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How to Grow: Peppers
Learn about growing peppers including a podcast on the best sweet peppers for the North.
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Peppers (Capsicum annuum) can be hot or sweet, but freshly picked from the garden they always are delicious. Being Italian I have fond memories of my mother making sausage and sweet peppers for summer dinners. The long, sweet, banana-shaped peppers are what I grew up. As an adult I’ve grown sweet bell peppers, Italian frying peppers, and a whole range of hot peppers. With peppers, diversity is king. You can grow a chinese-lantern looking pepper that’s so hot it will strip paint to a red banana pepper that’s as sweet as candy. What’s great is we can grow them all in our climate, with varying degrees of success.
Peppers can be used in a wide range of dishes, are loaded with vitamins, and are beautiful plants in the landscape. There are a varieties of sweet peppers with fruits colored red, orange, ivory, purple, yellow, and even chocolate. There are hot varieties with purple foliage and fruits and some whose fruits look like a rainbow of colors. If you don’t think you have room for peppers, they can grow in containers on a deck or patio or mixed in an annual garden with your flowers.
When to Plant
Peppers are in the tomato-family, so they love the heat. Don’t rush them into the garden or they will stay stunted and not yield well. Either start seedlings indoors 6- to 8-weeks before your last frost date, or buy transplants at the local garden center. Wait until the soil is at least 60F, about 2 weeks after the last frost date in your area — usually mid May or June. You can try planting earlier in containers, but protect them from cool nights.
Where to Plant
Peppers need full sun and well-drained, fertile soil to grow and produce their best. If you have heavy clay soils, consider building a raised bed and covering it with dark green or black plastic mulch. The mulch will heat up the soil before planting.
How to Plant
Amend the soil with compost before planting. Poke holes in the plastic and space plants 2 feet apart in rows 3 feet apart. I like to plant my peppers in a zig-zag pattern on the bed to maximize how many I can fit. Plant at the same depth as they were in their pots. I like to place small tomato cages around or individual stakes next to my peppers to keep them upright. Assuming you’ll get a big crop, the cages and stakes help keep the plants upright and fruits cleaner during summer thunderstorms. A floppy plant tends to be less productive, too.
Care and Maintenance
Peppers are finicky about temperatures. If it gets below 60F or above 90F, the pepper blossoms will drop off without setting fruit. We’re mostly concerned about cool temperatures in our region, so protect young plants with a floating row cover in spring until the air temperatures warm consistently into the 70Fs. Snip off the first flowers on small sized transplants so they send more energy into growing roots and shoots. This will lead to a higher overall production.
Peppers like consistent feeding. Add a small handful of an organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, per plant once a month to keep them growing strong. I’ve used 1 tablespoon of epsom salts mixed in a gallon water twice during the summer to create a healthier plant, too. They like the magnesium in the epsom salts. Don’t use this treatment if a soil test says you already have high magnesium levels in your soil.
Keep plants well watered, and if you don’t use plastic mulch, lay a layer of straw or untreated grass clippings around the base of plants once the summer temperatures warm consistently above 70F.
Protect pepper transplants from cutworms with newspaper wrapped around the stem 2 inches above and 1 inch below the soil line. Spray insecticidal soap for aphids. Pepper maggots are small worms that tunnel into fruits. Cover plants with a floating row cover to prevent them from laying eggs on fruits. Rotate crops, not planting any tomato-family vegetables in the same location for 3 years, to prevent any diseases from taking hold.
When Italian frying (banana shaped) or bell peppers are full size for that variety, cut the fruits from the stem with a sharp knife. You can also wait another 2 weeks and the fruits will ripen to their mature color (usually red) for an even sweeter tasting pepper and one with more vitamins. But don’t let all the fruits go to this mature color, because your peppers will stop producing new fruits. It thinks its job is done for the season.
Hot peppers can also be harvested in the green (immature) or red stage. I’ve found they’re quicker to turn red and since the plants are generally smaller and you only need a few fruits to make an impact, they’re perfect for container growing. Hot peppers vary in their degrees of hotness based on the type of hot pepper and weather. The Scoville Heat Scale grades peppers as to their hotness. For example, Anaheim peppers are about 500 units, while habanero peppers can be over 100,000 units. The higher the number, the hotter the fruits. Also, the weather and growing conditions influence hotness. Cool, cloudy summers will make a hot pepper mild flavored. If you don’t feed or water your hot peppers well, they will produce fewer, but hotter fruits. For the hottest varieties, wear gloves to protect yourself when harvesting. More than once I have inadvertently rubbed my sweaty face with my hands after harvesting hot peppers, only to get a sensational burn in my eyes from the chemical capsaicin, which is prevalent in hot peppers.
There are hundreds of varieties of peppers to grow. Let me share a few of my favorites with you. For sweet peppers, go with varieties adapted to our sometime cool summers. ‘King of the North’ and ‘Ace Hybrid’ are reliable short season growers maturing fruits in 70 days from transplanting. ‘Sweet Chocolate’ has unique brown-colored skin and ‘Islander Hybrid’ has lavender colored skin. Both eventually turn red. For a productive Italian frying or banana-shaped sweet pepper, I love ‘Carmen Hybrid’. It’s so productive the plants fall over from the weight of the fruits. It’s also quick to turn red. ‘Italia ‘ and ‘Corno di Toro’ are two classic banana-shaped peppers that are great for frying, grilling, and roasting.
For hot peppers, I like the mild ‘Early Jalapeno’ for its quick maturing and tasty fruits. To add spice to cooking, try a ‘Numex Joe E Parker’ anaheim and ‘Super Cayenne II Hybrid’ chili pepper. To really get a kick out of your hot peppers grow a red or orange fruit colored habanero. These are so hot you can literally burn yourself if you’re not careful handling them.
Looking for beauty in your hot peppers, try ‘Black Pearl’ which features jet black foliage and stems, and purple turning to red fruits. Also, ‘Numex Twilight’ has fruits that mature at different colors such as purple, yellow, orange, and red.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
Podcast Transcript: Sweet Peppers
For years I tried to grow sweet peppers longing for ones that would mature to a rich, red yellow or orange color. While green peppers taste fine, there’s nothing like the flavor of a mature, sweet pepper. I never could grow a big crop of ripe peppers until I rediscovered the Italian frying peppers. The bull’s horn or Corno di Toro sweet Italian peppers are ones I grew up with. I remember my mother making sausage and fried peppers loaded with garlic and olive oil. It was the perfect eaten with fresh Italian bread.
Italian sweet peppers can mature up to 8 fruits per plant. Mine turn red by late July. ‘Carmen’ is a 6 inch long red variety that got me hooked on growing these beauties. ‘Jimmy Nardello’ is an interesting heirloom. This pepper was brought to Naugatuck, Connecticut in the late 1880’s by Guiseppe Nardiello. He named the pepper after the forth of his 11 kids. He grew it on his terraced garden in Connecticut, and saved seed each year. It’s a long, thin variety great for roasting, grilling or drying. A new variety I’m trying this year is ‘Escamillio’. It matures to a sweet, golden color.
Start sweet pepper seeds in Vermont in early April for transplanting around Memorial Day in a full sun location. Peppers don’t like cold temperatures so there’s no rush to get them in the ground. To hasten their growth, lay black plastic mulch over the bed to heat the soil. Plant through the plastic. Fertilize monthly with a balanced organic product and keep well watered. My Italian sweet peppers have so much fruit I often stake individual plants or use small cages to keep them upright. Harvest when they reach their mature color and mangia!