Pick a Peck of Peppers

Whether sugary sweet or hot as blue blazes, pepper plants bring zest to your garden and your meals.

The good news is that it takes little effort to produce basketloads of these colorful treats. The bad news is there are so many pepper selections available, you need a scorecard to keep up with all the players. Peppers come in nearly every shade of the rainbow, including red, orange, yellow, green, and purple. They brighten a flower border and even look attractive in containers with herbs or low-growing annuals.

To grow peppers successfully, plant them where they will receive at least six hours of sunlight. When first set out, transplants require thorough waterings, but once established and rooted, they are remarkably drought tolerant. However, for the best harvest, try to keep the soil evenly moist, especially when plants are blooming and setting fruit. Well-drained soil is a must. Because they will not tolerate dampness, peppers work great in raised beds and prefer good air circulation around the plants.

 

There are two ways to grow peppers: from seeds or transplants. Many of the gourmet peppers aren't readily available at garden centers or nurseries, so you might have to start them from seed. They should be started indoors or in a greenhouse six to eight weeks before you intend to set them in the garden.

If it's late in your area to start seedlings, look for healthy transplants that are short and stocky and don't have blooms or fruit forming. They should have dark green foliage. Lightly brush the tops of the plants with your hands. If white flying insects appear, avoid those plants; they are probably infested with whiteflies.

To avoid crowding problems later, space peppers 18 to 24 inches apart in rows that are 2 to 3 feet apart. Set bamboo stakes next to young plants. They will come in handy later in the season as the peppers become topheavy with fruit. Use twine to loosely tie the plants to the stakes. Mulch, spread around the base of the plants, will help keep moisture in and weeds out.

Wait to set your peppers out until two to four weeks after your last frost or when night temperatures are above 60 degrees. If planted too early, peppers will wait until the soil warms before they'll flush with foliage.

A sprinkle of slow-release fertilizer, such as 12-10-5 or 14-14-14, in the soil at planting time, followed by light doses of liquid fertilizer, such as 15-30-15, throughout the growing season, will keep them healthy. Don't overfeed--this can lead to blossom drop.

Small white blooms are a signal that peppers will soon be forming. The fruit can be harvested once it reaches a usable size. Use a sharp pair of clippers or a knife to remove it from the stem. When picking hot peppers, such as jalapños or habaneros, you might want to wear gloves. Never rub your eyes after touching these fiery fruits.

 

Some of the sweet peppers, such as bell and banana peppers, will change colors when left on the plants. These mature peppers, much sweeter in flavor, are higher in vitamins A and C. However, if you let peppers mature, the plant will not produce many new fruits. So set out extra plants if you want fully ripened fruit.

Patience is a virtue in the heat of summer. Sweet peppers sometimes slow down their fruit production when temperatures climb into the 90s, but they will resume production when the days cool down. Hot peppers are more tolerant of the heat, producing steadily throughout the summer. Peppers can get sun scald, but most healthy plants have lots of foliage to help protect the fruit. In extremely hot climates, set the plants in partial shade.

Thankfully, peppers have few pests, but tender young plants can be inviting to aphids. Control them by spraying plants with SunSpray, an ultra-light horticultural oil. Just follow the label directions for proper use.

Peppers are fun plants to grow because they have so many culinary and ornamental benefits. They can sweeten or spice up any meal, and their beauty in the garden is unmatched. They also make great gifts to give to your friends and family. This summer, have fun picking a peck of peppers from your very own garden.