Pepper is a tender, warm-season vegetable. Pepper plants require somewhat higher temperatures, grow more slowly and are smaller than most tomato plants. Brightly colored, sweet bell pepper varieties have recently burst onto the scene. A vast range of other garden peppers (pimiento, tabasco, cayenne, chili and paprika) may be grown for food, spices or as ornamentals.
The sweet varieties of peppers, especially the bells, traditionally have been by far the most popular in the United States. They are eaten green or ripe and are used for salads, stuffing, soup, stews, relishes and pickling. New developments in color and form have done nothing to dull the popularity of sweet peppers. Hot pepper varieties have also enjoyed a rebirth of popularity recently, mainly due to various ethnic cuisines that use their unique flavors and heat creatively.
Bell Boy (70 days to harvest; goes green to red)
Lady Bell (72 days; goes green to red)
Purple Belle (70 days; immature purple, black to red)
Chocolate Bell (75 days; green to chocolate brown)
Sweet Frying or Salad Type
Gypsy (65 days to harvest; pale yellow to orange to red)
Sweet Banana (70 days; pale yellow to orange to red)
Cayenne, large thick (70 days to harvest)
Cayenne, long, slim (73 days)
Jalapeno (70 days)
Red Chili (84 days)
When to Plant
Peppers are best started from seeds indoors in late winter and then transplanted into the garden after the soil and air have warmed in the spring. The plants cannot tolerate frost and do not grow well in cold, wet soil. When night temperatures are below 50° to 55°F, the plants grow slowly, the leaves may turn yellow and the flowers drop off. Raised beds, black plastic mulch and floating row covers may be used to advantage with peppers to warm and drain the soil and enhance the microenvironment of the young pepper plants in spring, when cool weather may persist.
Spacing & Depth
Set transplants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row, or 14 to 18 inches apart in all directions in beds. A dozen plants, including one or two salad and hot types, may provide enough peppers for most families; but with so many colors, flavors and types available, more may be necessary for truly devoted pepper lovers or for devotees of ethnic cuisines.
Peppers thrive in a well-drained, fertile soil that is well supplied with moisture. Use a starter fertilizer when transplanting. Apply supplemental fertilizer (side-dressing) after the first flush of peppers is set. Because a uniform moisture supply is essential with peppers, especially during the harvest season, irrigate during dry periods. Hot, dry winds and dry soil may prevent fruit set or cause abortion of small immature fruits.
Fruits may be harvested at any size desired. Green bell varieties, however, are usually picked when they are fully grown and mature—3 to 4 inches long, firm and green. When the fruits are mature, they break easily from the plant. Less damage is done to the plants, however, if the fruits are cut rather than pulled off. The new, colored bell pepper fruits may be left on the plant to develop full flavor and ripen fully to red, yellow, orange or brown; or they may be harvested green and immature. Some (including "white," light yellow, lilac and purple) are colors that develop in the immature fruit and that should be harvested before actually ripening, when they turn red.
Hot peppers are usually harvested at the red-ripe stage; but "green chiles," the immature fruits, are also required for some recipes. Some dishes may actually call for a specific variety of chile to be authentic. Hot pepper flavor varies more from variety to variety than was previously appreciated.
To dry chiles, individual fruits can be picked and strung in a "ristras" or entire plants can be pulled in the fall before frost and hung in an outbuilding or basement to dry. Always exercise caution when handling hot varieties, because shin, noses and eyes may become painfully irritated. Plastic or rubber gloves may be helpful when picking or handling hot peppers.
People who use tobacco should wash their hands with soap and water before handling pepper plants to prevent spread of tobacco mosaic disease. Grow resistant varieties if possible.
Watch for accumulation of aphids on the underside of the leaves, especially near growing branch tips. When a large aphid population is present, sticky "honeydew" appears on the lower leaves and fruit. If this situation occurs, apply a suggested insecticide. Bacterial diseases may be transported on purchased transplants, so look over potential purchases carefully for any leaf spotting or stem cankers.
Questions & Answers
Q. Why do my pepper plants grow large but not develop fruits? They are dark green and do not appear to be diseased.
A. Several weather conditions can reduce fruit set of peppers. Early in the season, extreme cold may prevent fruit set. The most common problems later in the season are hot, dry winds and warm nights (above 70°F). Periods of extreme heat, with or without wind, may prevent fruit set, especially in some varieties. Although overfertilization, especially with nitrogen, is often suspected in these cases because the growth is luxuriant, peppers can actually produce fruit quite well under almost ridiculously high fertility programs. Pepper plants that have no developing fruit attached normally maintain a greener, healthier appearance because all the nutrients can go into producing leaves and stems instead of fruit.
Q. What causes small, dry, sunken black areas near the ends of the peppers?
A. This condition is blossom-end rot, a condition more commonly associated with tomato. It is caused by drought, uneven water availability, or pruning roots through improper cultivation. Blossom-end rot is more severe on some varieties of peppers than on others. Remove infected fruits and throw them away. Irrigation and mulching can help to prevent blossom-end rot. Though the condition is caused by a calcium deficiency in the affected fruit tissue, addition of calcium to the soil seldom alters the condition. The problem is one of calcium mobility in the plant, not lack of calcium in the soil.
Selection & Storage
Recent years have brought a remarkable surge in the popularity for peppers. With literally hundreds of varieties to select from, there is a pepper to suit everyone's taste. As easy to cultivate as tomatoes, chili peppers and sweet peppers are favorites of the small-plot-gardener. For practical purposes, in this section, peppers will be divided into two (2) categories: sweet peppers and chili peppers.
Sweet green bell-shaped peppers are the most popular garden variety. Left to ripen, they turn red, purple, orange or yellow and gain various levels of sweetness depending on the variety. Although the paler green and yellow tapering varieties have more flavor, all sweet peppers are similar in flavor and texture. They are crisp and refreshing raw, and pleasantly assertive when cooked to tenderness.
Green bell peppers are a main ingredient in Louisiana Creole and Cajun cuisine as well as Italian and Mediterranean cooking. Peppers can be harvested from July to October. They are delicious in the green stage, the sweeter ripe stage or anywhere in between. Due to the short Chicagoland growing season, many sweet peppers never reach full maturity/ripeness.
Chili peppers are famous throughout the world from the fiery cuisines of Mexico, India, Thailand and Africa to the subtle flavor enhancement of the most delicate dishes. The hot varieties can also be picked at any color stage, but are hottest if allowed to fully ripen. Chili peppers ripen through a wide range of colors from yellow, orange, purple and even brown. Some chili peppers turn bright red, which is more often an indication of ripeness rather than hotness.
Chili peppers are perennial subshrubs native to South America, which are grown as annuals in our colder climate. They range in hotness from mild to fiery hot. The burning sensation is attributed to chemical compounds called capsaicinoids, which are stored in the light-colored veins, on the walls, and surrounding the seeds. Capsaicin acts on the pain receptors in the mouth, not the taste buds. Experts agree that long hot dry summers produce the best (hottest) chili peppers.
Nutritional Value & Health Benefits
Nutritionally, peppers vary depending on the variety and stage of maturity. In general, all peppers are a good source of vitamin A and C; the red ones are bursting with these two antioxidants. Antioxidants are a group of nutrients that neutralize free radicals in the body fluids reducing the risk of disease.
Free radicals are naturally produced when the body uses oxygen. Unless they are neutralized, they cause cell damage, which may lead to health problems such as arthritis, heart disease and cancer. A single raw red pepper, sweet or hot, can meet the daily requirements for two important antioxidants, vitamin A and C.
Nutrition Facts (one small raw sweet pepper, about 3/4 cup)
Protein 0.66 grams
Carbohydrates 4.76 grams
Dietary fiber 1.48 grams
Calcium 6.66 mg
Potassium 130.98 mg
Green 66.08 mg
Red 140.60 mg
Folate 16.28 mcg
Green 468 IU
Red 4218 IU
Preparation & Serving
Wash peppers just before using them. Peppers, both sweet and hot, are delicious raw, grilled or added to cooked preparations. Roasting peppers, however, brings out a totally taste. It is quite a chore, but well worth it. Char thick-skinned peppers until the skin is black and blistered. They can be charred under a broiler, over an open flame or on the grill. While they are still hot, cover or place in a paper bag for 15 minutes and allow the steam to loosen the charred skins. Peel over a bowl to catch the juices, and use in your favorite recipe.
The most popular home preservation method is pickling. Chopped peppers freeze well without blanching. Upon thawing the peppers, they still retain some crispness and can be used in cooked dishes or raw in uncooked preparations.
To Tray Freeze Sweet Bell Peppers
Wash and core peppers. Chop, dice or slice according to how you plan to use them.
Spread in a single layer on a tray of a cookie sheet. Place tray in the freezer for an hour or longer.
Loosen pepper pieces from the tray and pour into zip closure freezer bags. Immediately place sealed bags in the freezer. The pepper pieces will remain separated for ease of measuring. Simply remove as many as you need, reseal the bag and return to the freezer.
Pickled Jalapeno Peppers (1 quart jar)
- Jalapeno peppers (about 2 pounds)
- 1 cup vinegar
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon mixed pickling spices
- 2 carrot slices, 2 celery sticks and a garlic clove (optional)
Caution: Always wear gloves or coat hands with fat when working with hot peppers. They may cause burns.
Wash peppers and pack into a hot jar. Add carrot slices, celery sticks and a clove of garlic if desired. Pack tightly, leaving 2-inch headspace. Combine vinegar, water salt and pickling spices. Heat to boiling. Pour boiling hot liquid over peppers to two inches from top of jar top. Remove air bubbles by running a plastic knife or rubber spatula down the side of the jar, rotating, releasing trapped air between the peppers.Wipe jar rims clean. Adjust prepared two piece canning lid. Process jar in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Using jar lifters, remove to a draft free area, and allow to cool. Check the seal. Label the container.
Peeled Sweet Peppers in Oil
Use as a side dish or in tossed salads, on sandwiches or as a topping for bagels with cream cheese.
- 2 pounds red and green bell peppers
- 2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
Clean and peel peppers as directed above. Cut into strips. Place in a medium bowl. Peel and crush garlic, chop coarsely. Pour olive oil into a small bowl and add garlic. Press garlic pieces with a fork and mix with the olive oil. Pour oil over peppers and toss gently. Season lightly with salt.To store; pack into a glass jar, cover with a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Seal and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
Caution: This recipe cannot be canned. Peppers in oil can be safely stored for up to two days. Long term storage of peppers in oil increases the risk of bacteria growth and foodborne illness. For long term storage of roasted peppers freeze in freezer bags. Add oil and the remaining ingredients upon thawing.