Garden Variety: A guide to growing peppers

Peppers are one of the easiest vegetables to grow in Kansas gardens, and there is a variety for just about every taste.

Peppers are one of the easiest vegetables to grow in Kansas gardens, and there is a variety for just about every taste.

Whether you are an experienced pepper grower or trying them in the garden for the first time this year, a few simple tips can help beat the challenges of Kansas weather and soil and help select the variety best suited to your needs.

There are basically two types of peppers: sweet and hot. Sweet peppers are typically bell-shaped and hot peppers are more elongated, but there is crossover in both directions. Both types of peppers come in a range of colors, starting out green and ripening to red, yellow, orange, purple, white and even brown.

All types of peppers like warm weather and warm soil, so for whatever type you choose, have a little patience in planting.

Use a soil thermometer and transplant pepper seedlings into the garden when soil temperatures have reached 60 to 65 degrees. This is typically mid-May in the Lawrence area. Gardeners often think they will get produce more quickly if plants are in the ground earlier, but in reality cold soil temperatures can shock plants and stunt growth. Plants may also abort flowers in cool temperatures, leading to later production times.

Transplanting small plants is easier than starting plants from seed and is the most common way peppers are planted. If you really want to start plants yourself, use heat mats and grow lights and be sure to start the seeds indoors about eight weeks before you plan to transplant them into the garden. (Maybe next year if you are running late on this one.)

Besides warmth, peppers prefer well-drained soil in full sun. Abundant organic matter helps with drainage and nutrient availability. A soil pH that is slightly acidic to neutral also allows for better nutrient availability to grow healthier plants. Containers are a great alternative to planting in the ground and good-quality potting mix is perfect to support plant growth.

Once the soil is warm enough and pepper plants are in place in the garden, water plants as needed until they establish. Mulch the surrounding soil with prairie hay, straw, compost or other organic matter to lessen temperature and moisture fluctuations over the roots. After the first few weeks, irrigate plants deeply and infrequently only.

For large plants, use a tomato cage or a stake to support the plant and keep peppers up out of the soil. Apply fertilizer or incorporate additional organic matter every few weeks for best production.

Once peppers appear, they can be harvested at any point. Most gardeners wait until peppers reach a desired size, which varies with variety and personal taste. You may also wish to harvest some while they are green but full-grown, and leave some on the plant to ripen to their mature color.

The most common problem with peppers besides the effects of early planting is blossom end rot. Mulching around the plants and only watering deeply and infrequently will eliminate most blossom end rot issues.

Another concern is that plants may abort flower when temperatures get above 90 degrees. Although they will temporarily stop producing, plants typically recover and bloom again once temperatures drop.

Here are some varieties to grow, as recommended by Kansas State University:

• Green to red bell: Ace, Bell Boy, Jupiter, Lady Bell, Keystone Resistant Giant, improved California Wonder varieties.

• Green to yellow bell: Honeybell, Marengo, Golden Bell.

• Yellow to red bell: Gypsy, Canary.

• Green to orange bell: Valencia, Oriole.

• Green to purple bell: Purple Bell, Purple Beauty.

• Elongated sweet peppers: Sweet cherry, Pimento, Sweet Banana, many Italian types.

• Jalapeno: El Paso, Coronado, Tam Jal.

• Other hot: Anaheim, Serrano, Red Chili, Super Chili, Habanero.

• My personal favorites: Yummy – bite-sized sweet yellow bell, perfect for salads; Hungarian Hot Wax — a hot banana pepper that is spicy and sweet; Big Red — 10-12 inch cayenne, easy to dry or roast.

• Super hot varieties: Chiltepin or wild bird peppers — beadlike heirloom variety; Scotch bonnet — super hot habanero cousin; Bhut Jolokia — the ghost chile, hottest pepper in the world (difficult to grow).

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.” Send your gardening questions and feedback to features@ljworld.com.