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Growing Peppers 101

About this Vedge

The chile peppers we grow today originated in Central America and, thanks to early explorers, these fruits made their way around the world. Peppers are part of the large nightshade family of plants, like tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. There are hundreds of varieties of pepper plants that typically fall into one of two categories: hot chile peppers and sweet peppers.

How to Grow Peppers

Both categories of peppers are planted and grown in much the same way. Peppers are tropical plants that are perennial where the weather never freezes, but in our region peppers are grown as annuals. They’re planted well after the last average frost date.

Peppers are the second favorite fruit to grow, following tomatoes. In addition to the mild or wild flavor, peppers are easy to grow and they can be planted in vegetable gardens, raised beds, containers or even added to ornamental flower beds.

Here are some considerations when deciding which peppers to grow in your garden:

Hot Chile Peppers: Hot peppers get their heat from the seeds and veins that contain capsaicin, the flavorless compound that gives hot peppers their fiery intensity, measured in Scoville Heat Units. Every pepper has a different number of heat units on the Scoville scale from 0 (bell pepper) up to a 1,000,000 or more (Bhut Jolokia).

When choosing hot chile pepper varieties to plant in your garden, consider all the possible heat profiles, but also think about the flavor(s) you and your family prefer. Jalapeno peppers have a distinctly different flavor from Habanero peppers and each is used differently in cooking.

If you want to plant special hot chile peppers, like Tabasco or Cayenne, pay attention to the time to maturity to ensure there’s enough season for the peppers to ripen to their required red.

Some good hot chile peppers for home gardens include: Anaheim, Ancho, Apache, Banana, Basket of Fire, Bhut Jolokia ‘Ghost’, Big Jim, Burning Bush, Cayenne, de Arbol, Habanero, Hot Cherry, Jalapeno, Mariachi, Mirasol, Red Cap Mushroom, Sandia, Scotch Bonnet, Serrano, Sonora and Thai chile peppers.

Sweet Peppers: Sweet peppers were developed by plant breeders to produce a milder version of hot peppers. In addition to the familiar blocky sweet bell pepper, there are other types of sweet peppers for gardeners to grow. These include thin curved bull’s horn peppers, long ‘Cubanelle’ types, sweet banana peppers and sweet cherry or mini-bell peppers.

Most sweet peppers start out green and will eventually ripen to red, orange, yellow, brown or purple. If colorful sweet peppers are important to you, be sure to check the time to maturity and choose the peppers with the shortest number of days. Sweet peppers need time on the plant to be able to ripen to those deep colors.

Some good sweet peppers for home gardens include: California Wonder, Giant Marconi, Gypsy, Pepperoncini, Purple Beauty, Red Beauty, Sweet Banana and Sweet Cherry.

Prepare

Plan your pepper patch in the sunniest and hottest part of the garden or patio. Peppers are a tropical plant and they need plenty of heat. They also need a rich, well-drained soil, so add amendments like compost, well-aged manure or other organic matter into the planting spot. Peppers also grow well in containers.

In our region, peppers are planted as transplants. If you plan on starting your transplants from seeds, start them indoors at least 8-12 weeks before the danger of frost has passed. Some of the best practices for starting pepper seeds include strong grow lights and bottom heat from a plant heating mat. Avoid overwatering to keep seedlings healthy and avoid soil-borne fungal problems.

If purchasing your pepper transplants, look for healthy plants with bright green leaves. Remove any flowers or fruits before planting.

Plant

It pays to wait until the soil and weather are very warm before planting because pepper plants are sensitive to chilly temperatures. If too cold, they’ll stop growing and will wait for the right conditions to start again. Avoid this set back in growth by transplanting when the soil is at least 70 degrees and night-time temperatures are a reliable 55 degrees.

As an alternative, warm cool soil to the desired temperature with water-filled plant protectors (about a week before planting). The plant protectors will help keep the soil and plants warm to allow for earlier planting.

Space plants at least 12 inches apart in rows; rows at least 18 inches apart. Pepper plants can grow sturdy stems, but it’s a good idea to provide some type of support system, like a tomato cage or stakes, to help plants stay upright in windy weather.

Set up a drip irrigation system or soaker hose to help with watering. Watering by hand, keeping the foliage dry, is also a good option. Keep soil moist, but not soggy because soil that’s too wet will cause peppers to drop their flowers. Dry soil will also harm peppers, causing them to be susceptible to blossom end rot because of limited uptake of calcium from the soil.

Mulch around the pepper plants with an organic mulch, like dry untreated grass clipping, straw or dried shredded tree leaves. Mulch helps regulate soil temperature and cuts down on the need for weeding.

Maintain

Sidedress with a dry fertilizer when the plants are setting fruit. Sprinkle the fertilizer between the pepper plant rows, at least 6 inches away from plant stems. Rake the fertilizer into the soil and water.

Keep an eye on the plants as fruits are maturing. Peppers can suffer sunscald, which is like a sunburn and shows up as brown, papery spots on the pepper pods. To prevent sunscald, grow healthy plants with plenty of foliage to protect the fruits or use row cover cloth to shade the plants from intense sunlight.

Let the soil around peppers dry slightly between waterings. Peppers may drop their flowers when the weather is too cold, too hot or the soil is waterlogged.

Harvest

Peppers are ready to harvest once they reach a good size for the variety. Pick the fruit often to keep plants productive. However, if you want colorful peppers, allow more time for them to reach the desired color (a month or more after reaching their mature size).

Use pruners to clip the peppers from the plant, leaving at least ½-inch of stem. Be sure to support plants during harvest to avoid breaking any branches.

Peppers are versatile in the kitchen and can be used raw in salsas and salads; grilled to remove the skin and enhance the flavor; chopped and simmered into soups and stews; stuffed and baked or fried; pickled; made into hot sauce; canned; dried; ground into flakes or powder; and frozen.

When working with hot chile peppers, wear kitchen gloves to protect your hands and don’t rub your eyes!

Companion Plants for Peppers

Plant peppers with these companions:

  • Basil
  • Carrots
  • Eggplants
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Tomatoes

Avoid planting near:

  • Fennel
  • Kohlrabi

Materials for Success with Peppers

  • Soil thermometer
  • Soaker hose or drip irrigation system
  • High-quality compost or well-aged manure
  • Liquid and dry fertilizer
  • Organic mulch
  • Tomato cages or support
  • Wall o’ Water or other plant protectors
  • Row cover cloth
.