By Skip Richter,
Peter Piper was definitely before his time. Peppers are still the trendy veggies you must have for your vegetable garden to be… well, to be cool. But they are not just for the vegetable patch, as numerous new ornamental types are available for setting annual beds ablaze with color.
Bell, cherry, chili, pimiento, banana, paprika, tabasco, habanero, piquin and the list goes on, making peppers among the most diverse and versatile of garden veggies. Although “discovered” in the 1500s by Spanish explorers to the New World, American gardeners and consumers are now rediscovering the versatile pepper.
The pepper craze heated up in 1993 when the National Garden Bureau designated that year as “The Year of the Pepper.” But it has never really cooled down as peppermania continues to grow. Amazingly, salsa is still outselling ketchup. Pepper enthusiasts can even buy T-shirts, bathrobes, neckties, pajamas, caps and boxer shorts covered with peppers.
The public’s increasing fondness for Caribbean, Thai, Korean, Cajun, Tex-Mex and other cuisines in which peppers play an important role is surely one reason for the burgeoning use of the pepper motif. Now we have everything from pepper earrings and napkin rings to strands of pepper Christmas lights.
As if all this did not distinguish peppers from among their lowly vegetable garden counterparts, one species of pepper is the first plant ever to have a wilderness reserve designated for its protection. The tiny chiltepine pepper is native to northern Mexico and southern Arizona. A four-square-mile reserve in the Coronado National Forest near Tucson has been set aside to protect a wild population of this native ancestor to many of our garden peppers.
Peppers as Crime Fighters
Peppers are not just for eating or looking at. Capsaicin, the enzyme responsible for pepper “heat,” is mixed into bird feed suet cakes to protect them from marauding squirrels. It is also often included in the aerosols toted by joggers for defense against dogs and muggers. New York City transit officials used a powdered form of the product to dust on subway token slots in an attempt to solve the problem of teens sucking tokens out of the turnstiles! The hot oil of peppers is found in creams for fighting arthritis and soothing aching muscles.
Types of Peppers
Peppers are perhaps the most diverse of all our garden vegetables. There are several species which each offer a range of sizes, shapes and colors. Some are sweet and mild while others will burn the taste buds right off of your tongue. Even though mild peppers are still quite popular, it is the pungent or to put it properly the “piquant” ones that have fueled the recent fires of peppermania. The following chart gives a few of the more common peppers and their relative heat levels:
Measuring the Fire
Pepper heat, measured in Scoville Heat Units, ranges from the mild bell and paprika types, at 0 heat units, to the standard type of jalapeño, at about 3,000-5,000 units, to the infernal habañero – one of the world’s hottest peppers at 200,000-300,000 units.
Interestingly, you can develop a tolerance to the heat from garden peppers. Folks that eat them regularly find that they are able to take on progressively hotter peppers. Padre Ignaz Pfefercorn, an 18th century missionary, described his introduction to peppers as “hell fire in my mouth.” He went on to say, “After the first mouthful the tears started to come. I could not say a word. However, one becomes accustomed to it after frequent bold victories, so that with time the dish becomes tolerable and finally very agreeable.”
Pepper flavors can be complex and range from the almost fruity sweetness of some red-ripe bell types to the smoky and earthy tones of some dried types. Chipotles, smoke-dried jalapeños, are another tasty favorite.
If you love the jalapeño flavor but cannot take the heat, try the TAM Mild jalapeño with less than half the heat of the original. However, TAM Mild can be erratic in heat levels, especially if stressed during production. There are many other new mild varieties for heat sensitive folks, including ‘False Alarm’ and the virtually heatless ‘Senorita.’
Capsaicin is found primarily in the white partitions containing the seed inside the pepper. Thus you can dramatically reduce pungency by cutting these areas away and discarding them. My kids are not at all fond of the heat even from mild jalapeños, but when I cut away the inner walls they line up for a jalapeño-laden plate of nachos.
Starting From Seeds
If you are looking for fairly common types of peppers, it may be best to simply buy a few transplants and get a great head start on the season. However, for those who have caught the fever, local sources just do not offer enough options. Dedicated “pepperheads” know that if you want to go beyond the common options and experiment with new or unique varieties, you have to start your own plants from seeds.
To grow your own transplants, allow about eight weeks from planting seeds to transplanting into the garden. Sow pepper seeds about ¼-inch deep in a fresh seed-starting mix. Keep the mix moist and at approximately room temperature. When seedlings begin to emerge, place them where they can receive the most light. If you have a florescent fixture, that will do fine – if you keep the light tubes only a few inches above the foliage for maximum light. Otherwise seedlings will grow spindly and weak. When the first leaves appear, begin to fertilize the plants with a diluted nutrient solution. Seaweed and fish emulsion works fine if you do not have an indoor cat!
Peppers can be really productive when grown properly. So it is good advice to not overplant. A few plants of various types will keep you in peppers all summer and into the fall. If you have gardening friends who also love peppers, perhaps you can trade a few of your extra plants for some of their varieties.
When seedlings are about 4 to 6 inches tall, you can transplant them into a larger container if it is still a little early to plant them outdoors. Wait to plant them into the garden until about two to four weeks after you plant tomatoes, or about a month after the last average frost date. Pepper seedlings can sunburn, so it is a good idea to gradually introduce them to their garden home by first moving them to an outdoor location where they will get some midday to afternoon shade for five days or so and then into the garden.
Space peppers about 1 to 2 feet apart, in rows that are 2 to 3 feet apart. Species vary in size of plant but this is generally a good guide for bells, jalapeños and other garden peppers.
Peppers are not difficult to grow, but they do have a list of requirements about which they are quite picky. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your pepper patch.
While peppers love lots of sun, the fruits of many types are prone to sunburn in the brutal heat of the summer sun. A little late-day shade is helpful, especially if it is a bright shade, and if they are getting at least six hours of morning sun. They will tolerate a range of soil types but love good drainage and will benefit from additions of compost, especially in sandy or heavy clay soil.
A tip for getting peppers off to a great start is to set a wire cage around them at planting and wrap the cage in lightweight rowcover fabric that is held together at the top with a clothespin. This keeps them a bit warmer; helps deflect the wind and, best of all, blocks out pests which bring virus diseases, a common bane of peppers. When the plants reach the top of the cage you can either remove the rowcover or simply slide it down to the base of the cage.
Keep Em’ Growin’ Fast
Peppers do best when they hit the ground running and never slow down. If the plants lack nutrients or soil moisture, they will be stressed and production and quality will be reduced. Mix 2 to 3 pounds of complete fertilizer per 100 square feet into the soil prior to planting. Then when the first fruits start to form add a couple of tablespoons more in a 1-foot diameter circle around each plant. If soil magnesium levels are low, a tablespoon of Epsom salts around each plant will provide the needed nutrients and promote deep green foliage. Finally, foliar feeding once a week is also helpful.
I have seen peppers fertilized to the point I thought the gardener would “burn” them, and they were exceptionally productive. In our garden, we start with a couple of inches of rabbit manure worked into the soil surface a couple of weeks prior to planting. Then, as they grow, apply a side dressing of cottonseed meal or fishmeal when fruit sets to really kick them into high gear.
Peppers are generally picked when they reach full size and are meaty and firm. The best time to harvest actually varies with type, intended use and tradition. Take jalapeños for example. Traditionally, folks allow them to get full sized but still green, and start to develop fine cracks in the skin. You can harvest them much earlier if you like. I prefer to allow them to turn fully red. Allowing them to reach this stage reduces the yields per bush a bit, but the peppers are sweeter and the vitamin A content is much higher.
Most peppers start off chartreuse to green and will turn red as the fruit matures. Breeding work has brought additional color options into our garden peppers. Bells now come in yellow, orange, chocolate brown and lavender/purple. The ‘Jaloro’ variety, a jalapeño type pepper, starts off chartreuse and ripens through yellow to a beautiful bright orange color.
Few vegetables are as adapted to container culture as are peppers. If you lack a sunny garden spot you can still do quite well with peppers in containers. There are many attractive ornamental types, which produce fruit atop the plants and can really add dramatic interest to a group of container plants. Ornamental peppers are edible but usually inferior to our garden types in fruit quality and flavor. Many garden peppers are well-suited as dual-purpose container ornamentals. Tabasco, serrano and other small-fruited hot peppers are especially attractive ornamental plants.
For best results provide a 2- to 5-gallon container. Smaller containers will work for small-statured types, but you will have to take extra care to keep them well watered and a gust of wind may easily blow a tall plant in a small container over. Also, the larger the container, the larger the pepper plant will become.
Peppers, although grown as annuals in our climate, are actually perennial shrubs in areas where it does not freeze. I have occasionally overwintered a prize pepper variety by digging the plant and potting it up to spend the winter indoors.
Pepper Problem Solver
The following are a few of the more common problems you may encounter in growing peppers and some recommended solutions.
Small Fruit – When temperatures heat up in the summer some peppers will not set fruit as well and fruit size will decrease. Additionally, stressful growing conditions such as drought can result in smaller fruit.
Large Tan Areas On Fruit – Sunscald due to exposure to direct rays of the sun. Sunburn appears on the surfaces exposed to the direct sun. Provide a shadecloth over plants. Keep plants vigorous and full of healthy foliage.
Brown To Black Areas On End of Fruit Opposite Stem – Blossom end rot. Caused by lack of calcium due to fluctuations in soil moisture. Keep soil evenly moist. In low calcium soils, supplement with lime.
Tiny Brown Specs Surrounded By Round Pale Yellow Halos – Stinkbug damage. Rowcovers can protect plants early in the season. In severe cases, sprays may be necessary. Consult your Extension Office for spray options.
Trails Through Leaves – Leaf miner tunnel between upper and lower leaf surface causes these serpentine trails. This is seldom serious enough to cause a reduction in yield or warrant spray applications.
Small “Shot Holes” In Leaves – Caused by flea beetles. Mostly a problem on new transplants. There are several labeled insecticides, but the simplest option is to cover plants with a rowcover fabric when young to exclude the insects.
Tiny Insects Clustering Under Leaves & On New Growth – Aphids can at times build up to problem levels. Usually beneficial insects will keep aphid populations in check, but when they do not, a dilute spray of insecticidal soap or pyrethrum are two of the many options for control.
Dead Spots On Leaves – Fungal and bacterial diseases can become a problem in some seasons. Avoid needless wetting of foliage and when sprays are necessary, consult your County Extension Office for proper disease identification and control recommendations. Copper-based sprays are usually an effective solution.
Mottled Green & Yellow Foliage (often circular in pattern but may also exhibit malformed leaves and/or fruit) – Caused by a virus infection. Once infected, plants cannot be cured and should be pulled and discarded to reduce additional infections. Starting plants in cages covered by rowcover fabric will help exclude the insects that transmit virus diseases to the growing plants.
Nutritious and Tasty
Peppers are high in vitamins C, A, E, B1, B2, and B3. They can contain as much as six times the vitamin C of oranges. When allowed to turn red, the carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) content goes up dramatically.
Peppers are healthy to eat, easy to grow and so versatile they can be used in the kitchen as a vegetable or a spice. There are as many ways to use peppers as there are types of peppers, including eating fresh, drying, stuffing and baking, filling with cream cheese, and even grilling. If you have never had a piping-hot smoked jalapeño (known as a chipotle), you are missing a real treat!
Peppers can be grown in pots on a balcony or patio and look great in a flower bed or herb garden. If you have a sunny place in the garden or even an apartment balcony, give peppers a try. But I warn you… peppermania can be addictive!
Sources of Pepper Seeds:
The Pepper Gal
P.O. Box 23006
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33307 3006
Phone: (954)537 5540
(Over 260 varieties of peppers. A veritable “Peppers-R-Us!”)
Tomato Grower’s Supply
P.O. Box 2237
Ft. Myers, FL 33902
Phone: (941)768 1119
(Do not let the name fool you. They carry about 69 types of sweet peppers and 93 types of hot peppers!)
Willhite Seed, Inc.
P.O. Box 23
Poolville, TX 76487-0023
Toll Free Phone: (800)828-1840
(A great Texas seed company that carries 26 types of peppers, including many of the recommended standard types.)
Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700
(Specialize in open-pollinated heirloom and traditional seed varieties that are certified organic. Includes approximately 20 hot peppers and 9 sweet pepper varieties.)
526 N. 4th Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85705-8450
(A seed bank for native American crops of the southwest. Carry approximately 36 types of peppers.)