Something you may not know about me is that I love spicy food. My tabletop spices are salt and red pepper flakes, not salt and black pepper. When I make dishes for potlucks and gatherings, I have to change almost all of my recipes so I don’t accidentally ruin someone’s day with my hot pepper addiction. So yeah, I take my spices very seriously.
Knowing this, it’s probably no surprise that I have a giant planter full of cayenne pepper plants crowding my walkway. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: You don’t actually have to love spicy food as much as I do to benefit from a cayenne plant or two in your garden.
Cayenne peppers have a magical ingredient called capsaicin, which is basically the stuff that burns your mouth off when you bite into one. Spicy peppers evolved to have capsaicin as a way to ward off fungus and a number of would-be herbivorous predators. It backfired with humans because we’re kind of crazy.
Just because this defense mechanism doesn’t work on us doesn’t mean it can’t still work on everything else. Most mammals and many insects are repelled by capsaicin. I’ve written about using pureed peppers in a mixture to repel aphids, but you can also sprinkle powdered cayenne pepper on your plant’s foliage to repel squirrels, a number of insects, deer, rabbits, cats, dogs and more. It, of course, is not a cure-all, and animals that are desperate enough to brave the pain can still disrupt your garden.
Beyond being a natural repellant for your garden, capsaicin has been used in pain relieving topical creams for some time now to treat joint, tendon and back pain. Studies have also shown it can assist with digestive health. Or you can just make pickled peppers, hot sauce and spicy stir-fry with your cayenne. Whatever floats your metaphorical boat.
The thing about these peppers is they’re incredibly easy. They are an annual like most food crops, can be grown from seed or bought as seedlings at the farmers market and take very little work. Just give them lots of sun, keep them from drying out, and stake them when they get big. That’s about all there is to it. I like to give them a little fertilizer once they’re established, but they’ll do fine without unless you have particularly poor soil.
So what do you do with all of them once they start fruiting? I recommend hanging them up and drying them. I just harvested about 50 peppers over the weekend, and stringing them up took about an hour all told, which is a lot more hands-off than many of the other options.
With their thin walls, peppers will rarely suffer from mold issues while they dry. All you need is a needle, some floss or strong thread, and your peppers. I also wear latex gloves, because you will inevitably get pepper juice on you, and the capsaicin in it can irritate your skin.
After you’ve harvested the peppers and washed them, thread your needle and double it back so you have a little more strength for your string of peppers. Take a pepper and push the needle through. Some people like to put it through the stem, but putting it through the pepper itself is much easier; and once they’ve dried, you can easily cut the thread away.
I push the needle through, come around and push it through again. This prevents the peppers from sliding down your thread as they dry. Give yourself about an inch of space and thread another pepper. Rinse and repeat until you’ve reached the end of your thread. I usually get about 10 to 15 on a strand. Make sure you leave a little tail at each end so you can tie the strands together or hang them up.
Next, you hang them. If you hang them up outside while it’s sunny, they’ll take about two weeks to dry. Sounds like a while, I know, but they retain their best color and flavor if you let them air dry. Plus they’re super cute. Just make sure you bring them in if it rains.
You can also hang them inside by a sunny window. They can take up to a month to dry there, but you won’t have to worry about it raining on them. Once dry, store the peppers in airtight containers, where they can last for up to 5 years. (Though you get the best flavor in the first 6 months or so.)
When you’re ready to use some, you can grind them in a food processor or coffee grinder to make red pepper flakes or cayenne powder. The powder is what I use to sprinkle on my plants to deter pests. They can also go whole into stir-fries and soups to add some kick.
They say that variety is the spice of life. I say spice adds variety to the garden. So give those pepper plants a chance!