ABOVE: A PICTURE OF ‘CAYENNE LONG SLIM’ HOT PEPPER
GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY
Peppers are one of the garden crops that must be started inside and transplanted out to the garden later, when weather has warmed. Years ago, people grew more sweet peppers than hot, but now hot peppers are very popular here in the northern Rocky Mountain and plains region. I will discuss some pointers on how to start and grow your plants organically and I will include some information on the many varieties available today.
Peppers (Capsicum annuum) prefer warm days and nights to grow and produce well. In our mountainous area, with a short growing season and cool nights, peppers benefit from protection from cold early and late in the season. So, we time our planting for after the last frost (usually around May 15 here at 3,000 feet altitude) and find it beneficial to cover our plants for the night until temperatures warm. Row covers, hot caps, even cardboard boxes will collect heat from the soil and release it during the night. The warm conditions promote faster growth. Organically enriched soil and the use of organic fertilizers will also speed up growth.
Hot peppers take longer to germinate than sweet peppers. Seeds of both types will germinate between 60-95 degrees, but 80-85 degrees is ideal. The germ time for sweet peppers is 7-14 days; for hot peppers, 14-28 days. Here, we usually start our plants in February. A mix of peat, vermiculite and perlite makes a great seed starting mix, as it is sterile (no soil-borne diseases). Peat pots are great for starting seeds as they can be planted right into the ground when plants are large enough. A solid flat with a dome cover will keep the seeds moist until they sprout. Pepper seeds do not need light to germinate, but lights over the plants will promote sturdy growth and prevent spindly, “leggy” growth. If you do not have lights, put the plants in a warm spot in a south window as soon as they sprout.
Nights should be 55 degrees or above before planting out into the garden. (If you are at a high elevation, use row covers.) Make sure to harden plants off before planting, by putting them outside for a few hours at a time (in shade). Gradually give the plants more time outside and brighter light for about a week of time. When you are sure weather has stabilized, plant them out. If they are in peat pots, make sure the peat pots are very damp and plant the peppers deeper, with about 2 inches of soil over the pots, so they will degrade. If not covered, peat pots tend to dry out and a plant cannot pierce the pot with its roots. Protect your plants from cutworms with jugs or cans or paper rings. Water regularly, keeping them moist, not wet. Water early in the day only; allowing leaves to dry early in the day. Watch for aphids, their worst pest. A preventative spray of Garlic Barrier will deter aphids. Follow directions and use garlic sprays very early in the day, so as to not interfere with the activities of bees and other beneficial insects. You will only need to spray garlic three times in a whole season. A foliar spray of liquid organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest Fish fertilizer will greatly increase the size and productivity of your plants. This type of fertilizer is very low in salts, an important feature. Worm castings will increase nitrogen levels in your soil and silica will strengthen stems.
Insulating row covers (protection blankets) are very useful to extend our season for about 3-4 weeks. These are more effective at lower temperatures than using poly film. Mulch your peppers after soil is warm— June or early July, with red plastic or 2” organic straw. Trim off all flowers until June 22, to enable plants to produce more heavily; otherwise, plants put all their energy into ripening an early crop and seasonal production is much lower.
Here in the Mission Valley we put our peppers out about May 21-June 1 as weather permits. Plant peppers about 14” apart. Plant in full sun. The growing temperature range for peppers is 55–85 degrees, with 75-80 being ideal. Optimum soil pH is 5.5-7.0. Peppers like even steady moisture—not wet soil conditions. Try to practice regular, even watering; early in the day.
Pests of peppers include: gophers; leafhoppers; cutworms, leaf miners, hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, pepper weevils, mites, nematodes and aphids. Diseases include: early blight, southern blight, anthracnose, bacterial spot and verticillium wilt.
Harvest peppers when full size, 4-5 weeks from pollination + 4-5 weeks to ripen (about 9-10 weeks). If the summer is cool, more time will be needed. Harvest by cutting the fruit from the plant. Check/pick every 3 days. The first peppers should be ready about September 1 or earlier. After harvesting keep cool, above 55 degrees, in high humidity and out of the sun. Harvested fruit last about 7 days when stored out of the sun.
Varieties (all open-pollinated, so seed can be saved each season):
‘King of the North’ heirloom sweet pepper (57 days to green, 65 days to red). An early variety, grown for seed in the Mission Valley. Fruit are 3-4” and production is good in our cool climate.
‘California Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (65 days to green, 75 days to red). Another popular variety here, maturing a little later than ‘King of the North’, but more productive with larger fruit.
‘Golden Cal. Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (60 days to green, 75 days to golden yellow). A good, sweet variety for cool seasons, with large, 4” fruit.
‘Purple Beauty’ sweet pepper (55 days to purple, 75 days to red). A very productive, early variety with 3-4” fruit.
‘Chocolate Bell’ sweet pepper (70 days to green, 75 days to brown). An interesting, early pepper that matures well and is grown for seed here in the Mission Valley.
‘Jimmy Nardello’ heirloom sweet pepper (75 days to red). A popular, 6-9” long, thin-skinned sweet pepper great for frying or drying.
‘Anaheim’ heirloom mildly-hot pepper (80 days to red). The best pepper for stuffing. An 8 inch long, thick-walled pepper that can be roasted, fresh dried, canned or stuffed and baked.
‘Tesuque Chili’, Estacano Chili’, ‘San Felipe Chili’ heirloom chili peppers (about 70 days to red). These three chili peppers are from Native American Pueblos in the Southwest. They all are thin-walled, and excellent for drying. They are excellent to use dried, ground up and added to dishes.
‘Early Jalapeno’ heirloom hot pepper (60 days ). The most popular hot pepper, used fresh and pickled.
‘Cayenne Long Slim’ heirloom hot pepper (70 days to red). This pepper grows to about 6 or 7 inches long, is quite hot, and dries well. Plants are very productive and early.
‘Viet Hot Chili’ (95 days to red). A very hot pepper grown locally (Mission Valley, Montana) for seed. Plants must be started earlier than other peppers as they sprout slowly and mature slowly. The fruit dry well.
‘Habanero’ heirloom chili pepper (95 days to red). One of the hottest peppers available, it requires a long season, but is tops for flavor.