Starting pepper seeds indoors has to be my favorite gardening task.
There’s something about planting pepper seeds inside when it’s too cold to be in the garden. It somehow reassures me that warmer days are ahead. I get daydreaming about all the colorful fruit the plants will bear to decorate the garden during the summer. And as I deposit each little seed into a starter pot of organic potting soil, I almost can taste that first, crisp bite of a sweet pepper in a salad or a hot pepper in a salsa.
Much of the joy of planting pepper seeds comes from choosing which seeds to plant, and I have a candy store of Capsicum annuum cultivars from which to choose. Peppers range on a scale from candy sweet to fiery hot and come in countless variations of size, shape and color.
Each year, we devote an entire 4’x8’ raised bed to pepper plants, and plant even more in containers in sunny spots around the garden. With that much room, I easily could have 12-16 different varieties each year if I wanted. But I usually limit myself to eight or nine cultivars and double- or triple-up on the ones I use most. If I have a lot of one kind of pepper leftover from the prior year (preserved by drying), I may take a year off and try something new.
Eight peppers I am growing this year
Here’s a look at the pepper varieties I am growing in my garden this year and the reasons why I selected them.
1. Ancho Gigantea
This Mexican pepper cultivar with a rich flavor and medium heat is a staple in my garden every year. The heart-shaped fruit is known as poblano chile when it is glossy and green. Fresh poblanos are great roasted, stuffed, or used in sauce. In the classic Mexican dish chiles rellenos, roasted poblano peppers are stuffed with cheese, battered with an egg coating, and fried until crispy.
When the fruit of the Ancho Gigantea ripens to red and is dried, it is referred to as an ancho chile. Ancho chiles often are crumbled into flakes or ground into powder. I grow ancho peppers every year because they are a key ingredient in my award-winning chili.
Fun fact: Over the last 15 years, my homegrown ancho-loaded chili has won in multiple categories at the annual Blues and Buffett Chili Challenge charity fundraiser.
Habanero peppers are small, lantern-shaped chiles about an inch in length that ripen to a deep orange color. They are among the hottest peppers in the world, so take care; a little habanero goes a long way. But if you brave the heat, you will be rewarded with a delicate citrusy flavor that is delicious in fresh tomato salsa or marinades.
If not eaten fresh, habaneros may be dried, ground into a powder, and used as a spice.
Habanero plants always seem to start slowly, but once they start going, they produce prolifically. Just one habanero plant in my garden last year produced well over 100 chiles, way more than I ever could use. I ended up trading a large bag of habeneros for some andouille sausage from the local sausage maker.
Fun fact: My homegrown habanero chiles have made their way to tables across Eastern Iowa in the form of artisanal habanero sausages from the Sausage Foundry.
Jalapeño plants produce a slightly tapered fruit that is about 2-1/2 inches long with a blunt end. Jalapeño peppers often are harvested when still green but will turn bright red if allowed to ripen. They have medium heat – hotter than anchos but not nearly as hot as habaneros – but the degree of heat can vary among cultivars.
Jalapeño peppers often are used in Tex-Mex cooking, pickled, or stuffed and fried. My favorite use for fresh jalapeños is salsa.
Fun fact: Mature jalapeños that have been smoked and dried are known as chipotles.
4. King of the North
King of the North is a sweet bell pepper variety developed for northern gardens with short, cool growing seasons. King of the North peppers do well in my Zone 5 garden, and I have grown them for a number of years. The thick-walled fruit can be harvested when green or allowed to ripen to a deep red color that is almost too pretty to eat. But definitely do eat them! Mature bell peppers are sweeter and lack the sharp taste that some people find off-putting in unripe green peppers.
I like to eat King of the North peppers raw in salads or cooked in stir-fry dishes, casseroles, and stews. If I have too many to eat fresh, I chop them up and freeze them in vacuum-sealed bags to add color to my cooking throughout the winter.
5. Orange Bell
Another sweet, mild pepper I grow every year is the orange bell. Like other bell pepper varieties (including King of the North), this cultivar bears a large, bell-shaped fruit with four lobes and thick skin. The fruit may be harvested and used when green or ripened to a bright orange color.
Orange bell peppers are delicious eaten raw in salads or as crudités with dip. When roasted, they develop a deeper, richer, almost caramelized flavor.
Fun fact: As they ripen, bell peppers develop higher levels of vitamins A and C and beta-carotene.
You might mistake a paprika pepper for a tomato at first glance. Paprikas are sweet, round peppers that ripen from white to light orange to deep tomato red. I have been growing the Alma Paprika variety from Seeds Savers Exchange for several years now, and it has become one of my all-time favorite pepper cultivars.
When fresh, I like to use paprika peppers in cooking the same way as bell peppers. They are one of my favorites for making stuffed peppers. Any peppers that don’t get used fresh get dried and ground for homemade paprika spice.
Fun fact: Paprika spice often is associated with Hungary because it is a basic ingredient of the classic Hungarian dish goulash. It’s also used in Spanish cooking and is a key ingredient in chorizo sausage.
The pizza pepper is a sweet Italian variety with just a little bit of heat. The fruit is about four inches long with tapered, conical shape and ripens to a dark red.
As the name suggests, pizza peppers often are used as a topping for pizzas. They also are great for slicing and frying. Pizza peppers have thinner flesh than bell peppers which is probably why they usually are among the first peppers to mature in my garden.
8. Sweet Chocolate
I don’t have a picture of this one because it’s new to my garden this year, but the image from my Amazon affiliate link (see disclaimer at the bottom of this page) shows you the milk chocolate color that gives these peppers their name. I’m excited to give this sweet pepper variety a try. It’s supposed to mature earlier than most other peppers and be great for cooler climate where the growing season is short.
Do you grow peppers? What are your favorite varieties? Please share in the comments section below.