The magic of serranos

Serrano chiles remind me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: When Goldilocks sampled those three bowls of porridge, she found one too cold and one too hot, but one was just right. That’s how I feel about chiles. Jalapeños don’t have quite enough sizzle for me and habaneros are way too hot, but serranos have just the right balance between pleasure and pain.

With their slightly fruity taste and delayed bite, serranos are ideal for fresh salsas like pico de gallo. You don’t really need a recipe; just chop up a few serranos and tomatoes, add some chopped onion and cilantro, squeeze in fresh lime juice, and add a dash of salt.

June is an ideal month to set out these warmth-loving plants in much of the West. Many nurseries offer transplants; the source below sells seeds. If you live in the low or intermediate deserts (Sunset climate zones 12 and 13), start seeds now but wait until August to set out plants.

INFO: Seeds of Change ( or 888/762-7333)


Full sun. In the desert, grow plants in a spot where they’ll get afternoon shade, or place shadecloth over them.

Fertile, well-drained soil. If you live in a cool-summer climate, grow chiles in containers or raised beds, or plant them through black-plastic mulch to boost soil temperature.

Adequate space. In the ground, place plants 18 to 24 inches apart. In containers, one or two plants are plenty.

Water. Keep soil moist, especially during flowering and fruiting. Spread mulch around plants to maintain soil moisture.

Fertilizer. Feed every three weeks with a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous formula such as 5-10-5.

Full-size pods before picking. Serranos are usually harvested green, but you can wait until they turn red. Snip pods off with scissors or pruners.

Growing options. Serranos are tender perennials. In frost-free climates, you often can get another season out of the same plants. In colder climates, start seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the average date of the last frost in your area.