Most gardeners in warm summer areas grow peppers (Capsicum annuum), which come in an endless array of shapes, sizes, colours and flavours. All peppers originated in Mexico, and they retain enough of their tropical ancestry to make them a bit challenging to grow in home gardens. Ideal growing temperatures for peppers range between 68°F (20°C) at night and 86°F (30°C) during the day. Cooler temperatures slow the plants’ growth, while very hot temperatures often cause the blossoms to fall off rather than setting fruit.
What’s a pepper-loving gardener to do? To get more peppers over a longer season, try these three tried-and-true strategies.
Use Small-Fruited Varieties
How many peppers will a plant produce? The answer depends in large part on fruit size. Varieties that bear big, thick-walled fruits do well to produce 5 or 6 fruits, while a small-fruited variety may produce 30, 50, or even 70 peppers. No wonder so many gardeners are trying baby bell peppers and little sweet pimentos like 'Lipstick'. In the medium-size category, Cubanelle types like 'Gypsy' (an All-America Selections winner from 1981) are dependable and long-bearing, and you can get the sweet flavor of Italian roasting peppers in a scaled-down package
with 'Carmen' (AAS winner in 2006). If your top priority is dependability, you will not be disappointed by 'Sweet Banana', a garden favourite for more than 50 years.
Give Blossoms a Buzz
Starry pepper blossoms are self-fertile, meaning they will set fruit without being visited by pollinating insects. But fruit set doubles when the blossoms are buzzed by bees – a form of pollination that’s basically a violent shaking of the flowers. You can simulate buzz-pollination (called sonication) by giving blossom-bearing branches a sound shake. Don’t worry if you see ants or other small insects crawling around on pepper blossoms, because they aid in the pollination process, too. And, though you might expect insects to avoid hot peppers, a team of Brazilian researchers directed by worldwide bee expert Tony Raw discovered that females of certain tiny native bees were super-efficient pollinators of hot pepper blossoms.
Wait for Breakers
With the exceptions of peppers that start out pale yellow ('Bianca') or lavender ('Purple Beauty'), immature peppers wear some shade of green. As the seeds inside the peppers mature, the flesh color changes to red, orange, or yellow. Peppers are edible when they are "mature green," which means the seeds inside are mature, but the peppers have not yet started changing colors. Peppers become much more nutritious and delicious when they change colors and become fully ripe, but there’s a catch: the longer you leave ripening peppers on the plants, the less interest the plants show in putting on more buds and blossoms.
My solution to this dilemma is to gather the first peppers of the season when I see the first faint stripes of mature colour, which is called the ‘breaker' stage. But instead of putting the peppers in the fridge, I leave the glossy darlings out in my warm kitchen. Most will continue to colour up for a few days, giving me more time to savour their long-awaited flavors. And out in the garden, plants that have been relieved of their burden of ripening fruits can get on with the business of growing more of them. By the time the cold weather ends the pepper season in the fall, I’ll have plenty of fully ripened peppers to eat fresh, freeze and dry.
- Barbara Pleasant