Guest Author - Jessica Carson
Fresh, crisp bell peppers are a great addition to salads, sauces, and main dishes. Many new varieties are available from seed and nurseries, including mini-bells and colored bells that you would be hard-pressed to find in your local grocery store or farmer's market. You can easily grow your own sweet bells in very little space in your container garden. Here are tips on seed starting, transplanting, care, and harvest to help make this your best pepper-growing year ever.
STARTING YOUR PEPPER PLANTS
If you want to grow an exotic bell pepper variety, growing from seed will likely be your only choice for plants. Start your seeds indoors in late winter. Choose an area with plenty of light and warmth, or set up grow lights and a heat mat under your seedling tray or mini-greenhouse.
Choose 3 or larger coir or peat pots, or some other container which can be planted directly in the ground. Peppers can be transplanted from plastic pots, but they do not like having their roots disturbed, so plan to transplant carefully if you choose plastic.
Fill your pots with good, loose potting soil and plant your seeds to the depth recommended on the packet. Keep the soil moist at all times but not overly wet.
When the seedlings emerge be sure to turn them regularly- don't allow the plants to grow too leggy or to bend constantly the same direction to the light.
When it comes close to time to plant your peppers outdoors, gradually 'harden them off' by taking them outside for an hour or so a day. After a few days increase the length of time by another hour, until your plants have become acclimated and all danger of sunburn is past.
TRANSPLANTING TO YOUR GARDEN CONTAINER
When all danger of frost is past and (preferably) night temperatures are above 50 degrees F, plant your peppers outdoors. Choose a container at least 12 wide and deep (for mini-bell or dwarf bell plants) and 16 diameter or larger for regular to large varieties. Remember that your bell pepper plant could reach 4' tall by 3' wide or larger, so space your container to give your plant(s) plenty of room. The type of container is not terribly important; I have grown bell peppers in plastic, wood, galvanized buckets, terra cotta, and decorative ceramic containers, all with equal success.
Be sure your container has adequate drainage, cutting or drilling additional 1/2 to 5/8 holes if necessary. Cover the holes with window screen material or paper coffee filters, and fill the container with a rich, loose, well-draining potting soil. If your container is sufficiently large, such as a ½ wine barrel, two or even three plants can be grown with success. Dig a hole the size of your plant pot, carefully remove the plant from its nursery pot (if plastic), and gently place it in the hole, being careful to not disturb the roots. Note: if peat pots are used, remove the top 1 of the pot or plant the pepper deep so the pot won't act as a wick to pull water away from your plant. Fill in around the plant and gently firm the soil, then water in well. If you like, water your transplants with a transplant fertilizer solution or compost tea, to help it get a good start.
WATER AND FERTILIZER
Bell peppers require uniform watering never allow them to dry out and be sure they are never sitting in water. If the soil is allowed to dry out, especially on particularly hot, dry, or windy days, the plant may not set fruit or it may drop its blooms and young peppers.
Apply a side-dressing of time-release fertilizer after the first batch of blooms set fruit. Alternatively, water with compost tea or manure tea every 3 or 4 weeks throughout the growing and harvest season.
Bell Peppers are easy to grow, but a few things may hinder your harvest: cool or hot temperatures, pests, and diseases.
Temperature: Peppers are warm-weather plants. If night temperatures are below 50 degrees F the plants may grow slowly and not set fruit. If your temperatures are cool, move your peppers to a warmer area of your garden (for example-sunny and south facing with a protective wall or overhang to warm the nights). Also, if your day-time temperatures are too hot (over degrees F), consider moving your plants to an area with partial shade during the hottest part of the day.
Pests: Few pests will attack your pepper plants, but watch for aphids and white flies. Ladybugs and green lacewings are great ways to keep the pest insects at bay in your garden, or you can spray with an insecticidal soap or neem oil.
Diseases: If you smoke or handle tobacco products be sure to wash your hands well before handling your pepper plants. Many peppers are susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus. There is no cure for this disease, so be very careful or grow resistant varieties.
Blossom end rot: This can be caused by uneven watering throughout the growing and harvest season. It is caused when insufficient calcium is absorbed by the plant. Adding more calcium to the soil usually does not help (unless your potting soil is especially lacking). Simply watering whenever the soil is dry to 1 deep is the best solution.
You can harvest your peppers anytime after they reach full-size. Most varieties will become sweeter as they ripen. Colored peppers can be harvested when green, or you can wait until they mature to yellow, orange, red or brown. Note that most white, light yellow, and purple colors are actually immature fruits which will turn red when fully ripe.
To prevent damage to the plant, cut your peppers away from the plant with a sharp knife or scissors. Twisting or tearing the fruit away can split the plant and leave it susceptible to insects and disease.
Your peppers can be used fresh or cooked, and can be frozen for future use.
To freeze, wash and core your peppers. Slice or chop them into whatever size your desire.
Spread the pieces in a single layer on a cookie sheet or baking pan. Place in the freezer for an hour or two, or until frozen solid.
Place the frozen pepper pieces in a zipper-seal bag or plastic freezer tubs, seal, and store in your freezer until needed.
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