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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Growing Bell Peppers - Seed to Table





The biggest reason that I take the time to grow my bell peppers from seed is, well, money.  


I don't know about your area, but here in Ohio, bell peppers are usually about $1.50 apiece! I started to grow them in my vegetable garden many years ago and will continue to do it every season.

Bell peppers are also called sweet peppers as bell peppers do not contain capsaicin, the compound which gives hot peppers their pungency and heat.

The following is how I've grown bell peppers from seed to harvest for years. It's certainly not the only way to do it, but this process has worked well for me.



Here are the areas we will cover:


Bell Pepper Colors
Buying Bell Pepper Seeds  (It's more important than you might think.)
Starting Bell Peppers from Seed
Transplanting Seedlings into the Garden
Best Growing Conditions
Container Growing
Harvesting
Seed Saving



  



Bell Pepper Colors



The most commonly found bell peppers are green, orange, yellow, and red, though rare varieties of white, brown, and purple do exist.


Green Peppers


Bell peppers start off green. The longer the fruit stays on the vine, the sweeter it becomes and the more nutritional value it gains. 


Bell peppers that are picked at their green stage have longer shelf lives but are less nutrient-dense than peppers that have matured to another color.


Yellow/Orange Bell Peppers


Yellow and orange bells are less bitter than green ones.  They do have a shorter shelf life and are typically more expensive at the grocery store.



Red Bell Peppers

Red bell peppers are the sweetest tasting of the bunch, and have 11 times more beta-carotene, twice as much vitamin C, and 10 times more vitamin A than green bell peppers.


And speaking of nutrition, it's good to know that bell peppers have the most nutritional value when eaten just after harvest.



Buying Bell Pepper Seeds


Your seed packet may say it takes six weeks from transplant for a bell pepper to reach maturity, but that refers to harvesting the bell pepper when it's green. It can take two or three more weeks after that for a green bell pepper to mature to its final non-green color.


For this reason, I've found it advantageous to buy seed varieties that ripen to their full color more quickly.  Here are some suggestions.



Golden California Wonder Bell Pepper
Click to buy

Yellow Bells
Golden California Wonder (Heirloom)
Brocato (Hybrid)

Orange Sun Bell Pepper
click to buy 

Orange Bells
Orange Sun (Heirloom)
Orange King (Heirloom)
Milena  (Hybrid)



Big Red Bell Pepper
Click to buy
Red Bells
Big Red Bell Pepper (Heirloom)
Lady Bell (Hybrid)

Olympus (Hybrid)


Starting Bell Peppers From Seed


Bell peppers require a fairly long growing season so it’s best to get them started indoors and then transplanted into the garden when the soil is warm.


Start seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before your last spring frost date.  If you're not sure when that is for your area, you can find out here.






I prefer to use seed trays like the one above for all plants that I start indoors.  The main advantage I see in using these is the ability to bottom water the seedlings in large groups.  Be sure to purchase the trays with no holes for this purpose!


Seed Depth: 1/4 to 1/2" deep

A seed starting heat mat like pictured above does wonders for starting seeds, like peppers, that will germinate faster with the warmer soil temperature. It's not necessary, but if you're starting a lot of seeds, it's worth the purchase.


The soil temperature must be at least 70°F for seed germination of peppers, so if you don't have a seedling heat mat, keep the flats in a warm area for the best results. 


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Side Note
Use a regular heat mat at your peril.  There is no way to control the exact amount of heat, as I've learned from experience.
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Days to Germination: 6-8 with bottom heat.  May be up to two weeks without bottom heat.


Sow Directly Outdoors: Not generally recommended.



Seedling Care


After germination, bottom water with warm water.

Pepper seedlings can handle 70 degree days and nights as low as 60, but they'll grow faster if warmer.  At temperatures below 55, they will stop growing. 




Since peppers grow very slowly at first, grow lights are nearly a must-have to keep them healthy until you're able to plant them outside.  Keep the lights placed one inch above the top of the seedlings to ensure sturdy stems as well as keeping the soil warm.


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A side note
I use cheap shop lights from the Home Depot.  They work great!
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Seedling Fertilization 

Most general potting mixes contain a starter amount of fertilizer that should keep the seedlings healthy for the first few weeks to a month.

A supplemental fertilizer is necessary once the seedlings form their first true leaves. A fertilizer higher in phosphorus (N-P-K) (Nitrogen - Phosphorus - Potassium), like the bonemeal pictured above, is typically the quickest way for seedings to access nutrients.  Anyfertili zer that has a higher second number on the NPK scale will do. 


Potting Up Seedlings

As the peppers will be growing indoors for eight weeks or so, you may find it necessary to pot the seedlings up into larger pots to grow on. I do this about the four to the six-week stage.



Before Planting Out


A week or two before transplanting the pepper plants into the garden, introduce more fertilizer or aged compost into your garden soil.  

Northern gardeners may want to warm up the soil by covering it with black plastic.


This is also a good time to begin to harden off the plants.

Read our Article:  How to Harden Off Seedlings.


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Best Advice - DON'T rush planting pepper plants into the garden before the soil is warm!!
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Planting the Pepper Plants


Resist the urge to plant out plants too soon.  
Peppers are very sensitive to frost at either end of the growing cycle.  Pepper plants planted in cold soil or subjected to late freezes may become stunted or weakened to the point where they will be more susceptible to disease later.

It is better to wait until the nighttime temps reach at least 65 degrees.  This is generally about two weeks after your last frost date.  


Plant the transplants 2-3' apart no deeper than they were already; otherwise, the stems may become susceptible to rot.


Placement


An area in full sun - 6 to 8 hours of direct sun to produce the best fruit.


Avoid planting peppers in places where you’ve recently grown other members of the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, potatoes, or eggplant, as this can expose peppers to disease

Watering

Moderate and even watering until fruit sets then less as fruit matures.

Soil 


Light, well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter.  A soil consistency somewhere between sandy and loamy will ensure that the soil drains well and warms quickly.  Soil pH should be on the acidic side—5.5 to 6.5, ideally.




Fertilizing


Feed your pepper plants every ten days with a high potash liquid feed once the fruits start to swell.  Avoid using a fertilizer with too much nitrogen as you may get tall dark green plants and little to no peppers.


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Side Note
Pinch off early blossoms to allow the plant to grow a large root system and sturdy branches that can hold large fruit.
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Growing in Containers


Pot Size:  The common recommendation is a 12" by 12" pot for one bell pepper plant.  In my opinion, you can get a much better yield, especially later in the season, by planting in a bigger pot of 14 or 16".


Fertilize potted peppers at half strength every two to three weeks, again with a fertilizer with higher phosphorus.

Pollination


Since peppers are self-pollinating, the wind will do most of the work of transferring the pollen to pollinate the plant.  If you're growing peppers in a greenhouse, you will need to provide some air movement or shake the plant gently when it's in blossom. 


Good Companions: Carrot, onion, parsnip, pea.


Bad Compansions: Fennel, Kohlrabi.



Harvesting Bell Peppers


You can harvest bell peppers as soon as they reach the desired size or color.  If you harvest the bell peppers at the green stage, they will continue to produce. I first harvest a large batch of green bell peppers when they're a good usable size, then let the next batch grow to the final color.


Saving Seeds


To save the seeds of heirloom pepper varieties, pick the peppers once they reach their full color and the skins begin to wrinkle. Slice open the pepper and shake the seeds out of the fruit and into a bowl. The seeds require drying for a week or two to store well. 

Seeds will be viable for at least two to three years.



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So if you're a pepper lover like myself and you're tired of paying high prices for those bells, there's no better time than now to grow them in your vegetable garden.
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Where to go next!





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