Sweet peppers are tender and fleshy warm-season vegetables. These plants are slower to grow than many other garden vegetables, and this can mean they require additional attention prior to the regular outdoor growing season.
Sweet peppers (such as bell peppers) are often brightly colored and can be used for eating, to make spices or hot sauce, or are even used decoratively. Each variety will add that extra burst of flavor and color (not to mention nutrition) to your dinner table. Nutritionally, peppers have a myriad of healthy components, including the heart-healthy niacin and thiamine, as well as magnesium, folate, fiber, potassium and vitamins A, C, K, and B6. Red sweet peppers are also rich in antioxidants.
Sweet pepper plants are relatively forgiving garden occupants once they are established, and as with most plants, a slightly acidic to more neutral pH level (anywhere from 6.0-6.8) is ideal for optimum growth. These plants also require adequate drainage.
It is always best to prime your soil before planting by sifting through to remove any sticks, rocks, lingering roots, or other debris. To achieve the best possible growing environment for your sweet pepper plants, be sure to nourish your soil with compost or organic compound fertilizer.
Those who enjoy the longer growing seasons of a warmer climate can plant directly into their garden. Those in cooler zones will need to plant their sweet pepper seeds indoors eight to twelve weeks prior to the last spring frost. These plants are very sensitive to colder weather; it is important to keep them warm and indoors until temperatures outside are consistently at or above 50°F. These plants struggle in weather cooler than 55°F, and in these conditions they may grow more slowly, producing less fruit.
Pepper plant seedlings require hardening off prior to transplanting into the garden. This process is a simple weaning off of indoor life; seven to ten days before you’re ready to plant your peppers outside, move the pots outdoors to a shady area. Leave the plants for three to four hours, allowing them to adjust to outdoor temperatures and climate. Increase their exposure by one to two hours every day, always bringing them back in at night. After the third day, move the plant into the morning sun and into the shade in the afternoon.
When you are ready to plant, choose an area that is typically full sun, and if possible, transplant on a cloudy day. Place plants about one inch lower than the plant was in the pot, and space your plants about fourteen to eighteen inches apart. In cooler temperatures, keep your soil warm by using mulch, black plastic, or row covers. Most plants will yield peppers in sixty-five to seventy days after planting.
Sweet peppers are prone to a few pests, but most can be avoided with a little extra attention. Cutworms will eat pepper plants from the stem up. To avoid their destruction, use a tube (such as an empty toilet paper tube) around the stem of your plant.
These plants also heavily attract aphids, which can spread disease to your plants. All infected plants (common symptoms include crinkled, narrow, or blackened leaves) should be destroyed before the disease spreads to other plants in the garden. This can be avoided by treating your garden for aphids and thrips. Purchasing seeds or seedlings that are labeled as resistant to aphids and thrips helps eliminates this problem as well.
Peppers can be harvested once they reach the desired size and color. You do not have to wait until these vegetables ripen before picking; in fact, the more frequently you harvest your peppers, the more your plants will produce. While peppers can be picked directly from their branches, it is better, for both the pepper and the plant, to cut the vegetables off at the stem. These vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked; they can also be frozen, dried, or canned for storage.