Peppers offer range of colors and flavors.
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 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.
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 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 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 the abortion of small immature fruits.
People who use tobacco should wash their hands with soap and water before handling pepper plants to prevent the spread of tobacco mosaic disease. Grow resistant varieties if possible.
Watch for an 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.
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 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 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 skin, noses, and eyes may become painfully irritated. Plastic or rubber gloves may be helpful when picking or handling hot peppers.
Selection & Storage
Recent years have brought a remarkable surge in the popularity of 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 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 when 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 growing season for those in Northern Illinois, 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.
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, the addition of calcium to the soil seldom alters the condition. The problem is one of calcium mobility in the plant, not a lack of calcium in the soil.
Preparing Peppers for Exhibition
Former Extension Specialist Jim Schmidt demonstrates how to properly prepare peppers for exhibition.