The East London Garden Society

Bell Peppers

Bell peppers and chilli peppers are common staples that add flavour and colour to meals, and they’re also easy to grow. There are many different types of peppers, from sweet to flaming hot, making more than one variety useful in a single dish and adding complexity to the flavours.

Sweet and mild‐tasting bell peppers can be sautéed with onions or diced into salads, soups and casseroles, stuffed, grilled, placed on sandwiches, or eaten raw for a fresh snack. Red peppers have the highest ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The active ingredient in hot chilli peppers is capsaicin, which gives the peppers their pungent odour and that burning sensation; the smaller the pepper the hotter it tends to be. The endorphin rush that capsaicin triggers makes this compound an effective remedy for pain and other medical conditions. Research also suggests it helps shrink fat tissue, inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells and may even reduce risk to Parkinson’s disease.

Peppers need lots of sun and grow best in deep, loamy, well-drained soil where peppers have not previously been grown, so move them around your garden if growing several years in a row. Add about one inch of compost to the soil, but avoid adding too much nitrogen as this can cause excessively rapid growth, making the plants larger and bushier but less productive and more prone to disease. If growing from seed, start the seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before your last frost date. Soak the seeds in lukewarm water for a few hours and keep the seed tray in a warm spot to encourage germination. Before transplanting seedlings into your garden, gradually expose them to outdoor conditions. Begin by placing them in an area sheltered from high wind and excessive sun exposure for a few hours a day, and over the following week, slowly increase the number of hours you leave them outdoors. Space the plants 12 to 16 inches apart and stake taller varieties to protect the stems from breaking as they grow; also keep them separate from other plants in the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and aubergine.

Water frequently, giving the plants at least one inch of water per week, or up to one gallon per day during hot, dry weather. Adding mulch will help retain moisture and normalize the soil temperature. Remember that they like warm soil, so if temperatures are on the low end, mulching can make the soil too cool, which will stunt growth. If daytime temperatures are low, you may want to consider a covered dome to retain heat. Should the weather get too hot, you may need to provide some shade to protect the fruit from sun scald. Staking up a piece of shade cloth should be sufficient. Planting 12 to 16 inches apart will also allow the leaves of the plants to touch, creating a natural canopy to protect the fruit from excessive sun exposure.

As the plant grows and begins to bloom, pinch off the first early blossoms, directing the energy toward growth, thus allowing more and larger fruits later. Leaving these early blossoms on will result in only a few small, early fruits. Phosphorous is needed for fruit production whilst too much nitrogen will cause the plant to grow too fast and produce less fruit, so make sure your fertiliser has more phosphorous than nitrogen. Once the bell pepper has matured on the vine and is turning its designated colour, harvest your peppers by cutting them off with hand pruners.

Growing chilli peppers takes about six months so you should plant them by May, although starting early is recommended so the plant will ripen in time for summer. Here's a simple step-by-step guide for growing chillies:

  • Fill a multi‐cell seed tray with rich organic soil. Gently tamp it down and moisten with water. Place a seed in each cell, lightly cover with a thin layer of soil. Water gently using a fine mist spray, then cover with cling wrap and store in a warm area of your home. The soil should be moist but not soaked.
  • After two to four weeks, at the first sign of growth, move the seedlings to a warm, well‐lit place, but out of direct sunlight. Water the plant from below to strengthen the roots, and check daily to ensure the surface is moist.
  • Once the seedlings sprout a second set of leaves, transplant into two or three inch pots with moist soil and use liquid tomato as a weekly feed.
  • When the plants reach a height of four to five inches, transplant into larger pots, and stake the plants once they’re seven or eight inches tall.
  • Once the plants are about twelve inches tall, pinch off the tips right above the fifth set of leaves to encourage bushiness. Transplant to a larger pot if needed and make sure to check the plant daily for aphids.
  • When flowers appear, gently dab a cotton swab into each flower to pollinate.
  • Cut off the first chillies whilst still green to encourage fruiting all season long (July to October).