Step-by-step Guide to growing Peppers
Originally a native of tropical America, peppers are becoming increasingly popular as a flavourful vegetable cooked in stews and casseroles, or served fresh in salads. Widely grown in southern Europe and warmer areas of the United States, recent developments of F1 hybrid strains have made growing peppers in cooler temperate climates possible; they are now grown commercially in parts of southern England.
Peppers have much to recommend them; their bright red, green or yellow colour and flavour add zest to any meal. They are relatively expensive to buy in the shops, but the home grower can produce healthy-sized crops with little initial expense. In good years, when crops are abundant, excess peppers can be frozen or dried and stored like. Unlike tomatoes, which are virtually inedible in their unripe state, unripe peppers are very tasty, and indeed preferred by some people to the milder, sweeter ripe pepper. Unripe peppers are dark green, and brilliant red or yellow when ripe.
Peppers are relatively pest and disease free, and their cultivation requirements are few. Rich growing medium, warmth and a steady water supply are necessary, but they require no training, tying or pinching out of sideshoots.
Peppers, besides their food value, make very decorative pot plants; they can be grown indoors and stood out on a balcony, windowsill or paved courtyard during the summer months. In a greenhouse, they have much the same growing requirements as tuberous; a mixed display of flowering plants and bushes hung with peppers can be very attractive.
There are many varieties available from seed catalogues, some of which have inedible fruits and are grown solely for decorative value. The two main categories of edible peppers are sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) and hot peppers, or chillies (Capsicum frutescens). Sweet peppers, also called bull-nose, bell or pimiento peppers, generally have larger fruit than chillies. The paprika made from these is much used in Hungarian cooking. The taste of peppers in general varies greatly in intensity, depending on ripeness and variety; some are sweet and mild, while others can be incredibly pungent. The peppery flavour is due to the presence of a chemical compound, capsicum, in the fruit; the more capsicum, the hotter the flavour. All peppers have a very high vitamin C content. The shape, size and texture varies; they can be round, oblong or conical in shape, wrinkled or smooth skinned, and from 5-15 cm (2-6”) long.
The small, tapering fruits, about 2.5 cm (1-2”) long of the C. frutescens types are renowned for their strong ‘hot’ flavour. Because of their pungency, these peppers are mostly used for flavouring only, the bright red flesh being dried and ground into chilli powder or cayenne pepper, or shredded. When green, chillies are pickled or made into chilli vinegar. Because they are so intensely flavoured, though, most households need only one plant to keep well supplied with chillies.
Growing Peppers: Cultivation and care
Peppers need a steady supply of water if their growth is not checked. If thebecomes dry, even for a short period of time during mid-day, the plants will droop at once. The leaves, being thin, tend to dry up more quickly than most; syringing them daily in hot weather helps reduce transpiration, as well as keeping red spider mite away. A position where they are shaded from the late morning and mid-day sun is ideal especially when the plants are young.
Remember, though, to water steadily and moderately, because over-enthusiastic watering can lead to botrytis infections, especially in cool weather.
In very warm weather, provide some form of light shading, particularly to those grown under glass.
Peppers grown in pots respond well to liquid feeding once the fruits have begun to form, using a potash-high feed, and this can be done at routine watering times, applied according to manufacturers’ instructions. Alternatively, you can make liquid manure by steeping a bag of rotted manure in a tub of water; use this after diluting it to the colour of weak tea and apply once a week.
If you have been thorough in preparing the soil for outdoor plants, you should have no trouble with perennial. Any annual weeds which appear can be kept down with a hoe, worked between rows. Be careful not to damage the roots of the pepper plants; hand plants is best. A mulch with clean straw, once the plants are established, will keep the weeds down, as well as conserving soil moisture.
Artificial pollination is not really necessary as the greenish-white flowers set fruit readily, and may indeed need thinning to get the best sized peppers. However, misting the plants daily while they are flowering improves the rate of pollination. Never grow sweet peppers and hot peppers in the same greenhouse, because the cross-pollination which may occur would have disastrous results.
You may need to give support, in the form of bamboo poles to the taller growing varieties; the dwarf kinds stand up well without support. Some people advise pinching out the growing tips when the plants are 20 cm (8”) high, but eventually, when the plants are fully grown, there is little difference between plants treated in this way and those allowed to develop naturally.
Harvesting and aftercare
Peppers grown under glass should be ready for picking in mid-summer; if the greenhouse is heated, harvesting should continue until early winter. Those grown outdoors will normally be ready for picking before late summer or early autumn, and harvesting will stop as soon as the weather turns cold. The length of the harvesting season depends to some extent on local climate, and can also vary from summer to summer. The fruits should be picked as soon as they are of sufficient size, and the flesh is firm and well filled out. A good quality pepper has a smooth pleasing shape and an even colour. Peppers taste delicious at all stages, and many people prefer them when they are still green and slightly under-ripe. Peppers left on the plant to ripen fully will turn a rich red or yellow, depending on variety; they are somewhat sweeter than the green ones.
In some varieties, the fruit hangs down from the shoots; in others, the peppers grow erect from the upper sides of the stems. Cut the fruit from the parent plant with a sharp knife or secateurs, leaving the remaining peppers, which develop at different rates, undisturbed. Handle the peppers carefully, so that they are not bruised. A strong plant should produce between at least six and eight peppers. One word of warning, however: the peppers will remain in good condition on the plant for sometime after they are ripe, but if you do not pick them the production of additional peppers will cease. It is best to harvest peppers as soon as they are ready, except perhaps towards the end of the season, when the plant has finished forming fruits. Because peppers continue to flower over a long period, you are unlikely to be faced with a sudden glut of them. Any which are picked green in mid-autumn will ripen slowly until early or even mid-winter.
Hot peppers are picked in much the same way as sweet peppers; in their unripe state they are used for pickling, and when ripe, for drying and grinding into chilli powder. Fruit can be stored by threading string through the stalks and hanging them to dry in a cool place. If picked when green, for storage, they will gradually change colour until they are red or yellow.
Do not leave the plants in the soil after harvesting has been completed; in temperate climates they are treated asand there is no point in keeping them longer. Pull up and burn or old plants. Remember never to put on the compost heap any plants showing signs of pests or diseases.
Because of their intensely bright colour, peppers and chillies will enliven any display, either on their own or as part of a collection. Although botanically fruit, the Royal Horticultural Society classifies them as vegetables for the purpose of exhibition. Although peppers are not worth as many points as some vegetables, it is not difficult to grow first class specimens to give you the maximum that are available. As they are extremely attractive, they are particularly useful for bringing colour to sombre displays.
Peppers can be displayed while they are still green, or when they have ripened fully and are red or yellow. This means that timing the date of sowing is not as tricky as it is with some other vegetables, which are at their best for a few days only. As general guide, sow under glass in early to mid-spring for late summer or early autumn shows.
If you particularly want to exhibit fully coloured peppers, and due to unforeseen weather changes it is unlikely that they will ripen naturally in time for the show, you can force ripening. A few days before the show, pick the peppers and wrap them individually in tissue paper. Pack them in a single layer in a box so that all light is excluded. Place the box in a warm room or greenhouse, and inspect the peppers daily. Take out any which have ripened and have begun to shrivel, and store them in a cool dark place until the show.
Twelve peppers is the usual number shown; because chillies are much smaller, twenty-four is the usual number required. Try to have double this amount ready for showing, so that you can select the best. Because peppers are by their very nature irregular and unsymmetrical in shape, it is unlikely you will find perfectly uniform specimens. Try to select fruits which are approximately the same size and colour, however, for the best visual effect.
Cut the peppers with secateurs, leaving a good sized stalk attached to the fruit. This stalk will come in handy if you are wiring the peppers to a display stand. They should not need much preparation; just wash them lightly and dry afterwards. If the pepper is left wet for any length of time, rot may set in and ruin your display.
If you are packing them for transport to the show, wrap them individually in tissue paper. Pack them tightly enough so they do not move about in the box and rub each other, or they may be bruised when you take them out.
Peppers can be displayed on plates or in shallow baskets, or wired to cones or other display shapes. If wiring them up, use tight bunches ofto fill the spaces between the peppers. Keep the parsley on short stalks and close to the wire form; if the parsley is loose or sloopy looking it will detract from the exhibit. Make sure you leave plenty of time to set up the exhibit before the show; chillies are particularly troublesome and time consuming to prepare because of their small size.
Varieties of Pepper to Grow at Home
Canape (F1): very early and suitable for outdoor cultivation; fruit sweet flavoured and bright red when ripe; heavy cropper.
Ace (F1); new variety, early; heavy and uniform cropper; equally good for forcing or outdoor use; widely used commercially.
Calif or nian Wonder: bull-nose type; forms large plants; mild, delicate flavour; good for deep freezing.
Worldbeater: well known variety; heavy cropper; fruits 12.5 cm (5”) long; skin dark green turning deep red when ripe; best grown under glass.
Emerald Gem: excellent taste; suitable for sheltered border outdoors or cultivation under glass.
Outdoor: blunt-nosed variety; red when fully ripe; half-hardy, needs cloches outdoors.
Slim Pim (F1): small peppers, about 5 cm (2”) long with mild, sweet flavour; suitable for freezing; very heavy cropper; suitable for outdoor growing in mild areas.
Vinedale: very early variety; fruits mild, sweet, thick-fleshed and pointed; does best in warm, sheltered position.
Bell Boy (F1): new variety; heavy cropper; popular for commercial growing; good for home growing.
Tompa: similar to a tomato in shape and colour; juicier and sweeter than other peppers; suitable for greenhouse or warm, south-facing wall.
Gold Topaz: unusual variety; peppers golden yellow when ripe, with mild, spicy flavour; best grown in cold frame or greenhouse.
Mexican Chilli: hot, spicy flavoured, small peppers; fruits dried and ground into chilli powder; must be grown in greenhouse.
Pests and Diseases Affecting Home Grown Peppers
Capsid bugs: these bright green, quick-moving insects occasionally attack the growing points of pepper plants. They pierce the leaves and stems, and suck the sap, from mid-spring onwards. Infested leaves will be mis-shapen, puckered and tattered; infested growing points will be severely stunted or will die outright.
If your plants are attacked by capsids, which is unlikely, control them by spraying or dusting with malathion or derris plus pyrethrum. Capsids drop to the ground when disturbed, so remember to treat the ground around the plant as well.
Red spider mite: capsicums grown under glass seem particularly vulnerable to attacks by greenhouse red spider mite. The young and mature mites feed on the undersides of the leaves; the upper surfaces then become pale and speckled. If the attack is very bad, the leaves will turn yellow and fall prematurely. Leaves and stems covered with a fine web is another indication of red spider mite.
Because the insects are most destructive in hot, dry, overcrowded conditions, make sure your plants are properly spaced apart, with plenty of air circulation. Regular syringing, up to three times a day in very hot weather, is a good precaution. Use lukewarm water, and make sure both sides of the leaves are thoroughly dampened. If you find one or two leaves with a few mites on them, usually close to the main vein, removal of these leaves completely may well be enough to prevent any further outbreak.
If, however, there is a serious infestation, fumigation of the greenhouse with azobenzine will help control the pest. Alternatively, you can use derris or malathion as a spray. Red spider mites can develop a resistance to a particular chemical if it is used too frequently, so make sure you use insecticides according to manufacturers’ instructions, and if there are no positive results after a couple of weeks, try another method of control.
Botrytis (grey mould): this fungal infection attacks a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and is usually associated with cool, damp, overcrowded conditions. Peppers grown under glass are particularly vulnerable. The disease can enter the plant through a wound or through dead or dying tissue. Because botrytis spores are present in the air, poor growing conditions can quickly lead to severe attack. The best precautions are to ensure thatand young plants are not overcrowded, and that air can circulate freely. Quintozene applied to the soil just before planting gives some measure of protection. If there is an outbreak of botrytis, remove and burn all infected leaves and improve the growing conditions; badly infected plants should be removed and destroyed, as it is unlikely they will recover.
Whitefly: these insects, which look like small white moths, are more troublesome some years than others. They thrive in hot, dry weather, and whitefly attacks in these conditions can be severe. Like red spider mite, they live and feed on the undersides of leaves, where they suck the sap. They also exude honeydew, which encourages secondary infection from sooty mould. Spray with biores-methrin as soon as they are seen, and again as necessary to destroy any newly hatched insects.
Greenfly: these are one of the many types of aphids which attack cultivated plants. Greenfly feed on the plant sap, the removal of which results in puckered, distorted and yellowed leaves, especially the young ones. Because greenfly breed rapidly, it is vital that you take action as soon as you see them. Spray with derris or malathion; repeat as necessary. In very severe cases, use a systemic insecticide, such as dimethoate. Remember to allow the recommended time to pass before harvesting the peppers.