What are they?
The Bell Pepper (Capsicum annuum) is also known as the Sweet Pepper or Capsicum and is originally native to the Americas. As its name suggests, it is sweet rather than spicy. This is because it does not produce capsaicin, the chemical that creates a strong burning sensation that makes the other members of the family such as chillies taste 'hot'.
Botanically speaking, like tomatoes, bell peppers are fruits. However, when cooking they are considered a vegetable and despite their sweet taste no one is going to thank you for adding them to the apple crumble!
They come in green, red, yellow, orange, brown, white, purple, lavender and black. Red peppers are ripened green peppers, the exception being the Permagreen pepper which is still green when ripe and will never turn red.
The sweetness of the pepper depends on growing conditions and how much it has been allowed to ripen. So a ripe red pepper will be sweeter than the less ripe green one. Peppers that have ripened on the plant will also be sweeter than those that were picked and allowed to ripen after. Not something you can change when buying them but if you grow your own then you can ensure they are as sweet as possible by leaving them to ripen on the plant.
There are many varieties but I would choose a hardy, early variety such as Yellow Monster or Lipstick to get the best results.
Peppers are easy to grow from seed and have a high germination rate. Sow seeds 1/2" (1cm) deep inside in Rootrainers, pots or seed trays from mid-February to end of March. They will take 2-4 weeks to germinate.
Peppers like it warm so so use a propagator and aim for a temperature of around 18-21°C (65-70°F) or place on a warm windowsill, with plastic bags over the pots to keep the heat and moisture in. Of course if you have used Rootrainers then they come with their own lid so you can just pop this on for the perfect environment.
Transplant into 3" (8cm) pots when two true leaves have formed. Handle the seedlings by the leaves to avoid damaging the delicate stem.
If you don't want to grow from seed then most Garden Centres will sell plants.
If growing in England this crop is much better being grown in a greenhouse or on a windowsill for as long as possible.
If planting in the ground space the rows 18" (45cm) apart with the same distance between plants. The more you prepare the bigger the yield you will get so dig in some well rotted manure. You may also wish to cover the ground with a Easy Poly Tunnel to warm the soil before planting. Once your plants are in position keep them covered with a cloche or a tunnel as they like it warm, but remember to take it off or open it for periods to allow pollination.
Peppers grow well in containers and can also be grown in grow bag planters or in the garden as long as it is in a sheltered, sunny spot. Ideally a South or West facing brick wall or fence.
Once the roots fill your 3" (8cm) pot transfer plants to 12" (30cm) pots of good compost. Do this in mid-May (heated greenhouse), late-May (unheated greenhouse) or June if growing outside.
Pinch out the growing tips of chillies when they are about 12" (30cm) tall to encourage bushiness.
Watch the plants as the fruits begin to grow. If fruit becomes heavy then stake and tie plants in to prevent breakages. Also, if growing in a greenhouse the leaves can become scorched so watch out for this and open vents and shade as appropriate if the temperatures start to soar.
Feeding & Watering
As with all plants regular water is vital so make sure you keep the moisture levels as constant as you can.
Once flowers form start feeding with a fertiliser suitable for tomatoes e.g. a high potash liquid fertiliser with seaweed. Feed every 10 days as you water.
Harvest August to November. Expect to harvest between 3 and 8 peppers per plant.
Start to pick the fruit when it is large, green and has a glossy sheen. If you prefer sweeter peppers then leave it on the plant to mature but this will reduce yield. If you still have peppers on the plant when the frosts arrive then dig up the whole plant. Hang it upside down in a shed or greenhouse to allow the fruit to continue to ripen.
Once harvested, if kept cool, bell peppers can store for up to 3 weeks once picked.