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desert gardening basics
January, 2013, Page 130
DESERT GARDENING 101
The tongue twister says, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” With the diversity of chile pepper varieties now available to gardeners, that peck may be filled with a crayon box of colors—green, orange, purple, red, russet, yellow, even black and dark brown. Pepper shapes and sizes range from tiny round balls to chunky bells, dangling earrings, stubby cones and thin, elongated fingers.
For many gardeners and cooks, a chile pepper’s color and shape take a back seat to heat. Scoville Heat Units (SHU) measure the relative heat of peppers, ranging from bland bell peppers (0 units) to hot, hot, hot habañeros (210,000 units) to the current heat record-holder, Trinidad Moruga Scorpions “I think this pepper is burning a hole in my esophagus” (1.2 million units).
Fruit set for pepper plants is dependent on nighttime temperatures. According to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, the ideal range for pepper set is between 65 and 80 degrees F. When night temperatures stay above 86 degrees F, pepper plants stop setting fruit. Most pepper varieties mature within 90 to 130 days. Because low-desert gardeners have a relatively short spring season before the summer heat arrives, it is best to choose varieties that will mature in the shortest number of days.
Sow seeds indoors in a sterilized seed-starting mix 8 to 10 weeks before transplanting outside. Germination may take 14 to 30 days. Enhance germination by maintaining soil temperatures of 80 to 90 degrees F. University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension suggests transplanting peppers outdoors from Feb. 15 to March 30 in the Phoenix area.
Before transplanting outdoors, “harden off” seedlings for 7 days by setting them outside in a protected location for 1 to 2 hours, gradually increasing for longer periods. Prepare a garden bed that receives 6 to 8 hours of full sun daily by amending soil with 4 to 6 inches of compost or well-aged manure, turned under to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. Mix a complete fertilizer such as 5-10-5 into the planting area. Alternatively, grow peppers in containers with good-quality soil mix.
Peppers in the Landscape
Chiltepins, a wild chile variety found growing in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, are perennials that produce very tiny, very hot peppers for many years. Plants may reach shrub-size, creating a well-adapted, low-maintenance addition to edible landscapes.
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