I love peppers! Sweet ones, mild ones, hot ones – doesn’t matter. Last year I planted a small bed of sweet peppers and a row of hot peppers, and I had enough to eat fresh all season and be able to freeze several quart bags of peppers to last through the winter. This year, I planted a large bed of sweet peppers and a large bed of hot peppers because I want enough to eat fresh, cook in recipes, freeze, pickle, and give away. If you’re a lover of peppers like I am,
Sweet peppers, known as bell peppers, and hot/spicy peppers, known as chili peppers, are scientifically known as Capsicum anum and are part of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. The name Capsicum is from the Greek kapto, meaning “to bite” or “to swallow.” And, although the word anum is in its name, the pepper is not an annual. It is a perennial shrub that will live several years in areas without hard frosts. An interesting note is that the black pepper we use as a spice is NOT from the same family as bell peppers and chilis; it’s name is Piper nigrum.
Both bell and chili peppers come in a variety of colors (green, yellow, orange, red, purple, and brown) and are native to Central and South America. The original Mexican term “chili” came from the Nahuatl word chilli or xilli, referring to the large capsicum variety that has been cultivated since at least 3000 BCE. Christopher Columbus discovered the pepper in the West Indies and brought it back to Europe in 1493. Interestingly, North America didn’t receive the pepper from its southern neighbors, but rather via the European colonists in the 1600s and 1700s. Talk about going full circle!
All chili peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin, which produces that burning sensation in our mouths that we call spicy or hot. This chemical is found throughout the flesh of the pepper, but it’s most concentrated in the membrane, or pith, surrounding the seeds. (Contrary to popular belief, the chemical is not in the seeds themselves.) The spiciness of the variety of chili pepper is based on the amount of capsaicin the pepper contains. This is measured by the Scoville Scale. The higher the number on the Scoville Scale, the hotter the pepper. For example, jalapenos are rated with 2,500 – 5,000 Scoville units, whereas habaneros are rated with 100,000 – 350,000 Scoville units. Bell peppers have a Scoville rating of zero because they don’t have any capsaicin thanks to a recessive gene in its DNA which eliminates it. To learn how hot a particular variety of pepper is, see the Scoville Heat Scale.
Both bell and chili peppers are high in Vitamins A, B, C and K, as well as several minerals. As an example, compare one cup of raw, green bell pepper to one cup of raw, green jalapeno pepper (based on recommended daily values):
Green bell pepper:
- 200% Vitamin C
- 17% Vitamin B6
- 14% Vitamin K
- 11% Vitamin A
- 9% Manganese
- 7% Potassium
- 5% Copper
- 66% Vitamin C
- 23% Vitamin B6
- 14% Vitamin A
- 11% each Vitamin K & Folate
- 11% manganese
- 6% each Potassium & Copper
- 4% each Iron & Manganese
Peppers perform best when germinated indoors then transplanted. Sow seed 8-10 weeks before the last frost in flats placed on seed germination mats. Peppers are difficult to germinate, taking 14-21 days to sprout. The germination mat will bring the soil temperature up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which will aid germination.
Seedlings can be transplanted outside two weeks after your last frost, when the soil temperature is at least 70 degrees. Peppers like well-drained, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8 and full sun. Plant your seedlings (or plants you buy at your local nursery) 18-24 inches apart. Although peppers are light feeders, you can give them a feeding of 5-10-10 fertilizer at the time of transplant. You can feed them again with compost tea or organic fertilizer about six weeks later when they start to bloom and set fruit.
Peppers require uniform moisture. They don’t like “wet feet,” but they shouldn’t dry out. Mulching will help with retention of soil moisture. Also, plant limbs can get quite heavy when there are several fruits ripening, so consider staking your pepper plants as you do tomatoes.
Although peppers are self-fertile, they can cross-pollinate. If you plan to save your seed, plant your chili peppers away from your bell peppers. Cross-pollination won’t affect the fruit you eat this season, but it can affect the seed you save for next year’s planting.
Most peppers mature in 70-90 days, depending on variety. Basically, the fruits are ready for harvest when they are large enough to eat. The longer they stay on the vine, the more mature they become and the more flavorful (or spicy) they will be. However, waiting for full maturity (when bell peppers turn yellow or red, or when chilis gain all their spiciness) comes at a price: reduced production. When fruit is harvested before full maturity, the plant will produce more in its effort to create viable seed. The choice is yours. For my green bells, I harvest when they’re large enough to eat. For my red bells, I wait until they turn red (unless I’m impatient). For my various chilis, I wait until they’re spicy enough.
When harvesting, do not pull the peppers off the plant as you risk breaking the branch. Cut the stem from the branch with garden shears. Place peppers on the counter, and they will continue to ripen for a couple more days, like tomatoes. And, like tomatoes, they are better left on the counter until eaten rather than placed in the refrigerator. When you have more peppers than you can eat at a time, you can freeze them (no blanching necessary) or pickle them. Chilis can be dehydrated, as well.
As a note, when the temperatures reach above 90 degrees for long periods of time – like most of the summer here in the South – pepper plants will not produce as many peppers. The plant is in survival mode. However, as the temperatures begin to cool down in September, the plants will begin to produce dozens of peppers again!
FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:
There are so many ways to eat peppers, it’s difficult to find my favorites. I love them raw in salads, stuffed with ground beef (using my meatloaf recipe) and roasted, pickled, used as spice in my chili, or roasted and marinated in garlic and olive oil. A new recipe we came up with is Stuffed Cubanelle Peppers. Yummy!
Here are a few other recipes for you to try.
Put peppers in your garden and get ready to pick your own peck of peppers!