Colourful sweet peppers, or capsicums, have been cultivated for thousands of years, initially in their homeland of Mexico, Central America and northern South America, then throughout the warmer parts of the world. Today’s peppers tend to be derived from capsicum species (Capsicum annuum) native to Central and tropical parts of South America.Now a popular part of our Kiwi cuisine, the shop-bought vegetable can often be out of budget range for many of us — a good reason to cultivate your own!
There are three main groups of capsicum — bell peppers, marconi peppers and banana peppers, but the key to growing all is a warm, long-growing season. A sunny position in well-drained soils and a temperature range of 15–30 degrees C is ideal.
As the name suggests, banana peppers are shaped much like the fruit, and are typically yellow, changing to orange or red as they ripen (although sweet they are often confused with a hot type called ‘Hungarian Wax’).
The long, slender marconi pepper is the classic sweet Italian pepper. These are three-lobed and can grow up to 30cm long and 7.5cm across the shoulder, but seeds take longer to germinate than other capsicums.
Bell peppers are the typical capsicums found in shops. The colour can be green, red, yellow, orange and purple, depending on when they are harvested and the specific cultivar. Numerous varieties are available, such as ‘Giant Bell,’ which is sweet, and mild, with green fruit changing to red at maturity, or you could try sowing Yates ‘Colour Salad,’ and have a mixture of sizes, colours and shapes for your summer meals.
Plant sweet peppers in rich, fertile deep loam soils and give a base dressing of fertiliser. They are gross feeders, so continue to feed at regular intervals, particularly once fruit appears. To keep setting fruit, peppers need to grow vigorously throughout the season — it’s important nothing slows the crop down. Using sheep pellets as both a base and side fertiliser is an ideal solution — the comparatively high potassium to nitrogen ratio suits capsicums, and avoids excessive leaf growth at the expense of fruit production caused by fertilisers higher in nitrogen.
Water your crop regularly and pinch out the main shoot when plants are about 12cm high to encourage branching, and also remove the first flower that forms, as resulting fruit may cause the stem to split. As plants become bigger, they are able to support more fruit, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the number — to make sure your plant is not overloaded. One way to avoid this is to pick fruit green before they change colour — it also gives you a longer growing season because the ripening process saps a lot of energy from the capsicum plant.