Visually striking and flavorful, growing peppers will spice up your cuisine AND your garden.
Growing peppers will color your garden with dazzling, eye-catching fruit. Shown here, from left, are ‘Sante Fe’ (yellow), pimento (dark red), ‘Marconi’ (bright green with a blush of red), ‘Apple’ (mid-range red), poblano (deep green), ‘Jimmy Nardello’ (bright red) and cayenne (orange red).
ILLUSTRATION: KEITH WARD
(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)
Peppers present some of the summer garden’s biggest flavors and brightest hues, and these striking fruits are simple to store and have a wealth of delicious uses in the kitchen. Plus, sweet and specialty peppers are among the most expensive produce at the grocery store, so growing peppers of your own can be a money-saving move.
Sweet bell peppers come in various sizes and colors, and the fruits’ colors change as they mature. They grow best where summers are long and warm.
Specialty sweet peppers include pimentos, frying peppers, and other sizes, shapes and flavors. Small-fruited varieties are among the easiest peppers to grow.
Southwestern chile peppers have complex flavors with varying degrees of heat. Many varieties bear late and all at once, so they can be a challenge to grow in climates with short summers.
Specialty hot peppers range from moderately spicy jalapeños to hotter cayennes to hottest-of-all habaneros. Most are easy to grow.
Ornamental peppers may feature spicy, brightly colored fruits, purple or variegated foliage, or both.
See our chart of pepper types for more information to help you find the perfect pepper for your garden.
Start seeds indoors under bright fluorescent lights in early spring, eight to 10 weeks before your last spring frost date. If possible, provide bottom heat to keep the plants’ containers near 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure the seeds stay slightly moist. Seeds should sprout within three weeks. Transfer seedlings to larger containers when they are about six weeks old. Don’t set peppers outside until at least two weeks after your average last frost date, during a period of warm weather. (To find your last spring frost date, see Know When to Plant What: Find Your Average Last Spring Frost Date.) Always harden off seedlings by gradually exposing them to outdoor weather a few hours each day for at least a week before transplanting them outdoors.
All peppers grow best under warm conditions, but gardeners in cool climates can keep peppers happy by using row covers. Choose a sunny site that has fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Loosen the planting bed to 12 inches deep, and thoroughly mix in a 1-inch layer of mature compost. Dig planting holes 12 inches deep and at least 18 inches apart, and enrich each with a spadeful of additional compost. Partially refill the holes, and situate plants so they are planted slightly deeper than they were in their containers. Water well.
You can eat peppers when they are mature yet still green (green peppers), although the flavor and the vitamin content of peppers improve as they ripen to red, yellow or orange. Use pruning shears to snip ripe peppers from the plant, leaving a small stub of stem attached. Bumper crops can be briefly steam-blanched or roasted and then frozen, either whole (for stuffing) or chopped. Peppers are also easy to dry. Dried peppers quickly plump if soaked in hot water, or you can grind them into powders for your spice shelf.
Harvesting seeds from open-pollinated pepper varieties couldn’t be easier. Allow a perfect fruit to ripen until it begins to soften. Cut around the top of the pepper, and use the stem as a handle to twist out the core. Use the tip of a knife to flick out the largest, most mature seeds. Allow them to air-dry until a test seed breaks if folded in half. Store seeds in a cool, dry place for up to three years.
When growing peppers for seed saving, keep in mind that insects can transfer pollen, creating crosses between varieties. Genes that create a pungent flavor are dominant in peppers, so it is best to ban insects from plants being grown for seed. The easiest way to do this is to use “cages” made of row covers or lightweight cloth, such as tulle. The cages can be removed after the plants have set several perfect fruits.
Tobacco etch virus (TEV), cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) and potato virus Y (PVY) can infect peppers grown in warm climates. Transmitted by thrips and aphids, these viruses cause leaves to become thick and crinkled or narrow and stringy. The best defense is to grow resistant varieties, such as ‘Tam Jalapeño.’
Margined blister beetles may suddenly appear in large numbers in midsummer, especially in warm climates. These large beetles are black with gray stripes, and they devour pepper foliage. Handpick beetles, making sure to wear gloves to prevent skin irritation. Use a spinosad-based insecticide to control severe outbreaks.
Pepper weevils can also be a serious problem in warm climates. Clean up fallen fruit daily to interrupt the life cycle of this pest, and trap adult pepper weevils with sticky traps.
Be careful with nitrogen when preparing your planting holes, as overfed peppers produce lush foliage but few fruits. Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer only if you’re growing peppers in poor soil.
In cool climates, use black plastic mulch in addition to row covers to create warm conditions for peppers. In warm climates, use shade covers during summer to reduce sunscald damage to ripening peppers.
Provide stakes or other supports to keep plants upright as they become heavy with fruits. Cover surrounding soil with a mulch of clean straw or grass clippings so ripening peppers don’t come in contact with soil, which can cause them to rot.
Always wear gloves if handling hot peppers, and avoid touching your eyes or nose. If you do handle hot peppers bare-handed, immediately scrub hands with soap and warm water, rub them vigorously with vegetable oil, then wash them again.
Pasta, pizza, salads, sandwiches, chili, salsa — shall we continue? Bring refrigerated, ripe peppers to room temperature to enhance their flavors before eating them. Peppers’ flavors become richer and more succulent when they are grilled, roasted, or smoked. If you bite into a pepper that sets your mouth ablaze, reach for milk or sour cream to quell the heat.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.
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