By Matt Gibson
Bell Peppers are native to Central and South America. They were brought to Europe by explorers around the time of Christopher Columbus, and have been cultivated all around the world ever since. Bell peppers are warm weather perennials which are commonly grown as annuals in cool climate areas. Bell pepper plants grow to four feet high and two feet wide, producing fruit which is typically three to four inches long.
Bell peppers are often harvested prematurely when they are green, however, if left alone to mature, they will turn red, orange, yellow, purple, or brown, depending on the variety. Most bell peppers turn red when they mature, but there are plenty of varieties that offer a rainbow of other bell pepper colors to choose from. There is actually no difference between red bell peppers and green bell peppers, other than the amount of time they were allowed to mature on the plant. Red bell peppers were given more time to mature, which alters their color, increases the amount of vitamin C, and increases the sweetness of the fruit.
Unlike their spicy siblings, bell peppers do not contain capsaicin, a compound that gives hot peppers their signature heat and pungency. Hardy to USDA hardiness zones one through 11, bell peppers are relatively easy to grow, though temperature is a very important, and sometimes deciding factor.
Varieties of Bell Peppers
There are tons of different varieties of bell peppers that gardeners can grow in their home gardens. Here are some of the best options to help you narrow down your choices a little.
Carmen Sweet Pepper – Tapered Carmen peppers are a type of bullhorn pepper from Italy. They turn from green to deep red upon maturity and grow to six inches long. They are especially good when fried.
Cupid Sweet Pepper – Cupid peppers can be harvested when they are still green in 55 days, or if you want them to be sweet and either orange or red, let them mature for 75 days.
Sweet California Wonder Bell Pepper – One of the most popular bell pepper varieties is this 1928 heirloom cultivar. These large, four inch block peppers mature to a deep red hue.
Cabernet Sweet Bell Pepper – Turning from glossy green to red as it matures, this cultivar produces very sweet-tasting elongated eight inch-long fruits. The Cabernet Sweet Bell Pepper plant is also resistant to tobacco mosaic virus.
Good As Gold Italian Pepper – These Italian peppers boast a complex flavor profile that is both sweet and savory. Maturing from green to orange, the Good As Gold Italian Pepper Plant grows three foot high and produces seven inch fruits that fully mature in 70 days.
King Arthur Sweet Bell Pepper – This cultivar produces large four to five inch globular bell peppers early, in just 60 days. Whether harvested when green, or allowed to ripen to bright red, the peppers are always sweet and crunchy.
Gypsy Sweet Pepper – This classic variety produces four inch tapered sweet peppers that change from golden-green to orange or red when ripe. Great for stuffing and roasting.
Sweet Sunrise Sweet Pepper – Harvest these peppers in 65 days for dark green fruits, or wait 85 days for yellow-orange peppers. This variety produces fruity, sweet, and medium-large sized peppers. Grows well even in Northern gardens.
Intruder Sweet Pepper – This big, thick, chunky pepper stays green upon maturation, and is well-adapted to Northeastern and Midwestern gardens, and is resistant to phytophthora, a blight that causes plants to suddenly wilt and die.
Candy Apple Bell Pepper – An early fruiting pepper, the Candy Apple cultivar produces seven inch peppers that are especially sweet. Bright green five inch peppers turn candy apple red upon maturity.
Golden Bell Pepper – Reaching maturity and turning from green to yellow in 65 to 75 days, this bright golden yellow-colored bell pepper is extra crunchy and slightly sweet.
Islander Sweet Pepper – One of the rare purple colored bell peppers, the Islander Sweet Pepper has a pale lavender skin that becomes darker as it matures. They have a mild, slightly sweet flavor.
Lunchbox Sweet Pepper – Lunchbox peppers come in an organic seed mix that includes three different varieties of sweet, mini-sized peppers that mature yellow, orange, and red.
Gourmet Sweet Pepper – The sweet and fruity Gourmet Sweet Pepper have vibrant orange skins, and grow on compact plants that are surprisingly hardy and adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions.
Sweet Chocolate Sweet Pepper – One of the few peppers that turn brown when mature, these stubby-ended peppers have a mild and delicate flavor.
Other popular bell pepper varieties that turn red when mature include Lady Bell, Bell Boy, Blitz, Bayonet, Galileo, and Lipstick sweet pepper varieties. Some other popular orange varieties are Milena, Garfield, Horizon Orange and Orange Sun peppers. For purple sweet peppers, try growing Purple Beauty, or if you want a cultivar that stays green when mature, try growing Touchdown or Antebellum bell peppers. Lastly, commonly grown bell pepper cultivars that turn yellow upon reaching maturity include, Golden California Wonder, Moonset, or Mama Mia Giallo sweet pepper varieties.
Growing Conditions for Bell Peppers
Bell peppers thrive in full sunlight locations, but prefer daytime temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees F. If it gets hotter in your area, you may want to provide some afternoon shade to protect the plant from flower drop, misshapen fruits, and scorched leaves. Night time temperatures should stay above 50 degrees F.
Bell peppers need a well draining soil that’s preferably a mix of loamy and sandy. Peppers need lots of nutrients, so a soil that’s rich in organic matter is ideal. Additional organic matter can be added as a mulch or top dressing. Soil pH isn’t too important, as bell pepper plants will adapt to soils with different pH levels, but the ideal pH range for bell peppers is between 5.5 and 7.0.
For the best possible fruit production, keep the soil around your bell pepper plants evenly moist throughout the growing season. Soil that is too wet or too dry will cause a decline in fruit production and can also affect the overall health of the plant. It is especially important to make sure that your bell pepper plants get plenty of water when they are in bloom or in the process of producing fruit. Generally one to one and a half inches of water per week is plenty for bell pepper plants, but more may need to be provided during especially hot or dry weather.
Once you have selected a planting site for your bell peppers, prepare the soil for planting by mixing in plenty of organic matter like composted manure to increase fertility and water retention capability. Before planting, treat the soil with a low nitrogen fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, to encourage your plants to use their energy for fruit production.
How to Start Bell Pepper Seeds
Bell pepper plants should always be started indoors as their seeds require warmth in order to germinate properly. It is easier to control the temperatures inside your home and provide a steady temperature for your bell pepper seedlings in an environment that is not subject to random fluctuations in weather. Fill a seed tray with a well-draining potting soil or seed starting mix and put one to three bell pepper seeds in each container in the tray, planting each seed about ¼ of an inch deep. Use a warming mat or place the tray in a warm location, keeping the seeds between 70 and 90 degrees F during germination. The warmer the temperature, the quicker the process will be.
It might also be helpful to cover the tray with plastic tarp to keep the warmth and moisture trapped inside the seed tray and help you keep an eye on moisture levels . Keep the soil in the tray moist at all times. Water droplets will form on the underside of the plastic tarp. These drops will let you know that your seeds are getting plenty of water. If the drops stop forming, it’s time to water your seeds again.
You should start to see shoots of green bell pepper seedlings start to emerge from the soil within a couple of weeks. When your seedlings become a few inches tall, carefully move them into their own separate small pots. Once the weather outside starts to warm up, you can begin to get your seedlings adjusted to the outdoors by exposing them to the outdoors for a little bit each day, gradually increasing the amount of time outside every day.
This process, known as hardening off, will help your bell pepper seedlings transition from the comfort of your indoor climate to the ever-changing climate outside. Top dressing the soil around your seedlings with fertilizer occasionally will also help them adjust to the move. When the garden has warmed up and your young bell pepper plants have reached eight inches tall, it is safe to transfer them to the garden full time.
How to Transplant Young Bell Pepper Plants
Start hardening off your bell pepper seedlings about 10 days before transplanting them outside. Once nighttime temperatures in your area reach at least 60 degrees F, transplant them outdoors into your garden beds or into large containers, spacing each plant out 18 to 24 inches apart. Plant the transplants no deeper than they were in their small pots. Planting the young bell pepper plants too deep in the soil will make their stems more susceptible to rot.
Soil temperatures should be at least 65 degrees F. Bell pepper plants will not survive transplanting if the soil temperatures are colder than 65 degrees. If you live in the north, or in a cool climate area, you can warm up your soil before transplanting by covering it with a black plastic tarp. The black plastic will attract the sun’s rays, naturally warming up the soil below. The plastic will also work to trap the heat inside the soil below.
Care for Bell Peppers
Bell peppers don’t need a lot of personal care to succeed, but just a little bit of attention can go a long way towards ensuring that your pepper plants have all the resources they need to grow vigorously and produce lots of healthy fruit for you to harvest.
The soil around your pepper plants should be well drained and consistently moist. Help improve moisture retention by adding a layer of organic mulch around your plants. Provide one to two inches of water per week between rainfall and manual watering. Keep in mind, peppers are extremely sensitive to heat. If you live in a warm or desert climate, watering your pepper plants everyday may be necessary to keep the soil from drying out.
Fertilize your bell pepper plants after the first fruit has set using a low nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10 to encourage fruit production. This should be the second fertilization, the first addition being during the preparation of the soil prior to planting. Watering after the first fruit has set will give your bell pepper plants a boost to encourage healthy fruit production. Weed carefully around plants and avoid disturbing roots during weed removal. If you haven’t already added mulch, add a layer after removing weeds. If you already had mulch in place, you might want to consider adding another inch of mulch to discourage any weeds from trying to grow back up after removal.
Another important part of bell pepper plant care is providing support. There are a few varieties of bell peppers that do not need support, as the plants are large enough and strong enough to support the weight of the fruit without needing cages or stakes to hold themselves up. However, most varieties will require some form of support to prevent bending.
When needed, provide cages or stakes to offer support to your pepper plants. The cone-shaped wire tomato cages that are widely available at plant nurseries and garden centers are perfect for pepper plants. Fallen branches can be used as stakes, or you can even build your own garden supports.
Bell peppers are in the Solanaceae family, also called nightshade plants. Bell peppers share disease and pest issues, as well as nutritional need with other nightshade family members, including tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. Planting nightshade crops in the same location season after season will lead to a depletion of the essential nutrients in the soil, as well as a buildup of soil borne pests and diseases that commonly affect nightshade plants. For these reasons, it is especially important to practice crop rotation, never planting nightshade plants in the same location season after season.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Bell Peppers
Poor draining soils and overwatering can dramatically affect your bell pepper plants. Root rot and phytophthora blight, a fungal disease that causes permanent wilt, are both common diseases that can affect bell pepper plants if you have soggy soil issues.
Another disease which bell peppers are susceptible to which is caused by moisture stress is blossom end rot. Blossom end rot can be spotted as dark sunken areas on the fruit. Aside from moisture stress, blossom end rot is sometimes the result of calcium deficiency issues, which could be caused by a lack of calcium in your soil, or by low soil pH, or even damaged roots. Rot issues are usually the result of overwatered or soggy soils, however, so make sure that your soil is draining properly before transplanting your young bell pepper plants into their beds.
Pests that are commonly found on bell pepper plants include aphids, spider mites, stink bugs, flea beetles, and cutworms. There are a few easy ways to deal with these common garden pests. Spraying them with a strong stream of water and knocking them off of the plants is often enough to handle small numbers. Often, simply hand picking and squashing unwelcome garden guests is all that needs to be done to handle minor infestations. Sometimes horticultural oil sprays are necessary to handle larger infestations.
The best way to avoid pest issues is to practice crop rotation and to maintain healthy plants and provide an optimal growing environment. Check your garden weekly at a minimum and be ready to handle any concerns that might arise. Invite natural predators and beneficial insects to your garden, such as birds, butterflies, praying mantises, and ladybugs. These garden friends will help you keep pest populations down to a minimum.
How to Harvest Bell Peppers
When it comes to harvesting bell peppers, you have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing when to harvest your peppers. You may choose to pick them early, taking them off the plant as soon as they turn green, or you may decide to let them mature to their final color. Letting them mature will allow their flavor to develop and sweeten, and will make for much prettier harvests.
However, you don’t have to harvest all of your crop at once. Each pepper plant will produce about six to eight peppers at one time, depending on the variety. Whenever you do decide to harvest your bell peppers, instead of pulling the fruits off by hand, cut them off from the plant using a pair of sharp clean scissors or gardening shears so as not to damage the stem during removal.
The minimum ripeness that you have to wait for is for your peppers to turn green, full-sized, and firm to the touch. At that point, full maturity can take three weeks or longer for the full color to develop. Once the peppers have fully matured, they will be sweeter and have thinner walls, but they will also have a shorter storage life expectancy. If you wait too long, they will turn mushy and go bad on the vine.
If you choose to wait until all of your peppers reach their final color, you will likely only have one harvest. If quantity is more important to you than quality, you might want to harvest your peppers more frequently when they first begin to mature. This will allow more time and energy to go into subsequent crops. If you can’t decide, you can always plant two of each pepper plant and allow one to mature while consistently harvesting the other one.
How to Store Bell Peppers
The riper the pepper is when you harvest it, the shorter the shelf life will be in storage. If you let your bell peppers mature fully before harvesting, it is better to eat them as quickly as possible after harvesting. Peppers will ripen slightly if you leave them on your kitchen counter for several days, and then begin to go bad rather quickly. But if you keep your freshly harvested peppers in the fridge, they will last for one or two weeks.
You may also choose to slice up your peppers into small pieces and freeze them. They won’t have the same crispy bite that they did when they were fresh, but they will still have a nice flavor, and will work in recipes that call for cooked peppers. Frozen peppers should be used within one year for optimal quality. You might also choose to dehydrate your peppers for prolonged storage. To dehydrate, just steam your cut peppers and then place them in the oven for several hours at 140 degrees F or slightly lower. Once they have dried, store them in an airtight container.
Bell peppers are fun and easy to grow in the proper growing environments. Not only will growing bell peppers save you money on produce, the plants themselves are nice ornamental additions to your garden, with their small white ornate flowers and dark green foliage. Some gardeners plant them in their landscapes just for their eye-catching colors, as the fruits come in a variety of stunning shades, from red, to orange, yellow, and even purple and brown.
The bell pepper is closely related to all other pepper species, but instead of spicy flavors, bell peppers are sweet and fruity, and can be enjoyed by just about any palate. Bell peppers can be used for a wide range of recipes, and can be enjoyed raw, or cooked in a multitude of different ways, from grilling, to roasting, steaming, and frying.