In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
July, 2011
Regional Report

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Mild and sweet, banana peppers must be the easiest to grow of all.

Overlooked Peppers

It seems that everywhere you look, there is a story about hot peppers, and the hotter the better. Mind-searing heat has its place, but good taste triumphs over temperature every time.

Beloved Banana Peppers
Like the cute girl who gets dumped for a fast tart, banana peppers have been all but forgotten in the search for heat. Banana peppers, peperoncini-types, Hungarian wax, sweet red cherry peppers, et al, will not sear the taste buds. Instead, they have delicious flavor whether eaten raw, cooked or pickled, and with just a few plants, there will be plenty for all three ways and to give away. These plants are stupidly easy to grow if you give them a fertile, very well-drained soil and then let the plants dry out slightly between waterings. Pepper plants should put on new growth steadily, and if they do not, the peppers suffer both in number and taste. Water and fertilize often enough to see new growth each week, and when peppers appear, keep it up. Harvest frequently to keep them going almost endlessly.

This strategy is different from growing hot peppers, which thrive with just enough water and fertilizer to keep them alive once the peppers begin to set. Crunchy when fresh and bright when roasted, sweet peppers keep a crisp edge in pickles and combine brilliantly with mango in salsa. When these peppers pile up and there's plenty put up already, try them as a pizza topping. You might be surprised how well they combine with tomato sauce and mushrooms.

Stuffing Peppers
My grandmother stuffed bell peppers with cornbread and ground ham, but I prefer chiles rellenos full of shrimp and gooey white cheese. Neither is a traditional treatment and represent the myriad of ways to use big peppers like poblanos and anaheims. Too many people think they cannot grow these fat beauties or complain that they never get big enough to stuff. Because the desired pepper is almost as big as a hand, the plants will use more water and fertilizer than many hot peppers. Once the peppers form, step up the frequency of watering and fertilize at half strength with your favorite soluble formula. Pick the first peppers at 3 inches to stimulate more to form. Wait until the next ones are 5-6 inches long. Use them promptly in your favorite recipe, roast any extra peppers, and freeze them for soups and stews later.

Easy Bell Peppers
For years, the notion that bell peppers could be easy to grow was considered foolish. More than their kin, these plants have more potential problems and pests. But in recent years, varieties have found their way into the garden that are more reliable to grow and even more worthwhile for their color and flavor. Used to be that bell peppers were picked green, or if forgotten on the plant, turned red and sometimes bitter unless roasted. Then came yellow, red, and purple bells, available for a premium price at the market, and interest in growing them in the home garden surged. Better plants, like 'Aristotle' and others, make it easier.

Bell peppers still have more pest problems, but these are easily solved if discovered early on. With the motivation to grow, that daily walk to survey the garden seems more likely to get done and any problems that arise can be addressed promptly. Bell peppers have been developed to grow in containers with compact stems and leaves and plenty of peppers. Such tidy plants open the door for year round pepper growing since they can be protected from extremes of hot and cold whenever they threaten the harvest.


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