Sweet peppers have a bit of a reputation for being a tricky crop to grow: they are fussy about the conditions they need for germination; they have a long growing season and they can often fail to ripen if they do not get enough sun, which is a very real concern in this lovely country of ours.
I have managed to grow a few different types successfully but also a few fairly unsuccessfully with my main problem being that the larger ones either fail to fully ripen or they end up with some insect damage by the time they are ready to eat. For this reason, I have one variety that I now depend on each year: Snackbite Mini Peppers.
I do like to experiment and so I rarely have just one variety that I use again and again but for this tricky crop, I like the reliability: the peppers are sweet and crunchy, they ripen quickly, the plants do not take up much space and they are usually laden with fruit. So they are perfect for our Scottish climate.
Germination and Potting On
I sow pepper seeds in early February because they need a long growing season, despite the fact that they fruits are small. By sowing at this time of year, the first fruits tend to ripen from mid-August and continue until the first frost.
The seeds should be sown sparingly and kept at around 17 or 18°C to ensure germination. I do not use a heated propagator but simply sow them in a module tray with lid to retain moisture, and tuck them away in an airing cupboard until they sprout. Once this happens, simply remove the lids and they will happily live on a sunny and warm windowsill although do take care to avoid draughts.
At this stage, I water the peppers every couple of days with lukewarm water. Once the roots start to show through the holes at the bottom of the pot, move the plant to a slightly bigger pot using fresh, preferably peat-free, compost.
I tend to pot my plants on three or four times. Although it can seem a bit of a chore, I enjoy the potting on process because it allows me to check for any pests on the underside of the leaves and to have a good look at the roots. I would caution against the temptation to ‘overpot’, which is when you move a small plant in to a pot which is significantly larger than the plant’s root ball. This can lead to a weaker root system and waterlogged soil, which will often manifest itself in brown or yellowing leaves and stunted growth.
Despite the snack sized nature of the fruits, this variety is a heavy cropper, which means that the plants can become top heavy. For this reason, I tend to top off or prune them when they are around 15 inches tall. Although I am sure the plants will do well without early pruning, I have found that this promotes lots of side branching and makes the plant much sturdier.
Final Potting Position
Once the plant is in its final pot (I tend to use 1.5-2L pots) and the fruit have started to set, I use an organic liquid seaweed feed once every couple of weeks. I grow my peppers in my greenhouse but because of their compact size, they would also be happy, and look beautiful, on a warm and sunny windowsill. Apart from watering, checking for pests and harvesting the fruit, I do not tend to do much with the peppers once they are in the greenhouse.
Companion Planting and Checking for Pests
Our garden is completely organic, which means that we have to stay vigilant when dealing with pests. In the greenhouse, to deter white fly, we plant lots of basil. It is a wonderful companion plant for peppers (and tomatoes) and it has the added bonus of being absolutely delicious in its own right.
Aphids can also be an issue at times and while it’s not very glamorous or high-tech, I tend to sit the plants on the lawn every so often and give them a gentle-ish blast with the hose! You obviously have to be careful that you do not damage any fruit but it works for me and it means no nasty chemicals, which is great.
Preserving Your Bountiful Harvest
Come autumn, I find myself inundated with peppers as the remaining fruits ripen or I harvest the not-quite-ripe ones before our first frost. Rather than rush to use them, I slice the peppers, spread them out on a tray with greaseproof paper on top and freeze. I then add them to one big container once frozen and use them throughout the winter for soups, stews and stir fries. It is just so lovely to have that taste of summer throughout the colder months.
February is the perfect time to get sowing pepper seeds so you too can be enjoying that taste well into the end of the year!
Suz Reid lives in a new build home in East Lothian where she grows fruit and veg in her new build back garden. You can follow her on Instagram for more chat on how she manages it all, with the help of two young children!