If you’ve ever stood in the produce aisle and gasped at the price of peppers, you’re not alone. Tasty peppers—especially those beyond basic green bells—can be expensive. Couple that with the fact that peppers are one of the easiest plants to grow, and you’ve got an easy choice for this summer’s garden. In their glorious array of bright hues, peppers are worth growing for beauty alone. They’re also nutrient powerhouses, chock-full of disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants and among the richest natural sources of vitamins A and C. Keep reading to learn about how to grow peppers successfully.
If you hope to grow rare varieties, which include some of the tastiest peppers, you’ll want to start plants from seed two to three months before your last spring frost date. (Find your date and learn about starting seeds in "Garden Planting Guide: When to Plant Seeds and Seedling for Your Region.") Start seeds indoors in a warm (about 85-degree), sunny location with lightly moist soil. Pepper seedlings benefit from being transplanted into a larger container before going into the ground. Harden seedlings off by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions for about a week before planting.
You can also buy pepper transplants from a garden center or mail-order supplier. Either way, you want to plant seedlings outdoors a couple of weeks after any danger of frost has passed; peppers planted too soon will be stunted. If your growing season is short, don’t delay planting. Peppers like a long season and plenty of sunshine. You can grow peppers in every state, even Alaska, but in cooler areas, use row covers to heat up plantings and choose fast-maturing varieties (check “days to maturity” on labels—most sweet peppers mature more quickly than hot peppers, often in 60 to 90 days). All peppers are perennials, so you can pot them up and move them to a sunny spot indoors in fall, where they will survive winter and leaf out again in spring.
Dig planting holes so buried plants will sit about an inch deeper than they were in their starter pots. Set plants about 1 1/2 feet apart with 1 1/2 to 3 feet between rows. Peppers also grow well in containers, provided they receive plenty of sun. All varieties benefit from regularly moist soil enriched with finished compost. High Mowing Organic Seeds recommends using a high-phosphorus organic fertilizer when transplanting (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium content are labeled on fertilizers). Don’t use high-nitrogen fertilizer on pepper plants, as it can reduce yields. Professional pepper grower Susan Welsand recommends dissolving a tablespoon of Epsom salts in a gallon of water to spray on leaves every couple of weeks, which will help with fruit setting—especially once temperatures are high. Pepper grower Joe Arditi recommends fertilizing with an organic fish emulsion spray every other week (on weeks you don’t use Epsom salts). Karyn Bischoff and Nick Nickens of Stargazer Perennials say the secret to great hot peppers is calcium, which they supply in the form of bone meal worked into the soil every couple of weeks through the growing season.
Nearly all peppers start out green (a few varieties start light purple or yellow) then graduate to white, yellow, orange, red and sometimes dark purple or black. As they mature, many flavor and nutritional compounds increase. So eat them green (or at any other stage) if you like, but you’ll get more bang for your buck if you wait. If you want bright red peppers earlier in the season, grow varieties with fewer days to maturity such as Lipstick and Gypsy bell peppers. Be quick about harvesting the first few fruits; it will encourage increased production.
To save seeds from open-pollinated peppers (the type that will replicate parent plants), simply select the largest seeds and let them air-dry completely. Always store saved seeds in a cool, dark, dry place such as in opaque seed packets inside a lidded jar in the basement.
When choosing pepper varieties to grow, first decide whether you want sweet, hot or a variety. Sweet peppers (bell, pimento, frying) come in a range of shapes, sizes and colors. The smallest varieties are easiest to grow. Hot peppers (jalapeño, cayenne and habanero) run the gamut from smoky chile flavor with a little kick to potentially harmfully hot. Here’s what a handful of pepper aficionados had to say about their favorite sweet and hot varieties:
The Fish pepper is probably the most striking pepper plant you will ever see, with green-and-white variegated leaves and fruits that feature “racing” stripes down the length. In the late 19th century, fish peppers were featured in fish sauces from Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., and they came largely from the gardens of African-American cooks.
—Kurt Michael Friese, Kraig Kraft and Gary Paul Nabhan, coauthors of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail
Jalapeños’ thick flesh makes them great for stuffing, roasting and grilling. Try sweet Cubanelles for a pepper that grows quickly. The Butch T. Trinidad Scorpion pepper is tasty and, at more than 1,450,000 Scoville heat units, is the “Hottest Pepper in the World,” according to the June 4, 2011, Guinness Book of World Records. For beauty, I like White Habanero, Bolivian Rainbow and Peter Pepper. An outstanding hot pepper for frying is Italian Long Hot—it’s delicious on sandwiches and pizzas.
—Joe Arditi, aka Pepper Joe, professional pepper grower
My favorite pepper is Arrivivi Gusano, or little worm, from Bolivia. It is quite hot but has marvelous flavor. I also like the citrusy taste of the Peruvian aji peppers: aji limon, aji pineapple and lemon drop. Mole chiles are good for a milder flavor. Chilhuacles and pasillas are mild mole chiles.
—Susan Welsand, aka The Chile Woman, professional pepper grower
For sweet peppers, try fast-maturing Gypsy, Ace, Sweet Banana or Lipstick bell peppers and deliciously sweet Carmen frying peppers. For hot peppers, try Anaheim and Holy Mole Southwestern chiles, and the ultraprolific Early Jalapeño and Hungarian Hot Wax.
—Barbara Pleasant, contributing editor and author of a dozen gardening books (many of which are available at the Natural Home & Garden shopping site)
Our favorite sweet peppers are Jimmy Nardellos, beautiful foot-long peppers that grow on compact plants. For medium heat, we like the heirloom Georgia Flame, a heavy producer of 6- to 8-inch-long red peppers that make great salsa. Our favorite hot pepper is Cyklon, which is hot with a delicious aftertaste.
—Karyn Bischoff and Nick Nickens, professional pepper growers, Stargazer Perennials
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