Big, Bad Bell Peppers

Bell peppers grown from your own garden are fresher, sweeter, and better-tasting than those you buy in the grocery store. Growing your own bell peppers can seem like a challenging task, but it really doesn't have to be. Although peppers have a reputation of being finicky to grow, especially in cold climates, with a little planning and special growing techniques you can harvest big, fat bell peppers from your home garden this summer. If you want red, yellow, chocolate or orange-colored bell peppers, you just have to be patient. All peppers eventually change to their mature color. The wait is worth it because the fruits have a chance to develop their true sweetness and flavor.

Here's how to select, grow, and harvest your bell peppers.

Bell Pepper Varieties

There are a number of different bell pepper varieties grouped by size and color. These hybrids are good ones to try in your garden. 'Blushing Beauty' is an All-America Selections winner that matures from ivory to blush to a red color 72 days from transplanting. The plants also are very disease resistant. 'Golden Bell' changes from a light green to gold in only 68 days. For a bell pepper of a different color, try 'Chocolate Beauty'. Another fast-maturing pepper at 67 days, this bell pepper matures to a deep, rich, chocolate color. It's very sweet, but unfortunately it doesn't taste like chocolate.

For a monster-sized bell pepper, try 'Big Bertha'. This thick-walled pepper bears fruits that are 7 inches long and 4 inches wide. It's a meal in itself! Finally, another All-America Selections winner, 'Bell Boy', is very productive. Its blocky shape is perfect for stuffing.

For more bell pepper varieties, go here.

Setting Fruits

Peppers like warm soil and air, plenty of sun, nutrients, and water. Don't rush to transplant your peppers until the soil has warmed to at least 55 degrees F. Once planted, if you expect cool (below 50 degrees F) nights, cover the plants with floating row covers. This cheesecloth-like material lets air, water and light pass through, but keeps night temperatures a little warmer. Keep the floating row cover over the plants for a few weeks until the nighttime temperatures stay above the 50 degree F range.

The temperatures are also critical for setting pepper fruits. Pepper flowers sometimes fall off at temperatures below 55 degrees F or above 90 degrees F. So in cool areas, keep the row covers on the plants. In hot summer areas, consider adding a shade cloth over the plants on hot afternoons to keep the plants cooler.

Fertilizing and Watering

Peppers like a fertile soil. When planting, mix in compost and a handful of a balanced fertilizer. Add a side-dressing of this fertilizer when flowers begin to form and then monthly thereafter. If your soil is not high in magnesium, you can even try adding 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts (which contains magnesium sulfate) per 1 gallon of water and applying it to the peppers. Fertilizing with Epsom salts can encourage larger fruits and darker green foliage.

Give peppers a steady supply of water as well. Consider running soaker hoses or drip irrigation lines along the pepper bed. When watering, it's better to apply water deeply but less frequently, rather than adding small amounts of water daily. Deep watering encourages the roots to go deep into the ground for water. Mulch plants with pine straw, bark mulch, grass clippings, or plastic to conserve soil moisture and prevent weed growth. Dark plastic mulches are best used in cool summer areas since they heat up the soil.

Harvesting & Eating

Bell peppers can be eaten at any stage, but they taste best when allowed to reach their mature color. Once they reach mature size, you have a choice to make. Picking mature green bell peppers encourages more fruits to form, and you get the satisfaction of eating them right away. However, bell peppers form their sweetest, most complex flavors if allowed to mature to their final color, which may take another two to three weeks. The downside is that in the meantime, leaving the fruits on the plants will discourage the formation of new fruits.

In order to harvest some peppers as soon as possible, have fruits all summer, and get some colorful mature fruits, follow this technique. Let the peppers mature to the final color on one-half of your pepper plants. On the other half, keep picking as soon as they're full size yet still green.You'll get the best of both worlds.

The best part of bell peppers is in the eating. They can be stuffed, grilled, sliced in salads, sauteed with other summer vegetables, or eaten raw. They are sweet, versatile, and nutritious.


Summer Squash Rotting Before They Mature

Q. My yellow crookneck squash develops small squash, but as they begin to mature, they rot. The squash fruits look as though they're wilted.

A. Summer squash have separate male and female flowers. The female flower is the one with what looks like a tiny squash at the base of the flower. If the squash fruits aren't developing, it could be that the female blossoms weren't pollinated. This sometimes happens early in the season before the male blossoms appear. It can also happen during cool spells when pollinators, such as bees, are less active. You can encourage pollination of your squash by planting plenty of flowers and herbs around to attract bees.

If you still can't get pollination, you can play the pollinator. In the morning, take a cotton swab and brush it inside a freshly opened male blossom to collect yellow pollen. Then proceed to a newly opened female blossom and swish the swab in that flower. That should be enough to pollinate the flower and produce fruit.

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