Growing your Own

Peppers have always been one of the more popular vegetables in the home garden. Growing pepper plants is easy. Bell peppers, and many hot peppers, are native to Central and North America. A wide range of hot pepper varieties are also native to Asia, most notably Thailand and China.

It used to be that any grower who liked peppers, would plant several sweet green bell pepper plants in their garden. Several weeks later, they would harvest some great tasting fruit. No difficult decisions on the variety. And, home grown peppers are not difficult to grow.

Today’s gardeners enjoy the opportunity to select between a tremendous array of choices. You can pick sweet or hot. When it comes to hot, there are varying degrees of hot. The debates rage as to who has the hottest pepper. Varieties from Mexico, China and Thailand usually are the hottest.

You also get to select color. There are a wide variety of colors to choose from, versus the “plain old green” ones which were the only choices your parents and grandparents had to choose from. There are a number of yellow, red, and orange colors. There is even a variety with a striking purple color.

After you are done selecting hot/sweet and color, don’t forget shape. There are traditional “bell pepper” shapes, long and slender, and of course round or “cherry peppers”.

Peppers are best started indoors, eight to ten weeks or more before the last frost date for your area. Pepper seeds can be a difficult seed germinate, and seedlings grow slowly. Many growers simply visit their local garden store for seedling to transplant. Avid garden hobbiests find pleasure in a new challenge, and start their own pepper plants indoors.

There are many good seed starting mixes available at nurseries or discount stores. They work very well and I would recommend them as there is no mixing, measuring, etc. If you prefer to make your own mixture, go with 1/3 good garden soil (don’t go with clay soil as it compacts badly), 1/3 vermiculite or similar growing medium, and 1/3 sand. Hot pepper plants love sand as many varieties originate in areas with sandy soil. Also it provides excellent drainage. Mix all 3 ingredients together very well. Peat Pellets also work very well for growing peppers from seed. They provide a nice little house to enclose the seed and provide it with the right amount of moisture.

Tip: Provide bottom heat or heat lamps to raise the soil temperature to 80 degrees. This will promote better and quicker germination.

Find a good and warm sunny windowsill. Seedlings prefer at least 6 hours of sunlight, the more the better. Hot pepper seeds need to be coaxed through the germination and transplant stages. Remember they all originated from a tropical environment. But keep in mind you’ll be rewarded with a healthy, robust, prolific plant for your patience. Some varieties can be finicky to germinate. Its recommend soaking seeds overnight in warm water to give them a head start.

Then sow seeds 1/4 inch deep 6 to 10 weeks before the last frost. Keep seeds moist, but not soaked, through germination phase. They germinate best above 65 degrees. Ideal is 75 to 85 degrees. Because most homes are not this warm, another tip is to place them on top of your refrigerator until seedlings emerge. It stays pretty warm there. Don’t forget my cling-wrap tip in a sunny windowsill. Be patient, some varieties can take 4 to 6 weeks to germinate. Others can show up in 7 to 10 days. It depends on temperature,sunlight, soil and variety.

As they develop their first set of leaves snip off with a scissors the weakest one. As they develop their second set of leaves snip off all but the healthiest one. If any variety starts to grow tall and too “leggy”, open the window just a little bit to shock the plant with cooler air. This will slow down its growth and make its stem thicker and more conducive to transplant. Once you have healthy seedlings you’re ready for the transplant and growing stage.

Throughout the growing season, make sure your pepper plants receive at least an inch of water a week. Check the peppers often during periods of extreme heat and drought, when each plant can easily take a gallon of water a day. If you live in a very hot, arid region, add a thick layer of mulch to help retain soil moisture and moderate the soil temperature. But do this only after your soil has warmed — mulching cool soil will keep it too cool and stunt the pepper plants’ growth.

As weird as it may seem, pinch off any early blossoms that appear on your pepper plants. This won’t harm the plants. In fact, it helps them direct their energy into growing, so you get lots of large fruits later in the season (and a higher overall yield) instead of just a few small fruits early on.

You can harvest the peppers at their immature green or purple stage, but the flavor will be sweeter if you wait for them to reach their mature color — usually red, but sometimes golden yellow or orange.

Italian fryers, jalapenos, and Cubanelles are possible exceptions: Many people prefer the flavor of these peppers when they are full size but still green. To harvest the peppers, cut them off with hand pruners. Pulling them off by hand can damage the plant.

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