Genuine Faux Farm
Sweet peppers are among our favorite plants to grow. The plants are attractive, easy to work with and generally not very fussy. On the other hand, intense heat at the wrong time will delay a crop, causing some varieties to drop flowers and fruit starts. Cooler weather tends to reduce production and most peppers will prefer the hotter, drier years in Iowa.
How We Grow Peppers:
We start all plants on the farm from seed and we grow all heirloom varieties with only one exception (Ace). We choose organic seed when it is available. We start peppers in trays (typically 72 count trays) using a certified organic mix from Beautiful Land Products in West Branch, Iowa. We aim for late/March or early April as our seeding date and put the trays on heat mats under lights. Once plants are big enough, we tranplant them into 3 1/2 inch pots. If the plants look 'shocky' they tend to get another day or two in a thoroughly controlled environment. If not, they go to cold frames to begin the hardening process. Our target date range for transplanting into the field is May 25-June 5 (zone 4B). Though we've done fine with a crop put in as late as June 10. Remember, if they are in good sized pots outside, they are in reasonably good growing conditions for a time, with the advantage that they can be pulled under cover in bad weather. The transplant into pots provides us with flexibility and cuts down on field transplant shock.
Peppers are placed in the field in rows that are 4 or 5 feet apart (depending on variables on the farm) and average 2 to 2.5 foot spacing in rows. We alter the spacing depending on the size of the variety. For example, Tolli Sweet is a smaller plant and needs less space. We do, however, want to avoid having plants touching each other. From an efficiency standpoint, this helps us with picking later in the year. We also believe that this can help slow the spread of any disease or pest issue, though it certainly will not stop it. We do know that fungal diseases are the most likely problem we will have (especially in wet weather), so better air circulation around the plants can help prevent the problem.
We plant okra on whatever side of the peppers will block the most wind. Since okra is not a high value crop in Iowa, we would rather sacrifice those plants to the wind (plus they handle wind better) than our peppers. We have also grown zinnia to block wind. And, yes, we realize that neither of these do the job early in the year when the zinnias and okra are too small. But a loss when the plants are younger is easier to handle than when they have bunches of almost ready fruit!
The same field holds our eggplant and hot peppers. We put the eggplant between the sweet and hot peppers to avoid any cross pollination and we place the hot peppers downwind from the sweet peppers to avoid cross pollination surprises. We have found basil to be a good companion, but we tend to reserve basil production for our tomato field.
We do like to plant green bean and dry bush beans with these crops as well. We find that green beans seem to mask eggplant from Colorado Potato Beetle and they help break up a field that might otherwise be a solanceous monoculture (eggplant and pepper are the same family). We like to break up our crops with good companions. While we can't manage to pick that many row feet of green beans, we find bush dry beans to be a nice compromise.
A decent pre-crop for peppers would be spinach and have managed this successfully twice. The spinach is typically looking to bolt well before we want to put the peppers in the ground. We have successfully planted patches of field peas and annual rye grass as a Spring cover, but would prefer the field peas.
We tend not to mulch our sweet peppers. First, most of our mulches to this point are organic mulches, such as grass clippings or straw. We only have so much lawn to mow and we don't have the land to raise our own hay/straw. As a result, our on-farm resources for mulching are limited. So, the tomatoes, garlic, green beans and potatoes tend to use what we have. However, if we used these sorts of mulches on peppers, we have found that we want to delay mulching until we get into warmer weather. Mulch cools the soil and the young peppers like the extra warmth given to them as the bare soil collects the sun. You could get around this by laying a dark colored mulch.
Since we do not tend to mulch, we must cultivate. To date, we have relied on hand tools and our wheel hoes to keep our pepper fields clean. We admit that we tend to favor the pepper field when it comes to cultivation because we do enjoy the plants so much. But, we also know that failure to keep the field clean can make picking difficult. Also, peppers in weedy areas seem to more susceptible to anthracnose (fruit rot) and other bacterial issues.
Colored Pepper Varieties:
Colored bell peppers require more resources to grow than green bell peppers, and thus cost the producer more per unit. Nearly any bell pepper will turn red (or yellow) as they ripen. However, it takes more growing time for a pepper to change color, often taking 2 to 4 weeks between green picking readiness and colored pepper picking readiness. Most plants will not continue to set fruit if full sized peppers are left on the plant. The result is that each plant that is left to ripen colored fruit will produce fewer fruits per plant. Strains that are used for colored peppers often will only produce one flush of viable fruit per season, with most of the fruit ripening within a week of each other. The result is that there is a concentrated production period for this sort of pepper.
We have selected a range of peppers that will allow us to provide green bell peppers continuously for a long period to our customers. Part of the strategy is to select non-bell varieties that have great taste and change color. This allows us to focus on green peppers for most of our bell peppers. And, frankly, many of these colored "non-bell" peppers have a much better taste and better production levels. So, it makes sense for us to do things this way. The only 'cost' to us is the effort of educating others about the peppers we grow.
Storage: 45 degrees F and 95% humidity. We find that these store for a shorter period if you wash and then refrigerate. Wait to wash the fruit until it is time to prepare and eat them.
Blog Posts on Peppers:
* These numbers are still being researched. These are days from transplant.
** field numbers only, not high tunnel production. Numbers are marketable fruit not total fruit. These numbers are an average of all plants put in the ground. No adjustment made for plants lost, or off-types. Real averages per producing plant are typically higher. These numbers reflect both poor and excellent growing seasons in the average.
Italian heirloom variety with 8 inch tapered fruits that are 2 inches at the shoulder. Sweet flesh and tender skin that is shiny yellow-orange when ripe. Golden Treasure is one of our all-time favorite peppers and if we only grew for ourselves, it would be this pepper and Jimmy Nardello's for our sweet peppers. Excellent for fresh sandwich use, it also adds a nice color and taste to salsa/pico. Each plant tends to produce about a dozen marketable fruit. Response to the high tunnel was favorable, but we're not sure the benefit is sufficient to use the space on this variety - they usually do nearly as well in the field. Plants are taller and may benefit from staking. Try these and you'll stop asking for 'Sweet Banana' peppers. Fun to grow. Great to eat.
Italian heirloom that produces three-lobed, tapered fruit that can be up to 12 inches long and 3 or 4 inches at the shoulder. Excellent red sweet pepper with an amazing taste. Plants need alot of time to produce their fruit and ripen them to red. Yield is variable. But, the quality makes the effort well worth it. This has become our favorite sweet pepper for fresh eating, but we only get them for a short time in September *most* years. The shape of these is alot like a stretched out bell pepper since the ends of the fruit usually don't come to a point like Golden Treasure. They're pretty good green, but far better red. These plants seem to need more growing degree days than some of the other peppers we grow. Plants can be somewhat sizeable (but not quite as big as Napolean Sweet). We love what we get in a good year, but suspect those in southern Iowa and points south (zone 5 & 6) would get more consistent production. We tried a few of these in the high tunnel during the 2013 season and were pleased with the results. They definitely loved the heat.
These are very attractive fruits with a mild bell pepper flavor. For the most part, a person grows these for the color as their taste isn't much different than most green bells. An heirloom variety, fruit are purple on the outside, green inside. Sometimes we allow a pepper to ripen to a red with purple overtones. Smaller plants are very bushy, hiding the fruit deep inside the plant protecting them from sunscald. Picking these is not always easy as they tend to hide well in the middle of the plants. And, since they are in the middle, they seem to get wedged between branch forks and defy efforts at picking the fruit without breaking off a significant portion of the plant. They take less space than most plants and have a low profile for windy areas, but we still recommend that you grow them to add color to your peppper offerings, but not as a main crop.
Tolli's Sweet Italian
Another interesting Italian heirloom variety. Three to five inch long tapered fruits are excellent in tomato sauces, pico or fresh eaten. Historically one of our earliest to produce and one of the latest to stop. The peppers tend to be on the smaller side (and variable), but the taste is excellent. Our data suggest it is reasonable to expect between 15 and 25 marketable fruit per plant. Extension of the seaon in the high tunnel suggests higher yields are likely, even though the plants may not be much bigger. We tried growing a couple in pots with reasonable success. Because we work so much in the fields, it is somewhat unfair for us to judge as the potted peppers won't get the attention they need. Plants are smaller in size, getting not much taller than 18 inches in many cases.
Quadrato asti Giallo
Jimmy Nardello's Frying Pepper
Our 2007 Veg Variety of the Year. Jimmy Nardello's looks alot like a hot pepper, so you'd better set them on a different part of your counter so you don't confuse them. These are fabulous sweet peppers that get even better when cooked. They freeze well, they dry well. Plants easily produce twenty plus peppers per plant. Fruit shapes can be curled and knotted. Sizes later in the season are smaller when they turn red simply because there isn't time for them to grow bigger. Harvest begins peaking mid-August and continues until the plant dies (usually October). Excellent response to the high tunnel environment with increased uniformity in fruit size and shape. Taste *may* be slightly better, but that's hard to measure as we may have been letting our enthusiasm get the best of us. We unabashedly will encourage people to buy these at market when we have excess beyond our CSA need and easily gain converts. All we can say is that it isn't hard to promote something that really is this good.
An excellent tasting green or red bell pepper. Tends to be longer than many bells and can reach extraordinary sizes under certain conditions. We expect about 6-7 marketable fruit per plant and often get more (as much as a dozen). Tends to favor warmer summers more than King of the North. Because they have tend to stretch out the fruit, they can get slightly twisted or 'bent' shapes more often than varieties like Wisconsin Lakes and King of the North. But, I can still tell you that if you forced me to choose from the three, I'd pick this one. Plants are tall and might benefit from staking if you get winds that lay peppers down every so often. Fruit walls are slightly less thick than man of the huge, blocky and thick bell peppers that the retail markets tend to favor. What we notice is that some of the hybridized, thick wall peppers 'talk back' more than these peppers do. So, if you're the sort of person who likes a pepper, but they don't 'like you' so much, try one of these as they seem to be easier on the digestive track. If these don't work, try the sweet peppers we have here (Golden Treasure, Marconi, Tolli, Jimmy). These are good green or red.
King of the North
Decent taste, uniform shape and decent size with thicker walls. Good eaten green or red. Six to seven fruit per plant easily with as many as a dozen. King of the North tends to favor cooler temps more than Napolean Sweet which explains why we have both on the grow list. Plants are decent sized, but not as tall as some (like Napolean). Zones 3 and 4, take note, here is your open pollinated green bell pepper. If you need reliable green bells that achieve the 'accepted' shape and size people have been trained to expect by grocery outlets, this will satisfy you. Taste is typically better than many standard green bells.
Garden Sunshine has a neat color and the peppers hold very well on the plant for a long time. Our first bit of learning on these was that you want to pick them for best flavor when they have at least a little orangish/rust tinting to the pale yellow fruit. They have a hint of paprika in their taste. If they are greenish-yellow, they'll be fine, but not an optimal taste. Plants are small, especially for a bell pepper, but they are very bushy when healthy. Production numbers are on the low side in large part because they seem to be susceptible to fruit blights and rots. Our suspicion is that they would prefer a drier climate, but they give us enough hints that we'll keep them on the grow list. These showed some positive signs in the high tunnel, which might seem to confirm our suspicions that they like it drier. The 2012 season provided us with a bumper crop during that drought year.
We have to admit that this variety has never been given a fighting chance on the farm. Our first trial year in 2011, it fell into a bad patch of ground where we just let it go. It exhibited a fighting mentality, so we kept it. But, the following year was the year the overspray incident took out all of our peppers. They were doing well, but our desire to assess a new pepper variety was understandably reduced when the only reason to pick and weigh them was to attempt to get compensation for losses. Last year was equally unfair to them. As a result, we're thinking we'll do a careful trial of just a few plants in 2014. We'll see what happens then.
We finally give this pepper a place of prominence and look what it does for us (see photo)! One of the earliest bells to turn red. Fruit tend to be three lobed rather than four, but who cares? They taste great. Production was 8-9 fruit per plant and even higher in 2012. Prior years suggested four, but we had to admit that it was never given a prominent place. What that means on our farm is that when the going gets tough, the farmers ignore lower priority varieties or crops. So, they fight a bit more weed competition, etc. They showed enough in 2009 to get a promotion, and they actually exceeded the 6-7 marketable fruit we tend to want per plant for our bells as a minimum. The two trial plants did well in the high tunnel with slightly larger fruit. But, they were slower to turn red. And, did we tell you they turn red early and taste good? Oh, we did? Highly recommended variety. We like selling these plant starts at market to home gardeners who want a reliable and early red bell.
Ace is an extra-early hybrid that produces consistently all season and starts very early. This is the only hybrid pepper we grow and it stays in the rotation simply because it does start so quickly with heavy production levels. Three to four lobe peppers with thinner walls. Fruits are average to small size for a bell. Ace can be a little bitter if picked too small, but have a "good enough" taste otherwise. Again, they produce so well early that people are just happy to have any reasonably good green bell pepper. So, if the taste is average, that is "good enough." You do have to remember that some of the other varieties have fabulous taste and it may be a bit unfair to compare. Grow an Ace fresh in your garden and it will beat most grocery store peppers hands down. Unlike most peppers, we find that most flowers actually result in fruit set. This can result in insane numbers of maturing fruit at the same time, sometimes overwhelming these smallish plants. Be prepared to sacrifice a few fruit at half size (or smaller) if it appears the plant will be too crowded. You will get better overall quality if you do so. In 2012 (our "spray incident year"), we didn't pick the plants diligently. The result was fewer fruit that were much bigger. A trial in the high tunnel was favorable. We suspect peppers in June are possible with these.
n the case of Jupiter, it's a fine, plump green bell pepper. We have no real complaints about it - except that our favored seed suppliers did not carry it. Then, we noticed High Mowing had them and back on the list it went! It compares with King for taste, but Napolean outstrips it. Fruit are typically rounder and can be a bit heavier than King of the North. Cooler years do not do Jupiter a favor, though they can handle. They fall between King and Napolean in terms of heat or cool tolerance. They seem to handle wet years better than the other two.
No Longer on our Grow List:
Buran - Buran was supposed to be a short season, green bell that had high yields of smaller fruits. Taste is pretty good, production is generally fine. But, seedlings tend to lie down due to a weak stem at the base (we don't have this problem with other peppers), fruit do not hold on the plant (so you almost have to check them every day it seems) and they really didn't add anything special to our grow list that we don't already have. They don't really run much earlier than other bells - at least with consistency. Or, if they do, they don't produce enough at that time to make a difference. We've tried them for four years and decided we lose more fruit on the plants than we pick. This doesn't mean Buran might not be a decent pepper for someone else. But, it does not fit our operation.
Labrador - Medium-large hybrid yellow bell. Blocky fruits tend to ripen in a single flush. Second flush is unreliable with our season length. These fruits are very attractive. But, we found our open-pollinated yellow option in Quadrato asti Giallo and think Q does better for flavor. It is possible Labrador, like so many other hybrids, has disappeared from seed company lists. It makes little sense for us to use a hybrid when an OP variety does well enough and we don't have to wonder how long we can rely on the variety availability.
Lantern - Three to four lobed, blocky fruit that are wonderfully large green bell hybrid peppers. Very bushy plants that provided one very nice flush of fruit. These were some of the largest and nicest looking green bells we had grown until we saw Napolean Sweet. And they won't compare to a Quadrato for size in a good season for peppers. Claims are that this variety will produce through the season, but our experience tended to be one flush of fruit only. Again, our open-pollinated choices serve us well, so Lantern was removed from our grow list.
Orange Bell - an heirloom variety, these set some beautiful, blocky fruit (not too large). But, yield per plant was low for us. And, it seemed like these fruit attracted problems more than anything else we grew. This was especially true as they began to change color - and the primary reason to grow them is to get the orange fruit. When you grow several varieties and one can barely produce an average 1 good fruit per plant, that variety is usually let go. We think Golden Treasure gets us this color. In short, Orange Bell is a nice novelty. Taste is fine, but you grow it for the looks. We have other things we grow that provide looks, production and taste. Feel free to try one or two for the fun of it. Maybe you'll have good luck with it.
Bull Nose - it is believed this variety was grown in Thomas Jefferson's gardens. That fact alone made us curious enough to try it. The plants grew well enough and produced some fruit. But, the taste wasn't fabulous, nor was the production or disease resistence on our farm. It might like a different environment more than our farm. We could try it again in the future since we really didn't give it much of a shot when we tried it.
Chocolate - This pepper had a very different look and color. These are brownish-purple, thin walled and are best described as 'almost a' bell pepper. Flavor was reasonably good, but our customers didn't rave bout it enough to make us want to work with them. What one has to remember is that most heirlooms require the grower to figure out what works best for each variety. If there isn't enough motivation, it doesn't make sense to pursue a given variety. If you want to grow a couple in your garden, you may love them. But, the plants didn't seem robust enough for us to rely on them.
Red Knight - another hybrid colored bell that came and went on our farm. Wisconsin Lakes came around and we like it far better, even if it doesn't give the big blocky fruit Red Knight does. In short, we're not really sold on those big, heavy peppers because we grow for a 'fresh', direct market. We're not worried about shipping and storage length. So, peppers like Red Knight, Lantern, Labrador and others do not interest us.
Select Vegetable to View