Peppers, especially the sweet varieties, are a popular pick to grow in the vegetable garden. They are close relatives of tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and even tobacco, all being in the Solanaceae family. While tomatoes and potatoes are fairly easy to grow, peppers can be challenging in some areas, because they need a good deal of heat and sun to set and ripen their fruits. Pepper plants will sit in the garden and wait for the right conditions before they really start to grow. Gardeners in cooler climates may not see any fruits on their plants until the end of summer, which can be very frustrating.
Peppers in the Capsicum annuum species can be either hot or what we call 'sweet'. To be considered a sweet pepper, the variety needs to score near zero on the Scoville scale.
All peppers are short-lived tropical perennials that prefer moderately warm days and nights and do not really start producing until 2 months into the growing season.
Pepper plants all look pretty much alike, some taller and bushier than others. There the resemblance ends. The fruits of sweet peppers can be boxy, stocky, round, or long and thin, and in shades of green, red, yellow, orange, and purple.
- Leaves: Alternate, lance-shaped leaves.
- Flowers: White or yellow star-shaped flowers.
- Fruits: Fruits begin forming 2 to 6 days after the flowers drop. The shape and size will depend on the variety being grown; from stocky bell to elongated banana.
Peppers, sweet peppers
Peppers are tropical perennials, usually grown as annuals, so you won't see them listed with a USDA Hardiness Zone. However, since they are perennial, you can bring plants indoors in winter, as houseplants. You may even get some peppers.
As a tropical perennial, peppers are heat-loving plants, Be sure to put them in a spot that gets full sun.
Soil: Peppers are not terribly fussy about soil. They like a good amount of organic matter, good drainage and a neutral soil pH of about 6.0 to 6.8.
Planting: Gardeners with long, warm growing seasons can direct seed peppers once the ground is warm and not too wet. In shorter season zones, you will need to start seed indoors or purchase seedlings.
Peppers are slow starters. Start seed 8 to 12 weeks before your last frost date. Seed can take a while to germinate, although sweet peppers are usually faster than hot peppers. Using some type of bottom heat, either with a heating pad or simply placing the flats on top of the refrigerator, will speed germination. It will also dry out the soil faster, so remember to water.
When the seedlings are about 6 weeks old, they should have their first true leaves. Transplant them into larger pots (about 3 inches) and continue growing indoors.
Harden off the seedlings before transplanting in the garden. Sweet peppers are long season plants but don't rush them. They are very susceptible to cold. Transplant after all danger of frost and once temperatures remain reliably above 50 F.
Transplant about 1 inch deeper than they were growing in their pots. The base of the stems will send out small roots, making stronger plants. Space 14 to 18 inches apart.
Pepper plants grow slowly when temperatures are below 55 F and they may lose flowers and/or leaves. Warming the soil with black plastic or covering the plants with a floating row cover will allow you to plant a bit earlier.
Water: The most important thing you can do for your peppers is to make sure they get regular water. Drought stress will cause their flowers to drop. (They will also drop their flowers in prolonged cool weather, extreme heat and low humidity.)
Feeding: Start with rich, organic soil. You can feed your pepper plants when you plant them and again when the first flowers appear. Use a well-balanced fertilizer labeled for edible plants. Many gardeners add a small handful of Epsom salts to the soil at planting, as a magnesium boost.
Staking: Some pepper plants are sturdy enough to stand on their own, without staking, but when you have a heavy set of fruit, the plants can bend and break from the weight. Staking will also keep the fruit from touching the ground.
It depends on the variety of pepper you are growing and the weather, but most begin producing within 65 to 75 days from transplant.
Harvest sweet peppers when they reach the preferred size or color. If you like green peppers, go ahead and pick them at any time. The more you pick, the more the plant will set.
They will not reach their full color until fully ripe. If you prefer ripe peppers, you will have to wait longer and you will get fewer peppers, which is why red, yellow, and orange peppers cost so much more in the store.
Cutting is the best method of harvesting peppers. You can snap the stem off the plant, but very often you'll take the whole branch with you. It's safer to snip them off, with a bit of stem attached.
Pests and Problems
- Cutworms can slice off young plants at ground level. You can prevent this by collaring the base of the plant with a tube of some sort (toilet paper tube, bottomless yogurt cup, etc.) or simply placing toothpicks on either side of the stem.
- Aphids and thrips can infest older plants and carry viruses such as tobacco etch virus (TEV), cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) and potato virus (PVY). Destroy infected plants. Symptoms include crinkled leaves or especially narrow leaves. Control the insects to prevent spreading the virus and choose resistant varieties.
- Bacterial diseases sometimes come on transplants. Symptoms include stem cankers and leaf spots. Destroy affected plants.
- Blossom end rot can affect pepper fruits. Regular watering will help prevent it.
- Sunscald can cause thin, papery spots on the fruits. A good leaf cover will protect them.
There's no shortage of sweet pepper varieties to grow and more are being introduced every year. Experiment and see which become your favorites. Here are some to get you started.
- "Ace" F1: Early, prolific and hardy bell peppers.
- "Bull's Horn" aka "Corno di Toro": Long and tapered to a point. Spicy without heat. Red and yellow varieties.
- "Giant Marconi": 2001 AAS winner. Long, boxy bell pepper. Very sweet.
- "Jimmy Nardello": Prolific, long, narrow and extremely sweet.
- "Sweet Banana": Thin-walled and great for frying.
- "Yummy Bell": Elongated, golden bell pepper. Very sweet.