Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Sweetest of the Sweet Peppers

by Charlie Nardozzi

There is no garden vegetable more rewarding to grow than sweet peppers. These versatile summer vegetables are great used raw in salads and salsa, roasted on the grill, sauteed with other vegetables, or tossed into soups and stews. My Italian mother is famous for her traditional sausage and sweet pepper stir fry. Many other cultures also feature sweet peppers in their culinary traditions.

While everybody loves delicious sweet peppers, getting a good harvest can sometimes be frustrating. Success lies in choosing the right varieties for your area, growing the plants at the right time for your region, and using proper growing techniques. Read on to learn how you can be successful, whether you select bell peppers; Italian frying peppers; or small, round specialty peppers. These sweet fruits are a summer treat the whole family will enjoy.

The Best Pepper Varieties

Choose pepper varieties based on your tastes and your climate. For Northern gardeners, look for varieties that set fruit under cool temperatures and mature quickly to their final color. For Southern gardeners, look for heat-tolerant varieties that will keep producing all summer long.

The days to maturity listed on the seed packet are from transplanting in the garden until mature green stage). Add 14 days to this number for fully mature fruits (usually red). Pepper fruits are sweetest if allowed to mature to their final color.

Growing Sweet Peppers

If you're growing plants from seed, sow seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. Fill 2-inch square plastic or peat pots with moistened seed-starting mix and sow 2 seeds per pot. Put the pots in a 70-degree F room under artificial lights turned on 14-hours a day. Use Grow Lights or fixtures with one warm-white and one cool-white fluorescent bulb. Position the lights a few inches above the tops of the seedlings and raise the lights as the seedlings grow. When the seedling height is 3 times the diameter of the pot (e.g., 6 inches tall for 2-inch pots), transplant the seedlings into 4-inch pots.

Like their cousins, tomatoes, sweet peppers love the heat. So don't rush your transplants into the garden — wait a full 2 weeks after all danger of frost has passed. A week or two before planting outside, amend the garden soil with finished compost and, in cool areas, cover the bed with black or dark green plastic mulch. In warm areas, use lighter-colored mulches. The plastic helps to heat up the soil in the North and keep it cooler in the South. Mulch also prevents weed growth and helps to maintain the moisture in the soil.

Plant pepper seedlings in the ground at the same depth they were planted in pots. Keep the seedlings well watered. Some gardeners give their plants a boost twice during the growing season by watering with a mixture of 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts per gallon of water. The diluted salts help the plants grow larger and produce shinier leaves. However, avoid using epsom salts if a soil test indicates your soil is already high in magnesium.

Side dress monthly with a balanced organic granular fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. Consider placing small tomato cages around the plants to keep them upright as the growing fruits mature. Using a sharp knife, you can start harvesting peppers at the mature green stage or you can wait until the fruits have reached their final color. Allowing all the fruits on a plant to become fully mature will cause the plant to slow down its production of new fruits.

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