Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 9.20.07

Hot Stuff
Chilis are coming on strong

When I visited Todd Berger and Annie Paschall earlier this summer to talk about peaches (EW, 7/12), Todd led me through the greenhouse to show off row upon row of vibrantly healthy pepper plants. “You should do a story about chilis,” he said. Then I learned that the chilis would be coming on strong when his Suncrest peaches ripened. Need I say more?

Chili peppers clearly have an important role in Todd and Annie’s diet. They grows four varieties of the habanero type alone: flavorful but ultra-mild Trinidad Perfume, yellow when ripe; Habanero, medium hot, orange in color; Hot Paper Lantern, with pointy, red fruit; and rounded Caribbean Red. Both these reds are hot. “Caribbean Red is the hotter of the two” Todd says, “but Hot Paper Lantern is much more productive in cooler climates than other habaneros.”

Manzano is a specialty chili pepper, similar in heat to a serrano. Todd doesn’t remember where he got the seed. (Most of his peppers are open-pollinated, not hybrid, and he saves seed from year to year.) With fuzzy leaves and purple flowers, the tall, open-growing Manzano plants stood out from all the other peppers in the greenhouse. Todd likes to eat the globe-shaped fruits when they are half green and half yellow. His favorite way to treat fresh jalapenos and Manzanos is to core them, taking out the stem end and seeds, “chuck in a chunk of feta cheese” and grill them slowly over low to medium heat until the skin is black and puffy. Peel back the skin and eat. Wow. Todd has made some ingenious wire racks to hold these little peppers so the cheese won’t fall out when it melts.

The medium hot poblano (or ancho) is a familiar mainstay of Mexican food. While still green, poblanos are used for stuffing. Dried poblanos are known as anchos, and they are ground to make chili powders. Todd grows the sweet, thick-fleshed hybrid Tiburon from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

While I admired the peppers on the vine, Annie put some anaheims on the grill. She doesn’t care for very hot peppers, but she really likes anaheim chilis, which pack just a little bit of heat. “I put them in everything,” she said. Todd grows Numex Joe E Packer from Johnny’s. It has a thicker wall, he told me, so you get more weight with less work. When the skin on the anaheims was partially charred on each side, Todd transferred them to a steel bowl and covered them with a cloth to steam. After a brief cooling period he demonstrated how the skin just slips off these grilled peppers. The grilled anaheims were destined to be pureed, frozen in ice-cube trays and the blocks stored frozen, in quart plastic bags.

When it comes to sweet peppers, Todd prefers Italians to bell peppers. He grows three varieties that ripen (in this order) to red, orange and gold. Annie has already been putting up red and orange Italian sweets. She doesn’t bother to peel these thin-skinned peppers.They are hard to peel and don’t really need it, she says. She pickles them in jars in a mix of vinegar, sugar and water with some garlic cloves. Pickling is easier than the pressure canning that this low-acid item would require, and she and Todd enjoy the acid tang.

Todd also grows a ribbed, flattened true pimento named Round of Hungary (it looks like a miniature red pumpkin) with very thick flesh. “You can grill pimentos, too,” he said, “and they will peel up fairly easily.” I can vouch for this. A complete novice, I successfully grilled and peeled a couple of these at home for a lentil salad. I thought they were about the best-tasting peppers I have eaten.

Todd and Annie’s peppers grow in a big hoop house covered with two layers of translucent horticultural plastic, inflated with a small blower (the motor is smaller than a hair dryer.) Inflation keeps the layers apart, providing insulation, and also prevents the plastic slapping in the wind. The soil is prepared with composted chicken manure. The plants are fed twice more during the growing season, with seaweed/fish emulsion and worm compost. Irrigation is accomplished with “leaky hoses” on a timer, set for 20 minutes a day.

The results are astounding — I’ve never seen larger or more productive pepper plants.

If you don’t have a greenhouse, Todd suggests trying plastic mulch. (Red colored plastic is supposed to reflect back the red spectrum to help the fruit ripen.) But if you are serious about growing your own food, he says, you should consider a greenhouse. “It makes such a difference.”    

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at