The pepper is a staple in our food gardens. We have been growing peppers as long as we have been growing food. It’s been growing in our gardens since the first time we planted a tiny little one in the corner of the yard at our first house. I love the pepper for two reasons: growing peppers is relatively easy and incorporating them into meals is just as easy and even more fun.
Growing peppers is a pinch if you have the right conditions. They require little care as long as the plant’s basic needs are being met. The pepper is not a needy plant, if you set the plant up in the right conditions you will be growing peppers before you know it.
Last year I grew five varieties of peppers on two 16-foot rows in full sun. While my plants produced a decent yield, they were very short, topping out about mid-calf on 5’6 me. The reason: poor soil. Since I plan to drastically ramp up pepper production to support my canning addiction which I have turned into a small business called Tippsy Toppers, I have been spending the cold winter reading up on growing peppers.
Since I will be doubling the space and quadrupling the number of varieties, I want to make sure I utilize the best of pepper growing practices to get the highest yields.
There are two key ingredients for growing peppers. The first is a good sunny location. Peppers, like any fruit plant, require long hours of sunlight to produce. The second is good organic soil.
Preparing the soil for growing peppers
Peppers prefer a sandy loam, a far cry from the red clay that makes up most of my property. But that doesn’t mean I am doomed.
If you recall from part one of my recent garden planning series, soil is not something that can be overlooked if you hope to have success with your vegetable garden. I am going to utilize the no-till method on my pepper patch. Instead of digging deep into that hard clay and disturbing the micro-ecosystem, I will cover the area with dampened cardboard and repeated layers of straw and compost as soon as this darn snow melts. I am thinking about planting a cover crop like field peas, buckwheat or clover as a green manure to give my soil a boost of nutrients.
Once that has set a few weeks I plan to plant a cover crop in early April as a green manure to add organic matter to the soil and better prepare it for the peppers. Once the crop has been tilled in, my plan is to top the garden area off with some additional organic soil before transplanting my peppers, which won’t be until after May 24.
Buckwheat is one of the fastest growing cover crops and it is also great a suppressing weeds, attracting beneficial insects and improving soil health. If I was on my game in the fall, I would have planted a cover crop then but since I will need something with a quick turnaround, buckwheat is looking like the sure winner. Buckwheat adds phosphorous to the soil which could be the reason for my stunted peppers in 2014.
Test your soil before transplanting your peppers plants. Optimal soil will have a pH between 6.0 and 6.5.
Starting the seeds
While it may seem like a daunting task, starting peppers from seed is not a difficult task. There are many different products available for seed starting. You can make your own newspaper pods (click here for a great tutorial from fellow Homestead Bloggers Network member Learning and Yearning) or seed blocks (click here for a great tutorial from another Homestead Bloggers Network member Grow a Good Life), use peat pellets (this is the method I used for most of my seedlings last year though it is more expensive that making newspaper pods or seed blocks) or seedling trays. Once you have decided what medium you will use to grow your seedlings, you need to do a little bit of homework.
The first is reading the instructions on the back of your seed packet, the second is figuring out the last frost date in your area. My growing zone which is 6a (fellow canucks check out this site to determine your zone) and according to the farmer’s almanac, my last frost date is somewhere around April 30. I disregard that date however as we tend to be prone to cold snaps until after the May 24 long weekend. Using the weekend after the long weekend as my frost date, I now look to my seed packets to determine the optimal seeding date. The packages of seed I have are from mixed sources, some say start the plants indoors five to eight weeks before the last frost, while some say 10. If I follow the 10-week plan, it would put me around March 15 to plant my peppers. But I am impatient and was told by an expert grower in the area that now is the time to sow pepper seeds so sow I will.
Starting seeds is easy. Follow the instructions for the medium you are using. For peat pellets, you soak the pellets in water. Once expanded you place the seed the specified depth in each pod, for peppers you want the seed to be 1/2-1 cm deep. If planting in a seed tray make sure the potting mix is dampened and make an indent about 1/2-1 cm and insert the seed, lightly cover with soil.
Peppers like warm soil and a seeding mat is recommended. I didn’t use one last year and my seedlings grew at a good pace. I plan to use a heat mat on some of the plants to see how much of a difference it makes.
Once your seeds are planted, it’s time to wait. Make sure to keep your seedlings moist and that they get adequate light. I grew mine in front of a window and it did the trick. If you have grow lights, peppers are a good candidate for growing under lights.
Once the seedlings have two true leaves, it’s time to move them to larger pots.
Before you transplant
About a week or two before it’s time to transplant your peppers, move them outside to start hardening them off. Now that your plants are ready, it’s time for a little more prep work before it’s officially time to start growing peppers.
Once the green manure has been tilled under and the additional soil added it’s time to test it. I don’t yet have a soil tester so I cannot recommend a good one (anyone have one they can recommend?). If everything measures up, it’s time to plant.
Dig your hole and add a big scoop of compost and a tablespoon or two of epsom salt (read more on why this mineral is a pepper’s best friend here) before carefully transplanting your pepper plants. I have also read a trick about shoving a book of matches into the hole to provide the plant with needed sulphur as it grows, another trick I plan to test out on some plants to see if it makes a difference.
It’s best to mulch peppers to retain moisture in the soil and help control weeds.
Something else new I am trying this year is companion planting with my peppers. Last year the peppers grew in two, 16-foot rows. I plan to use companion planting to not only pack more into one space but also improve the taste and yield of my crop.
Because peppers are a larger plant, they will provide shade for leafy plants like lettuce, chard, spinach and basil, the latter of which is also said to boost flavour and repel aphids, spider mites, mosquitoes and flies. Dill will also boost flavour and provide insect control. Root plants, such as onion and carrots also grow well amongst peppers, making use of the dead space between pepper plants and shade out any weeds. Marigolds planted near peppers will stimulate growth and repel pests. Nasturtium, an edible flower, is also said to stimulate growth and improve flavour. Okra is said to provide wind protection for pepper plants.
My plan is to intermix crops of root and leaf vegetables and flowers in the pepper patch, making sure that some of the same varieties are exposed to different companions to see which worked out best.
Any pepper growers have tips to offer on which companions work best in your garden?
You are now growing peppers and companions in your garden but the work isn’t done. There are a few more steps before you can enjoy fresh-grown peppers on your plate. While peppers do not require a ton of care, following an easy regime will give you more peppers with better flavour, and who doesn’t want that?
As your pepper plants grow, they will start to develop blossoms. Pinch off the early blossoms to encourage a higher yield and larger fruits. I know it’s hard, you want those first little flowers to quickly turn into beautiful peppers but trust me on this one. It is worth the effort.
Use fish emulsion and a spray of 1 Tbsp of epsom salt to a gallon of water on alternating weeks as fertilizer for your pepper patch. The epsom salt spray is especially beneficial once the plant starts to blossom as it improves yields and keeps plants lush and bushy. Epsom salt can also be worked into the soil around the base of the plant twice a week. The ratio is one tablespoon per foot of plant.
It is best to grow your sweet peppers away from your hots as they can cross-pollinate and you can end up with hotter sweets and sweeter hots.
To prevent breakage, grow peppers on a trellis. A simple design I plan to implement this year can be found here.
You’ve paid your dues now it’s time to reap the benefits. Around 75-85 days after you transplant those little green seedlings you should have peppers that are ready to pick, depending on the variety. Always be sure to cut the peppers from the plant so as not to cause any damage to the plant.
Resources for growing peppers
Pepper Joe — great source of super hot seeds and information on growing peppers
Vegetable Gardener — A very informative post with great information (and that easy trellis system I mentioned earlier)
A Healthy Life for Me — I love this easy to follow graphic on growing peppers
Mother Earth News — I love, love, love this magazine and this is a great article on growing peppers