Garden to Table: Peppers
When August rolls around and summer turns extra-steamy, you can count on your pepper crop to keep producing.
Peppers live in the solanaceous family, closely related to tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes. We tend to grow more sweet varieties than hot ones because they’re more popular at the farmers’ market. Think about it: most everyone can enjoy a sweet pepper. But not everyone feels the same about hot. Most seed catalogs offer an array of peppers ranging from the uber-hot Ghost peppers — the world’s hottest chilies — and habanero types, medium heated ones like the familiar poblano pepper, and very sweet ones such as the candy-like pimiento peppers.
Understanding the life-cycle of the pepper fruit is critical for knowing when to harvest and how to use your specific pepper variety. All green or purple fruit (and even some yellow) are unripened, meaning that the seeds are not yet fully matured. These unripened peppers, whether sweet or hot, tend to be more mild and more acidic. As the fruit begins to turn color to red, orange, brown, or yellow, the seeds have matured completely. In the process of ripening the character of the fruit has transformed to enhance the sweet qualities in sweet varieties or raise the heat factor in hot varieties. At Love is Love Farm, we grow a diversity of sweet pepper types to provide an attractive display and collage of colors and tastes. For hot peppers, we keep it simple, harvesting only jalapenos, but we have really enjoyed the Hinkelhatz variety which is shaped like chicken hearts and great for seasoning vinegar to put on your greens in the cool season.—Joe and Judith
Islander, King Crimson, Golden California Wonder, Belcanto, Lipstick, Round of Hungary, Antohi Romanian, Sweet Chocolate, Early Jalapeno, Hinkelhatz
What I’m Wearing
Peppers come in all shapes and sizes: lobed bell-types, long bull’s horn ones, ruffled flat peppers and small tapered fruits. They range in color from green, lilac-purple, red, orange to yellow. No matter how you plan your pepper crop, keep it diverse and the pepper plants will do all the work providing big taste and immense beauty.
Peppers play a dual role by providing great texture to prepared food while also acting as a seasoning agent in dishes, much like onions or garlic. They are also great for stuffing with locally-made goat cheese. They can be mild, acidic, crunchy, sweet, unbelievably hot, or somewhere perfectly in the middle. Some pack thick walls for lots of texture. Others can feel almost velvety to the touch. For added variety, try padron peppers, which are harvested small and unripened. Fry these peppers lightly in oil: one out of every ten is surprisingly spicy.
How to Grow
- Start with young plants, or grow them from seeds in cells, in a warm, well-lit environment. Peppers are the first summer transplants we start, using heat mats to warm our seed trays. Pepper seeds can also germinate in the absence of light.
- Don’t put young plants in the ground until your last frost date has passed. Mulch them heavily right away. Some trellising support provides more harvestable fruit.
- Get a soil test annually to make sure that your major nutrients and minerals are present. Sometimes the first fruit have blackened rot spots on the bottom. This is due to the plant not mobilizing enough calcium early on. It should go away, but if the problem persists, you may want to look at amending with calcium lime or gypsum depending on your soil test results.
- Pepper plants are very susceptible to soil fungi. Let them get good and dry in between waterings to slow fungi down. We plant our peppers about a foot apart in the row and 2-3 feet between rows.
- Keep in mind that once the pepper fruit begins to mature, or change colors, it will not get any bigger in size. Pick your plants at least once a week.
- Know your pepper’s heat rating so you’ll know what to expect for the first bite. Ideally, hot peppers and sweet peppers are separated by as much distance as your garden situation permits to prevent cross-pollination between the two.
- Pick your plants completely before the first fall frosts arrive!
The beauty of peppers is their sheer versatility. Our friends at FN Dish have an array of methods for preparing your garden pepper bounty for the table, including Sunny Anderson’s Steak Fajitas with Chimichurri and Drunken Peppers or the hot-to-trot Cajun Stuffed Peppers from Food Network Magazine. Need a meal you can take to a picnic or serve hot or cold? How about Food Network Magazine’s flavor-packed Pasta Salad with Steak, Bell Pepper, Green Beans and Bacon?
But before you stuff, cool or serve your peppers raw, be sure that you stay away from shriveled or limp peppers advise the editors at FN Dish. Now get cooking!
In this Garden to Table feature, farmer-bloggers Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds offer their tips for sowing, growing and harvesting. And then we kick it over to FN Dish for some delicious recipes using this seasonal produce.