Sweet or hot, bell-shaped or elongate, all peppers are members of the nightshade family.
People have been growing peppers for several thousand years. Native to the Americas, peppers (Capsicum) are now grown all around the world. Spicy peppers are commonly called chilis and sweet peppers are called bells. In Singapore, India, and Down Under, the bells are called capsicum. The popular spice, paprika, is made from a type of capsicum fruit.
Peppers are usually classified as sweet (bell) or hot (chili). All peppers start out green [think green beans]. If left on the vine long enough, different varieties may turn yellow, red, orange, or purple. Depending upon who you ask, there are 20 to 27 species (and hundreds of varieties) of peppers. These five species of Capsicum are domesticated:
All peppers are self-pollinating, but crops are significantly larger when other pepper plants are nearby.
Hot peppers and the Scoville scale
Hot peppers are rated using the Scoville scale. Scoville heat units (SHU) are a function of the amount of capsaicin found in the fruit. For comparison, pepper spray used by law enforcement can have 500,000 to 1 million SHUs and sweet bell peppers have a Scoville rating of zero. Here are some common peppers and their Scoville ratings:
Choose your pepper accordingly (and be sure to wash your hands after handling hot peppers and their seeds before you do ANYTHING else). Seriously.
How to grow peppers
Peppers love warm weather. In fact, there’s no sense starting pepper seeds early, because they won’t germinate. Even if they do, they won’t grow well. To get a head start on the growing season, many gardeners use seed heating mats. The soil needs to be 70 to 84 °F for peppers to really get going. Peppers prefer loose, loamy soil (or even sand), so you may want to grow them in raised beds or containers. Peppers can also grow well in straw bales. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep. Ultimately, you will want to place plants 18 to 24 inches apart. When thinning, snip unwanted plants off at soil level to avoid disturbing other plants’ roots. At first, the soil should be kept moist but not soggy. Soggy soil can cause damping-off disease.
Pepper pests and diseases
Like many other of our favorite food plants, peppers are in big demand in the insect world. Cutworms, aphids, armyworms, flea beetles, leafminers, corn earworm, leafrollers, nematodes, weevils, thrips, spider mites, tomato psyllids, and whiteflies should be watched for, and some birds may want to take a bite, as well. Most pepper diseases are of the fungal variety: powdery mildew, crown rot, root rot, verticillium wilt, and tomato spotted wilt are common on Bay Area peppers. Also bacterial spot, several mosaic viruses, blossom end rot, and curly top may occur. Sunburn, or sun scald, can also be a problem on pepper plants. While too much nitrogen can cause excessive vegetative growth and not much fruit, the opposite is also true: low nitrogen levels can reduce leaf coverage to the point that fruit is damaged. Row covers can also be used to reduce sun exposure, once fruit set has occurred.
One of the most common mistakes gardeners make when harvesting peppers is that they do it too soon. If your peppers feel thin-skinned, give them some more time.
We’ve all heard some seeds or plants described as heirlooms and others hybrids, but what do those terms really mean?
Both hybrids and heirlooms come about through naturally occurring cross-pollination, as opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are created in a lab using altered DNA strands.
Before agriculture became an industry, people grow a wider variety of plants for food. That biodiversity helped offset inclement weather, diseases and pests, and other threats to a failed crop and the resulting starvation. Corporate agriculture, on the other hand, feeds countless millions by generating a smaller variety of uniform plants that consistently grow at specific rates, that can be sprayed with a variety of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, ship well, and store well. As many of you know, taste and texture often suffer s a result.
Pros & cons of heirlooms
Heirloom seeds are those that have been handed down, person to person, in a specific geographical region, for a very long time. Also, heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means pollination occurs naturally, by wind, birds, animals, and insects, and not by human efforts. Heirloom varieties are at least 50 years old (some say 100 years), and many of them have been grown consistently, in the same locale, since before WWII. These plants have evolved to take advantage of local microclimates and beneficial insects. Heirloom seeds are hand selected by gardeners from the very best plants each growing season. Many heirloom plants do not have the uniformity or long term storage capabilities of hybrids, but growers (myself included) claim that the flavor is significantly better. Heirloom crops have more variety in size and shape than hybrids, but they always grow true to their parent plants. Heirlooms are more genetically diverse, making them more durable as a species, and less susceptible to local pests and diseases. Heirloom offspring are fertile and can reproduce.
Pros & cons of hybrids
Hybrid plants are intentionally created by cross-pollinating different varieties of a species. The intention of hybridization is to take advantage of the best characteristics of each parent plant, creating what is known as hybrid vigor (heterosis). This vigor only lasts for one generation. Hybrid seeds do not grow true to their parents and they lack vigor and genetic diversity. This lack of diversity is what caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. If all the plants are identical, they are equally susceptible to pests and diseases. A single threat can be devastating.
Creating a hybrid that grows “true” to the desired characteristics takes years of diligent effort. Plants are often pollinated by hand or grown in greenhouses or pollination bags that block contamination from outside pollen to ensure that pollination only occurs between the desired plants. The majority of the fruits and vegetables you see in grocery stores are hybrids. Harvests are very consistent in size and shape. Hybridization is done for many specific characteristics:
When shopping for plants and seeds, one way to know if it is a hybrid is to look at the Latin name. If you see the letter “x” between words in the name, it is a hybrid. For example:
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) crossed with blackberry (Rubus ursinus)
creates Loganberry (Rubus x loganobaccus)
*Check labels for the letters V, F, N, T or A. These symbols indicate a resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus or alternaria stem canker, respectively.
Understanding the difference between heirlooms and hybrids can help you make the right choice if you want to collect viable seeds from your harvest for next year’s planting.
I hope this information inspires you to grow more of your own food. You can ask your garden questions on my Home page.