Peppers are warm season vegetables that grow best in rich garden soil with daytime temperatures above 85 degrees. There are dozens of varieties of peppers, most are for eating and some are so colorful they are used simply as a garden ornamental.
Everyone knows peppers can be hot and spicy. They have the capacity to produce capsaicin, an oily substance capable of creating a burning sensation when applied to mucous membranes such as the eyes or inside of the mouth. Different varieties of peppers have different levels of capsaicin.
For example, bell peppers and sweet peppers may have little or no capsaicin and the naga jolokia pepper has so much capsaicin in each pepper it can be used as a weapon. Although the growing requirements for all peppers are similar, the amount of capsaicin produced in hot peppers can vary depending on the geological location and growing conditions.
Start peppers inside eight weeks before the last average frost in your area. Peppers are very frost sensitive and freezing weather kills them. Even cool temperatures under 50 degrees can affect their growth and production rates. The optimal temperature for seed germination is 80 degrees, so you may need to use a heater to warm the room or a heating mat specifically designed for placing under seed trays. Try to time the seed planting time so daytime temperatures are 85 degrees Fahrenheit when the plants are ready for transplanting. Provide bright light to prevent the transplants from growing leggy. You may need to provide artificial lights for up to 15 hours per day.
Plant pepper seeds ¼ inch deep in new potting soil or soilless potting mixture. A soilless potting mixture is sterile and is a mix of peat moss, vermiculite and other organic matter. There is a small amount of fertilizer to encourage growth of new seedlings. Avoid using old potting soil that was exposed to outdoor conditions. It contains disease pathogens or insects that attack young seedlings.
Choose a location to plant your peppers keeping in mind their space requirements. Peppers are planted 12 inches apart and require full sun, which is six hours or more of direct sunlight each day. The fruit of larger pepper varieties, such as bell peppers, may be scalded by the hot sun, so a location protected from the hottest afternoon sun after the six hour sunlight requirement is met is acceptable, especially in very hot climates. Do not plant in the same location where tomatoes, potatoes or eggplant were planted the previous season. These are relatives of the pepper and their pests may still be lurking in the soil.
Prepare the planting area by clearing all vegetation and spreading a layer of compost 2 inches thick over the planting area. Work the compost into the top 6 inches of soil. If the soil is hard clay, break up the soil to at least 12 inches deep and add enough additional compost to make the soil friable. The soil pH should be slightly acidic in the 5.5 to 7.0 range. Adjust the pH using agricultural lime or sulfur as needed. Soil preparation should begin at least four weeks before planting to give amendments time to work. One week before planting, work a balanced garden fertilizer with a fertilizer ration of 10-10-10, 8-8-8. Or 13-13-13 into the top three inches of soil and rake smooth. Apply at the rates recommended on the fertilizer container label.
Plant pepper plants 12 inches apart slightly deeper than planted in their previous container. The close spacing allows the peppers to use their leaves to shade the fruit. Keep the soil moist, but not wet during the growing season. Peppers should not be allowed to wilt while growing as heat stress affects growth and fruit production.
Most peppers change color to orange or red when mature. Sweet peppers are sweeter and hot peppers are hotter when allowed to stay on the plant until maturity. However, once the peppers are mature, pepper production shuts down, so picking peppers for eating when they are full size but still green extends the harvest season. If you are picking peppers for drying, you’ll still need to wait until they are fully mature.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Gober is a gardening writer, farmer, florist and landscaper from Central Texas. His gardening articles appear across the Internet and in numerous periodicals. He is a Certified Texas Nursery and Landscape Professional and Master Gardener. His website is www.biglump.com