This is the first post in an ongoing series featuring “grow-your-own” produce and how to make the most of it this summer. Our hope is to demystify the process … help your “green (or maybe not-so-green) thumb” emerge … have some fun, particularly with the kids hanging around your house or neighborhood this summer … and help everyone understand how their food comes to be!

We hear you…“Gardening tips from a soup company?” Hey, we’re foodies – for us, food is endlessly fascinating and we think the more you know, the better you will eat; the better you eat, the better you’ll feel. Pretty simple notion and one that is fundamental to New England Country Soup … so let’s go play in the dirt and have some fun!

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,

How many pecks of pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick? 

Did you know that Peter Piper might have been named for a real-life government officialPeter Poivre (the French word for “pepper”) who supposedly wanted to cultivate spices in the French Seychelles (western Indian Ocean) during the 18th century? Whether that is true or not (we happen to like the story though), using peppers as a spice is a tried and true culinary trick, one we happen to employ ourselves. Try your hand at spice cultivation this summer by growing a few basic pepper varieties in your own garden with these simple steps and guide to growing the sweetest or spiciest peppers for your own kitchen.

Bio: The Pepper, genus Capsicum

Origins: Mexico, California, Central and South America

Although we label various edible ingredients under the term “pepper” (spicy peppers, peppercorns, ground pepper, etc) the only variety that can grow in your garden falls under the botanical genus Capsicum. This group contains peppers which are actually flowering plants related to the deadly nightshade family. And, while these peppers aren’t of the poisonous variety, they sure can vary in heat. This is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) a 0-2,000,000 scale perfected by a scientist of the same name in the early 20th century.  We like to use a few basic peppers in our own natural soup including jalapenos (2,500-10,000 SHU), Anaheim peppers (500-5,000 SHU), and red and green bell peppers (0 SHU).

Planting: 

Whether you are working in raised beds, porch or window pots, or even a small plot of earth, peppers are an easy gateway vegetable customizable to you and your family’s heat tolerance. 

How to Buy: When purchasing a pepper plant, look for a smaller, sturdier plant or plant-pack void of any fully formed peppers and preferably void of any flowers or buds. The leaves should be clean, firm, and a vibrant green.

Plant Prep: Once you’ve selected your preferred pepper – try one of our favorites above or look through your local market, nursery, or garden store for unique and flavorful varieties – consider your planting arrangement. Just as you would preheat your oven when baking or prepping your ingredients before cooking, assessing your planting space and readying the soil is a key to gardening success.

The Details:

1. Till or lightly toss any old soil and break up any large clumps. Add water if soil is dry. If you are adding new soil to a box or pot, make sure you are using organic made-for-edibles soil types (lawn soils and flower mixtures are created with those plants in mind and include pesticides and other chemicals you wouldn’t want in a home cooked meal).

2. Take the pepper package and gently squeeze the lower end of the plastic container and slowly pull around the base of the plant from the other end. The plant should slide out complete, but it’s okay if a bit of soil remains in the container. Break up the roots with your fingers as if you were gingerly combing through tangled hair, trying to separate, but not break.

3. Dig a 3-5 inch well depending upon your plant and tuck the plant in, filling in the sides with extra soil, and level the base of the plant with the soil line in your container or garden bed. The plant should be level with the ground, rather than lower or built up on a mound. Pat the ground surrounding your plant to ensure a safe base. Pop off any lingering buds or flowers. This will allow the plant to concentrate on growing its roots and sort through the ground without giving up too much energy to flowering or growing new buds.

Space the remaining pepper plants about 4 inches (or the width of your flat hand) away from the first one. If you are using round terra cotta pots, a single pepper plant per pot works best.

Post Planting:

– Water your peppers frequently, so that the soil is consistently barely moist to the touch, but never soggy. Pepper plants like full sun, so keep them there!

– Depending upon your pepper variety, the fruit will mature in anywhere from 60-90 days. And, once they start bearing fruit (yup, peppers are a ‘fruit’), the more you pick the peppers as they grow the more your plant will produce.

– Peppers will willingly fall into your hand if they are ready to be picked. In other words, when you cup your hand around a pepper it should quite literally break off the plant with little effort. If after a few tugs the pepper remains attached, leave it for another day or two and try again later.

In the Kitchen: 

Store peppers in a bowl or basket in a cool dry place, but not in the refrigerator! 

So what can you do with your new natural homegrown peppers? Well, almost anything. We like to use peppers in our soups to impart a deep earthy flavor or a spicy kick instead of adding any additional salt. Try one of these great ideas below, or come up with some of your own!

– Roasted Peppers on the BBQ

– Fresh Salsa and Pico de gallo

– Spicy Pepper Jelly

- Fresh Pepper Salad

– Jalapeno Popper Grilled Cheese Sandwich

– Spicy Pickled Peppers

– Meat Stuffed Bells

– Roasted Bell Pepper and Walnut Dip

- Roasted Red Pepper Soup

– Chiles Rellenos

– Pepper Infused Olive Oil (only if you have planted the “hotter” peppers … reds or greens with 0 SHU’s do not work well; they look good but do not add much taste)

And, if you find yourself in a true plethora of peppers, you can always bundle up a few with a quick note and leave a happy, healthy surprise on your neighbor’s front step. Share the wealth and stay tuned for the next issue of “In the Soup Garden”!