By Lalitree L. Darnielle, EMGV
It’s high pepper season here in the Piedmont, when the fruits of the various Capsicum species are ripening in abundance. Whether you’re interested in sweet bell peppers, scorching ‘Carolina Reapers,’ or something from the vast array of choices in between, there’s a lot to love about peppers and something for everyone. And, they’re an easy garden crop to grow in our area with some sun and well-drained soil.
There are around 25 species in the Capsicum genus, but three of them are the most common: Capsicum annuum, including bell peppers, jalapeños, Thai peppers, and shishitos; Capsicum chinense, including habaneros, ghost peppers, and the super-hots; and Capsicum baccatum, the aji types such as ‘Aji Amarillo,’ ‘Sugar Rush,’ and ‘Aji Mango’ varieties. Less ubiquitous but still common are the Capsicum frutescens (most famous for being the species of the ‘Tabasco’ variety) and Capsicum pubescens (the cold-hardy rocoto peppers).
Peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of heat. You can grow tiny pebble-shaped chiletpins or nearly foot-long ‘NuMex Big Jims.’ There are stout, thick-walled poblanos and thin, super long, and twisty ‘Thunder Mountain Longhorns.’ There are smooth-skinned bells or Corni de Toro, and super-bumpy Seven Pot peppers. Ripe pepper color varies greatly among varieties – bright red, dark red, orange, yellow, peach, brown, even striped. Immature pepper color varies as well, from some that are so packed with anthocyanins 1 that they appear nearly black, to dark green, light green, and even white.
Heat, which comes primarily from the chemical compound capsaicin and is measured in units called Scoville heat units, ranges from 0 (sweet peppers) to well over two million (‘Carolina Reaper’). Contrary to popular belief, the seeds of the pepper do not contain capsaicin and do not contribute heat. Capsaicin is mostly concentrated in the light-colored inner “ribs” that hold the seeds, as well as the walls of the fruit. So, if you want to reduce the heat level of a pepper for use in cooking, make sure to remove the ribs inside.
Pepper Growing Basics
Peppers are annuals in our area, growing best when days are 70-85° during the day and 60-70° at night. They grow slowly in cool weather and need a long growing season, so if you’re growing from seed, it’s best to start them indoors in February. Pepper seeds germinate best in a warm spot, so place your seeded pots on a heat mat or other warm place like the top of a refrigerator. Be prepared to wait two weeks or even longer, as pepper seeds can be slow to germinate. Keep the seed-starting medium moist but not soaking wet. Remove the heat once the seedlings pop up, and provide bright light and good air circulation as the young plants grow.
In late April to early May, when young plants are ready to go outside and the danger of frost is past, harden them off by gradually increasing their exposure to sunlight and wind over the course of a week or two. Choose a sunny, well-drained spot, and give plants 12-24 inches of space – peppers like to “hold hands” somewhat, but they also need room for air circulation. Afternoon shade can be acceptable, even preferred for some varieties like rocoto peppers, which are adapted to cooler mountainous regions and struggle in the Piedmont’s summer sun. Containers may also be used successfully – make sure your container drains well, and that each plant has at least three gallons of potting medium for best results.
After transplanting outside, provide protection from any surprise late frosts – you can use row covers, or simply place upturned boxes or buckets over the young plants on cold nights. Fertilize new transplants lightly (according to the results of your soil test), and repeat once fruits begin to set. Provide sturdy support, since large plants that are laden with fruits have a tendency to tip over. Keep the bed mulched and free of weeds. Then, be patient! Some varieties will start to set fruit mid-summer, but it can take until late July or even mid-August for ripening to occur. Some varieties, especially some C. baccatum varieties such as ‘Aji Amarillo’, require a very long growing season and may not ripen until late September.
At the end of the season, pepper plants can be moved to pots and pruned back drastically to be overwintered indoors. Plants can be maintained in this way without need for light, then planted out again the next spring, giving them a head start on the season. Keep the soil just barely moist, and watch for pests like aphids.
Peppers generally grow well in the Piedmont and have few major pest or disease issues, but they can have problems. Blossom-end rot can affect the developing fruits, and some varieties seem to be particularly prone to this. Usually this is caused by very uneven watering leading to poor uptake and transport of calcium. Sunscald is one of the main causes of blemishes if fruits are exposed to too much direct sunlight. Cracking and splitting of fruit is common if a period of dryness is followed by sudden wet conditions. Blossom drop may occur during periods of stress such as extreme heat or dryness. Root rot can occur in areas where the drainage is poor, causing stunted growth and failure of the plant to thrive. Insects such as aphids or hornworms may also feed on plants, and microbial diseases can occur as well. Usually, these issues are relatively minor.
Harvest and Storage
For varieties such as bell peppers, jalapeños, and shishitos, it’s most common to harvest unripe green peppers, but waiting until fruits reach their ripe color maximizes their flavor and vitamin content. Unripe peppers may mature in color somewhat if held at room temperature for a few days but will not truly ripen any further. Store picked peppers in the refrigerator where they’ll keep for a few weeks, or freeze them for longer storage.
(Left to right) See the dramatic difference in color of unripe and ripe ‘Naga Smooky Rainbow’ (C. chinense) – yes that’s the right spelling! – and the stages of ripening of a ‘Trepediera Werner’ (C. baccatum), from white to orange to red. (Image Credit: Lalitree Darnielle)
1–Water soluble flavonoid pigments found in plants that can be black, blue, violet, or red. These colors are impacted by pH levels.
Resources and Additional Information
For more information on common types of peppers and pepper pests and pathogens, visit North Carolina State University’s following online sites:
University of California’s factsheet provides great additional insight on how to preserve and enjoy peppers. This thorough guide also includes several recipes.
University of California’s Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa’s 2022 Pepper Collection offers suggestions of sweet and hot varieties for the home gardener.
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