Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
Louisianans have appreciated the enjoyable qualities of spicy foods for generations, and peppers from your backyard garden can help contribute to that.
The fire in Louisiana cooking is provided primarily by hot peppers or products made from them like red pepper and hot sauce. So a backyard garden here wouldn’t be complete without a few pepper plants – both hot and sweet – to pick from.
The pepper is native to the tropics of Central America and South America and has probably been cultivated for thousands of years. When Columbus reached the Caribbean, he tasted a vegetable being grown by the native population. Its sharp taste reminded him of the familiar black pepper, so he called the new plant "pepper," as we do today. Columbus, however, was no botanist, and he was mistaken. The plant was not even related to black pepper (Piper nigrum) but instead belongs to an entirely different genus, Capsicum.
From their America origins, peppers were spread to Europe, Africa, India and Asia – and they became an important part of many regional cuisines. They are a member of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family, which makes them relatives of tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, eggplants and petunias.
The degree of heat in peppers is related to the amount of the chemical capsaicin (cap-SAY-sin) in the fruit. This chemical is concentrated in the pepper pod where the seeds are attached and in the veins of the inner wall. Peppers are at the peak of their hotness when fully ripe and are usually five times hotter when they are mature compared to the green or immature fruit.
Based on the amount of capsaicin they generally contain, pepper varieties can be classified as sweet, mild, hot and very hot. Remember, you cannot always identify a hot pepper by its shape or color! Here are some examples of the various "heat" ranges:
–Sweet: Sweet Bells, Pimento, Sweet Banana and Gypsy.
–Mild: Mexi-Bell, Cherry, NuMex Big Jim, Anaheim, Ancho, Pasilla, Espanola and Cascabell.
–Hot: Jalapeno, Mirasol, Hungarian Wax (Hot Banana), Serrano, Cayenne and Tabasco.
–Very Hot: Chiltepin, Thai, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet.
Sweet bell peppers are commonly planted in the home garden. They are blocky with three or four lobes on the bottom or the pepper.
For many years, gardeners could choose only one color of bell pepper – a green that matured red (red bell peppers are just ripe green ones). Through modern breeding efforts, however, we can now grow bell peppers that mature red, yellow or orange and may be purple, lavender or chocolate brown instead green when unripe.
As for more information on growing peppers, now is an ideal time to plant peppers in the garden. And many varieties are attractive enough to use as ornamentals in the landscape as well as in the vegetable garden.
To grow peppers, choose a sunny area, since peppers need full sun to blossom and set fruit. Also, try to select a spot protected from the wind, since pepper plants have shallow root systems and brittle branches. In the mid- to late summer, a stake will help keep the plant upright as it grows larger.
Plant peppers in well-drained beds enriched by digging in compost and an all-purpose fertilizer. Once they are planted, water in the transplants with your favorite soluble fertilizer. The side-dress with about one tablespoon per plant of additional fertilizer every four to six weeks.
Space peppers 1½-2 feet apart. Depending on the variety, most peppers grow about 2 feet to 3 feet tall.
A half dozen plants – four sweet, one mild and one hot – should provide a family with a summer-long crop of peppers. Production of bell peppers often drops off in the hottest part of the summer but will pick up as weather cools in September or October. Excellent summer production of sweet peppers can be obtained from Gypsy and Sweet Banana.
Mulch plants to control weeds and conserve moisture. Leaves, pine straw or dried grass clippings work fine. Plastic mulch sprayed with silver or bright aluminum paint after it has been laid is used in some commercial fields. The reflected light from the painted surface helps to repel aphids – small insects that feed on peppers and spread virus diseases. The reflected light also seems to stimulate plant growth. Wide, heavy duty aluminum foil could be used in a small home garden, or you may be able to purchase reflective mulch from specialty gardening catalogs.
Peppers can be harvested at any stage of development. Bell types are usually harvested when firm and full size but still green. They also may be harvested when they mature and turn red, orange or yellow, depending on cultivar. With other types of peppers it varies. Jalapenos generally are harvested green, while cayenne peppers are harvested mature red, but it’s largely up to you to decide.
When harvesting the fruit, hold the branch and snap or cut the fruit off carefully. Remember, pepper plants are brittle and break easily.
Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.