Planting and Growing Bell Peppers
Bell peppers require a long, warm growing season to fully mature to red, yellow, orange or purple, but can also be enjoyed in the unripe green stage, which can be white or lavender in newer varieties. Home gardeners can enjoy both ripe and green peppers with proper care when planting and growing.
Starting Bell Peppers from Seed
Bell pepper seeds germinate slowly, so sow pepper seeds indoors in peat pots or containers of sterile seed starting mix 8 to 10 weeks prior to the frost-free date in your area. Place the seeds 1/4-inch deep in moist, lightweight soil. Peppers require warmer germination conditions, so use a heat mat or other method such as heat lamps, to ensure timely sprouting and discourage seeds from rotting.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "Plant seeds in pots about 2 inches in size. These bigger pots encourage healthy root development, which leads to more stable plants when it is time to transplant them to the garden. Do not water seedlings directly, but immerse the bottom of the pot in 2 inches of water. Let the plants drink for a few minutes, but do not let them become soaked. Plants will germinate in 6 to 8 days."
If you choose to use bell pepper transplants, the plants should have a sturdy stem, about the diameter of a pencil. Avoid transplants that already have blossoms, have set fruits, or are root-bound.
Your peppers need full sun and protection from harsh winds. Against a wall is an ideal location, as long as the wall does not shade the plants.
Consider adding organic compost to your soil before planting to promote healthy growth. Lime can add much needed calcium to garden soil that helps to prevent blossom rot, a common pepper problem.
TIP: Rachel advises, "Peppers are fairly small plants that grow excellently in containers. A pot that is 12 inches across can handle two pepper plants. Mix your potting soil with some compost and water regularly."
Bell peppers are warm-weather plants and may grow very slowly or not at all when temperatures overnight are below 50 degrees. Low nighttime temperatures may also cause blossoms to drop without setting fruit. Plan to plant your little seedlings outside about 3 weeks after the last frost date. Wait until the garden soil is between 70 to 85 degrees F to plant. Plastic mulch, cloches, row covers and moveable cold frames can increase the soil and ambient temperature around the plants to encourage growth early in the season. In areas with a short frost-free growing season, these season extenders may be the only way to get ripe red or orange bell peppers from a home garden planting.
TIP: "Aphids are the most common pepper pest. Be sure to use an organic method to cure this problem, as you do not want unhealthy chemicals on your produce. "
Some gardeners plant bell peppers deeper than they were growing in the nursery container or starter pot. This doesn’t harm the plant, and for leggy seedlings, this practice can keep the stem from breaking. However, peppers, unlike tomatoes, do not grow additional roots from the buried section of stem. An otherwise strong seedling won’t benefit from deep planting.
When planting peppers in a row, space them 18 to 24 inches apart, with 24 inches between rows. Bell pepper leaves need full sun, but excessive exposure can cause sunscald on the peppers themselves. Planting peppers as close as 14 inches in a wide-row planting provides enough room for the plant and root system, while allowing the foliage to shade the fruits. Square foot gardeners can plant one pepper per section.
Bell peppers can be planted next to hot pepper varieties without any concern for the current season’s produce. Hot and bell peppers may cross-pollinate, but the peppers that grow on a plant from a bell pepper seed will still taste like mild bell peppers, even if they were pollinated by a hot pepper. Hybridization will only be apparent if the seeds from one of the cross-pollinated peppers are saved and planted next season.
For well-formed peppers with thick walls, provide an even level of moisture. A steady water supply also heads off blossom end rot. Supplemental irrigation is necessary when rainfall is less than 1 inch per week. To avoid foliar diseases, water the base of the plants rather than the leaves.
TIP: Rachel cautions you, "If your plants dry out too often, they will produce bitter peppers."
Use a starter fertilizer when planting. When the first flush of blossoms sets fruit, apply an additional side dressing of fertilizer. Do not use a fertilizer with a high concentration of nitrogen. Too much nitrogen will produce beautiful leafy plants that unfortunately bear little to no fruit. Bell peppers are heavy feeders and should be rotated through the garden along with tomatoes and other nightshades.
TIP: "Companion plants for bell peppers include: tomatoes, petunias, and geraniums. Plant these companions nearby to boost the health of your pepper plants. Avoid planting beans, kale, cabbage, and brussels sprouts around your peppers as they actually lower pepper health."
A healthy adult pepper plant can produce between 5 and 10 good-sized peppers. When it is ready for harvest, the fruit will be firm and have turned the desired color. You can harvest your peppers before this (green peppers) but they will have a much lower vitamin content at this age. Be gentle during harvest, so you don't damage the plant. Twist the ripe fruit off gently, or cut the stem with garden clippers.
TIP: Rachel says, "When your peppers are ripe, do not leave them on the plant too long. This will trigger the plant to stop flowering and producing fruit. Peppers can be kept fresh in your refrigerator for up to a week, or frozen for longer periods."