The tomato’s wild relatives originated in South America, most likely in the Andes Mountains, but the fruit was not cultivated by the Andean people. Instead, it traveled over 2,000 miles north of its center of origin to Central America where the pre-Mayan people grew and domesticated the plants, naming them xitomatl. The cherry-sized fruits of Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme can still be found growing wild in the coastal mountains of Peru, Ecuador, and northern Chile. Hernán Cortés and his explorers are credited with finding the tomato in an Aztec market around 1520 and transporting the seed to Spain. From there, the tomato traveled throughout Europe and across the channel to England.
The earliest written records of the tomato are in herbal books. Botanists placed it in the nightshade family, which includes many poisonous plants. “This plant is more pleasant to the sight than either to the taste or smell because the fruit being eaten provoketh loathing and vomiting,” wrote an English country doctor in 1600. Needless to say, tomatoes were not a popular food in England at that time. Gardeners grew them for curiosity, and, according to the botanist for King Charles I, “for the amorous aspect or beauty of the fruit.”
Colonialists brought many plants from Europe back to the New World, and the tomato was one of them. Thomas Jefferson raised them as ornamental plants at Monticello in 1781, but it wasn’t until the1800s that people in North America began to relish tomatoes as food. Legend has it that Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson staged an event in 1820 that changed public opinion. In Salem, New Jersey, so the story goes, the Colonel set out to eat a basketful of tomatoes at the local courthouse in front of an audience that had gathered to watch the writhing spectacle of his death. He survived, of course, and the tomato was embraced. Over the years this account has been embellished and enshrined, but never verified. It is, however, a proven fact that cookbooks of the time contained recipes for tomato ketchup, relishes, and soups.
In 1880, James Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Catalog of Rochester, New York listed six types of tomato seeds. In that same decade Alexander Livingston of Livingston Seed Co. introduced ‘Golden Queen’, described in W. Atlee Burpee’s 1888 Farm Annual catalog as “handsome yellow slices making a beautiful contrast in dish with the red tomatoes.” Burpee listed twenty-one other tomato varieties for sale that year as well. A select few tomatoes from that era, including ‘Acme’, ‘Paragon’, and the revered ‘Brandywine’, can still be grown today. These and thousands of other tomatoes are known as heirloom tomatoes, loosely defined as varieties that have been in circulation for more than 50 years. Open pollinated tomatoes, which include heirlooms and all other varieties that grow true from seed, remain popular with home gardeners. Saving and sharing seed of the many unique tomato varieties is a labor of love for many gardeners who, along with organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange, help to maintain the genetic diversity of the species.
The modern age of the tomato was ushered in by Dr. Oved Shifriss, who bred ‘Big Boy’, one of the first F1 hybrids. Offered by W. Atlee Burpee in 1949, this meaty 1 lb. tomato is still sold today. The early ripening red tomato was an instant success for Burpee. Thousands of hybrids succeeded it, offering gardeners desirable traits such as earliness, crack-resistance, and compact habits. Continued breeding efforts have produced more healthful tomatoes with increased lycopene, and plants with multiple disease resistances. Modern tomatoes tolerate diseases caused by Fusarium and Verticillium fungi, nematodes, and viruses, and breeders expect that blight-tolerant hybrids will be available in the near future. These tolerances make it easier for gardeners and farmers to grow tomatoes without using pesticides.
The botanical name for tomato has changed several times. For many years its name was Lycopersicon or literally, wolf peach. When the tomato was placed in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, the botanical name changed to Solanum lycopersicum.
Tomatoes are classified in a number of different ways, including fruit shape, days to maturation, and color. From smallest to largest, popular fruit shapes are identified as cherry, plum, standard, and beefsteak. Cherry tomatoes, which range from ¼ to one ounce, are produced in clusters. Plum tomatoes are shaped as the name implies and generally weigh between 2 and 6 ounces, although they can be twice that. Also known as paste tomatoes, they have meaty interiors and thick fruit walls. Standard-sized tomatoes weigh anywhere from 4 to 16 ounces and are round, while beefsteaks, which can be 2 pounds or more depending upon variety, are usually oblate. Grape, currant, and saladette are relatively recent tomato types. Currant tomatoes are only about half the size of cherries; grape tomatoes, oval-shaped fruits that pop in your mouth, appeared on the scene in the late 1990s. Two- to three-bite saladettes, such as the 1999 AAS (All America Selections) winner ‘Juliet’, are larger than cherry but often smaller than plum tomatoes.
Tomatoes are also categorized by maturity date. The number of days to maturity means the average number of days from planting outdoors to the first ripe fruit. Early tomatoes, generally speaking, are those that ripen in fewer than 70 days from transplanting; mid-season tomatoes ripen in 70 to 80 days; and late types require over 80 days.
Fruit colors range from creamy white through lime green, to pink, yellow, golden, orange, and red. Pink, yellow, and orange are milder tasting than most red varieties. Contrary to popular belief, yellow tomatoes are not lower in acids. Rather, it is the balance of acids, sugars, and aromatics that distinguishes the taste of one tomato from another.
Tomato varieties are also distinguished by their growth habits, which may be determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are relatively compact, and reach a predetermined height or number of fruit clusters. Each short branch ends in a flower cluster, and plants do most of their growing before setting fruit. Determinate tomatoes tend to ripen all at once, so that the main harvest is concentrated into a few weeks. This may be ideal for gardeners who wish to preserve fresh tomatoes for winter soups and sauces.
Tomato ‘Big Beef’
Indeterminate tomato plants grow, blossom, and produce tomatoes throughout the growing season. They can reach up to 12 feet tall, and produce many main stems, all of which are capable of flowering and fruiting. As shoot tips continue to grow, flower clusters are borne in the leaf axils of the elongating shoot. An example of an indeterminate variety is 1994 AAS winner ‘Big Beef’. To support unwieldy growth and to keep tomatoes off of the ground, the National Garden Bureau recommends supporting plants with cages or stakes. Staked plants should be pruned to remove all but two growing stems, which are tied loosely to the stakes and trained for vertical growth. Because this system allows air to circulate around the plants, it can help prevent disease. Pruning, although not strictly necessary, can produce larger but fewer tomatoes. Suckers (shoots that grow the main stem and the branches) are easily pinched between thumb and forefinger.
There is a third type called semi-determinate which is bushy like a determinate, but will set and ripen fruit over a longer period of time. The 1984 AAS Award Winner ‘Celebrity’ is a semi-determinate. The best way to grow determinate or semi-determinate plants is to not prune and place a cage around the tomato while still small. As the plant grows it fills the cage. Gardeners need only pluck ripe fruit.
Many gardeners start their tomato plants from seed, which allows them a much wider choice of tomato varieties than a garden center is likely to offer. Tomato seed should be sown indoors about 6 weeks before the last expected frost date. Use a sterile germination mix as the growing medium, and make sure the planting tray has holes for drainage. Moisten the growing mix and sow the seeds, covering them lightly. Keep the planted tray from drying out by misting or covering gently with newspaper or plastic, and for maximum germination, warm the soil to 70 to 75 degrees F by placing the tray on a heat mat or other warm surface. The seeds will germinate in about a week. Remove the cover when most of the seeds have sprouted and place the seedlings in a sunny location. After they develop at least one set of true leaves, it’s time to move the plants to individual pots filled with soilless planting mix. Prick out the seedlings, disturbing their roots as little as possible. Make holes in the medium with a pencil and place each seedling gently in a hole, firming the soil around it. After “resting” in the shade for a day, young plants will need as much direct sunlight as possible—twelve hours a day is desirable—to keep them from becoming leggy. Gardeners often use grow lights to supplement natural sunlight.
Preparing garden soil and hardening off
It is important to harden off tender plants before placing them in the garden by exposing them gradually to the harsh outdoor conditions. Put young plants outside where they will receive morning sun but be protected from wind, and move them inside at night. Continue this for about a week, and then begin to leave them outside on nights when the temperature does not drop below 50 degrees F. After a week or two, the plants should be ready to transplant.
Prepare your garden soil by loosening it deeply with a garden fork. Break large clods of soil into small pieces, and work in compost to improve the texture and add nutrients. If you have doubts about the fertility of your soil, contact your local county cooperative extension office about having a simple soil test done. Soil test kits are inexpensive, and will provide you with a wealth of information.
Tomatoes are one of the easiest garden plants to grow. They need as much direct sunlight as possible to produce the highest yield. Native to the tropics, tomatoes require warm temperatures for good growth, so wait until the nighttime air has warmed to about 55 degrees F before transplanting them. Planting tomatoes too soon will only slow them down.
The best way to plant a tomato is the trench method. After loosening the soil, dig a trench and lay the tomato plant into it horizontally. Pinch lower leaves off of the stem, and allow the top cluster of leaves to lead out of the trench. Cover the root system and bare stem with soil, gently firming it where the plant emerges, and push a pillow of soil under the top stem to keep it erect. The plant will grow up towards the sun and, because the bulk of the stem is buried at a shallow level, the newly developing roots will warm up quickly. This is a boon to gardeners living where the growing season is short. Be sure to water deeply to encourage deep root growth.
If temperatures drop at night, keep young plants warm with a cloche or other protective cover. Tomatoes are not frost hardy, and will die if exposed to 32 degrees F without protection.
Continue watering regularly for about two weeks until the plants are established. Throughout the growing season remember to water the plants deeply during dry periods for as long as they are setting fruit. Established tomato plants need at least one inch of precipitation per week.
Tomatoes need phosphorus, nitrogen, potash and minor elements. Starting your plants off with an ample shovelful or two of compost will go a long way toward making sure the soil will provide for their needs. It will also aid the soil in holding onto moisture, which will prevent problems such as blossom-end rot. Many gardeners also add a synthetic or organic fertilizer. Some types, such as water-soluble granules or fish emulsion, can be applied when watering. There are also granular forms that can be mixed with the soil before planting or used as a side dressing, and time-release fertilizers, which can be added to the soil at planting time. No matter what kind of fertilizer you use always follow the directions on the label. Do not over fertilize because this will cause lush plants with little fruit set. It’s best to select a fertilizer that contains more phosphorus (P) than nitrogen (N) or potassium (K).
Gardeners living in urban environments can grow tomatoes in tubs or large patio containers. For best results select a tomato variety with a compact or determinate habit—compact cherry tomatoes are particularly good for container culture. The container needs to be deep, at least a foot, with drainage holes on the bottom. Use a sterile growing mix, keep the plants evenly watered, and place them so that they receive as much direct sunlight as possible. Feed plants regularly with a water-soluble fertilizer, keeping in mind that nutrients will leach out of the pots faster than garden soil. During periods of hot weather, full-grown plants may need to be watered daily.
For the best tomato flavor, allow the fruit to fully ripen on the plant. Wait until it is deep red, yellow, or whatever final color the tomato is to be, because once it is removed from the vine, the supply of sugars is cut off. To harvest, gently twist the fruit so that the stem separates from the vine. Tomatoes are best kept at room temperature, and will store on a kitchen counter for several days. It is absolutely unnecessary to place a ripe tomato in the refrigerator. At the end of the season when frost is predicted, green tomatoes can be harvested and placed on a windowsill or counter. Most will gradually turn red and have some degree of tomato flavor. Placing unripe tomatoes in a paper bag will hasten the ripening process.
There are several long keeping tomatoes that can extend the fresh tomato season. These varieties were bred to retain the tomato flavor for a longer period after harvest.
Most gardeners successfully grow tomatoes in their gardens without significant problems. Examine plants regularly and notice any difference in leaf color, size, or shape. If you notice holes, it probably means that there are insects eating the foliage. If an unidentified problem develops, take a sample of the leaf or fruit and contact the local cooperative extension office for assistance. The National Garden Bureau recommends rotating tomatoes and other crops in your garden on a three to five year cycle, that is, do not grow the same crop in the same place more often than every third year.
When browsing through tomato seed packets in a store you may notice the letters V, F, N, or T on the description. These letters mean the plant is genetically tolerant of certain diseases or viruses.
Verticillium Wilt (V) is caused by a soilborne fungus. The symptoms of infection are wilting of older leaf tips, yellowing and browning of leaves in a V-shaped pattern and leaf drop beginning with the older foliage. As the fungus moves throughout the plant, all leaves curl upward and the stunted plant will not respond to water or fertilizer. Cool weather conditions encourage this disease.
Fusarium Wilt (F) is also a soilborne fungal disease. Multiple F’s on a seed packet means the variety is resistant to multiple strains of the Fusarium pathogen. This infection commonly occurs when the soil is above 75 degrees F. Plants in light sandy soils, or soils with low pH, are most susceptible to Fusarium wilt. Symptoms of this disease are yellowing, curving and dying leaves; infected plants are stunted and fruits are small or deformed.
Fungal wilts will kill your plants over time. Pull diseased plants out of the garden bed and dispose of them in the trash; composting diseased plant material will perpetuate the problem. Do not plant members of the tomato family, which include peppers, eggplants, and potatoes, in that bed the following year.
Nematodes (N) are tiny worm-shaped animals that live in the soil. Most nematodes are beneficial, but a few, including root knot nematodes, are plant parasites that cause stunted growth, wilting, and dieback. To verify this problem, pull the tomato from the soil. If the roots have growths or galls on them, root knot nematodes are the problem. Be sure to plant resistant varieties in the future.
Tobacco Mosaic Virus (T) is a widespread tomato virus. Weeds harbor the virus and insects that feed on the weeds can transmit the disease to tomato plants. Symptoms are light and dark mosaic patterns on leaves, or yellow mottling. Tobacco, a close relative of the tomato, is the source of the virus, which can also be spread when smokers handle plants.
Early Blight and Late Blight also affect tomato plants, sometimes with devastating consequences. Early blight, caused by the fungus Alternaria solani, can be recognized by dark concentric rings on older leaves. Although spotted leaves usually die prematurely, the disease will not kill the entire plant. Because the fungus overwinters in residue, be sure to dispose of diseased plants in the trash. Late Blight occurs during cool, moist periods in mid- to late summer. Spores of the fungal pathogen, Phytophthera infestans, can blow in and infect plants when conditions are favorable, causing greasy, grayish areas to develop on leaves. Often a white downy mold will also be seen on leaves and fruit. When Late Blight strikes, it can ruin a tomato garden almost overnight. The only thing to do is to remove and destroy affected plants. To prevent blights, avoid crowding your plants, and keep foliage dry by watering the soil, not the leaves. Some varieties have resistance to some strains of late blight (e.g. ‘Defiant’)
There are a few minor fruit disorders that gardeners often encounter. One of the most common is blossom-end rot. It begins with tan lesions on the blossom end of the tomato, which eventually enlarge into dark sunken areas. This rot appears during periods of high growth or when soil moisture is alternately high and low. The direct cause is the fruits’ inability to take up sufficient calcium. Maintaining uniform soil moisture by watering regularly and keeping a layer of mulch on the soil will prevent this disorder.
Cracking and catfacing occur more in some varieties than others. Changes in conditions, such as high temperatures and moisture levels followed by dry weather, can cause tomatoes to crack near the stem end. Catfacing, caused by incomplete pollination in cold weather, is a malformation of the fruit on the blossom end, and is more common in larger tomatoes such as beefsteaks. To prevent either disorder, choose from among the many varieties that are resistant.
Sunscald, the white, shiny blisters that sometimes develop on a tomato’s skin, is caused by exposure to the sun. Keeping foliage robust by attending to the soil and providing the plant with adequate irrigation will reduce the chances of sunscald.
Inspect your plants regularly for insects. The tomato hornworm, a large green caterpillar, can eat through a considerable amount of foliage in a very short time. Fortunately, hornworms are easy to handpick. If you notice one carrying white cottony cocoons on its back, spare it—the cocoons are braconid wasp larvae, the hornworm’s chief natural predator. Brown stink bugs can also be a problem. These sucking insects cause cloudy spots on ripe tomatoes. To prevent damage, control weeds in border areas, which can harbor the bugs.
Tomatoes provide abundant vitamins and minerals. One cup of cherry tomatoes will provide 25% of daily recommended Vitamin A, 32% of Vitamin C, and a substantial amount of Vitamin K and potassium. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that has been linked to a reduced risk of cancers. For the best tasting, most nutritious tomatoes, grow your own and eat them fresh from your garden.
The National Garden Bureau acknowledges two experts who read the original fact sheet and contributed their knowledge. They are Julia Pruitt, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma City, OK and Jim Waltrip, Seminis Vegetable Seeds, Saticoy, CA. We also thank Pam Ruch for her 2010 updates.
The ‘Year of the Tomato’ fact sheet is a service provided by the National Garden Bureau.
2015: Year of the Sweet Peppers
Sweet peppers bring a rainbow of colors and a plethora of shapes to the table. It is easy to value them for looks and flavor alone, but the sweet pepper is a nutritional powerhouse as well. A serving of the most popular type in the USA–the sweet bell–contains more vitamin C than the average orange, a generous amount of vitamin E and many antioxidants with only 29 calories. Peppers have high nutrient levels at any stage but are the most beneficial when eaten fully ripe. The few colors of bell peppers in the average supermarket are only the beginning–blocky shaped bell peppers can ripen to many colors; ivory, pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and chocolate. Sweet peppers come in many shapes as well; the elongated banana, the blocky bell, the oblong or “half-long” bells, flat “cheese” shapes, and smooth cherry types.
Home gardeners can find many varieties of sweet pepper plants available at a local nursery. True enthusiasts usually branch out from there and spend the winter perusing seed catalogs, on-line shops and seed swaps for unusual colors shapes sizes and flavors. The variety and nuance of sweet pepper flavor compares to fine wine, coffee, or chocolate. Sweet peppers are also similar to other foodie obsessions in that many cultures and regions have different favorites. Cooks love the flexibility and wide spectrum of possibilities sweet peppers offer in the kitchen. Pepper plants are easy to grow, require very little space and are an attractive addition to any garden, yard, or balcony and that is the reason National Garden Bureau chose 2015 as the Year of the Sweet Pepper.
Peppers are native to South and Central America, tracing back to the Oaxaca region of Mexico somewhere between 4000 and 6000 B.C. Ancient complete and partial peppers have been found, well preserved in caves during archaeological excavations. The way the peppers were found suggests that they were consumed as both dry seasoning and fresh. Researchers conclude peppers were harvested whole and dried then ground up for seasoning when needed. Dried peppers are light in weight and can store for thousands of years. Perhaps peppers were the first convenience food!
Over the years peppers became popular across the Americas. The name “pepper” was coined by Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers of the Americas who were looking for plants that would produce peppercorns to be used as a spice. Peppers were taken back to Europe and became very popular, especially in warm summer regions in southern Europe. Peppers have become a key ingredient in the diet of countless cultures.
Records show that as of 2007, the world produced nearly 27,000 metric tons of peppers (sweet and hot combined). The top ten producing countries that year (in order starting at the top) were the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, Spain, United States, Nigeria, Egypt, South Korea, and the Netherlands. Each country may grow for export or for local needs.
In the United States, most bell peppers sold in supermarkets are grown in Florida. Other pepper producing states are California, Texas, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Recent trends in commercial pepper production include increased greenhouse production in order to reduce transit time and grafting for disease resistance. Consumers have enjoyed mini snacking type peppers as they have gained popularity nationwide. Companies that breed pepper seed are always looking to improve plant health, fruit yield and product quality in order to make the best use of limited land and water resources.
Sweet bell peppers are a cultivar of Capsicum annuum. (A cultivar is simply a horticultural term for a group of cultivated plants given a unique name for a set of desirable characteristics.) Non-pungent banana peppers, sweet jalapenos and sweet cherries are also members of capsicum annuum. Currently capsicum includes at least 25 species, four of which are domesticated.
Pepper breeder Arun Sharma explains color variations in sweet peppers, “Most of the commonly grown bell peppers do start out as different shades of green. Some peppers stay green until they mature to red or yellow; others may turn white, light purple or purple before maturing to red or yellow. Capsicum species produces fruits that synthesize and accumulate carotenoid pigments, which are responsible for the mature yellow, orange and red fruit colors.”
Sweet peppers are called sweet because they do not produce capsaicin–a chemical that causes a “burning” sensation when hot peppers are consumed (or when they come in to contact with the eyes or nose etc.). Sweet peppers lack capsaicin due to a recessive form of a gene that eliminates capsaicin and, consequently, the “hot” taste usually associated with the rest of the Capsicum genus.
Sweet peppers are actually a fruit (because they come from a flowering plant and contain seeds) but treated and spoken of as a vegetable. Worldwide, each culture has its own preferred shapes, textures colors, flavors and recipes.
A few examples of the plethora of sweet pepper types grown are bells, Bull’s Horn, snacking mini-peppers, half-longs, sweet bananas and sweet jalapenos and sweet habaneros.
“Bell” is a term used in the U.S.A. that refers to sweet peppers with 3-4 lobes. Bell might either refer roughly to the fruit shape or to the pendulous way the fruit hang from the plant. In the U.S. agriculture industry, the 3-4 lobed fruit that are nearly as wide as they are tall are referred to as “blocky” bells and the elongated bell peppers (which are not as common in North America) are called “half-long” bells (half as wide as they are long). Bells can be found in many colors including red, yellow, orange, purple, chocolate and ivory.
“Bull’s Horn” peppers are sweet and wide at the shoulder, tapering to a point. They often have thicker walls than the blocky bells and commonly mature to red. They are thought to have been brought to the U.S. from Italy and are also called “Corno di Toro”- which translates to “Horn of the Bull.”
Mini-Snacking peppers have been popular with home gardeners for many years and have gained popularity in U.S. grocery stores in the last 10 years or so. They are blocky, pointed, thin-walled, sweet, and come in bright colors including, yellow and orange. The best snacking peppers are crunchy and have just a few seeds or no seeds at all.
And now we enter the dangerous territory of varieties that can be either sweet or hot. Bananas are long and thin and usually mature from a light green or yellow to red. They are used fresh and pickled as rings. Because there are both sweet and hot banana peppers available, be sure and order the seed or buy the plant you prefer. Sweet jalapenos and habaneros are also available though not as common. They are worth searching out–the flavored revealed by removing the burn is a pleasant surprise for the pepper enthusiast.
How to Grow
Start seeds indoors in a warm spot about 8 weeks before the last frost date. Pepper plants can suffer from transplant shock so plant them in a biodegradable container that can go right into the garden later. Keep the soil warm (at least 75 degrees) and damp. Do not transplant until days are at least 65 degrees and nights are above 55.
In the nursery look for bright green plants with shiny, perky foliage. It is better to buy younger plants that have not yet flowered when possible. Older plants can become stunted and root-bound in the tiny starter containers and will not transplant as well as smaller, younger plants. Plants can sometimes become stressed in some garden centers. Choose a garden center that cares for its plants and waters regularly. Make the nursery your last stop–don’t leave new plants in a hot car or truck bed for any longer than you need to. The best technique is to ready your soil and area in advance in order to get the plants in the ground quickly. Late afternoon planting causes the least amount of stress to young pepper plants giving them a night to adjust before they need to survive the first day of sun.
Peppers like a sunny spot. They grow best in a location where plants from the same family have not recently grown–crop rotation is important for peppers (and tomatoes and eggplants). Soil should be loose and amended with compost or a vegetable soil mix from the garden center. Introduce your seedlings to the garden gradually and transplant during mild weather or in the late afternoon if possible. Transplant shock can slow the maturity of the plant and affect fruit quality and quantity.
If planting in rows set peppers 12-18 inches apart in 24-inch wide beds. If planting in squares or in flowerbeds etc. allow 12-18 inches of space around each plant. Fertilize about every two weeks, especially if you notice the plants become pale. Stop fertilizing once the plant blooms so that it can put its energy into fruit set. Pepper plants prefer full sun, but if you live in a very warm area look for varieties that have “good coverage” of fruit. A full leaf canopy will prevent fruit from sunscald. Scalded fruit, though less attractive, are still edible and taste the same.
Plants will continue to bloom and set fruit until the first frost. If temperatures are above 85 degrees, or very cool, flower set and fruiting may slow down. Keep the plants watered and wait out the weather–they often will rebound if conditions improve. At the end of the season, cut down and remove plants and add mulch or plant a cover crop for the next year.
Common Pepper Problems
Pepper plants are fairly hardy and not as attractive to insects as other vegetables in the garden. To avoid conditions spread by water it is best to keep the leaves as dry as is possible by drip-line watering or giving the plants time to dry in the sun if they are watered from overhead. Pale leaves can indicate that the plants need fertilizer. Big, healthy plants that fail to bloom can indicate over-fertilization. Space plants as instructed by the plant tag or seed packet. Plants that are planted too close will lack air circulation. Proper air circulation improves pollen distribution which is needed for fruit set. Crowded plants are disease prone and do not set as well as those that have been properly spaced. The best way to diagnosis an unknown problem is to take a photo of the area and a close up of the problem and show them to an expert in your area–an extension agent or local nursery employee.
Pepper plants are very attractive. The large glossy leaves and petite white flowers dress up any patio container or flowerbed. Pepper plants grown in containers are often small but usually mature earlier. Each plant should have a 2-gallon or larger container, deeper than it is wide. The baby plant will look a little lonely at first but will grow to fill the container quickly.
A benefit of container growing is that the plant can be introduced to cool nights or warm days gradually to avoid shock. In the spring, bring plants indoors when nighttime temps are below 55 degrees. Introduce the plants to warm days (over 85 degrees) a few hours at a time until they are acclimated to their final location. Once plants are established, water every few days (or when soil is dry and pulling away from the side of the pot. Fully soak the soil and avoid spraying water on the leaves. Follow the instructions on the fertilizer package or add mature compost as flowers are setting. Taper off on fertilizer, especially nitrogen after plants flower. Nitrogen encourages the plant to put its energy into the leaves and not setting fruit.
Sweet peppers can be harvested at any stage of maturity. Less mature green peppers will generally be green or pale yellow, smaller, crunchy, and have thin walls and a slightly tart flavor. A benefit of harvesting early is that it triggers the plants to produce more fruit. Mature peppers will change color, have thicker walls, and a mild sweet flavor. No matter the stage of harvest, cut the peppers from the plant with clean pruners or kitchen shears to avoid damaging the plant.
Fully mature sweet peppers don’t store well so eat them up. Extra peppers can be roasted and peeled and preserved in oil. There is nothing better than the aroma of roasting peppers filling the house on a late summer afternoon. With some simple preparation peppers freeze well. Sweet peppers are a great vessel for cooked fillings or cool dips. Chopped peppers can be added to soups, salads, and omelets.
Barbara Rolek for About.com lists a couple ways to roast sweet peppers:
4 red peppers, washed and dried
1/2 cup sunflower or olive oil
2 tablespoons vinegar or more to taste
4 finely chopped garlic cloves
Salt and black pepper to taste
- Peppers can be roasted by baking, broiling or grilling. If baking, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place peppers on pan and bake, turning occasionally, until all sides are blistered and slightly blackened.
- If broiling, turn the oven to broil and follow the directions for baking, above. If grilling, set the heat at medium-high. Place the peppers directly on greased grates and continue cooking as for baking.
- Place roasted peppers in a heatproof bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let steam for 15 minutes or until cool enough to handle. This steaming period will help the skins slip off more easily.
- When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the stems, skins, seeds and membranes. The peppers can be left in large pieces or cut into strips, although large pieces are more traditional. Transfer to a serving bowl.
- Add garlic, oil, vinegar and liberal amounts of salt and pepper to roasted peppers. Toss until well coated. Allow peppers to marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes. Then serve or refrigerate.
Alice Henneman of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln suggests the following steps for freezing your sweet pepper harvest:
Bell or Sweet Peppers (Green, Red, Yellow, Orange, Purple)
- Select crisp, tender peppers.
- Cut out stems and cut peppers in half.
- Remove seeds and membrane — save time by using a melon baller or the tip of a spoon to scrape out seeds and membrane.
- Cut peppers into strips, dice or slice, depending on how you plan to use them.
- Freeze peppers in a single layer on a cookie sheet with sides, about an hour or longer until frozen. This method is often referred to as “tray freezing.”
- Transfer to a “freezer” bag when frozen, excluding as much air as possible from the bag. The peppers will remain separated for ease of use in measuring out for recipes.
- Pour out the amount of frozen peppers needed, reseal the bag and return to the freezer.
No matter how they are grown or used in the kitchen, sweet peppers add beauty, variety and health to any garden or home.
The National Garden Bureau recognizes and thanks Heather Kibble as author of this fact sheet.
This Sweet Pepper fact sheet is provided as an educational service of the National Garden Bureau.