Spice up your garden with the perfect pepper

CORVALLIS, Ore. – If you've become exasperated trying to make peppers thrive in Oregon's short-lived growing season, don't give up hope just yet.

Brooke Edmunds, a horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, has a few pointers on cultivating those persnickety peppers.

Your first decision involves choosing which varieties to plant. With peppers, you can select from a veritable cornucopia of options, Edmunds said. The bell pepper group, for example, includes about 200 varieties. Before getting overwhelmed, consider your end result, she advised.

"It depends on what you want to eat," Edmunds said. "Some varieties are good for pickling, others are good for drying. Other types are good for fresh eating. Then there are the hot types, anything from mild jalapenos to dangerously spicy Habaneros. There are tons of peppers with a rainbow of different colors."

Sweet peppers include varieties that are categorized in the bell or pimiento groups. Hot peppers include types in the Anaheim, cayenne and jalepeno groups. If those dangerously spicy peppers piqued your interest, you'll want cultivars classified as Tabasco and Habanero. Varieties in the Italian sweet pepper group freeze well; Anaheim or New Mexico Chile peppers are good for drying.

More specifically, Jim Myers, vegetable breeder with OSU, recommended the varieties below. These cultivars were grown and evaluated at OSU's vegetable research farm in Corvallis over the course of several years. The following peppers grow best in western Oregon.

  • Italian sweet peppers — Stocky Red Roaster, Gatherer's Gold, Jolene's Red, Carmen, Red Bull's Horn
  • Bell peppers — Gypsy, Yankee Bell, Northstar, Lady Bell
  • Jalapenos — Conchos
  • Chile pepper — Aji Amarillo

After you've chosen your perfect pungency, you'll want a garden spot as warm as possible for this tropical plant, Edmunds advised. It will be easier to transplant young seedlings that you've started indoors rather than sowing seeds straight into the ground, she said.

Transplant your peppers in late May or June, Edmunds said. Plant when the air temperature reaches 70 to 80 degrees during the day and 60 to 70 degrees at night. Some particularly delicate varieties may not even blossom if temperatures dip below 60 degrees, she said.

Transplant peppers into well-drained soil or into raised beds. Try to transplant peppers in the evening or on a cloudy day, which will keep the plants from wilting and getting too dry, according to the OSU Extension publication Grow Your Own Peppers.

If you want to put pepper plants in early, you will want to make use of season extension techniques, Edmunds said. She advised covering the plants with a miniature hoop house, which is a tunnel-shaped shelter from the elements. Build your hoop house from 2-by-4-inch pieces of pressure-treated lumber for the foundation, plastic PVC piping for the frame and a clear plastic cover. Or you could get even more basic and simply shield the fledgling plants underneath a repurposed milk jug with its bottom cut off. Make sure to take the cover off or vent it during the day so it doesn’t get too hot. In addition to the hoop house or milk jug, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch on the ground to warm the soil and keep weeds at bay, she said. Mulch could include grass clippings, leaves or compost.

"The concept of these season extension techniques is to use anything that captures the heat of the day and saves it up for the night," Edmunds said.

Peppers mature slowly and can take anywhere from 45 to more than 100 days to ripen, depending on the variety. Different varieties turn different colors when fully ripe. Snip ripe peppers from the vine with shears or sharp scissors.

With a little special attention, you too can savor the tang of a freshly handpicked jalepeno or Habanero in your salsa come fall.

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