The Secrets To Growing Peppers In The North

Growing both hot and green peppers in cooler climates always seems like a bit of a crap shoot to me. Some years the yield is great and other years I'm reminded that I live in a short season climate. Here's what I've learned about growing this temperamental crop.

basil citriodora boxwood

Red peppers are simply mature green peppers and yes, some turn red faster and more completely than others

Green versus Hot Peppers

To begin with, we grow two kinds of peppers in our gardens: hot peppers and green peppers. The difference between the two is found in the level of capsacinoids that exist within the fruit. Fruit that are relatively low in these compounds are considered to be a sweet green pepper while fruit that have higher concentrations are considered to be hot.

Before I go on, did you know that men prefer hot peppers more than women? Don't ask me why, its one of the mysteries of life.

This chemical, ie. capsacinoid, is a powerful fungicide and the pepper seed produces it in a biological adaptation to protect itself from fungal attacks during its long germination phase.

It is also interesting to note that all green peppers produce these capsacinoids but only after twenty days on the bush and then in varying amounts depending on the variety, the heat units in the garden and soil moisture measurements.

Green and Hot Peppers Are Grown Exactly The Same Way!

Hotter and Dryer

The hotter and dryer the season, the more powerful the heat produced by the peppers. This is one reason that even a sweet green pepper may become bitter if stressed during their ripening stage; as they too are producing this chemical in their seeds.

The Most Important Decision

While there are several important factors in producing a green pepper, the most important is choosing the right variety for your area. We need a short season pepper here, something like an 'Early Niagara Giant' or 'Early Red Sweet' will often produce fruit well before the standard varieties that produce well in Southern Ontario. In our garden, I find these varieties do as well as any other and that the popular 'Bell Boy' is less reliable.

You may have to experiment with other varieties to find a variety that is reliable in your garden.

basil citriodora boxwood

An immature hot red pepper - when this one turns red, it's time to harvest

What's a Red Pepper?

Another note to clear up a common question: red peppers are simply mature green peppers; all green peppers will turn red (more or less depending on the variety) if left on the bush to mature.

Days to Maturity

Another common misconception relates to the "days to maturity" rating found on peppers and tomatoes. This rating measures the time taken for ripening fruit from the day of transplanting given a standard set of sunlight values. It is itself variable; if we have a hotter or cooler summer than the standard measurements, the days to maturity will be changed accordingly.

This may allow some gardeners with hot, protected gardens to achieve maturity on peppers with longer seasons than I can with my open exposed garden. This is an example of microclimates changing the growing patterns of our gardens.

Soils and Growing

Peppers have a very fibrous root system and they perform best on well aerated soils with high organic matter content. This is the long way of saying to save your best soils for your peppers. Also, peppers demand more water than our favourite vegetable the tomato. A simple trial to see which plant wilts first in the garden will answer this question for you if you doubt this advice. Mind you, if you let your plants wilt, you'll have reduced yields.

One piece of advice given to many gardeners is to avoid excess nitrogen when growing peppers, that this produces large plants with no fruit. The solution to this problem is to use compost as a source of food instead of chemical fertilizers.

Adding a quarter to half inch of to the pepper patch will solve this problem as well as adding the necessary organic matter; and several applications of fish food emulsion during the summer months will solve any low phosphorus level problems the plant may be experiencing.

Planting trick

Planting advice is quite simple. Plant the pepper up to the first set of leaves, the stem will root quite quickly (just like tomatoes) and avoid cold ground. Cool ground, with soil temperatures below 50F will guarantee a stunted plant and no pepper set.

Temperature Needs - Don't mess with these

Soil temperatures above 85F will also stunt the plant but we're not likely to see these unless the peppers are mulched under plastic. Plastic mulched soils will build excessive heat levels in our typical summer months. If you use plastic to increase your spring soil temperatures, it is a good idea to remove it by the end of June or whenever the soil starts to get too warm.

An organic mulch of straw or leaves can be used in its place for the summer months.

Single Most Important Thing to Do

The single most important thing about growing peppers is to keep them continuously growing and not check their growth rate at all during the growing season. This means that those poor pepper transplants that are "on special" at the local plant sales depot are probably not a good bet if the roots are root bound in their container.

Here are three tips to help in growing peppers and getting good fruit

1) Canadian researchers found that if they picked off the early flower buds on pepper plants, they got more peppers than if they left them on.

It seems the green pepper does not set fruit like a tomato, i.e. the earliest flowers are the earliest fruit. Instead, the pepper seems to ripen the crop all at the same time and then produce another set of flowers and green peppers. If you pinch off the initial, lower flower buds, apparently the plant will set a more uniform flower set at the top of the plant and these will tend to ripen because the summer heat is perfect for their development.

2) Alternately, you can dig a trench in the garden about 7 inches deep, work in the compost, and plant your peppers in the bottom of the trench. Cover the trench with one of the row cover materials to help keep the heat in the trench. Apparently, this trench growing removes the pepper from cool temperatures and drying winds and gives it a perfect environment for establishment in cool garden areas

3) Also, you can simply use row covers to hold the spring heat in and protect the plants against cool nights (cover the plants every night until the weather truly warms up in your area). You can again protect the plants from fall frosts. Row covers are the simplest solution to getting good green pepper crops.

How Hot Are Your Hot Peppers

Speaking of hot peppers, capsaicinoids are the chemical compounds responsible for the heat value in peppers.

This is an interesting way to measure the heat of peppers available this season in your local garden centers and I thought you'd be interested in this quick analysis.

On A Scale Of...

This scale represents how many ounces of sauce will have a detectable hotness when one ounce of pepper pods are added to the mix. The larger the number, the hotter the pepper.

graphic pepper

How hot are your hot peppers

Mayo and I have grown Wiri-wiri but we confess we were pretty hesitant to use them in cooking. They're right up there in the way-too-hot-to-eat category.

wiri wiri

Hot peppers Wiri-wiri

Final Caution

Mayo tells stories about cleaning hot pepper seed and having the oil eat right through the rubber gloves she and her staff would use in their seed cleaning (my better half Mayo Underwood ran her own organic and heirloom seed company).

If you're working with hot peppers - then you have to protect yourself carefully and never, ever touch any part of your body with your hands (particularly the tender ones) after you've worked with hot peppers.

To Clean Your Hands

Use any detergent or soap that will effectively cut an oil. Wash thoroughly!

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