Bell peppers and chili peppers love the heat, so why talk about them in December? Unless you have an amazing greenhouse, the only thing you can do with peppers this time of year is dream about them - and that’s the point.
Dream now, in December, about a productive pepper garden filled with thick-skinned sweet bells and degrees of fiery heat. Red, orange, yellow, purple, and greens of various sizes and shapes can make a pepper garden both attractive and productive.
December is the time of year to ask yourself where you might put your pepper garden, figure out what peppers need, and consider your options. How can you get your peppers started as early as possible? Collecting answers to those questions now will make designing a pepper garden a breeze and summer production better than ever.
While peppers can certainly be included in your pizza garden, stir fry garden, or victory garden, you can feature them in a space of their own. Because pepper plants are so colorful and diverse, your pepper garden can really be lovely throughout the summer. Pepper bushes tend to be dense and thickly green with sparks of colorful fruits.
Pepper garden design
When designing your pepper garden, choose a site that gets lots of sunlight. Then, read the plant labels and seed packets to learn the mature size for each variety. This way, you can position your pepper plants so they will not block each other’s sunlight.
You can grow peppers in the ground, raised beds, or containers. Peppers perform beautifully in containers as long as they are large enough. Most pepper plants have root systems that can go 24” to 36” deep. One advantage to growing peppers in containers is that it makes moving the plants into ideal temperature ranges an option not available when growing in raised beds or the ground. Our scorching summer temperatures can interfere with pollen viability, causing blossom drop. Sunburn damage and water stress are other common problems.
Peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, sizes, and colors. You can create a rainbow of peppers, if you want to, or stick with some tried and true favorites. Sweet bell peppers come in several colors (if you leave them on the bush long enough). There are five basic domestic species of chili peppers (and countless variations):
• Capsicum annuum - bell, banana, cayenne, and jalapeños chiles
• C. frutescens - tabasco and Thai peppers
• C. chinense - naga, habanero, Scotch bonnet
• C. pubescens - rocoto chiles
• C. baccatum - Bishop’s crown peppers
There are also miniature varieties available.
Starting peppers early
Peppers take time to mature and they grow the best when temperatures are between 80°F and 90°F. Seeds started too soon will simply not germinate. Even if they do germinate, they will not grow well. Here, in San Jose, California, peppers are generally not started outdoors until May. You can jump-start your pepper garden by using grow lights and specially designed seed heating mats. Choosing varieties best suited to your local climate will allow you to start your pepper plants as early as possible.
Pepper plant care
Being heavy feeders, peppers perform best when given regular feedings of fish emulsion or other balanced plant food. Peppers without adequate calcium or those which receive irregular waterings often develop blossom end rot.
Monitor plants regularly for signs of mottling, bacterial spot, and powdery mildew. Learn about pests and diseases commonly seen on bell peppers and chili peppers to minimize the damage. For example, knowing to keep lambsquarters away from your pepper plants can reduce the chance of beet curly top infecting plants.
What about the rest of the year?
Will your annual pepper plants be lush and colorful all year? No, they won’t. By mid to late autumn, they will look spindly and bare. What can you do to keep the space looking nice through winter and preparing for next year’s pepper plants? Before your peppers are done, install seeds and seedlings that will carry your pepper bed through the winter. If you live in Zone 9, you might add fava beans, cabbages, and cauliflower to the pepper bed well before the peppers are done. This succession planting method allows you to produce food, with the cruciferous vegetables, and grow a green manure with the fava beans. The peppers act as nurse maids, helping the next cycle of plants get started. When your pepper plants are done producing, cut them off at soil level and add the debris to your compost pile. This is a good time to add a layer of aged compost to your pepper bed, improving soil structure and adding nutrients.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!