Growing your own peppers at home
Story by Jennifer Williams
My earliest memory of a banana pepper goes back to eating out at the local sub restaurant with my dad. He always would get these yellow circles on his subs. When I asked him what they were and he told me they were banana peppers – well, being a kid – I thought they would taste like bananas. Nope: I was wrong and it was years before I would try them again, but as my taste for vegetables grew, so did my gardening and it’s been a fun adventure trying new plants every year.
While the sweet banana peppers are what usually comes to mind, there are actually many varieties of hot banana peppers as well. ‘Sweet Hungarian’, ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ (also called the Bulgarian), and ‘Black Hungarian’ hot chile peppers are all good varieties to get you started on your banana pepper journey.
Banana peppers need a long growing season, so here in Virginia it is best to start your seeds indoors approximately eight to 10 weeks before the last frost. You will want to sow seeds ¼ inch deep in moist seed-starter medium using a common cell-pack in a heat-tolerant tray. For best results, keep the planting medium moist and use a heat mat to maintain a soil temperature of 75 F. I like to use the miniature greenhouse trays available at most garden centers. Once the seeds have sprouted and begin to outgrow their greenhouse, remove the lid to give them room to grow, making sure to keep the soil evenly moist. If you started with smaller cells in your tray, you may need to upgrade to larger cells midway through their indoor growing “season.”
When the fear of frost is long forgotten, it is time to start preparing the plants to move outdoors. I like to give them a few days of partial outdoor living in a sheltered, warm, but not too sunny, spot before planting them in the garden. Make sure soil temperatures are consistently 60 F or so. Plant in rows 18-24 inches apart in well-draining soil where they will receive at least eight hours of direct sunlight daily.
Using soaker hoses or watering at soil surface will help prevent many common diseases. Additionally, keeping the soil evenly moist will keep your sweet peppers sweet. With these peppers, the less water they receive, the “hotter” the fruit. Feed your pepper plants a 12-12-12 fertilizer once the fruit begins to set, following all label instructions.
Banana peppers typically are ready to harvest around 70 days after transplanting. You can see why we start them so early indoors – Virginia’s growing season – even in the warmest zones – would not be able to support a direct sowing of these delicious vegetables. The sweet varieties will be ready to harvest before their hotter relatives. Harvest the peppers when they’re approximately 6-7 inches long and are uniformly yellow with firm skin. You can also allow the peppers to mature to orange or red. If you planted the spicier varieties, the earlier you harvest the higher the heat – so if you are new to these peppers you have the chance to try out an early harvest and see if you can handle the heat. If not, simply let the next group ripen a bit longer. When temperatures start getting cooler at night, the harvest will begin to diminish.
The most popular uses for banana peppers are sliced on sandwiches and salads. You can use them fresh up to a week after harvest. You could also pickle or can them for use throughout the winter. Other options include roasting the peppers before freezing them or drying them in a dehydrator or low-temperature oven for use in sauces and relishes. No matter how you choose to use your banana peppers, they are great plant for the beginning (or every) gardener.
Common Pests of Banana Peppers:
Prevention: For flying insects, horticultural spray is the mostly commonly used treatment. To make your own soap spray, use a pure dish soap, free of additives – such as liquid castile soap – and water. Mix 1 tablespoon soap per 1 quart of water in a clean spray bottle. Mix thoroughly and use immediately. Spray from the top to the bottom of the plant, making sure to get the undersides of the leaves – the spray must come in direct contact to be effective.
To prevent cutworm damage, as you plant new seedlings, wrap “collars” made of toilet paper rolls around the base of the plants to prevent the insects from burrowing into the stems.