Pepper, Capsicum annuum, belongs to the Solanaceae family, also known as the Nightshade family. Peppers originate from the warmer regions of the Americas and are used in kitchens all over the world. You may prefer the fresh cool crisp of a sweet bell pepper, or the spicy flavor of a hot pepper. Whichever it is, peppers are easy to grow in the garden, in containers and make a great addition to your Urban Farmscape. There are even some varieties used primarily for ornamental purposes.
If you like to start seeds indoors, now is the time. Plant seeds about 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep in a shallow container of a sterile seed starting media. Once the seeds are planted and watered it is important to keep moist at all times during germination. This can be achieved by using a plastic dome or with plastic wrap. I keep a spray bottle of water handy so I can mist the seeds as they germinate, almost daily. Peppers germinate best if you use a heat mat with temperatures ranging from 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with the ideal temperature being about 86. Pepper seeds germinate in darkness, so light isn’t necessary until after you start to see them growing, and then light becomes crucial to growing great peppers. Once you see the first set of true leaves you can remove them from heat mat and transplant to a small container or a 4-cell pack type container. A 4-cell pack is the plastic container that most annuals are planted in. If you are using recycled containers, make sure you have cleaned and sanitized it with something like a bleach water solution to kill possible diseases that may be transferred from the recycled container. Don’t be in a hurry to transplant into a larger pot. Best to plant in a small container, and then save the larger container for the final planting outdoors. Transplant outside in well-drained soil after all danger of frost. This is one of the plants I put outside in the garden last. Peppers like to grow in warmer weather in full sun. They also have a higher need for phosphorus and calcium so if your soil test shows a deficiency in either of these, make sure you add something like bone meal to your soil when planting. To find out more about how to get your soil tested, contact your local extension office. Refer to the earlier post from February 19, 2012 titled Starting Seeds Indoors for more tips.
I haven’t experienced any diseases or insects with peppers, but they may be susceptible to a few. Watch for signs of irregular growth or discoloration on the leaves for early signs of viruses. The best thing to do is plant varieties that are resistant. Keep an eye out for any insect problems, but don’t worry about any unless they are actually damaging your plants. There are a lot of good bugs in the garden too.
You can expect to harvest your peppers about two to three months after planting. Sweet peppers will ripen first followed by hot peppers. In general, harvest your fruit first thing in the morning. For sweet peppers, wash and store in the refrigerator whatever you don’t eat right away. I freeze excess by cutting in half, removing the seeds, and placing in a freezer baggy. They will be soft when thawed, but work great for sauces and stews. My dad cans jalapeno peppers every year and gives them away to anyone that will take them. I love to dry cayenne chili peppers. I haven’t made a ristra yet, I just dry them and store them in a paper bag to later grind and use when I am cooking. It’s like my secret ingredient. Dried peppers whole or ground in a jar would also make a great gift. I also make Jalapeno pepper jelly. This sweet hot jelly is great spread over the top of cream cheese and served with crackers as snack. Maybe my dad and I should start a pepper gift basket. Hmmmm, I could be onto something.
In the U.S., California grows the most sweet peppers that you see in our stores, followed by Florida then New Jersey. As for chili peppers, California is first, followed by New Mexico then Texas. China is first in world production, followed by Mexico then Turkey. Pay attention when you shop during the winter months and see where the sweet bell pepper you have in your hand is grown. Check the label or the box. You may be surprised.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has such a great variety of peppers with a wide range of colors of both sweet and hot. It’s still not too late to order from them. You may be able to find their seeds at some retailers. Starting your peppers a week or so later only means your harvest will be later, so if you want to grow something unique, check out their heirloom peppers at www.rareseeds.com Or if you would like to buy their book, click on the picture below.