Thought generally referred to as a vegetable, sweet pepper is a warm season fruit in the nightshade family Solanaceae and is related to tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes and eggplants. It grows as an annual in temperate regions and as a perennial in tropical regions. Unlike hot peppers or "chili" peppers, sweet peppers do not contain capsaicin, the active compound that produces the “hot” or spicy sensation, and are commonly considered “sweet” because they generally lack heat or pungency. Sweet peppers do not occur naturally; rather sweetness is a trait has been selectively bred by people over time.
Sweet peppers include bell pepper and Italian long and banana types. They come in a wide variety of colors, from immature green peppers to mature colors of red, yellow, orange, chocolate/brown, vanilla/white, and purple. The brighter colored peppers tend to be sweeter than green peppers because the sugar and Vitamin C content increases as peppers ripen. Sweet peppers have been incorporated into cuisines around the world and are variously eaten raw, roasted, grilled, stuffed, pickled, or used as a spice. Sweet peppers provide many health benefits, containing impressive levels of anti-oxidants and vitamins.
Cultivated approximately 8,000 years ago, peppers are native to Mexico, Central and northern South America. It is believed that peppers may have been spread across the continent by pre-Columbian indigenous people. They were re-introduced into North America from Europe by Christopher Columbus and Spanish explorers during the 15th century and later spread to Africa and Asia. Peppers also received their name from the Europeans, who claimed that the fruit was "hotter than the pepper of the Caucasus," referring to peppercorns, the fruit of Piper nigrum, an unrelated plant native to India and used as table spice. The misleading name of ‘pepper’ became popular in Europe and has been used ever since.
California and Florida grow the majority of sweet peppers, mostly bell type varieties, consumed in the United States, but the largest global producers of sweet peppers are China and Mexico. Most commercial varieties are hybrids and are bred for uniformity and productivity as opposed to flavor. Unlike commercial growers, home gardeners can take advantage of the many colorful, flavorful heirloom and open-pollinated varieties now available from seed catalogs and local garden centers.
When many gardeners of sweet pepper, they think of the large, bell-type Emerald green sweet pepper with a slightly grassy flavor. Fortunately, all sweet peppers aren’t green: today’s gardeners have access to a wide array of sweet peppers, both bell and non-bell types, in a range of colors, sizes and shapes.
Whether considering bell or non-bell type sweet peppers, gardeners who live in areas where summer temperatures often fall outside the ideal growing range of peppers, daytime temperatures from 75 to 85° F and nighttime temperatures from 50 to 60° F, should consider growing hybrid sweet peppers before proceeding to other open-pollinated and heirloom varieties.
In general, home gardeners are more likely to be successful with non-bell type sweet peppers. Non-bell types produce pepper fruits in a wider range of shapes and colors and with greater sweetness and productivity than classic bell types.
For beginning gardeners or those who have not previously grown sweet peppers, GardenZeus recommends Carmen, An All American Selection winning hybrid, producing long, curved red pepper fruits and strong, sweet flavor. It can be roasted or fried, produces heavy yields and provides good sunburn protection.
GardenZeus recommends the heirloom Sweet Banana as a prolific producer of long, slender green to yellow to orange to red long fruits that are tasty raw, fried, grilled, or made into jam or relish.
For those gardeners with some experience growing sweet peppers, there are a number of bell-type peppers from which to choose. For a green ripening to red bell pepper, try Gypsy, a reliable hybrid producing wedge-shaped bell fruits on a plant resistant to Tobacco Mosaic virus.
Smaller sweet pepper varieties, also called "lunchbox" peppers, produce incredibly sweet peppers in a variety of colors that can be eaten fresh or cooked. For a lunchbox variety, try Sweet Cherry Blend, an heirloom plant producing cherry-tomato-sized yellow and red fruits, and Pretty and Sweet, the 2015 All-American Selection winning hybrid, an ornamental plant with sweet peppers that taste as good as they look. Both are excellent in containers.
In the home garden, sweet peppers are usually purchased as transplants or started from seed indoors and then transplanted into the garden. Quality seedlings of pepper varieties known to do well in your area are the easiest option for beginners. When buying transplants, tap the pots, cells, or containers to look at roots. Avoid plants with overgrown, circling, or layered roots at pot edges and bottoms. Look for stocky plants free of flowers and fruit. See The GardenZeus Guide to Buying Vegetable Seedlings for important tips about purchasing pepper and other vegetable seedlings.
Growing from seed provides the home gardener with an almost unlimited range of choices. GardenZeus recommends against seeding peppers directly into garden soil, as pepper seeds can be extremely slow to germinate, especially in cooler temperatures. Pepper seedlings are typically slow growing and can easily succumb to damping off. Sowing seeds indoors helps to ensure plants are strong and healthy by the time conditions are warm enough to plant outside. If starting from seed, purchase fresh seed from a reputable company, as peppers seeds lose their viability quickly. Specialty seed companies offer a multitude of varieties, whereas a local nursery may only offer a few.
Peppers prefer fertile, well-drained soil with sufficient calcium, and thrive in soil that is neutral to mildly acidic, with a pH from 6.0 to 6.5. Peppers require sufficient levels of phosphorus for successful fruit production and ample nitrogen to build a solid leaf canopy. While sandy soils are ideal, sweet peppers can be productive in heavier clay soils that have excellent soil structure and drainage.
Sweet peppers have soil fertility needs that exceed those of other commonly grown Solanums, such as tomatoes and eggplants. Consider incorporating high quality compost into your soil before planting to improve fertility and structure. Avoid growing peppers or their relatives including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants in the same place for more than one season every 3 or 4 years to avoid depleting soil and encouraging pests and diseases. This rotation period can be reduced or overcome by skilled and biointensive gardeners who are able to amend soils appropriately for the unique needs of pepper plants in their soils, and create conditions that produce a healthy, living soil ecosystem.
Sweet peppers require full, hot sun, but are generally less adapted to extreme heat than hot peppers. In general, it is easier to grow hot peppers in warm to hot climates and it is easier to grow sweet peppers in warm but not hot climates. Sweet peppers are much more susceptible to sunburn than hot peppers.
The optimal temperature for growing sweet peppers is 75 to 85°F during the day and 50 to 60° F at night. Plants are usually killed or severely damaged by frost. Flowers may drop if temperatures rise to 90 to 95°F during the day. Peppers may withstand temperatures of 95 to 100°F but with slow growth and reduced fruiting. Pepper seeds are slow to germinate at temperatures below 68° F. Plant germinated seeds or transplant seedlings when daytime temperatures are below 70°F.
Prevent sunburn: use tall plants or shade cloth to provide shade to pepper plants during hot summer afternoons.
Utilize south facing walls and reflective surfaces to increase heat in garden spaces that are not very warm. Do not plant peppers in low areas of your garden where excessive moisture or cold air can gather. Choose a location that is sheltered from wind.
The sugar content of sweet peppers will increase in cool nights as the fruits approach maturity.
Sweet peppers can make attractive, colorful additions to your garden and are generally less vulnerable to pests and diseases than many other common garden vegetables. Peppers thrive in a long warm-but-not-hot growing season and, even more than other commonly grown Solanums such as tomatoes and eggplants, fertile soil. In many areas, growing sweet peppers, especially the large bell-type sweet peppers, can be a challenge.
In general, beginning gardeners are more likely to be successful growing hybrid varieties of sweet peppers than open-pollinated and heirloom varieties.
To be successful with growing sweet peppers, especially the large bell varieties, home gardeners will have to work to provide very fertile soil to encourage fruit production and a strong, large, healthy canopy early in the growing season to protect fruits from sunburn.
If you are new to growing sweet peppers, purchase transplants for the first few seasons; pepper seeds are notoriously slow to germinate and young peppers are sensitive and slow growing. More advanced gardeners can dazzle their taste buds with the huge array of varieties available when growing heirlooms and open-pollinated seeds.
Start seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the date you intend to set peppers in the garden, in time to develop strong, robust seedlings. Peppers can be transplanted in the garden 2 to 3 weeks after the soil temperature has risen to at least 65°F.
If planning to eat peppers fresh, 1 to 2 plants of each variety are sufficient for the household.
Successful sweet pepper production requires ample water, as peppers are sensitive to water stress in all stages of their life. Overall, sweet peppers require more water than than hot peppers. Drought stress can impact flavor and reduce the yield of pepper plants. To minimize the possibility of drought stress, plant peppers before daytime temperatures exceed 80°F; this allows pepper plants to develop a more mature root system for water uptake before hotter weather in summer.
Water peppers regularly and deeply, to the full extent of their medium deep root systems. Relative to other garden vegetables, peppers prefer a significant soil dry down before being watered again. Plants that are over-watered are more likely to suffer problems, including soil disease.
As pepper plants mature, provide longer and deeper watering to match the root system of the plant; any moisture stress during blooming or fruiting can led to fruit set problems, blossom end rot, or insufficient plant foliage. Peppers are ideally watered with drip irrigation or another method that delivers water directly to the root zone of the plant.
If starting from seed, sow pepper seeds in flats with light, well draining soil 10-12 weeks before your target transplanting date. Unlike the seeds of its relative, the tomato, pepper seeds are notoriously slow to germinate. Optimal germination temperature for peppers is from 70-85°. This relatively warm temperature range can be difficult to maintain; to maximize your success with germinating pepper seeds in flats, GardenZeus recommends using grow mats or other sources of bottom heat.
Provide young seedlings with good drainage and air circulation, or they may easily succumb to damping off fungus. Clean propagation materials are important for starting peppers; GardenZeus recommends avoiding wooden flats, as they may be more likely to harbor pathogens.
Compared to other vegetable seeds, pepper seedlings require more of a dry-down. Water pepper seeds when the surface of the soil has dried but still sticks to your finger just below the surface. Once germinated, water pepper seedlings when the soil surface is completely dry, and the soil just below the surface is slightly dry.
Hardening off is highly recommended for pepper seedlings, as they often grow slowly. Harden your plants off gradually over a period of 3 weeks, exposing them to outdoor conditions for longer and longer periods. This allows the plants to build strong good structure and to thicken the cell walls in their stems and leaves. Additionally, it allows them to build extra food reserves before they are transplanted; these food reserves are used for building new root tips after planting.
Transplants should be large, well developed plants. Whether you are transplanting seedlings you have grown yourself or you are transplanting purchased starts, minimize shock by transplanting peppers when daytime temperatures are around 65°F and nighttime temperatures are above 55°F. Plant seedlings 1-2 feet apart, depending on the variety. Though rare, peppers can develop adventitious roots; if peppers are leggy, plant seedlings slightly deeper (about an inch) than in their original pot to encourage more roots from the stem.
Sow seeds indoors, 1/4 inch deep in flats, pots or cell packs,
If using flats or pots for later transplanting, space pepper seeds 1 inch apart. If using cell packs for later transplanting, place one to three seeds in each section. Select strongest seedlings for later transplanting.
Space transplants 1 ½ feet apart from plant center to plant center. Plant rows 2 feet apart. If area is exposed to wind, place supports in ground before transplanting.
7 to 28 days to seed germination at temperatures from 70 to 95 degrees; seeds will not germinate below 55 degrees.
8 to 10 weeks from germination to transplant.
120 to 160 days from germination to harvest, depending on variety and growing conditions.
Sweet peppers have perfect, self-fertile and self-pollinating flowers. The most common problems with pepper pollination and fruit set occur when temperatures are too high or too low or moisture levels are irregular, causing flowers or fruit to drop. If conditions are ideal but fruit is not setting properly, gently agitating the blossoms can encourage pollination.
The warm to hot summer temperatures that are common in your zone can negatively impact pepper pollination and flowering, resulting in possible blossom drop.
Peppers should be given ample space and light to produce an optimal crop. However, they can be successively be interplanted with other crops in your garden, as long as as the other crops have similar water needs.
Avoid planting sweet bell peppers with any plant that adds nitrogen to the soil, such as beans, kohlrabi, fennel, cabbage, broccoli.
Pepper plants are self-pollinating and therefore sweet pepper plants can be grown next to hot pepper plants. However, gardeners who would like to save pepper seeds for next year's crop should use caution. Refer to "Propagating" in the GardenZeus section "Planting & Maintaining" for information on saving pepper seeds.
Try interplanting peppers with sunflowers, which have similar water needs (though you can cater to the water needs of the peppers), and mature through the long hot summer. Sunflowers may be able to provide some shade for pepper plants, helping slightly reduce temperatures when temperatures are in the nineties.
Peppers perform best in rich, living soil with sufficient organic matter and plenty of calcium. Early in the growing season crush or grind up eggshells, scatter at the base of each plant, and cover with fine mulch, to provide extra calcium to each pepper plant.
Pepper plants are hungry plants that require highly fertile soil, and have a need for significant amounts of all three major nutrients. Nitrogen allows the plant to create a large plant and healthy canopy, and phosphorus allows the plant to properly create roots and flowers. Potassium is also crucial, which will enable the plant to fortify its cells and branches, to support fruit development. A few inches of high quality compost should be worked into your garden before planting peppers.
Generally, fast-acting incremental applications of fertility are recommended for peppers; they can be fed several times throughout the season. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers, which will create large leafy plants with few or no fruits. Garden Zeus recommends adding nitrogen in the form of diluted urea or a cup of chicken manure diluted in 4 gallons of water (half cup if fresh manure) and mixed thoroughly, applied as a soil drench once a month while plants are developing foliage. Later in the season, before fruiting and flowering, peppers can be fed with a fish emulsion that is applied as a soil drench or foliar spray.
Use a quarter to half-inch fine mulch for small starts under four inches in height; increase to an inch or more of fine to medium mulch after plants are 1 to 2 feet tall; mulch is crucial in helping buffer soil moisture levels.
If plants flower early in the season, pinch flowers out to further encourage the development of foliage before future fruiting.
From seed. GardenZeus recommends open-pollinated, untreated, organically grown seeds. Refer to "Planting Method/Tips in the GardenZeus section "Planting & Maintaining" for further information.
Sweet pepper flowers are self-fertile and self-pollinating. Seeds can be easily saved from hot pepper plants (using gloves!), that have been isolated from other pepper plants plants for at least 500 feet. Sweet pepper flowers can be cross pollinated by sweat bees and honey bees; 500 feet should ensure seed purity. "Spiciness" is a dominant gene: seeds from sweet peppers grown next to hot pepper plants can produce pepper plants with hot peppers.
Chose fully mature, disease free fruit to save seed from; be careful when removing the seeds and use gloves or other protective coverings! Seeds should be dried out of direct sunlight until completely dry; they should snap when folded in half.
Peppers are perfect container plants. GardenZeus recommends growing sweet peppers in a container that is at least 5 gallons or larger, and provided with well-draining, light, fertile soil.
The heirloom Sweet Cherry Blend has cherry-tomato-sized yellow and red fruits that are great for pickling or eating fresh. For hybrids, consider Golden Baby Belle Hybrid or the 2015 All-American Selection Pretty and Sweet, an ornamental plant with sweet peppers that taste as good as they look.
Plant transplants year-round, especially when daytime temperatures are 75° F or higher and nighttime temperatures are 50° F or higher. Pepper plants may grow slowly or under perform during periods of cool or cold weather. Protect from frost or extreme cold in winter. Plant transplants with caution during periods of hot weather.
Consider protecting plants during periods of cold weather with floating row covers to provide extra warmth and protection from insects. Remove floating row covers when temperatures warm.
Thin early fruits: this encourages pepper plants to grow larger and produce more foliage before taking on the heavy task of producing fruit. Many sweet pepper varieties, especially sweet hybrid bell pepper types, can have a heavy fruit load. Consider staking your plants to provide additional support.
Prevent sunburn damage to pepper fruits. Sunburn damage is more common if plants lack sufficient foliage to protect pepper fruits and is more common with sweet pepper fruits than with hot pepper fruits. Provide shade cloth if temperatures reach into the mid-nineties. Temperatures above 95°F cause pepper flowers to abort and drop.
Despite high summer temperatures, allow sufficient soil dry-down between irrigations. More than any other crop, peppers thrive when the soil has a chance to dry-down between waterings. Be aware that if new pepper leaves show signs of curling or appear wrinkled, it most likely an indication of a lack of calcium and not water.
Peppers are shallow-rooted: cultivate around peppers with care. Keep area well-weeded to avoid competition.
As perennial plants, peppers can be carefully removed from the garden, re-potted, and brought inside for the winter to protect from frost.
If not growing as a perennial, remove plants and debris at the end of the season and compost the biomass.
While sweet peppers can be eaten at all stages of growth, they are most flavorful when mature and fully ripe. More than other edibles, the final color of a pepper fruit at harvest depends on the variety planted. Most sweet peppers become sweeter as they mature, turning from green to bright red, yellow, or orange—or even brown or purple. Once peppers begin to turn colors, they reach maturity quickly and should be monitored carefully. When fully colored, they deteriorate quickly and should be harvested. Sweet pimento types should be eaten only when fully red.
If you're not sure of a pepper's ripeness, watch for several thin, white stripes or dots to develop on the fruit. This is called "corking," and usually means a pepper is ready for harvest.
Sweet peppers should be harvested with pruning shears or scissors. Leave a 1/4 inch to 1/2 stem on your fruit when possible, which will help lengthen the shelf life of your pepper, making it more difficult for fungi and bacteria to enter the fruit.
Early in the season, consider harvesting the earliest peppers before they are fully ripe; this encourages the plant to keep bearing as a mature fruit can signal a plant to stop production.
Compare the color of those fruits you suspect are beginning to ripen with those fruits that are obviously immature.
Many sweet bell pepper varieties grown in the home garden do not produce pepper fruits as large as those typically found in the supermarket. If you wait until your pepper fruits reach the "supermarket" size you may be waiting a long time! Different varieties reach different sizes at maturity.
Pepper plants should be harvested as soon as peppers have matured, to help encourage the plant to continue fruiting.
Overwatering: One of the most common reasons for the death of pepper plants, overwatering fosters fungal and bacterial diseases, such as root rot.
Blossom drop: Extreme periods of heat (above 90-95° F) or cold below (50-55° F) may cause plants to drop their flowers.
Poor fruit set: High temperatures and wind can cause flowers to drop or fruit set to be aborted. An insufficient leaf canopy may only allow a plant to produce 1 or 2 fruits.
Small or flat fruit with few seeds: This is usually the result of poor pollination.
Blossom End Rot: A common condition in which the end of immature fruits develops brown spots, turns tough or leathery, or hard, inedible areas may form inside the fruits. This is caused by insufficient or unavailable calcium in soil and/or variable soil moisture (drying out between periods of irrigation). Add compost, eggshells, and be diligent in maintaining even soil moisture. Mulch will help retain moisture levels and buffer radical swings in moisture level.
Sunburn: Some varieties of peppers may have a smaller leaf canopy, exposing some fruits to the hot summer sun. To protect plants against sunburn, encourage a healthy leaf canopy by ensuring an adequate supply of nitrogen early in the growing season and harvesting a few of the earliest pepper fruits, In particularly hot areas or during particularly hot weather, consider protecting your pepper fruits with shade cloth.
Slow growth, yellowing, lack of vigor, sickliness in plants: These common symptoms may result from overwatering, underwatering, cold weather, compacted soil, alkaline soil, lack of nitrogen, or lack of a key soil nutrient. May also be the result of too much sun, wind, or other environmental and abiotic factors.
Leaf curl or wrinkling of new leaves: Curling or wrinkling of new pepper leaves may be an indication of a lack of calcium. Amend soil with crushed eggshells or water with a diluted solution of Epsom salts (magnesium) to help make existing calcium in soil more available to plants.
If your sweet peppers have stayed green for weeks, don't despair! Some sweet pepper varieties stay green, even when they're fully ripe. Other varieties may turn yellow, orange or other colors when fully mature.
Pre-mature flowering: Young pepper plants often produce fruits and flowers much earlier than desired; remove fruits and flowers, and ensure the plant has adequate nutrients to continue building foliage and plant structure.
Peppers are generally classified based on fruit type, the major distinction being between fruit that is pungent (cayenne, jalapeno, Tabasco) and fruit that is sweet (bells, frying peppers, pimentos).
Peppers once fit into one of 3 categories: sweet, hot or ornamental. Today, however, distinctions have become blurred. Some bell peppers are hot; some hot peppers are also sweet; and, with the colors and shapes available, any pepper may be ornamental.
Sweet and hot peppers are unrelated to the spice pepper plant that produces the ground black pepper commonly found on dining tables.
Consuming green peppers is common in the United States but relatively uncommon outside of the United States.
Growing sweet peppers in the home garden can make a difference in the environment. Commercial sweet peppers are one of the most intensely fertilized crops, and are usually heavily treated with both pesticides and herbicides.
If you are planting several to many pepper plants, place plants in staggered rows to fit more plants in a given area.
Sweet peppers plants with large fruits typically use more water than sweet pepper plants with small fruits.
GardenZeus recommends the "lunchbox style" peppers as plants that are less likely to get sunburned in the warm to hot summers of your zone.
Advanced gardeners may try to stimulate flower and fruit production by mimicking the plant's natural response to vernalization and expose plants to low temperatures in artificial conditions. After plants have three true leaves, expose plants to night time temperatures of 53-55°F for four weeks and 16 hours of light from grow lamps during the day. After four weeks, return plants to normal growing temperatures of 70°F, and plant normally.
Peppers may be stored fresh, frozen, dried or pickled. Peppers will continue to ripen after harvest. To encourage peppers to continue to ripen, store at room temperatures. To slow ripening, store in cool conditions.
Fresh whole peppers can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator at 45° F for 1-2 weeks, at high humidity.
Peppers are among the easiest of vegetables to freeze. Most peppers need not be cooked or blanched prior to freezing. Simply wash, slice open and remove seeds. They may be cut into strips, chopped or diced and placed in a freezer container.
While bell peppers produce very low levels of ethylene, they should not be stored with other ethylene producing fruits or vegetables as they are sensitive to ethylene gas.