Peppers brighten the garden with their vivid green, yellow and red skins. These warm-season vegetables come in a variety of types, including sweet bell, Hungarian wax, cayenne and banana. They're used in salads and soups, turned into pickles and even eaten raw. All pepper varieties require growing conditions similar to those for tomatoes and eggplant, making them excellent choices for companion planting.
Peppers are native to the tropics and require warm temperatures. Do not plant them until all danger of frost is past. Ideal planting temperatures range from 70 to 80 degrees F, with night temperatures not dipping below 60 degrees F. Extremely high temperatures (90 degrees F or above) during flowering often cause blossom drop. According to the Ohio State Extension, fruit that sets when temperatures average above 80 degrees F may be small and poorly shaped because of heat injury to the blossoms.
Growing peppers from seed is more difficult than growing tomatoes from seed, according to the Penn State Extension. Too much water or too little light will cause them to rot at the soil line. Germination requires temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees F. Seeds should be sown one-half inch deep in peat pellets seven to eight weeks before planting. Keep the pellets damp but not soaking wet.
The easiest way to grow peppers is from transplants, rather than by direct seeding. Choose sturdy plants with three to five sets of true leaves. Don't buy plants that already have flowers and fruit, as transplanting can lead to blossom or fruit drop.
In the garden, choose an area that will receive at least six hours of full sun each day. Space your pepper plants 18 inches apart in rows at least 24 inches apart and water thoroughly after you transplant them.
Warm, well-drained soil with moderate fertility is the best for growing peppers. Peppers prefer sandy or loamy soil, so if your soil is heavy clay (it will be sticky, feel almost like plastic and form a solid ball when squeezed), amend it by working compost and coarse sand into the first 6 inches of soil. Peppers are not too particular about the soil's acidity, but best results occur when the pH ranges from 6.0 to 6.8.
Peppers need frequent, thorough watering. Too little water at bloom time can lead to blossom drop or failure to set fruit. However, letting the soil become water-logged will lead to root rot. When watering, make the sure soil is moistened to a depth of at least 6 inches.
A week after your peppers have adjusted to being transplanted, place a mulch around the plants to conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and prevent soil compaction. Penn State Extension recommends straw, black or IRT (infrared transmitting) green plastic mulch. The mulch should be 1 to 3 inches deep and not directly in touch with the plant's stem.
Once a month, apply a 5-10-10 or 8-16-16 water-soluble fertilizer. The numbers represent the fertilizer's ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Higher phosphorus and potassium levels boost the plant's root growth, bloom and disease tolerance. When the fruits have begun to set, apply an additional side dressing of 12-12-12 all-purpose fertilizer to promote greater productivity.
Control aphids, which can carry viral diseases, with insecticidal soap. You may buy the soap at your local nursery or make your own by combining 1 1/2 tsp. dish detergent with 1 quart of water.
European corn borers dig holes in the peppers, contaminating the insides. DiPel 10G is an environmentally friendly granular bait that will attract and kill the borers without leaving behind dangerous chemicals.
If you smoke or use tobacco, wash your hands with soap and water before handling pepper plants to prevent the spread of tobacco mosaic disease.