Pick your peppers

Pick your peppers

There are good reasons to grow your own peppers. They are an essential part of Kiwi cooking these days and sometimes shop prices are over the top. Best of all you get to choose the ones you fancy.

With chillies, there are many thousands of varieties in cultivation around the world and chilli aficionados debate their merits with almost as much heat as the plants produce. Cayenne, jalapeno and habanero are the ones most commonly grown.

Of these, habanero chillies are the hottest, with the sweet-sounding Chocolate habanero rated as one of the top 10 hottest chillies in the world. Habanero chillies grow to only 2-3cm wide and look like a little capsicum with a pinched-off end. Some heat is always lost in cooking, so these are one of the best for making into chilli sauce.

Cayenne chillies, with their thin, red fruit up to 15cm long, are the size and shape most people associate with chillies. Only half as hot as most of the habanero chillies, they are still hot enough to fry the inside of your mouth within seconds. These hot chillies with their thin skins are the best for drying and sprinkling but are also good fresh or for making sauce.

Jalapeno chillies are bullet-shaped, usually 4-5cm long and have thick skins that make them ideal for stuffing and roasting.

They are often used green when they ripen to red, some of the heat is lost and they can taste quite sweet. With sweet peppers, or capsicums, there are three main groups of bell peppers, marconi peppers and banana peppers.

As the name suggests, banana peppers are shaped a little like the fruit and often start out life coloured yellow, changing to orange or red as they ripen.

Although sweet, they are indistinguishable from a hot type called hungarian hot wax. As a commercial grower, I once had the unenviable task of tasting the fruit of 200 plants to find the hot ones after they were accidentally mixed up at planting.

Marconi peppers are also long and slender but chunkier in shape and have deep lobes. These are usually sweet and are a classic Italian pepper.

Bell peppers are the typical capsicums found in shops. There are numerous varieties so either stick with one that has worked for you or look for cold and disease-resistant types.

For novelty value, and because they seem to ripen more easily than red ones, chocolate capsicums have worked well for us.

Mini-bell peppers are also cute to grow, sweet and great for salads.

Whatever peppers or chillies you choose, the key to growing bountiful crops of peppers is a warm, long growing season.

Keep 'em coming

To keep setting fruit, peppers need to keep growing vigorously throughout the season. As well as making the growing season as long as possible, it's important that nothing else slows the crop down.

To ensure this, plant peppers in rich, fertile, well-drained deep loam soils with a base dressing of fertiliser. They are gross feeders so further feeding at regular intervals are needed - particularly to keep plants setting more fruit once the first fruit have set.

Sheep pellets are ideal as both the base dressing and side dressings for peppers because the comparatively high potassium to nitrogen ratio suits this crop down to the ground. Fertilisers that are higher in nitrogen produce excessive leaf growth at the expense of fruit production.


Ripe capsicums like this tend to be sweeter but less pungent than green ones.

Balancing growth with fruit production is the next trick for success, particularly for peppers with big fruit, such as capsicums.

All peppers start with a single stem which branches where the first flower (the crown bud) forms. This first bud should be removed -  and on weaker plants so should the next set of flowers to form. Then the plant can develop enough leaves to support fruit of a good size.

Pepper plants continue to branch every time flower buds are produced and in home gardens it is best to leave the plant to develop a bushy shape naturally. As the plants get bigger, they can support more fruit but it pays to keep an eye on the number of fruit to ensure the plant is not overloaded. When there is an imbalance, one way to help remedy it is to pick the fruit green before they change colour, because the ripening process takes a lot of energy from the plant.

Get them growing

Peppers take up to four months from sowing to the first harvest. Once harvesting is underway they keep producing until it becomes too cold, so the longer the growing season, the more fruit you will get.

The ideal growing temperature is 18° -  25°C both day and night, which for most New Zealand gardens will be just about impossible. So a little bit of trickery is required to get a decent crop.

Start now by sowing the seed indoors on a sunny window-sill or in a heated greenhouse (pepper seed needs warmth to germinate). As the plants grow and the roots fill the pot, progressively pot them up into larger pots so they keep growing vigorously.


Picking capsicums green saves plant resources.

Keep growing the seedlings inside until the soil in your garden is at least 10°C at 10cm depth at 10am. This easy-to-remember rule is the absolute minimum for this crop. Any less and the plants will struggle. From Auckland northwards, this temperature might be achieved before the end of October, but in the coldest parts of the country it could be as late as mid-December unless in a greenhouse.

If you haven't got a greenhouse, plant your peppers on the northern side of a wall or shrubbery to protect them from cold spring southerlies.

To gain up to four weeks extra growing time -  which can make a big difference for this long-term crop - cover the garden with cloches covered with clear plastic or frost cloth a few weeks before planting to help warm the soil.

When you plant your peppers, replace the cloches and leave them on until the plants touch their roof so they get the maximum benefit. Gradually acclimatise the crop to outdoor conditions by lifting the sides of the cloche on sunny days for a week or so before taking them away.