June 13, 1997

Often peppers, especially sweet peppers, are treated as the poor cousins of tomatoes. You might read "tropicals, such as tomatoes and peppers, should not be set out until after the last frost". I think, however, that peppers deserve their own place in the sun (awful pun intended).

Pepper culture really isn't the same as tomato culture. Most importantly, peppers are not as cold hardy as tomatoes (and, as we all know, tomatoes are not very cold hardy at all!). In my garden, I've observed that a well-grown, tough tomato seedling can take 40F or less without too much of a setback. Do the same thing to even a toughened sweet pepper seedling, though, and you're likely lose some of the leaves. Remember this: A sweet pepper seedling does not like the underside of 50F! This means that you shouldn't set out your peppers for at least a couple of weeks after it's safe to transplant out your tomatoes. On the flip side: in the fall, mature pepper plants will often handle cold weather better than the tomatoes! I've had peppers survive 32F in the open, while a tomato can be counted on to wither.

In my experience, pepper plants are pretty darn tough. If a pest doesn't get to them when they are young, probably they won't be bothered at all. Cutworms will sometimes chew off a young plant at ground level, although I personally believe this is more a problem with tender nursery transplants than tough home-grown ones. Control cutworms with collars of plastic, foam, or paper, placed around the base of the plant. Slugs will chew the leaves when the plants are small, but I rarely find them on adult plants. Some people also have problems with flea beetles chewing tiny holes in the leaves. A few holes will not hurt the plant at all. If damage is severe, the plants can be dusted with rotenone or pyrethrum.

Peppers are subject to some of the same diseases as tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. To prevent blossom end rot, lime the soil well. To keep tobacco mosaic virus out of your pepper patch, keep cigarettes out of the garden (according to Washington State University, 80% or more of cigarette tobacco is infected with TMV). Fortunately, peppers are immune to Late Blight fungus. As with other vegetables, garden rotation does wonders in helping prevent diseases.

Many of you already know that a green pepper is simply an unripe red or yellow pepper. Virtually all peppers ripen either red or yellow. Other colored peppers, such as chocolate or purple, are intermediate stages of ripeness; they too will eventually ripen to one of the two "primary" pepper colors. As a pepper changes from green to red or yellow, it becomes sweeter (or hotter, in the case of hot peppers). Unfortunately, a pepper plant that is allowed to fully ripen its fruit will stop making more fruit! So it is usually a good idea to pick the peppers green up until about 45 days before your first fall frost; after that point, it's not going to make much difference whether or not the plant sets more fruit.

Let's discuss how NOT to pick peppers. Basically, don't try to pull them off the plant, like you would a tomato! A pepper usually has a very strong stem; if you pull the fruit, you are just as likely to remove half the plant as you are to remove the fruit itself! Ideally, you should cut the pepper stem with a knife. I've also had good success twisting them off, if I'm careful not to bend the plant's branch.

If you live where summers are cool, consider growing non-bell sweet peppers such as Lipstick, Sweet Banana, Gypsy, or Italian Sweet. These varieties tend to produce better than bells in cool summer weather. Hot peppers generally will handle sub-optimum temperatures better than sweet peppers; but they still live by the rule "heat begats heat". If you want the hottest habaņeros, and you live in Alaska, I'm afraid your only option is to move.

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013