Gardeners with a serious love of spice should consider planting and growing habanero peppers. These peppers can measure between 100,000 to 450,000 on the Scoville scale, the scale used to measure capsaicin, the spice in peppers. As one of the hottest chili peppers around, these small red or green peppers can add both some spice and color to any garden. While habaneros can grow larger than many chili peppers, such as jalapenos and cayenne, they can start off finicky as seedlings. Don’t worry, though—once established, these perennials will continue to produce for years to come. Here’s how to care for habanero pepper plants.
How to Get Habanero Peppers Started
The majority of the United States does not have the adequate climate to grow habaneros all year long. Most plants will need to be started indoors as seeds, but getting an adequate temperature and the right amount of light to these indoor seedlings can be tough, but once the environment for the peppers is right, these peppers will take off.
If starting a seedling indoors, plant the seeds six to 10 weeks before the last frost in your area. Make sure that the growing plants are situated in a place where they will receive a large amount of sunshine. If artificial lighting is being used, the peppers will need at least 16 hours of light a day.
The container the seeds are planted in will need good drainage. Overwatering a habanero plant can change the taste of any peppers the plant produces. Overwatering can lead to overly bitter peppers, so make sure to only water the baby pepper plants when the soil is dry. The seedlings will most likely need to be transplanted a couple times. Once there are six to eight leaves on the plants, they should be separated and put into larger containers.
Once the threat of a frost has passed, a seedling will need time to get used to being outdoors before it is moved there permanently. The plants should be placed in direct sunlight for only one hour on their first day outdoors. Slowly increase the amount of time the plants spend outside every day. Once the plants are spending a majority of the time outside, they can be planted into an area with strong morning sun and slightly acidic oil. The transplanted peppers should be placed 18 inches apart, and holes should be cut in black plastic mulch to fit around the plant. This will help keep competing weeds away while keeping the soil around the plant warm.
If the plants are purchased already grown instead of cultivated from seedlings, the procedure for getting them settled in garden beds is similar. It is important that the habanero plants, no matter their origin, are planted outside only after there is no chance of frost. An underdeveloped habanero plant that has not been given time to root will be killed immediately once frost temperatures hit. These plants love a warm climate.
How to Keep a Habanero Plant Healthy
The most important care tip for habaneros is to make sure they do not get too much water. Overwatering can lead to blossom end rot and other fungal diseases. Make sure to water the plants infrequently but deeply. Wait to water habaneros until the soil around them is completely dry.
If the ends of the peppers start to rot, the plant is suffering from blossom end rot. This disease is caused by a calcium deficiency and can be treated by limiting the amount of overhead watering you give the plant. To counteract the rot, water deeply—not from overhead—during the blossoming period. Its best to avoid overhead watering to begin with, no matter the circumstances. While habaneros are not especially susceptible to fungal infections, they can fall prey to them, so avoiding overhead watering can help your plants avoid fungus.
While these plants do enjoy warmth and sunshine, like all peppers, they can suffer from sunscald. If the peppers start to split, that’s is a sign of sunscald. Usually, a plant’s foliage will protect it from the direct sunlight that can cause this problem, but habaneros are still vulnerable. The cracking of the fruit can allow bacteria or fungi into the pepper. If this happens, remove them before they become soft, and they should still be okay to use. If you have concerns, do not hesitate to throw any questionable peppers away. Habanero plants don’t usually have any problems producing a bountiful yield, so a lack of harvest should not be a major concern. If your peppers are falling prey to sunscald, row covers will help keep the sun at a more manageable level for the plant.
There are not any pests that are known to infest habaneros, but gardeners should still watch for insect problems. If an insect looks like it might be problematic, a good blast from a hose is usually all that is needed to remove them. A mild insecticidal soup can also be applied if you are especially concerned about pests.
Habaneros should start getting fertilizer at six weeks old. One fourth of a cup of nitrogen per plant every two weeks should be about all the fertilizer these plants need. Start about six inches away from the plants, and slowly work the fertilizer into the soil.
What to Do With a Producing Habanero Plant
Habanero peppers can really be picked at any time, regardless of color. When the fruits are green, they are not as spicy. Waiting until later in the growing season, when the plants are red or orange, will guarantee a spicier pepper. Allowing the peppers to mature allows to them to gain spice. The fruit is good no matter what color it is when picked, but make sure that all peppers are removed from the plants before cooler temperatures arrive.
These peppers can be stored in a cool dry place for up to three weeks, but you may choose to halve and dry them. Alternatively, you can roast and freeze or pickle them. Habaneros are a versatile pepper that can be used in any way a gardener or chef can think of in the kitchen.
While habanero pepper plants can be finicky to get started, the payoff is incredible. These high-producing plants are easy to care for, yet they can add a pop of color to any garden. They don’t easily fall prey to insects and pests, though they can be susceptible to easily corrected issues, such as blossom end rot or sunscalding. If you have any doubts about growing habaneros in your area, a local nursery or garden center will be able to answer any questions this article hasn’t addressed.
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Abbie Carrier graduated from Texas Woman’s University with a Bachelor’s of Science in history and a minor in political science, and she is currently working on a Master’s of Arts in arts administration from the University of New Orleans. With this degree, she hopes to gain a position in museum curation, and she currently works as a grant writer for nonprofit organizations. She enjoys writing about the arts, history, politics, and topics related to science, health, lifestyle, and entertainment.