I used to ignore peppers, seeing no need for them, until we grew our own. Now I can pick one and eat it right there. What flavor! Nothing like the store. I bring this up because it’s time to start pepper seedlings under grow lights in our zone, and maybe others. Next to tomatoes, they’re said to be America’s favorite vegetable.

            Green bell peppers are the most popular, but reds and oranges command a higher price, so we grow those also. And I must admit, the combination is lovely – both at the market and on the dinner table. .

            BELLS: Peppers are slow germinating, and slow growing, painfully slow in the beginning until hot weather makes them take off. (Peppers are like ketchup in a bottle; nothing comes and then a lot’ll.)

            Blocky bell peppers are the runaway favorite at our market, but sweetness and nutritional value improve if they’re left to mature to red. Colored peppers should also be left to mature, if you can stand it, to yellow, orange, purple, even white and brown these days. The latter don’t jazz me: it it doesn’t appeal to the eye, I pass the plate along.

            Just be sure to not to let any overripe fruit remain on the plant lest production take a nosedive. The goal of any plant is to produce another generation, so once peppers set fruit and seed, the mother plant relaxes and takes a seasonal nap.

            OTHERS: Bell peppers are my favorite, both at the market and on the table, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. If you haven’t already, try banana peppers, chiles, drying ristras, jalapenos, and others. I don’t like the super-hots, like habaneras, not only because they burn my tongue but my fingers in picking them. When growing, be sure to label the peppers’ heat in the plot, because even though you absolutely, positively, thoroughly KNOW you’ll remember, you won’t.

            STARTING: We grow peppers just like tomatoes, from seed. I sow them directly into 2 ½ -inch pots so I won’t have to repot them (their roots don’t like to be disturbed), and because the extra room provides extra root growth and stronger plants. I start them a good 8 weeks before setting out, which we do two weeks after the weather has settled and last frost date is two weeks passed, when night temperatures are consistently above 50F and the soil is at least 60˚F.

            Seed germination is faster when temperatures are at least 75, so I simply drop grow-lights so they sit on the potting cells. Production will improve if peppers with three true leaves are grown in a cool spot (low 50sF) for a month before transplanting, but that’s easier said than done. I have no such place, so I grow them in the coolest part of the cellar for that period of time.

            TRANSPLANTING:  When the weather is ready, and the seedlings are about 5” tall, I set them out in single rows 2 feet apart, with the plants themselves spaced about 12-18” apart in the row. Mulch the plants and water consistently as drought conditions can cause peppers to be bitter. I’ve rarely had problems with pests on pepper plants, and only in the South have I seen diseases on them. Crop rotation and fertile soil are the best defenses.

            TIP FROM BRIDE: Peppers may be diced into fingernail-sized pieces and frozen in zip-lock bags (suck or squeeze the air out). They lose crunchiness, but not an ounce of flavor. Defrost and use in any way you would use a fresh pepper.

About lifegrower

Peter V. Fossel has been gardening since he was nine, and has been an organic farmer for the last 20 years. His most recent book, “Organic Farming, Everything You Need to know” was published by Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2007. He’s written numerous gardening articles for Organic Gardening, Horticulture, Country Journal, Out Here, and American Profile among others. He was Gardens Manager for The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Tennessee before returning to Cape Cod to start his newest organic venture, Swan River Farm in Dennisport, MA.
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