All peppers and chilies are members of the capsicum family and it could be argues that the differences among the many varieties are merely a matter of taste. But what a taste! Sweet or bell peppers are large, sweet, and mild. Chilies, in contrast, are small and hot — sometimes so eye-wateringly hot that eating them is downright foolhardy. Growing them isn’t difficult, however, provided you can give them the sunshine, warmth, and water they need.
Peppers and chilies like a light, fertile soil that retains moisture. More importantly, because they are tropical or subtropical plants, they require heat and humidity. Unless you are growing them under cover, choose a planting position in a sheltered, sunny spot.
Peppers and chilies need heat to germinate, so sow indoors in modules and pots in March and April, and plant out only when it is warm enough, in May and June. Sowing directly outdoors is hit-or-miss.
Peppers and chilies need a long growing season in order to ripen fully, especially in temperatures like we get in Wisconsin. Get ahead by raising seed indoors — at temperatures of 64-70ºF in order to guarantee germination. Harden off seedlings and plant them out only when all danger of frost has passed.
Weed and water regularly and feed every two weeks with general fertilizer or a special liquid tomato food once the first small fruits appear. Stake up plants if they become heavy.
Most sweet peppers change color as they mature. They start off green, then turn yellow, orange, red, or even dark purple when fully ripe. Picking them young will stimulate the plant to produce more fruits, but the young peppers won’t taste as sweet.
Chilies vary in power from the very mild, which produce no more than a slight tingle on the tongue, to fruits so hot that you need to wear gloves to handle them. What gives them their heat? It’s a chemical called “capsaicin,” concentrated in the seeds and white pith. It stimulates the nerve endings in your mouth, throat, and skin.
Must-try Chili Varieties
- ‘Alma Paprika’ – mild, sweet, fleshy, and multicolored. Also try the similar ‘Anaheim‘
- ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ – a medium-hot, thick-walled chili that starts off yellow, then turns red when ripe. Also try the smaller ‘Apache‘.
- ‘Aji Amarillo’ – long, thin, medium-hot chilies originally from South America. Also try the Mexican ‘Jalapeno‘. Note: Jalapenos are delicious fresh, as flavorful as they are hot, with thick, crisp flesh that is as juicy as a sweet bell pepper’s. That texture, which is lost in drying, is a great part of their charm, and it makes jalapenos harder to air-dry than thin-walled peppers, such as cayennes and Thai hots. Traditionally jalapenos are preserved by canning.
- ‘Cherry Bomb’ – small, round, thick-walled fruits that ripen from green to red and have a medium-hot flavor.
- ‘Prairie Fire’ – fast-growing, small, fiery-tasting chilies. Try also ‘Thai Dragon’ and ‘Ring of Fire’.
- ‘Habanero‘ – unusual peach-colored variety of the notoriously hot Central American habanero family of chilies.
- ‘Dorset Naga Pepper’ – reputedly one of the hottest chilies in the world. Approach with extreme caution.
Sweet Peppers to Try
- ‘Bell Boy’
- ‘California Wonder’
- ‘New Ace’
- ‘Sweet Chocolate’