[dropcap type=”4″]T[/dropcap]he crunchy sweetness of bell peppers is the perfect addition to summer salads. When roasted, grilled or smoked, the peppers’ flavor intensifies to mouth-watering status. Sweet bell peppers come in a variety of colors – yellow, orange, red and purple – for colorful as well as flavorful cuisine. Cayenne pepper is a type of chili pepper that adds just the right amount of heat to your recipe. Use them fresh or dried, crushed or powdered. Cayenne pepper has been intensively studied for its health benefits, which include anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. Poblano pepper is a Southwestern chili pepper that packs a little heat. Its rich, smoky-sweet flavor makes it perfect for grilling. And where would Mexican cuisine be without the dependable jalapeno?
There is an astounding variety of peppers with different shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. You can’t grow just one. Fortunately, peppers don’t require a lot of space and are an easy crop to grow.
Peppers love heat and grow best where the summers are long. If you live in a cooler climate, use row covers to keep your plants warm. They can remain at peak production levels from July through October in warm climates.
The best way to start seeds is indoors, eight weeks before the last spring frost date for your area. Use a seedling heat mat to keep soil at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep seeds moist and they should sprout in 14 – 20 days. When your seedlings are about six weeks old, transplant them to larger pots.
Wait until after the threat of last frost to take your seedlings outside. Gradually expose them to the outdoors for 3 – 4 hours each day to ‘harden off’. In about a week, they are ready to plant in the garden.
If you don’t want to grow peppers from seed, plants begin showing up at garden centers in mid to late spring.
Preparing the soil
Choose a site that receives 8 – 10 hours of sun each day. Test the soil in the fall so that you have time to adjust the pH if needed, to between 6.0 – 6.5. Your state agricultural extension service may be able to assist you. Prior to planting, loosen the soil to a depth of twelve inches and mix in 1″ or more of well-cured compost. Plant peppers slightly deeper than they were in their containers, 18″ apart. Water deeply. Mulch beds with 2″ – 3″ of organic material to keep weeds down, conserve soil moisture, and moderate soil temperatures.
Diseases and Pests
Although easy to grow, peppers are susceptible to some different diseases, particularly in warm climates. Phytophthora stem rot, southern blight, and leaf spot are common diseases caused by fungi in the soil. Prevent stem rot by planting peppers in well-drained soil or a raised bed. To prevent southern blight and leaf spot, mulch around plants to prevent soil from coming into contact with leaves and fruit. Crop rotation is also important in preventing these diseases.
Thrips and aphids can transmit viruses to pepper plants. These viruses damage foliage, making it difficult for the plant to photosynthesize. Your best defense is to plant resistant varieties. To treat severe infestations of thrips and aphids, use 2 – 3 applications of insecticidal soap seven days apart.
The margined blister beetle is a large black beetle with gray stripes. They show up in the garden around midsummer. Handpick these leaf-devouring insects. But be sure to wear gloves – they secrete a blister-causing substance. To control major outbreaks, use Spinosad – a biological pesticide.
Do not over fertilize pepper plants. Too many nutrients cause the plant to grow an abundance of deep green, lush foliage but not as much fruit. A mild fertilizer such as fish emulsion applied every ten days should keep your plants healthy and productive.
In cooler climates, black plastic mulch helps increase soil temperatures. Cloches or crop covers protect tender foliage from cool temperatures.
Be prepared to stake your plants as they become heavy with fruit. Old cotton t-shirts cut into strips are soft, but sturdy ties that will not damage pepper plants.
When handling hot peppers, wear gloves to prevent the hot oils from soaking into your hands. Avoid touching your eyes or nose.