By Rosalind Creasy and Heather Kibble/The National Garden Bureau
In the garden and at the table, peppers come packed with potential. The handsome plants are compact and tidy, perfect for gardens of any size and containers, too. Best of all, growing peppers is easy!
The colors, shapes and tastes found in peppers at the average supermarket are only the beginning of the group’s possibilities. Bell peppers can ripen to ivory, pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and brown. These sweet peppers come in many shapes, too: the elongated banana, the blocky bell, the half-long bell, flat “cheese” varieties and smooth cherry types. Hot peppers can be red, orange, yellow, green, purple, brown and black, with smoky, nutty or fruity heat.
Where to Grow Peppers
For the most part you'll be best growing peppers in the full sun, but if you live in a very warm area look for varieties touted to have “good coverage of fruit.” A full leaf canopy will protect from sunscald. (Scalded fruit, although less attractive, is perfectly edible and flavorful.) Peppers need rich soil and good drainage. They grow best in a location where plants from the same family (Solanaceae) have not recently grown; crop rotation is important when growing peppers and tomatoes and eggplants, their cousins. Allow 18 to 24 inches between plants.
Pepper plants take well to growing in containers, where they often stay small but usually mature earlier. Each plant should have a two-gallon or larger container, deeper than it is wide. A young plant will look a little lonely at first but will grow to fill the container quickly.
How to Plant Peppers
Peppers can be started from seed, though they can be slow to get going. Sow them indoors in a warm spot about 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost date. Keep the soil warm (at least 75˚F) and damp. Do not transplant the seedlings until days are at least 60˚F and nights remain above 55. If you’re buying transplants from a nursery, look for young, bright green plants with shiny, perky foliage. Older plants can become stunted and root-bound in their tiny starter containers and will not transplant as well as smaller, younger plants.
If your transplants are starting to produce flower buds, pinch those off at planting and continue to do this for a week or two. This forces the plants to put their energy into growing leaves and roots. Mulch with two to three inches of organic matter to keep weed growth down and maintain soil moisture. Stake varieties that will grow taller than two feet. To avoid problems with cutworms, which can chew young seedlings off at the soil line, place two-inch-tall cardboard or aluminum foil collars around the new plants—with one inch below soil level and one inch above.
Tending Pepper Plants
Keep the plants lightly moist but not soggy. Pull weeds if they appear. Feed the plants with an all-purpose water-soluble fertilizer about six weeks after transplanting and again if the plants start to look pale or the leaves are small. Stop fertilizing once the plant blooms so that it can put its energy into growing peppers.
Plants will continue to bloom and set fruit until the first frost. If temperatures rise above 90˚F by day or below 60 at night, flower set and fruiting may slow down. Keep the plants watered and wait out the weather—they often will rebound if conditions improve. Sometimes pollination is poor; you can do the job with a paintbrush or cotton swab. At the end of the season, cut down and remove plants and add mulch or plant a cover crop for the next year.
Pepper Pests and Diseases
Pepper plants are generally healthy, but they can suffer from a number of viruses. The most common is tobacco mosaic virus, which causes mottled yellow leaves and misshapen fruits. There are no cures for viruses so the plants must be destroyed.
Pests are an occasional problem among peppers; watch out for aphids in particular, which may cluster on the tips of branches. Besides sucking plant juices, deforming the leaves and stealing energy from the plant, they can also spread the abovementioned viruses. A strong spray of water from the garden hose can knock aphids off the plants.
That said, avoid foliar problems by keeping the leaves as dry as possible by drip-line watering. If you water from above, do so early in the day to give the plants time to dry in the sun. Proper spacing will also guard against disease and improve airflow. Proper air circulation improves pollen distribution, which is needed for fruit set.
Sweet peppers can be harvested at any stage of maturity. Less mature peppers will generally be green or pale yellow, smaller and crunchy, with thin walls and a slightly tart flavor. A benefit of harvesting early is that it triggers the plants to produce more fruit.
Mature sweet peppers will change color and develop thicker walls and a mild sweet flavor. Harvest hot peppers once they feel firm and get a glossy sheen. Most turn from green to yellow, orange, red or brown when fully ripe. Individual varieties are considered most flavorful at different stages. For instance, in Mexico, jalapeños and serranos are preferred green, while cayenne types are picked at a ripe red.
No matter the stage of harvest, cut the peppers from the plant with clean pruners or kitchen shears to avoid damaging the branch. The capsaicin that gives hot peppers their heat burns the skin and eyes, so always use caution when handling them. Capsaicin is produced primarily in the veins/placental tissue of the pepper, but an especially hot variety can cause problems even when you’re harvesting. To protect your hands, use disposable latex gloves. Don’t touch your face near your eyes, mouth or nasal passages.
How to Increase a Pepper's Heat
Heat varies by variety, but it is possible to control the heat to a degree with climate, growing method and timing of harvest:
- Peppers cultivated in a hot climate with days in the 95ºF range are spicier than those grown where days are in the 70s.
- Drought-stricken chilis are hotter than those grown with lots of water.
- If you yearn for spice but are growing peppers in a cool climate, cover the soil with black plastic mulch or grow peppers in containers on a concrete or brick patio in full sun.
- To turn up the fire, keep the water and nitrogen fertilizer to a minimum.
- Alternatively, if you prefer milder peppers, keep the plants well watered—but not soggy—and provide afternoon shade in hot climates. In general, the riper the pepper, the hotter it is.