The only pepper I saw in my mother’s garden was the green, bell pepper. And I never liked them. The taste was too strong, bitter, almost biting. So I never planted peppers until I found red and yellow bells.
Discovering peppers of color led to what is now my favorite pepper of all time, the Italian sweet pepper.
Italian sweet peppers are at the heart of any great sausage and pepper sandwich you’ve ever had. And Italian sweet peppers add flavor to any recipe including my scallopini (recipes below the “bugs that bug” peppers).
Italian Sweet peppers have a rich green color that gradually turns brilliant red. The flesh of the pepper is medium thick. The fruit is slightly curved, tapering to a pointed end.
Today, Italian sweet peppers are the only peppers I grow.
Starting From Seed
Peppers are a warm weather plant so, like tomatoes and eggplant, I always start them from seed. And I always start peppers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the date specified on the seed packets. Why?
In my zone, peppers that are started 8 weeks before my last frost (around May 15th) just aren’t big enough or strong enough to set fruit before the middle to end of July. As a result, if I started them when the seed packet said to, I’d only get a few peppers from each one. If I start the plants indoors and early, my plants are larger and more vigorous and I get a glorious crop from every one!
I use 24-cell APS starter kits from Gardener’s Supply and I highly recommend them. Funny thing is, I’ve been using cells for seed starting for years and now, recent research revealed that growing peppers in larger tray cell sizes or containers will produce larger transplants.
The kits ensure that your seeds and seedlings get just the right amount of water while sprouting and growing. Not too much – not too little. The capillary mats in the cell system take advantage of osmosis. Because of the system design, I never have to contend with damping off.
I fill the cells with Gardener’s Supply germinating mix, place 4 seeds in each cell…two in opposite corners. Then I cover each cell with a bit of sphagnum moss, put on the plastic top and set the tray on two ceramic tile that sit directly on the heat mats. I fill the tray with water and then check 4 or 5 days to see if the seeds have sprouted.
NOTE: You have to check your seed trays every day to make sure there is enough water in them. Because I sit them almost directly on the heat mat, the water evaporates pretty fast. If the seeds dry out at any time during the sprouting or early growing stages, the plants will either die, outright, or just malinger – no grow very much at all.
As soon as the seeds sprout, I lift off the clear cover and drop the light to within 1 inch of the cells. As the plants grow, I keep the trays watered and I keep the light as close to the seedlings as I can without touching them. If the light touches them, even a fluorescent light, it will burn the baby’s leaves and slow the plant’s growth.
When the seedlings have two full sets of leaves, I give the plants a very mild fertilizer called Plant Health Care for Seedlings, also from Gardener’s Supply,
Once the plants are 3 to 4 weeks old, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots. NOTE: If all the seeds sprout, either separate the seedlings and put one in each peat pot or clip the smaller of the seedlings off with nail scissors so the remaining seedling has more room to grow.
Transplanting Peppers To The Garden
Before you put your pepper plants in the ground, make sure you are NOT planting them in the same area where you had tomatoes, eggplant or potatoes last year.
Peppers are in the Solanaceae plant family and are botanically related to these popular garden vegetables. Because they are related, peppers can share the same spectrum of pest problems and should not be rotated into soil recently lived in by their kissing cousins.
Also, whether you’re growing from seed or using transplants (unless they were outside when you bought them), you have to “harden off” your plants before you stick them in the garden.
Hardening off does NOT involve tools or torture. It just means that you have to introduce your transplants to the outdoors, gradually.
Five or six days before you want to put them in the garden, start setting them outside for a couple of hours the first 2 days and keep an eye on them. Make sure they have water and are not staked out in high sun or high wind. Then leave them out all day for 2 days then overnight for one night.
NOTE: also, when hardening off, stop fertilizing. If the plants have small flowers or fruit on them, pinch both off. You want to help the transplant direct all of its energy to rooting in the soil before it tries to set flowers or fruit.
Remember, peppers like warm earth and warm air – even warmer than tomatoes. So the optimal temperature for them to go into the ground is 75 to 85 degrees. Peppers are typically transplanted about two weeks later than tomatoes, for me that’s early June.
Peppers can be planted in single rows or twin (double) rows on a raised bed. Space the pepper plants 12 to 24 inches apart and space rows about 4 feet apart. If you decide to use a double row, make the rows about 18 inches apart on the bed and put the plants in the ground in a zigzag pattern.
By the way, peppers and tomatoes don’t work and play well together so don’t plant tomatoes on one side of your trellis or fence and peppers on the other. The pepper plants will grow but will be stunted and the peppers themselves will be small and prone to rotting.
Feeding The Peppers
If you don’t want to use fertilizer on your transplants, here’s a little trick I learned from a farmer friend. Crush up eggshells and put about ½ of a cup of them in the bottom of the hole. Toss a bit of soil on top of the crushed shells before you put the pepper plant in so the baby roots (cilia) are not cut.
Crushed egg shells are slow to break down but will feed the plants. And they are free so I love using them as my fertilizer. By the way, you can also use crushed egg shells to stop slugs…just by sprinkling them around the base of your plants.
Peppers have shallow roots so water them when they need it and don’t hoe too close. Also, stake peppers so that when fruit loads are heavy, the plants don’t topple from weight or high winds. I use old, inverted tomato cages as you can see below.
That sounds odd but the cages work better than anything else I have tried.
I put the tomato cage over the plant with the wide ring on the ground and fasten the ring down with ground staples. Then I gather up the tips of the cage and secure them with a wire tie. The pepper plant stays inside the cage, grows up straight and is supported even in the heaviest wind or thunderstorm. And I don’t have to tie the pepper plants up.
How to Grow Peppers is excerpted from my Kindle organic gardening book Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us and is available on Amazon.