Staff — February 18, 2015

The National Garden Bureau chose 2015 as the year of the sweet pepper. The sweet pepper is also a nutritional powerhouse, a serving of the most popular type in the USA, the sweet bell, contains more vitamin C than the average orange, a generous amount of vitamin E and many antioxidants with only 29 calories. Peppers have high nutrient levels at any stage but are the most beneficial when eaten fully ripe.

Sweet bell peppers are a cultivar of Capsicum annuum. Non-pungent banana peppers, sweet jalapenos and sweet cherries are also members of Capsicum annuum. Currently capsicum includes at least 25 species, four of which are domesticated. Sweet peppers are called sweet because they do not produce capsaicin–a chemical that causes a “burning” sensation when hot peppers are consumed. Sweet peppers lack capsaicin due to a recessive form of a gene that eliminates capsaicin and, consequently, the “hot” taste usually associated with the rest of the capsicum genus.

How to Grow
Starting seeds indoors in a warm spot about 8 weeks before the last frost date. Pepper plants can suffer from transplant shock so planting them in a biodegradable container that can go right into the garden later. The soil must be warm (at least 75 degrees) and damp, and don’t transplant until days are at least 65 degrees and nights are above 55.

It is better to buy younger plants that have not yet flowered when possible. Older plants can become stunted and root-bound in the tiny starter containers and will not transplant as well as smaller, younger plants. Plants can sometimes become stressed in some garden centers. Choosing a garden center that cares for its plants and waters regularly is important. Don’t leave new plants in a hot car or truck bed for any longer than you need to. The best technique is to ready the soil and area in advance in order to get the plants in the ground quickly. Late afternoon planting causes the least amount of stress to young pepper plants giving them a night to adjust before they need to survive the first day of sun.

Peppers like a sunny spot. They grow best in a location where plants from the same family have not recently grown–crop rotation is important for peppers (and tomatoes and eggplants). Soil should be loose and amended with compost or a vegetable soil mix from the garden center. Introduce seedlings to the garden gradually and transplant during mild weather or in the late afternoon if possible. Transplant shock can slow the maturity of the plant and affect fruit quality and quantity.

If planting in rows, set peppers 12-18 inches apart in 24-inch wide beds. If planting in squares or in flowerbeds etc., allow 12-18 inches of space around each plant. Fertilize about every two weeks, especially the plants become pale. Stop fertilizing once the plant blooms so that it can put its energy into fruit set. Pepper plants prefer full sun, but if it’s a very warm area, look for varieties that have “good coverage” of fruit. A full leaf canopy will prevent fruit from sunscald. Scalded fruit, though less attractive, are still edible and taste the same.

Plants will continue to bloom and set fruit until the first frost. If temperatures are above 85 degrees, or very cool, flower set and fruiting may slow down. Keep the plants watered and wait out the weather–they often will rebound if conditions improve. At the end of the season, cut down and remove plants and add mulch or plant a cover crop for the next year.

Sweet peppers can be harvested at any stage of maturity. Less mature green peppers will generally be green or pale yellow, smaller, crunchy, and have thin walls and a slightly tart flavor. A benefit of harvesting early is that it triggers the plants to produce more fruit. Mature peppers will change color, have thicker walls, and a mild sweet flavor.

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