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.