Peter Piper may have picked an inexplicably pickled peck of peppers (were they fermenting on the plants or something?) but in order to pick a peck, they first needed to be planted. Thankfully, the process of cultivating and harvesting peppers is a good deal simpler than the tongue-twisters they inspire!
Considering that store-bought peppers of all sorts are often loaded with toxic pesticides, it makes sense for anyone who cares about food to take on the challenge of growing their own crop of sweet, crisp, or blazingly hot peppers. Here’s what you need to know to get started with your personal pepper plot.
All peppers need full sun, good air circulation, and warm temperatures. The soil doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to drain well. You can help your peppers out as the summer draws on by mulching them. You’ll want to be sure they are mulched after the weather has heated up, though. Putting down that protective layer too soon will insulate the cold in the ground rather than the stored heat of the sun.
Though some peppers stay at a cute 1-foot tall, bigger varieties, or varieties that produce large fruit like bell peppers will benefit from being planted with a tomato cage around them. If you are growing in an area on the colder end of the spectrum, a raised bed may give you a couple more degrees of warmth for your pepper production success.
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If you sow pepper seeds directly in the ground, you will soon learn that these colorful plants take a long time to start producing. Though some may start fruiting in 75 days, spicier varieties may need a full 120 days to reach maturity.
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Some gardening advice I’ve heard says to pinch off the first flush of flowers to encourage larger and more productive growth during the warmer, later part of the growing season. I have yet to bring myself to try this advice, but there must be some wisdom to it.
Since the plants are relatively small in comparison to their sprawling tomato cousins and garden-eating squash neighbors, you can pack more plants in a garden. A foot between plants should be enough breathing room.
Caring for peppers through the season is relatively simple. If you keep them mulched well, and keep an eye on any pests that arrive, they should be relatively simple to maintain. Pepper plants may benefit from some compost tea once they start producing fruit, but they really don’t need too much nutrition in the meantime. It may make them more lush, but less fruitful.
Additionally, peppers do great in containers. Certain ornamental-yet-still-edible varieties like the Filius Blue or the brightly-hued Medusa Pepper would be gorgeous decorating a patio. And since all peppers are technically perennials, you can bring them indoors for a splash of life year-round.
Peppers can be harvested at any stage of their growing process, and have different flavors during different stages of their ripening. Usually, they attain their full sweetness at full ripeness which is when they reach their final color.
But as with many garden vegetables, the more you harvest, the more you encourage the plant to produce, so you’ll have to strike a balance of deciding when it’s time to bring your harvest into the kitchen. Just be sure to use sharp scissors or a knife to remove peppers when you do pick them. Yanking them by hand may damage the plant.
Potential Problems With Pepper Plants
First off, always make sure you plant your peppers in a place where peppers have not been planted for at least two years. Good crop rotation will keep diseases and parasitic infestations below plague level.
Peppers are particularly prone to damage from cold weather. Their ideal germination temperature is in soil that is at least 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so that should give you a clue how sensitive they are to cold. Or, you could risk it (like I do) and direct-sow the seeds in the ground at the same time you direct seed your tomato plants.
My Ozark summers are long and hot enough to give them a chance to set fruit. If you have a shorter growing season, you can have more fruit in less time by putting your plants in a greenhouse until the weather is better.
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Even though they are usually trouble-free, these nightshade family members may be susceptible to the same pests that bother your tomatoes like aphids, flea beetles, cutworms, and the ever-loathed tomato hornworm. Vigilance, hand-picking, and well-placed sprays of water can rid you of most problems organically.
Pepper Varieties To Consider
The only thing that’s really hard about peppers is deciding between the hundreds of varieties! You could go with the classic bell peppers for sweets and jalapeños for spice, but if you’re feeling adventurous, the pepper world is your oyster.
All domesticated peppers are derived from five closely-related species of the Capsicum family, but their worldwide popularity has led to some of the most interesting shapes, intense heats, and wonderful flavors you could imagine. Just for reference, peppers are categorized by shape, rather than parent species. Most of the milder peppers come from C. annuum while the fiery varieties can often be sourced to C. chinense.
Here are some not-as-commonly-seen varieties to consider.
- Sugar Rush Peach Hot Pepper: Sweet, fruity, and fun-shaped peppers that would be amazing in a peach salsa.
- Fish Pepper: Quick-maturing, spicy, beautifully-striped peppers with a fascinating history.
- Lipstick Pepper: A sweet, pimiento-style pepper that grows well in cooler, shorter growing seasons.
- Biquinho Hot Pepper: A landrace from Brazil — the land of incredible pepper diversity — that produces absolutely adorable, fiery little teardrops of flavor. Makes a great container plant.
- Sweet Chocolate: A quick maturing bell-type that produces sweet, brown peppers and can tolerate some cool weather.
Understanding Pepper Packaging
As you browse the dizzying array of cultivars, you may notice labels like “NuMex” or “TAM” on the label. These jumbles of letters are abbreviations for the New Mexico State University and Texas A&M respectively (places actively developing new pepper cultivars) and mean that these varieties are specifically bred to bear fruit in the hottest of temperatures.
By contrast, if you have a short growing season and a cooler climate (north of zone 4), you may want to look for shorter-season cultivars like Hungarian Hot Wax, Anaheim, Early Jalapeño, Ace, Gypsy, or King of the North. You may also have to employ special techniques to help your plants along such as using cloches or starting the seedlings as early as January.
Producing A Preponderance Of Peppers
For a family of four, Burpee Seeds recommends planting a dozen sweet cultivar plants and six hot pepper plants for fresh eating. On our pepper-loving homestead, however, this isn’t nearly enough. I would use peppers for nearly every meal if I had an endless supply of them.
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Since I didn’t have enough to preserve this year, I’m planning on dedicating a full third of my garden to peppers next year so there’s enough to eat both fresh and dry (ristra stringing party, anyone?) for later. As you refine your garden year-by-year, you’ll know better how many plants you want as well.
Procuring The Prickling Pungency Of Pepper Perfection
If you’re into growing peppers for their heat — and there are plenty of people to rub shoulders with in that fascinatingly weird subculture of self-inflicted pain — the race to the unknown heights of the Scoville scale is raging every year. The current, blistering champion is the Carolina Reaper, a pepper that scares me at the mere sight of it. Hot weather produces hotter peppers, so if you have a scorching summer on tap, you may be primed to produce some of the scariest fruit this side of eternity.
But even if you are content to enjoy and grow peppers that aren’t trying to actively kill you, you should still exercise caution when handling the seeds or large amounts of these fiery fruits. Gloves can protect you from loading up your fingertips with the irritating, burning capsaicin that is particularly concentrated on the seeds of pepper fruits.
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This is a particularly strong warning for those of you who wear contact lenses! It is a pain that I have experienced personally (drat that lunch of homemade jalapeño poppers!) and one I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies.
Peppers Past And Present
The discovery of peppers is often historically credited to Christopher Columbus, but that is more than a little insulting to the generations of native Americans who had cultivated and domesticated the plant for thousands of years before his journey across the ocean blue.
The real story is that on his failed attempt to find India and bring back lucrative spices like peppercorns (Piper nigrum), he instead brought back a spicy member of the nightshade family (Capiscum annuum species) that was widely used by native nations like the Nahua people of Mexico (incidentally, the Nahuatl word for the pungent fruits was “chili”).
So Columbus called the not-from-India people “Indians” and the not-pepper fruits “peppers.” We can shake our heads with a sigh at the mixed-up world of languages and their associated history and just plant gardens instead.
The original peppers were spicy hot, but as Europeans readily embraced the new plant, they started breeding various levels of heat and flavor. As the Capiscum plants spread across Europe and Asia, creative gardeners produced the dizzying array of shapes, colors, and spice levels that we know and love today.
Even with the wide variety available, there are certain qualities that all peppers share. Most start out growing green, and then turn their ripe color — usually red or orange but occasionally, yellow, brown, or even purple! They are shiny fruits produced on many-stemmed plants that are from 1 to 3 feet tall. All pepper plants, whether fiery-hot or sweet and fruity, prefer to grow in warm climates.
What are your best pepper planting tips? What varieties do you want to plant next year? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below (and I’ll give bonus points for alliteration)!