Peter Piper may have picked a peck of pickled peppers, but could he grow them? Yes, it’s easy! Peppers have spiced up gardens for centuries. Peppers are a pretty plant with plentiful fruit in a plethora of shapes, colors, and flavors. Shapes range from tiny to large; tall to squat. Peppers radiate flaming hues like red, yellow, orange, green, and purple. Their flavor reaches from the very mild to the burning hot.
People are addicted to the unique, fruity heat of the pepper. Gardeners enjoy growing peppers because they produce, with little effort. No wonder peppers (Capsicum ssp) are the hot herb of the year for 2016.
Peppers are members of the nightshade (solanaceae) family which includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants. Countries vie to produce the hottest pepper. Indeed, there are companies that only offer items made with peppers, like sauces, powders, and marinades. Our appetite for peppers continues to burn.
To avoid scorched tongues, a pharmacist, Wilbur Scoville, devised a method to measure the heat of peppers: the Scoville rating. The bell pepper is rated zero while the scorching Habanero’s are rated 60,000.
An additional benefit to growing peppers is that eating them may give you a ‘runner’s high.’ Scientists think this reaction is from the pepper’s heat (and the slight pain it creates) which stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain. The fire comes from the capsaicin, an alkaloid unique to peppers. They impart an intriguing mix of pleasure and pain that adds a special something to dishes with hot pepper.
Some may be perplexed why peppers are the “herb” of the year. The definition of an herb is any plant that is used either for culinary purposes, or to make crafts, or as a medicine. Obviously peppers have been used in cooking for centuries, but many are surprised to know the pepper’s medicinal and nutritional benefits. Peppers are a good source of vitamins A and C and they also may help burn fat. Capsicum, especially in high amounts, seems to increase metabolism for at least twenty minutes after being eaten. Hot peppers contain anti-inflammatory properties that ease migraines, arthritis and help clear up a stuffy head and nose. Adding hot peppers to soups and sauces helps fight colds, sinusitis, and bronchitis.
Peppers grow easily from seed, seemingly as fast as a wildfire in hot weather. However, you need to make sure the soil has warmed into the 50’s before you plant. Farmers used to preform a bare bottom test to make sure the soil was warm, but you can just wait until May or early June, unless mooning your neighbors is in order. Growing peppers from seed allows you to explore the unusual varieties, but with the rising popularity of backyard edibles, you can often buy some intriguing transplants. Peppers take between sixty to ninety days to mature. Starting out with transplants speeds up the process. If you go for the slower route, make sure you follow planting directions on the seed packet.
If you are in a hurry, seek the ‘short season’ pepper varieties at your nursery, like ‘Ace,’ or ‘Yankee Bell.’ To pick pepper plants properly look for a sturdy stem and healthy leaves. Avoid transplants with blossoms or fruit, since you want the plant’s energy to go into establishing healthy roots before fruiting.
Prepare the soil by adding compost or amendments and a general, organic vegetable fertilizer. Peppers need at least six hours of sun. The more time in full sun, the better quantity ND quality fruit you will get. Space the plants between 18-24 inches apart, in rows that are at least 24 inches apart. Give each pepper plenty of space because they grow rapidly. If they are too close they can stunt each other’s growth.
After planting, add mulch around the peppers so the soil will retain moisture. As the peppers develop, switch over to a fertilizer higher in phosphorous (the second number listed on the fertilizer). If your fertilizer is too high in nitrogen (the first number listed), you may get flourishing leaves but little fruit.
Peppers don’t like soggy conditions, but they do need about an inch of water a week. In addition, avoid watering overhead because water sitting on pepper’s leaves fosters disease. Watch out for spider mites and aphids on your pepper plants. If this crops up, try an organic insecticide.
When most pepper are green they are immature, excepting jalapeños and a few other lesser known varieties that are ripe when still green. As most peppers ripen they turn a unique color, like yellow, red, orange or even brown. To determine the pepper’s ripeness, you must learn the goal color. If you are aiming for a heat, remember the riper the hotter. When you harvest plenty of peppers, try freezing them. To freeze them, simply dice or slice your peppers and spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet. When they are frozen, place them into freezer bags or an airtight container.
Pick a perfect pepper for your garden this year. They will fire up your yard and light up your dishes in 2016.