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.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!