes. If you have never grown them before, give them a try. These great-tasting, spicy peppers just might become your new favorite too!