Grow your own
Tex-Mex garden with herbs, spices and peppers

May 21, 2009

By Lupe Cook and Alyse Quintanilla/
Victoria County Master Gardeners

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon/
Victoria County Master Gardener
Photo contributed by Leticia Arrieta/Japalenos Mexican Restaurant
This mural at a Victoria Mexican food restaurant says it all for Tex-Mex culture.
Mexican food has increased in popularity - and Americans are now are eating four times more of it than 20 years ago, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Our taste buds are really changing.

Recent data from Information Resources Inc. also shows salsa sales have outsold ketchup, and Mexican food is now a $1 billion business in food, drug and mass outlets.


Peppers are an important role in authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines. You cannot cook these delicacies without herbs, spices and peppers.

Historically, chili peppers are associated with Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World. He encountered the plant whose fruit mimicked the pungency of a black pepper and named it "red pepper" because the pods were red. It was a routine at Grandmother's table to have a molcajete (mortar) filled with salsa, like today when you dine at a Mexican restaurant and are served salsa and chips while you're waiting for your order.

Varieties of peppers - Peppers are the most diverse and versatile of the garden vegetables used in Mexican cooking, with several species each offering a range of sizes, shapes and color. And of course, there are different heat levels for taste buds, from sweet and mild to medium or even fire hot. See the accompanying chart.

Pepper heat - In 1912, American chemist Wilbur Scoville invented the Scoville Heat Scale to measure the heat of peppers. Today, the system is more sophisticated, but pepper heat is now measured in Scoville units as defined by the amount of capsaicin present. More specifically, pepper heat is determined by the amount of capsaicin in the white partitions encompassing the seeds inside the pepper. The seeds also get hot due to close contact with these white partitions. Removing the seeds and white partitions will reduce the capsaicin (and heat) when cooking.

Nutrients in peppers - Peppers are healthy to eat; they are high in vitamins C, E, B1, B2 and B3. There are numerous ways to eat peppers including fresh, pickled, dried, grilled and stuffed. You can use them in salsas, sauces, soups, stews, appetizers, fried, jellies and most importantly, those tasty Mexican dishes.

Growing peppers - Why not grow your own? Peppers can be easily grown in a flower bed or herb garden. If you don't have a garden and are limited in space, you can grow them in pots on a balcony or patio. If grown in pots, place them where they get full sun, but monitor growth as peppers are prone to sunburn. Minimal foliage growth can be a result of too little water or fertilizer can cause sunburn. Texas summers can be blazing hot, so pay particular attention to their growing conditions.


Herbs have been foraged and used by many cultures for food and for their medicinal value. Many herbs used by ancient cultures are still used as food today and are popular in homemade teas, poultices and tinctures. Although spices were often traded for silver and gold in ancient times, today they are affordable and sold fresh or dried in stores and on the Internet.

Annual herbs - There are several herbs that you can plant annually for Mexican food dishes. Anise (Pimpinella anisum) and coriander (Coriandrum sativum) are annual herbs often included in Tex-Mex cooking. Plant anise seeds 18 inches apart in early spring. The plant reaches a height of 24 inches. Harvest the leaves for garnish and seasoning. Dry and store the seeds to use as flavoring when baking Mexican cookies and other dishes.

Coriander (cilantro) can be grown from seeds planted 24 inches apart in full sun or partial shade. It reaches a height of 24 inches and produces white flowers. The leaves of fresh coriander are used in salsa, pico de gallo, soups and salads. For best flavor in soups, add coriander leaves in the last 15 minutes of cooking. The seeds are ground and used in confections.

·Perennial herbs - Herbs that you plant once (perennials) and harvest year after year are also used in Mexican dishes. Bay (Laurus nobilis), onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum), oregano (Origanum vulgare), Mexican oregano (Poliomentha longiflora), sage (Salvia officinalis) and spearmint (Mentha spicata) are just a few herbs that can be grown in this area.

Bay leaves are taken from the bay tree, which reaches a height of 15-38 feet and should be planted 10 feet apart in full sun or partial shade. Bay is used to season soups, stews and seafood. Protect in winter.

Onion chives can be grown from seed or propagated by division in the fall. Space onions 12 inches apart, and thin them as necessary to keep them from overcrowding. Chives are used in salads, soups and salsas.

Oregano grows to 24 inches in height. Plant oregano seed cuttings 18 inches apart in full or partial sun. Oregano tolerates poor soils and makes an excellent ground cover. It is used to flavor taco meat, stews, soups and salsa.

Mexican oregano will grow to three feet in height. Plant four feet away from other plants in well-drained soil. It prefers full to partial sun and is used as oregano in recipes.

Another variety of oregano that grows in this area is Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus variegated), also known as Spanish thyme. It reaches a height of two feet and can be grown in full or partial sun. The leaves are quite fragrant when slightly crushed.

Spearmint will reach a height of 18 inches and should be planted 24 inches apart. It prefers sun, but will tolerate shade and can be planted in most soils. Spearmint is used to flavor salads, condiments, tea and mixed drinks.

Sage reaches a height of 18 inches and prefers well-drained soil. Plant seeds or cuttings in full or partial sun. It is used to season meats, poultry and sausage.

Try growing these peppers and herbs - and put a little Tex-Mex in your cuisine.
From sweet bell peppers in hot, bright colors (top row), to poblano, habaneros and jalapeno peppers (second row), to serrano peppers ( third row), and ancho, chile de arbol and guajillo peppers, each is used in Mexican food with varying degrees of heat and taste.

100-500: Very Mild - Sweet Bells, Pimiento, Sweet Banana, Sweet Cherry

500-2,500: Mild - Ancho (Poblano), Anaheim, Paprika

2,500-8,000: Medium Hot - Jalapeno, Guajillo, Cascabel

10,000-23,000: Hot - Serrano, Chili de Arbol, Hot Yellow Wax

30,000-50,000: Very Hot - Cayenne, Tabasco, Aji

50,000-100,000: Infernally Hot - Thai Hot

100,000-350,000: Atomic Hot - Habanero

350,000-580,000: Red Savina Habanero

855,000-1,050,000: Naga Jolokia

Source: Chile Pepper Heat Scoville Scale - Home Cooking
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at