I strive to be eating something from my garden every day of the year, and often that means using my homegrown peppers, whether they are fresh, frozen, pickled or dried. Having peppers on hand improves my cooking, and growing and storing a year’s supply of peppers saves money, too. Off-season peppers are costly, and they travel many food miles to reach local stores. Greenhouse-grown peppers may lack flavor dynamics as well, but then I am prejudiced, because ripe, homegrown peppers have a depth of flavor and zippy aroma you just don’t find in stores in winter. Here is the strategy I’ve developed to grow and store a year’s supply of peppers.
How Many Peppers to Grow?
For two people who eat at home all the time, I grow 8 sweet pepper plants, always including ‘Sweet Banana’ and ‘Lipstick’, four plants of “flavor” varieties for drying such as ‘Aji Dulce’ or ‘Criolla de Cocina’, and two jalapenos. As for really hot peppers, one big cayenne grown in a container is more than enough to meet our needs. Because peppers are harvested completely ripe, with mature seeds inside, I grow mostly open-pollinated varieties so I can confidently save and replant seeds.
My mountain climate is decent for peppers, but the same varieties I grow would probably produce better under warmer conditions. My US climate zone is 6b, with the last frost in early May. Soon afterward the soil warms up and the wind settles down, so mid-May onward is planting time for peppers.
To keep my homegrown seedlings on schedule, I start seeds around March 15, a week ahead of tomatoes, which are faster to germinate and grow. Starting too early comes with a risk, because it has been my experience that indoor-grown pepper seedlings are aphid magnets. The more time the seedlings can spend outdoors in a protected spot, the better.
Keeping Peppers Productive
Like tomatoes, peppers benefit from planting holes that are well amended with compost that is rich in calcium and other micronutrients. They are also heavy feeders, but rather than planting in over-fertilized soil, plan to use liquid feeds in summer, when the plants have gained size and start producing peppers. That’s when they need the extra nutrients.
I recommend supporting peppers with grow-through hoops or vertical stakes and stretchy ties made from strips of old T-shirt fabric. Otherwise, the limbs are prone to breaking off in storms when they become heavy with almost-ripe fruit.
To prevent losses from insects, chickens, and deer, my peppers are protected with chicken wire, wedding net, and in late summer, a topper of shade cloth. The shade cloth prevents sunscald and deters deer, which don’t really like peppers much but will eat them when they are bored. In late summer deer will even eat hot peppers, so I cover them with fabric row cover at night.
Harvesting and Storing Peppers
Patience is a virtue for pepper gardeners because the plants can be slow to get going, and then produce like crazy in the fall. My favorite varieties start producing early and keep putting out peppers until the first frost. Once a week I use pruning loppers to harvest peppers that are showing streaks of red or yellow, and let them finish ripening indoors for a couple of days.
Peppers are easy to freeze because they do not require blanching, and I think freezing is the best use for thick-walled sweet peppers. Simply cut clean ripe peppers into strips, freeze them on a cookie sheet, and then transfer to freezer bags for long-term storage. By the end of the season, I like to have two gallons of frozen pepper strips stashed away.
Peppers are easy to dry, and dried peppers store for more than a year when protected from light. I cut peppers into rounds or pieces before drying them so I can trim out bad spots, and dry them to crisp before storing them in airtight jars.
The last pepper storage project of the season is making refrigerator pickled peppers, which take us into early winter. Then we taste summer in reverse as we use up the frozen peppers, and finally the dried ones.
Now a new pepper season is beginning, as I plant seeds saved from the previous season. If luck is with me, I will again succeed in growing and storing a year’s supply of peppers.