It’s a fact, people love peppers. I mean who doesn’t love that sweet crunch of a fresh, locally grown red pepper? 

MMMmmmm, just thinking about it is getting me hyped for this summer delight!

The best part about growing peppers as a market farmer is the earlier you can get them to market, the more profitable they are.

When red bell peppers can be harvested by the end of July, that’s a crop that is going to produce some real money for you.

We are going to learn from a couple of market farm experts JM Fortier (the market gardener) and Pam Dawling (Sustainable Market Farming) for their expertise in growing peppers for market.

Varieties of Peppers

There are many kinds of peppers within the basic division of sweet peppers and hot peppers.

There are many green to red peppers and also several fancy colours, which eventually ripen to yellow, orange, red, or chocolate brown.

Types of Sweet Peppers:

  • Bell Peppers: the most familiar type
  • Frying Peppers: long, thin, tapered, thin-walled, sweet fruity flavoured peppers (Bull’s Horn, Corno di Toro)
  • Cubanelles: Shorter fryers with mild, non-pungent flavours
  • Banana Peppers: long, pointed, mild flavoured peppers that tend to ripen earlier than bells (Hungarian Wax)
  • Cherry Peppers: 1-1.5” round, sweet or hot peppers used for pickling and gourmet snacks
  • Paprikas: can be sweet or hot, often 4-5” long, 1.5” wide
  • Pimientos (cheese peppers): ribbed, flattened small globes, juicy and full-flavored, good for eating raw (Apple, Cheese Pimiento)

Pam’s favourite varieties of sweet peppers include the red bell peppers:

  • Fat N Sassy
  • Turino
  • World Beater
  • Napoleon
  • Bullnose
  • Super Shepherd

Pam’s favourite orange bell peppers:

  • Valencia
  • Giant Szegedi
  • Corona
  • Gourmet

Factors To Consider

Some factors to consider when choosing varieties are:

  • Productivity
  • Earliness
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Flavour
  • Leaf cover
  • Fruit wall thickness

In order to get top dollar, JM chooses pepper cultivars that produce medium-sized fruit. This is because from experience he has learned that most people will scowl at paying $3 for one large pepper but are fine with paying $4 for two smaller ones. 

These are the cultivars JM prefers:

  • Orion: very early, not too big
  • Carmen: Italian style, delicious
  • Round of Hungary: ribbed
  • Mandarin: yellow
  • Hungarian Hot Wax: hot

Crop Requirements

A pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is ideal.

Peppers require soils with fairly abundant nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but not too much nitrogen, or the fruit set may be reduced and the foliage too lush. 

During fruit growth, foliar feed a fish emulsion may be used.

Peppers grow slowly unless the nights are warmer than 55°F (13°C). Below 52°F (11°C) they get stunted for a day or two and 50°F (10°C) shocks them more seriously.

Hot peppers get hotter with hotter, dryer weather, and also with less fertile soil. 

A rule of thumb that Pam uses is she plants four or five peppers for every person she is providing for.

So they generally plant 45 in their hoophouse and about 350 outdoors (only 40 are hot peppers) for 100 people. 

Sowing Peppers

Pam sows peppers in late January for planting on April 1st in the hoophouse, giving them 9 week-old transplants.

For outdoor planting they sow indoors in early February and transplant early May, giving them 12-week old transplants.

Likewise, JM and team grow most of their bell peppers inside hoophouses to ensure an early harvest.

Pepper seeds have a short shelf-life, so be sure to use fresh seeds.

Peppers are slow to germinate: their ideal temperature range is 68 to 86°F (20 to 30°C).

At these temperatures, they will take between 7 and 8 days to germinate. 

Start in cells 2 to 2.25” in diameter, 2.25 to 3” deep.

Pot up to 3 to 3.5″ pots as needed.

To do well, peppers need to grow without any checks.

Keep the soil moisture low and water with warm water.

Grow the new seedlings at 70°F (21°C) in the daytime and 62°F (17°C) at night. 

Prepare for planting out by hardening off the transplants over 7 to 10 days.

Accomplish this by reducing moisture slightly but never let the plants wilt.

Don’t harden off nightshades by reducing temperatures below 53°F (12°C). Gradual exposure to the sun and wind is helpful. 

Transplanting Peppers

Eight weeks is the minimum transplant age for peppers. 

Pepper’s love sun and heat, so if necessary, move your transplants up to larger containers and wait for the right weather.

Older plants can take conditions 1 to 2 degrees cooler than smaller ones. 

Average soil temperatures of 65°F (18°C) are best.

JM’s transplants are about 8 weeks old before they put them in the ground.

They are transplanted into warmed-up soil and set to be watered by a drip line that is irrigated daily to an equivalent of an inch or so of rain per week. 

One application of a mixture of vermicompost and chicken manure is enough to meet their nutritional needs. 

Spacing of 18 to 24” in the row and 32-36” between rows is usual. 

JM plants 1 row spaced every 9”.

In the hoophouse where the plants grow huge, Pam plants a single row at a 24-inch spacing in 4-foot beds. 

Growing Peppers

In the hoophouse Pam uses 5 ft stakes every two or three plants and does Florida string weaving just like you would do for tomatoes, to provide the sturdy support that the huge plants will need.

Outdoors, use short 2-foot stakes every three plants and do two rounds of string weaving to help prevent branches from breaking off. 

Similarly, in the hoophouse, JM uses 5-foot stakes every two or three plants, with string weaving between them to support the plants when they are loaded with fruit. 

As well they prune the plants multiple times in the early stages, removing the first flower/fruit to allow the plants to establish a better root system before they start producing a lot of fruit. 

By mid-august, the plant’s heads are removed (the upper part of each main stem is cut above the last fruit) so that the production of new fruit will cease

This allows the plant to put its energy into ripening the already-established peppers. 

Peppers are drought tolerant to some extent, but drought-stressed plants can produce thin-walled fruit that may be slightly bitter. 

An inch of water per week throughout the season is about right.

Drip irrigation or overhead watering which finishes before noon will reduce fungal diseases caused by wet foliage in cooler temperatures. 

Foliar feeding with fish or seaweed emulsion can be used once fruits have started to set.

Foliar calcium spray may strengthen the fruit balls and help against pests.

Boron side-dressing may also help. Maintain high levels of phosphorus for sustained yield. 

Pests and Diseases

Pepper plants can suffer from blossom end rot.

It appears as a black or beige spot at the bottom of the fruit and makes them unsellable.

Blossom end rot is not a disease as such, but rather a physiological disorder resulting from calcium deficiency, which in turn is caused by water stress during periods of rapid growth. 

To counter the situation, add weekly calcium supplements to the drip irrigation water during the fruiting months when the peppers are growing rapidly, July to mid-august.

You can accomplish this by purchasing an injector that gradually releases doses of soluble calcium to the plant. It attaches to standard outdoor plumbing. 

As far as pests are concerned, peppers are susceptible to the tarnished plant bug

The use of insect netting can help deter these critters. 

Aphids can also be problematic. In order to keep these in check, scout your plants on a weekly basis.

If you find that the aphid population is developing too strongly, introduce ladybug predators, which can be purchased online and delivered by post.

While waiting for them to be delivered, you can spray pyrethrum on any plant that may be harbouring aphids. 

Season Extension

At the beginning of the season, row cover can protect a first outdoor planting from a surprise frost.

A hoophouse or greenhouse offers great opportunities for growing early crops, or a cold frame can be used for slightly early transplants after the spring seedlings free up space there. 

At the other end of the season, fall frost threatens to end a pepper harvest. Often there is a period of mild weather after the very first frost, and if you can protect your plants from major damage, they can continue to ripen fine peppers for several more weeks. 

Throwing row cover over your plants for a night or two may be worthwhile. 

Harvesting Peppers

All peppers will eventually ripen to some shade of red, orange, yellow, or chocolate brown.

In addition, some varieties will have long, partially ripe stages of different colours (yellow, purple, or white).

There is a market for green peppers, even though fully ripe ones are more nutritious.

Some growers harvest a few green peppers from each plant if the plant looks overloaded, then wait for the rest to ripen. Others reserve some rows for harvesting red. 

Red peppers command a better price than green ones, but the total plant/yield is lower.

Everyone has to find their own balance between quantity, quality, demand, supply and price. 

Most peppers require 65 to 80 days From transplanting to full-size immature fruits. Expect to wait for another 2 to 4 weeks for ripe peppers. 

Harvest at least once a week, to reduce losses to pests and diseases.

Pam Harvest 3 times a week and JM harvests twice a week just for reference sake. 

Harvest by grasping the pepper with a thumb at the top and the fingers on the bottom of the fruit. Then snap the pepper upward and break the stem.

Some growers recommend cutting the stems to minimize damage to the plants.

Everyone harvesting needs to know that the branches are very brittle and care needs to be taken. 

Rotting fruit should be removed from the plant to reduce the spread of disease.

As with many crops which are prone to foliar diseases, it is better to avoid handling the plants while the foliage is wet.

Post Harvest and Storage

Do not chill!  Peppers are best kept at temperatures above 46°F (8°C) with high humidity. 

Peppers do not keep for long, only about 10 days, so it’s best to sell them as quickly as you can. 

Bottom Line

By using season extensions such as hoophouses or greenhouses, you can get an early start with pepper production and be one of the first to the market with your beauties.

You can then command a higher price since you don’t have too much competition, depending on how early you are able to harvest your peppers.

You can also try JM’s method of growing medium-sized peppers and selling two at a time instead of one large pepper. 

Experiment and take note of what your customers want and try to improve each year to provide them with the produce they are looking for.

We are growing peppers this year, but to be honest I am a little nervous that they are not going to ripen on time.

It’s the middle of March and we haven’t started our transplants yet, YIKES!

Wish us luck!

What is your favourite variety of pepper to grow or eat? Let us know in the comments below.

Stay Local,

Kathy & Jon

your friendly neighbourhood growers



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