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A new rainbow of sweet peppers.

A new rainbow of sweet peppers Taking center stage in the garden and kitchen recently is a colorful array of sweet peppers. Once limited to homely green bell-shaped peppers and an occasional red, today's sweet peppers come in an assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes, as attractive on the bush as they are in fresh salads and sauces.

By starting peppers from seed, you can grow a much broader selection than what you find in markets and most nurseries. Catalogs now carry dozens of heirloom and European varieties, from orange 'Tequila Sunrise' to purple 'Violetta'.

Peppers of the same color don't necessarily have the same flavor. The first year you grow them, test several varieties to see which ones you like best.

They can also have different uses. Some thin-skinned kinds (paprika, 'Jimmy Nardello') are better for drying, frying, and cooking. Thicker-skinned, sweet and succulent types ('Cadice', 'Hercules', 'Quadrati d'Asti', 'Titan') are best to eat fresh, saute, or roast. Other varieties add surprising color (purple, white, or brown) to a salad or other dish. (Note, though, that unless sauteed quickly, purple and brown types turn green when cooked.)

Try bullhorn-shaped 'Corno di Toro' for roasting; sweet and sometimes snappy-flavored 'Aconcagua' for stuffing or frying; heart-shaped, 'Pimiento' for canning; round 'Sweet Cherry' for pickling.

Sunny, warm climates are ideal

Some gardeners find peppers a bit finicky. But they're easy to grow if you have sunny days in the 70s and 80s and mild nights above 55[degrees], and provide the proper growing conditions. Especially important for both seeds in flats and seedlings in the garden is warm soil. Even in marginal climates, you can get a good crop by setting plants out at the right time and giving them a little extra attention.

In hot, inland areas, daytime temperatures over 90[degrees] combined with nighttime temperatures in the high 70s or 80s can cause blossom drop. Plants continue to grow, but fruiting may be limited until temperatures cool in fall. Peppers that do form are often misshapen; normally thick-skinned types may have thinner walls.

To get a good crop before summer heat sets in, plant as soon as possible after last frost, when soil temperature rises above 55[degrees] (check with a soil thermometer). If necessary, use black plastic to warm the soil, then remove it before weather turns hot. Some gardeners report that lowering the temperature by sprinkling peppers with cold water during midday heat helps prevent blossom drop. Covering with shadecloth can also help.

In the Pacific Northwest, spring nights can be cool. If they dip below 50[degrees], most peppers won't set fruit. Several 40[degrees] nights in a row can stunt growth permanently.

For best results, use short-season varieties ('Cubanelle', 'Italian Sweet'), set out when soil is above 55[degrees], plant through black plastic, and cover young plants with floating row covers or hot caps.

In cool coastal areas of California, plant through black plastic to give plants a boost early in the season.

Sow seeds early, but don't rush planting

Start seeds indoors in flats (several seeds per inch covered with 1/4 inch soil) at least eight weeks before you want to transplant them outside--about two weeks after last frost in most climates. Maintain soil temperatures above 80[degrees] (use a heating coil or set flats on a hot-water heater); seeds won't germinate in cool soil (open-pollinated types--non-hybrids--take two to six weeks to germinate).

Grow plants in bright light and temperatures around 70[degrees] during the day, 60[degrees] at night. Seedlings grown in inadequate light are weak and will produce less fruit.

When true leaves appear, transfer seedlings into 4-inch pots. (Plants grown with plenty of room for roots are stockier, develop larger root systems, and produce fruit earlier than plants with restricted root space.) Fertilize weekly with half-strength liquid fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorous.

Don't rush planting. Allow eight weeks or more for growth (healthy older transplants produce earlier crops) and wait to set seedlings out until the ground has warmed up.

Choose a location in full sun with well-drained soil. Mix in compost and a complete fertilizer; phosphorous and potassium aid root development and fruit set.

Lay down black plastic, if necessary, and plant as shown in box on page 180. Plants set too close together may develop fewer leaves, increasing the risk of sunburn on unprotected fruit. If cutworms are a problem in your area, place a paper collar around the base of each stem.

Water-stressed plants may drop their blossoms. Keep soil evenly moist, and mulch when plants are about 6 inches tall. Heavy-fruiting plants may need staking.

For high yield, keep feeding

Some gardeners suggest picking off the first flowers to encourage stronger plants and a larger first harvest. But this may cause plants to grow too erect and top-heavy, since the first crop tends to form high on the plant.

In cool climates, you can improve yields by hand-pollinating flowers. Using a paintbrush, transfer pollen between flowers; touch the pollen-covered stamen of one flower, then the pistil (female reproductive part) of another.

As fruit develops, apply half-strength liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks; if nutrients are depleted during the first harvest, successive crops will yield smaller and fewer peppers.

To keep plants producing, harvest first crop as soon as peppers reach a usable size, before they turn their mature color.

For sweetest peppers, harvest later crops when they've changed from their immature color (dark green, light green, yellow, or white, depending on variety) to gold, mahogany, orange, purple, red, or yellow. To encourage additional fruit, harvest as soon as peppers reach a usable size, but before they turn their mature color.

Pampered plants have few problems

Sweet peppers can develop blossom-end rot--decay spots that develop on blossom end of the fruit--but it's not as serious a problem as with tomatoes.

Most susceptible are ripening peppers on plants severely stressed by either too little or too much water (keep soil evenly moist, but not wet), or plants growing in acidic soil, typical in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest (apply dolomitic lime if a soil test determines it's necessary).

Most large spots are the result of sunburn--the side of the fruit unprotected by foliage and exposed to the sun is burned and invaded by decay organisms. Peppers growing on undernourished plants, which have less foliage, are most susceptible. If fruits do burn, just cut out any brown spots; peppers are still edible.

Where to buy special varieties

The unusual varieties shown on pages 178 and 179 were started from seed; nurseries generally offer seedlings of conventional bell peppers only--and rarely identify them by type. However, some have begun to offer specialty pepper seeds. Otherwise, order from seed companies listed below; catalogs are free unless noted.

Horticultural Enterprises, Box 810082, Dallas, Tex. 75381.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, 310 Foss Hill Rd., Albion, Maine 04910; (207) 437-9294.

Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29647; (803) 223-7333.

The Pepper Gal, 10536 119th Ave. N., Largo, Fla. 34643. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a price list.

Redwood City Seed Co., Box 361, Redwood City, Calif. 94064. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope for pepper price list.

Seeds Blum, Idaho City Stage, Boise 83706. Catalog $2.

Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018; (408) 335-5311. Catalog is $1.

Territorial Seed Company, Box 27, Lorane, Ore. 97451; (503) 942-9547.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on starting peppers from seed
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Previous Article:For a little patience, a lot of clivias.
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