Choosing Peppers to Grow

Whether you have never grown peppers or grow them every year, it is hard to decide which varieties to grow.  As most of us are limited by space, it works well to grow your favorites but try at least one new pepper every year.

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Your first decision needs to be sweet or hot?  If you decide to experiment with hot peppers your next decision is how hot.

The heat level of pepper varieties is measured on the Scoville Scale.  This can help you to determine which peppers you would like to grow.

  • Bell Peppers and Sweet Banana Peppers measure at 0 on the scale.

  • Pepperoncini, Pimento and Paprika measure from 1000 to 5000

  • Jalapeno Fresno, Anaheim and Poblano measure 25,000 to 75,000

  • Serrano, Cayenne and Tabasco measure 100,000 to 500,000

  • Habanero measure 800,000 to 2,000,000

  • And finally the Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion are in a manner of speaking, off the charts!

Of course not all peppers are hot.  There are many varieties to choose from in the Sweet Bell family as well as the Banana Peppers.  Gaging general tolerance for heat, even over 5,000 on the scale is acceptably spicy to most people.  The range of 25,000 to 75,000 begins to produce a bit of heat for the average person.  The range including the cayenne peppers, hungarians and serrano start to produce significant heat that many people are not comfortable eating.

The color of a pepper tells very little about what you can expect for flavor and heat.  A red bell pepper may be very sweet and a red hot pepper can be quite fiery.  Also note that many peppers develop through a range of color.  Most colored peppers start out green and mature to a completely different color.  When a pepper reaches its ultimate color at full maturity, its flavor is at it’s fullest.  So a Red Bell Pepper will reach it’s sweetest mild flavor when fully matured to red.  On the other side of the coin, a hot jalapeno pepper reaches its peak heat when it reaches full mature red color.   Remember in the north that our season is cut too short to allow some varieties to fully mature.  But even in zone 4 I have only seen it happen once or twice that spring was late and fall was early.  But try to select faster maturing varieties, likely carried by your local nursery.

With all that in mind, consider how you will use your peppers.  In some cases you may want to research recipes to determine just what you can do with an unusual variety.  But most of us will want some sweet peppers for salads, spicier peppers for sandwiches and pickling, and maybe some hot ones for salsa.  Do also consider some thin walled italian peppers that are wonderful to saute with a pasta.  Or maybe some minis to stuff for appetizers and snacks.


There is absolutely a pepper for every purpose, the varieties available seems endless.  Whatever your preference for flavor and heat, these suggestions for eating, cooking and serving up your garden peppers should get you started with creative uses for a bountiful pepper harvest.

Fresh Salad Peppers

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Sweet and mild peppers of any variety are excellent for slicing up for nibbling, tossed in a salad, layered into a sandwich or tucked into a wrap.  Any of the big bell peppers are perfect for fresh eating.  A green pepper will give you a nice strong flavor, yellow and orange very mild and sweet red bell peppers are rich and sweet.  These big bell peppers with thick walls slice up great for hummus dipping too.

And check out all the mini sweet bell peppers.  Great for snacking or tossed in a salad of course, but they are also perfect for stuffing with a soft cheese, hummus or herbed cream cheese.  Heaven with a glass of wine on a Sunday evening.

Peppers for Cooking

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I certainly hope you all realize how delicious grilled peppers are!  Any and all peppers are great tossed with oil and herbs and tossed into the grill pan over a hot fire.  Mild bell peppers pair nicely with chicken or fish, but try some with a little heat when you grill up pork or beef.  

Sweet Italian peppers are typically thin walled and elongated and great for roasting or saute dishes.  Often called frying peppers, they range from sweet to spicy.  Mexican frying peppers such as Poblano and Anaheim are a bit fleshier with mild heat.  Great for fajitas, chili, and just about any Mexican dish.  Pick whatever level of heat or sweet you enjoy to top a pizza.

Salsa Peppers

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Now you can turn the heat up to varying levels depending on your tolerance.  Jalapeno and Serrano are pretty standard for Salsa.  But there certainly are other crisp peppers ideal for turning up the heat in your salsa.  

Pickled Peppers

Peppers for pickling can be sweet, mild or hot.  The best for firm pickled peppers are typically labeled as such, so look for “best for pickling”.  Banana peppers and cherry peppers are of course most commonly used, but don’t stop there!  Try Jalapenos, pimientos, Carmen Sweet Italians, or a mix a peppers.  

Hot Pepper Sauces

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We cannot forget the hot sauce lovers of course!  You can make vinegar based condiments with hot peppers such as Chili, Cayenne or Tabasco, but to make a great hot sauce try thin walled peppers like cayenne or habanero.  

Drying Peppers

As a general rule peppers do not dry very well for eating and cooking, but do consider drying for use as a spice. Surely you already buy a variety of dried spice peppers such as Cayenne and Paprika.  There are many other peppers perfectly suited to drying for spice, just look for the term “seasoning” in the name or description.

Hot peppers seem to be prolific producers so unless you really eat a lot of fiery foods you may only need one or two plants.  You could also grow the hottest of the hots (the “Ghost” pepper) to use as insecticide and deer repellent!

Sharon Dwyer