Peppers comprise the most diverse and varied tribe within the nightshade family with regard to color, shape and flavor. Peppers can be sweet, warm or hot, their shapes range from long and pointed to the familiar short, squat blocky appearance of the bell, and the array of colors runs from sunshine yellow all the way to royal purple, with a rainbow in between. Despite these differences, the one constant is the existence of the distinctive crunch and savory pepper flavor that makes this vegetable one of the most useful to cooks worldwide.
Peppers are relatively easy to grow and several varieties should be part of any kitchen garden. The deep glossy green leaves and colorful fruit on the plants make peppers attractive to use as ornamentals as well, so growing peppers in a large pot on a porch or patio is very feasible.
All peppers require a long growing season, warm soil that is slightly acid and a sunny location. The plants are also highly frost sensitive. Gardeners who live north of Tennessee and who want to enjoy a wide variety of peppers should start plants indoors in March and transplant into the garden after the last frost in late April or early May. Alternately, starter plants for the most popular varieties are usually available in the garden centers of “big box” hardware stores or at local nurseries.
Most pepper plants grow 18 to 24 inches tall, and plants should be spaced two feet apart. Peppers don’t need a soil with high fertility, but they do enjoy soils with a pH that is between 5.5 and 7.0 that contains a significant amount of sulfur. One folk remedy was to put the heads from two kitchen matches into each hole before planting the pepper. For those of us who no longer use kitchen matches to light our wood stove, adding a few tablespoons of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to the soil in each planting hole accomplishes the same end.
Caring for Peppers
Peppers thrive when their roots stay toasty, so mulching the pepper beds with perforated black plastic keeps soil warm, moist and friable and controls weed growth. Pepper plants can tolerate dry conditions, but it’s a good idea to water deeply once a week while the plants are growing; a stunted plant produces small, woody fruit that tends to be bitter. Hold off fertilizing peppers until they begin to bear fruit; early fertilization leads to strong vegetative growth but limits fruit production.
Pepper plants tend to be fussy about the air temperature. Cool summers will limit flowering; extreme heat stops the plant from setting fruit. If days stay below 70° F during the summer (a rare situation) the plants can be covered with clear plastic “caps” that will increase the air temperature around each plant. Unless the plants are growing in movable pots that can be taken indoors during the day, there is nothing a gardener can do about extreme heat. Once the plants begin to flower, scatter a tablespoonful of time released “bloom booster” fertilizer around the base of each plant, or water with a water-soluble fertilizer every other week. This enhances the plants’ productivity and increases the size of the fruit each plant produces.
Peppers are one of the few vegetables that can be used before they are ripe. Every green bell or chili that is on the market is a pepper that is not fully ripe – these vegetables turn color (usually red) once they are fully ripe. Red, yellow and orange bell peppers tend to be sweeter than their green counterparts, so harvest according to your flavor expectations. Hot peppers don’t increase in heat when they ripen, as the “heat” is contained in the seeds rather than the flesh. However, if these peppers are to be dried, it’s best to harvest them when they are ripe; otherwise, harvest as they are needed. If the pepper has wrinkled skin or appears to be bleaching out, it is dehydrated and won’t have a good, crunchy texture or very much flavor.
Cooking and Preserving Peppers
Using peppers in cooking or canning is an entire article in itself. Any pepper can be used raw in salads, can be stuffed and cooked with chopped meat and rice or eaten raw stuffed with pasta or seafood salad, sautéed with other flavoring items (onions, garlic, bacon, etc) and added to stews, sauces or omelets. Pickled peppers – sweet or hot – make great garnishes for sandwiches, hot dogs or hamburgers.
Dried peppers can be reconstituted for use during the winter; dried chilies make attractive decorations as well as being handy in the kitchen, and ground dried hot peppers mixed with water and dishwashing detergent keeps even the most persistent possums and renegade raccoons away from the rest of the garden. Sauce, salad, pickles and pest control – what other vegetable has those bragging rights? Pepper plants may need to be treated like divas to produce well, but the rewards are worth all of the efforts.
Common Questions and Answers: How to Grow Peppers
Do pepper plants need a lot of water?
Peppers are thirsty enough plants and need a moderate amount of water when the weather isn’t rainy, but they don’t like their soil to be oversaturated or waterlogged, either. When the weather is hot, pepper plants will wilt during the hottest part of the day even when they have plenty of water. However, they should perk back up in the cool of the night, so if your pepper plants are still wilted in the morning, they need some hydration. To avoid letting your plants get to this point, you can check how wet the soil is by sticking a finger into it near where your pepper plants are growing. If the soil is still wet at the top three or four inches, it’s not time to water yet, but if it is dry, it’s time to water your plants. You’ll know the soil is wet if dirt clings to your skin when you touch it.
Do peppers come back every year?
Pepper plants are usually annuals that flourish for a season to die afterward, but you can keep them indoors for the winter so they’ll continue producing the next year as perennials. If you do, you’ll have a much larger harvest the second year because the plants will start producing peppers immediately and you won’t have to wait for them to reach maturity, so your picking period will be longer. To do this most reliably, grow your pepper plants in pots to begin with so they’re easy to move and won’t be shocked by being transplanted into containers.
Before moving your plants indoors, prune the foliage by about half with clean, sterilized shears to encourage root system development and make them easier to store. The greenery will continue to die back a bit in the cooler months, which is normal. While the plants are indoors, prune them whenever is needed to remove discolored foliage. The plants may drop all their leaves, but don’t be alarmed. The plants will grow new ones in the spring.
The best place to keep your plants for the winter is in a sunny windowsill away from radiators and other heat sources. Wherever you store the plants, they must be kept at a temperature above freezing for the winter. Reduce watering to keep the soil barely moistened, letting it become almost completely dry between waterings.
Start preparing plants to move back outdoors a month and a half before your last frost date by moving them into new, larger containers with compost and fertilizer and amping up the amount of water you give them. Introduce your plants back to the outdoor environment gradually by following the technique laid out in our article “Hardening Off Plants: Common Reader Questions and Answers.”
Do you soak pepper seeds before planting?
Soaking pepper seeds will make them germinate faster, but it is not necessary. If you choose to soak your seeds, let them sit in the water for two to eight hours, until they sink to the bottom.
How can I make my peppers grow faster?
There are several methods you can use to speed up the growth of your pepper plants. Choose one or a two of these tips to employ in your garden.
- Choose seed varieties labeled “early season” or just “early” on the package. These will reach maturity faster and can often be started sooner than other plant varieties.
- Start your seeds in a sunny window indoors early to get a jump on the growing season. Use grow lights or heat mats to keep the temperature between 80 and 90 degrees, because peppers germinate fastest in this temperature range. You can start peppers indoors a month before your outdoor temperatures will reach a 60 degree daytime average. Make sure to harden off your plants to avoid damage and loss when moving them outdoors.
- Remove the first flowers your pepper plants produce to encourage the plant to grow larger, eventually resulting in a more substantial yield.
How late can you plant peppers?
If you’re starting with young plants from the nursery or garden center, you can add peppers to your garden throughout the season. Seeds can be planted for a fall harvest up to 12 to 16 weeks before your first expected frost.
How long do peppers take to grow?
Sweet pepper varieties average between 60 and 90 days to maturity, while hotter pepper plants can take up to 150 days to reach maturity.
How often do you water pepper plants?
Most pepper plants need to be watered about once per week, but the watering schedule will vary depending on factors like your soil type, climate, and amount of rainfall. You can perform a simple check to determine the moisture level of the soil two or three times per week to keep your plants well hydrated. Just stick a finger into the ground near where your plants are growing. If the soil has dried out three or four inches deep, it’s time to water again. It will stick to your skin if it’s still moist, which means you don’t need to water your plants just yet.
Should I cut the flowers off my pepper plants?
Some gardeners recommend cutting off the first few flowers your pepper plants produce in order to increase plant size and yields later in the season. After that, though, leave the flowers on, as they’re what produces the peppers you grow the plants to harvest.
What is the best fertilizer for peppers?
Any fertilizer that is intended for vegetable plants will work well for peppers, like a 5-10-10 fertilizer, as will tomato fertilizers, compost, fish or seaweed emulsions, or well-rotted manure.
What kind of soil do peppers like?
Pepper plants prefer loamy soil that drains well and is deep and rich. The ideal range for pH levels is between 6.0 and 8.0.