One of the easiest and most productive plants in the home garden is the pepper, and there is a variety to suit every palate. From sweet to hot to nuclear fission, peppers are prolific producers and will bear fruit up until a killing frost.
Peppers are in the genus Capsicum, which is from the Greek word “kapto,” meaning to bite or swallow. The genus includes chili peppers, bell peppers, banana peppers, cherry peppers, jalapeños, serranos and habaneros and the list goes on and on.
Did you know that peppers got their name from Christopher Columbus? While he was out exploring for spices in the new world, he came across a spicy fruit. He thought it tasted a bit like the heat from a peppercorn, so he called it pepper. He transported some of these first chili peppers to Spain, where they quickly spread across Europe. Peppers are now grown in almost every country, and there are regional dishes featuring peppers. Peppers can be eaten fresh, smoked, canned, pickled or dried in powder form. You can even buy whole dehydrated peppers and rehydrate them before cooking.
The heat — or lack thereof — in a pepper comes from the level of capsaicin. Bell peppers have no capsaicin while habaneros have a lot. Peppers are measured for their heat by SHU (Scoville Heat Unit) and the concentration of capsaicinoids. The world’s hottest pepper is the Carolina Reaper with 1.6 million SHU — considerably hotter than the jalapeño (which starts at 2,500 SHU) — and a jalapeño is hot enough for me.
I truly don’t understand the quest for the hottest peppers. I like to keep my taste buds intact and be able to taste the flavor of the food, but hot peppers are all the rage. When using any peppers that have heat, note that the hottest part is the pith or the ribs that hold the seeds. Be careful not to touch your eyes after working with hot peppers. Wash your hands thoroughly, or better yet, wear gloves.
Pepper plants are easy to grow as long as you have at least six to eight hours of sunlight. Plants can go in the
ground after all chances of frost have passed, and can be planted all summer long, even into early fall. Peppers have lovely small white flowers and can produce pretty fruits in all colors. Some varieties are sold as ornamental peppers for their showy purple, orange or red fruit pods, but even edible varieties can have pretty red and orange fruits. The ornamental varieties are edible, but beware, some are extremely spicy while others have no flavor at all.
Peppers take a long while from seed to production, so we normally buy transplants, versus direct seeding. Luckily for gardeners, nurseries and garden centers usually have a ready supply of these plants, but they can’t carry all 3,500 named varieties of peppers available. If you want a specific variety, you may need to buy seeds and grow your own transplants.
Many gardeners are most familiar with the bell pepper and choose that to plant. To grow the large, lobed fruits that we see at the grocery store takes a lot of care and effort, and many gardeners are frustrated with smaller fruits.
Some productive and good-tasting sweet peppers are the sweet banana, Gypsy, Cubanelle and sweet cherry peppers.
If you like large peppers for stuffing or making chili rellenos, try the Giant Marconi or Anaheim.
Jalapeños are now sold as mild and spicy. Typically, larger fruited jalapeños are not as spicy as smaller pods, which often holds true when buying them at the market. Remember it is the membrane and seeds that have the heat, and smaller peppers have more membranes by percentage than larger fruited forms.
Spicy banana peppers are good producers, but be careful about planting the hot and mild ones side by side, or you may forget which is which. The resulting fruit looks identical.
Habanero peppers are some of the prettiest peppers in the garden with showy orange and yellow fruit. But I would grow them as an ornamental; they are too hot for me.
Keep your peppers watered when dry, and fertilize at planting, then again when you see your first peppers setting. Peppers in raised beds or containers might need fertilizer more often. Light, frequent applications of fertilizer after plants begin bearing fruit should keep them producing. A light side dressing of a complete granular fertilizer or a water-soluble fertilizer can be used every two to three weeks. Remember, especially when it is hot and dry, fertilizer can burn. It is always best to lightly fertilize and water it in. Avoid getting dry fertilizer on the foliage.
While peppers don’t require staking like tomatoes do, some gardeners add some support if the plants are especially loaded with fruit. Unlike many vegetables, peppers can be harvested at any size and still give good flavor. Young peppers are green, but once they reach their full, mature size, they can change color from green to red, orange, yellow or purple, depending on the variety.
Peppers can be grown in the ground or in large containers on your deck or patio. If you haven’t tried growing peppers before, give it a shot.
Janet B. Carson is a freelance writer specializing in gardening.