From fruity sweet peppers in rainbow shades of yellow, orange, or red to habaneros hot enough to bring tears to your eyes, all peppers share a preference for a long, warm growing season. Set out plants a week or two after your last frost, when the weather is settled and warm. While cool weather reigns, keep your seedlings indoors at night, and move them to a protected sunny spot outdoors during the day.
Peppers may be sweet and mellow or fiery hot, depending on variety. By growing an assortment of varieties, you can have mild, meaty peppers for salads or stir-fries, slightly spicy peppers for fresh salsas, and hot peppers for bold jolts of flavor. When choosing varieties, include a range of both flavors and fruit sizes. Under hot summer conditions, varieties that bear huge fruits may shed their blossoms, but small, thin-walled peppers often keep going strong. Small-fruited peppers also ripen faster, which is important in cool climates where summers are short.
As peppers change from green to yellow, orange, or red, both their flavor and their vitamin content improves dramatically. People who think they don’t like peppers often change their minds once they have tasted fully ripened, garden-grown peppers.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Peppers are easy to grow in any sunny, well-drained spot, and they are good candidates for roomy containers, too. Peppers have a naturally upright growth habit, so they often benefit from staking, which keeps brittle branches from breaking when they become heavy with fruit. Colorful peppers also make great additions to beds planted with flowers and other edible ornamentals, where they can easily serve as specimen plants. In beds or rows, the best spacing for most pepper plants is 18 to 24 inches apart (check the tag for exceptions). Peppers grow best in a soil with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0, although they can tolerate slightly alkaline conditions near 7.5. Mix a 3- to 5-inch layer of compost into each planting hole, as shown in the step-by-step planting directions. A generous amount of organic matter helps the soil retain moisture, and moist soil is crucial for good pepper production. After planting, mulch each plant to keep the soil cool and moist.
About 6 weeks after planting, soon after peppers begin flowering and setting fruit, it is often helpful to feed plants lightly with an organic or timed-release fertilizer to keep them going strong. Simply pull back the mulch, scatter fertilizer around the base of each plant, and replace the mulch before watering well. Or, simply use a liquid fertilizer like Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food both at planting and every week or two afterward to keep plants well fed.
Gardeners in hot climates may need to be patient with big bells and sweet roasting peppers, which often wait until nights become longer and cooler in late summer to load up with fruit. The wait will go by faster if you have less flashy (yet phenomenally productive) banana peppers to combine with tomatoes and basil in cool summer salads while bigger varieties slowly load up with fruits.
Peppers have few serious pest problems, and common pepper diseases can be prevented by growing resistant varieties. Plants that look frail and stringy may be infected with viruses, which are spread by aphids and other small insects. Chronically thirsty peppers may be troubled by root-knot nematodes. One other potential problem is a late cold spell in spring. If planting is delayed while you await better planting conditions, place 2 inches of moist potting soil in 6-inch-wide containers, gently break open the bottoms of the peppers’ pots, and nestle the seedlings into the soil about 1 inch deep. A bit of extra downward growing room will ensure that the plants’ primary taproots have ample space for expansion. Later on, after summer heats up, this taproot becomes a pepper plant’s lifeline.
Harvest and Storage
Use pruning shears or a sharp knife to cut peppers with a short stub of stem attached. Pulling peppers by hand can cause entire branches to break off. Rinse peppers with water, pat dry, and then store them in your refrigerator. Fruits that are not eaten fresh can be dried, frozen, or pickled. Peppers harvested in cool fall weather that have just begun to change colors will often continue to ripen when kept in a warm room indoors for up to 3 days. Watch for signs of softening, and promptly refrigerate fruits that begin to shrivel.
Most pepper plants hold numerous green fruits when the first freeze kills the plants. Very immature peppers often taste bitter, so it is better to compost them than to serve them for dinner.
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