Pick a Peck of Peppers

By Susan Littlefield

Hot or sweet; hybrid or open pollinated; green, red, yellow -- even brown -- peppers are garden favorites. Whether you grow them for enjoying raw in salads, cooked in your favorite stir-fries and Mexican dishes, or dried and made into ristras, you want a big harvest from productive plants. Here are some tips to help you have a successful harvest.

Hot, But Not Too Hot

Peppers are the Goldilocks of the vegetable garden. Not too cold and not too hot, they are looking for weather that is just right! While temperatures that are too low will slow pepper growth down and may even stunt plants permanently, if it gets too hot they'll stop producing fruits.

Get peppers off to a good start by waiting until it is nice and warm and the weather is settled before setting plants in the garden. Ideally the soil should be at least 65 degrees F and night should stay reliably above 50 degrees F. Gardeners in short season areas can use black plastic to pre-warm the soil and give plants some extra protection by setting them in a cage enclosed in clear plastic or row cover fabric. Be sure to vent plants on warm days and remove the covers as the weather warms.

At the other extreme, peppers may drop their blossoms and stop producing fruits if the daytime temperatures remain above 90 degrees. Hot peppers tend to be more tolerant of high temperatures than sweet peppers. Be sure to keep the soil consistently moist and use an organic mulch rather than plastic to help keep the soil cool. Covering plants with shade cloth stretched on supports may help, or place them in the garden where they'll get some afternoon shade from taller plants nearby.

Here are some the many sweet and hot pepper varieties we carry.

Hungarian Yellow Wax (65 days) - This dwarf, open-pollinated hot pepper bears 5-inch long, tapering , firm, waxy fruits that turn bright red at maturity.

Tejaswini MHP-1 (70-75 days) - This hybrid chili bears very hot, dark green fruits that ripen red on 25-27 inch tall, well-branched plants.

Bell Boy (70 days) - This hybrid sweet pepper bears thick-walled, 4-lobed fruits on very productive plants that are TMV tolerant.

Red Cherry (75 days) - Great for pickling, canning, or stuffing, this open pollinated pepper produces cherry-shaped, dark green to crimson, pendant fruits 1.5 inches in diameter.

Big Bertha (70-73 days) - This very large pepper bears thick, smooth-walled, elongated fruits that go from medium green to red. Plants are TMV tolerant.

Cayenne, Long Slim (70-75 days) - The slender, 5-6 inch fruits of this open-pollinated hot pepper go from dark green to red at maturity.

Tips for Success with Peppers

Get plants off to a strong start: When starting peppers from seed, use bottom heat to speed germination. Water young seedlings with lukewarm water and give them daytime temperatures of around 75-80 degrees F, if possible. Make sure transplants are well hardened off before they go out in the open garden and the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past. In cooler areas, row covers can offer some protection from cool night temperatures early in the season.

Pepper plants may not reach the same heights as tomatoes, but they can get top heavy when they are loaded with fruit, causing branches to break or the entire plant to topple over in the wind. Use cages or stakes to help keep plants upright.

Use cutworm collars: Cutworms are night-feeding caterpillars that would love nothing better than to chomp through the stems of your carefully nurtured transplants once you set them in the garden. Encircle each stem with collars fashioned from sections of toilet paper or paper towel tubes, old tuna cans, or cut-down yogurt containers. Or wrap the base of stems in multiple layers of newspaper.

Keep soil moisture consistent: Peppers won't tolerate soggy soil, but they do need consistent moisture in well-drained soil to do their best. Fluctuations in soil moisture can lead to problems like blossom end rot, which causes dark, leathery spots to form on the blossom end of the fruit.

Make sure plants are well-fed, but don't overdo the nitrogen: Peppers need a balanced supply of nutrients, but too much nitrogen will encourage lots of leaves and fewer fruits. Start out with soil that's been amended with compost; then sidedress plants lightly with a balanced fertilizer as they come into flower and again about three weeks later.

Harvest carefully: Peppers can be harvested green as soon as they are a usable size, or they can be left on the plant to ripen to their mature color. Hot peppers will develop more heat as they turn to their mature color, so if five-alarm chili is your goal, let them ripen completely on the plant. The stems of peppers are brittle, so the safest way to harvest is with scissors, rather than trying to pull peppers off by hand.

Question of the Month: Sunscald on Peppers

Q: Some of my ripening peppers developed sunken, bleached out, papery patches on them that later turned black and moldy looking. Yuck! What went wrong?

A: Just like you can get a sunburn if you are out in the bright sun too long, peppers can develop sunscald when they are exposed to too much hot sun directly on the fruits. The affected area first gets soft, wrinkled, and lighter in color. Later, the damaged tissue turns dry and sunken. Eventually black mold may begin to grow. Sunscald develops when their isn't enough foliage to shield plants from intense sunlight and is often more of a problem in warm-climate gardens. To prevent problems, keep plants well-leafed and growing vigorously by fertilizing and watering properly. If you garden in a hot, sunny climate, set plants so that they get some shade from taller plants at midday. If just small sections of a pepper fruit are damaged by sunscald and there is no mold present, you can still still eat the fruit if you cut away and discard the sunscalded sections. But if mold is growing, discard the entire pepper.

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