Round Robin: Stretching the Light

Wyoming gardener Pat Herkel needs more daylight hours to work with chile peppers in her garden.


Content Tools

RIVERTON, Wyoming — Even with the longer days of spring, there are still not enough daylight hours to finish my gardening chores. I could borrow my daughter’s camping headlamp and work into the evening, but my back and legs protest.

Seedlings started under lights are hardening off in the greenhouse, and the garden has been tilled and raked. My most pressing task now is to dig the grass and perennial thugs such as asters and clary sage out of the borders. When it’s too cool to take a break in the shade of the porch, I find myself sitting in the greenhouse contemplating the future harvest.

Although we’ve talked about reducing the size of our vegetable garden, it just expands further as we succumb to the lure of the seed catalogs. The greenhouse is filled with seedlings of varieties whose descriptions were too tempting to pass up.

Chile peppers have become a favorite. Our growing season is too short for habañeros, but there are plenty of other fiery varieties that mature earlier. The hottest we have grown is ‘Bulgarian Carrot’. A friend, sure we exaggerated about its intense heat, popped one into his mouth and turned bright red as tears streamed down his cheeks. I can only nibble the point of one of these peppers, but my husband eats them, feeling the sweat drip down his neck. For those of us who can’t tolerate the burning heat of thousands of Scoville units, these bright orange beauties also add a decorative touch to the garden, wreaths, and flower arrangements.

The hot, pungent flavor of ‘Thai Dragon’ is outstanding in Asian stir-fries, and the 3-inch-long, half-inch-wide red chiles brighten up Christmas wreaths.

‘Czechoslovakian Black’ produced well in our garden, and the erect fruits developed a delicious spicy flavor. They ripened from dark purple to black but never achieved the promised “Ferrari red.” They, too, are worth growing for their ornamental value.

‘Jalapeño’ has thick, crunchy walls and pleases palates that enjoy heat without mouth-numbing fire. Stuffed “poppers” are our favorite “I-don’t-feel-like cooking-a-meal” dinner. Instead of re-creating the deep-fat-fried version that many chain restaurants offer, we stuff the chiles with low-fat cream cheese, cheddar cheese, thyme, and oregano, roll them in beaten egg white and bread crumbs, then bake them until the cheese melts and the tops brown. Delicioso!

‘Super Chile’ is my favorite all-around chile. The plants are compact and extremely productive. The intense flavor of the 2-inch, bright red fruits enhances stir-fries and other spicy dishes. They dry easily and may be fashioned into shiny, colorful wreaths that last for years.

Although it’s easy to freeze chiles for winter use, we like to dry them in flats and then grind them in the food processor, taking care not to inhale the fumes. The kitchen smells hot for hours after making a batch. A sprinkle of the flakes adds flavor to any dish but is especially good in salsas.

Cilantro and tomatillos are ideal complements to chiles. They reseed freely in the garden, a real bonus in the busiest time of the gardening season. Because volunteer cilantro bolts long before peppers or tomatoes ripen, I like to make succession plantings of the slower-to-bolt cultivar ‘Santo’.

Anticipating garden-fresh additions to the dinner table always lightens my spring chores. Rewards of the moment include discovering emerging shoots of parsley, chives, sage, tarragon, and other early starters.

Hmm, maybe I will borrow that headlamp after all.