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How To: Chili Gardens

12/30/2009 3:45:48 PM

Tags: How To, Chili, Salsa, Recipes, Seasonings, Spices, Pepper, Tips, Patsy Bell Hobson

Patsy Bell HobsonPatsy Bell Hobson is a garden writer and a travel writer. For her, it's a great day when she can combine the two things she enjoys most: gardening and traveling. Visit her personal blog at and read her travel writings at 

Chili herbs and spices are easy to grow in the heat of my full-sun zone 6 garden. However, it is the impending snowstorm that has gotten me to start thinking about chili. As you page through the seed catalogs this winter, consider growing a salsa garden or a chili garden. Peppers are colorful enough to plant in a full-sun flower bed—not for the flowers, which are usually small, white and unremarkable. The foliage can be lush and the color variety of the peppers ranges as wide as the heat levels.

Nutrients in peppers depend on the variety and maturity. Both sweet and hot peppers are high in vitamins A and C. If you make your own chili seasoning, you will get many levels of taste and a lot less salt.

Chili con carne ingredients change according to the region and the cook.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons 

Start with ancho chili peppers, the key ingredient in chili seasonings. These rich and flavorful peppers have very little heat. I buy whole, dried peppers and crush them in a plastic bag for pepper flakes. The best way to crush any kind of dried pepper is to place them inside of a heavy plastic zipper bag. Then, smash the dried peppers.

Use gloves when working with peppers. Even the slightly hot peppers can burn. I can't say this enough: WEAR GLOVES. If you don't have gloves, put your hands in plastic produce bags or plastic zipper bags.

Capsicums are what make spicy dishes hot. Add chipotle, cayenne and/or jalapeno to the ancho in chili to give it spice and heat. Start with just a little hot pepper. It's easy to add more heat later.

1-4-2010-1   1-4-2010-2
Left: Dried poblanos (Capsicum annuum) are used in chili.
Right: Fresh and versitile, poblanos are used to make chili rellenos.
Photos courtesy
 Wikimedia Commons 

If you want to grow your own chili peppers, look for poblano pepper seeds or plants. Green anchos are stuffed and used to make chili rellenos. These triangular peppers are the dried version of the poblano chile—the most common dried pepper in Mexico.

To make your own chili powder, start with ground ancho chili pepper. Add cumin and Mexican oregano. Then, add onion and garlic. I use fresh onion and garlic because it is readily available, but you can use garlic and onion powder. Finally, add hot peppers to taste.

Here is a salt-free chili seasoning mix. This is a guide. Add more or less of any ingredient to make this your own special chili powder. With the rich flavors of your own chili powder, you won't miss the salt.

Chili Seasoning Mix

• 3 tablespoons ground ancho
• 2 teaspoons Mexican oregano, dried
• 1 teaspoon cumin
• ¼ teaspoon cayenne

Some chili recipes include tumeric, dried mustard, thyme, cinnamon or paprika. So don't be shy—chili is an easy dish to experiment with and learn about the depth and flavor of herbs and spices. Original Texas-style chili contains no beans or tomatoes, so be creative.

We will talk about other traditional Mexican herbs and seasoning to plant in a salsa or chili garden. Be on the lookout as those catalogs come rolling in.


How to grow peppers:

• AgriLife Extension 
• University of Illinois Extension 

Pepper seeds and plants:

• The Cook's Garden
• Renee's Garden Seed

Chili spices:

• Penzeys Spices 

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