In this article, we will see how to cultivate peppers organically. In a previous post, we discussed the cultivation of hot peppers, which belong to the same botanical family as peppers but with marked differences. Now, let’s focus on the classic sweet peppers. Compared to hot peppers, sweet peppers have more growth and require special organic pest control.
Let’s first understand more about the pepper plant.
The Pepper Plant
The pepper, Capsicum Annum, is an herbaceous cultivation belonging to the botanical family Solanaceae. This family also includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.
The pepper plant has an upright and branched stem and can reach heights of over one meter, depending on the variety. In its early stages, the plant is herbaceous, but over time, the stem becomes woody.
The plant’s roots consist of a central taproot and several secondary roots. The root system doesn’t reach great depths, about 25-30 cm.
The leaves are very tender, with an intense green and glossy color. They are alternately arranged on the plant’s branches and have an oval, lanceolate shape with a short petiole. The foliage is essential for the plant’s balance as it protects the fruits from sunburn. So, if you’ve decided to cultivate peppers, this is an important detail to keep in mind.
The flowers are white, usually solitary, and form at the branching points of the branches. While the flower has a green calyx inside and is composed of 5 sepals. The calyx can persist even after flowering, remaining attached to the fruit. Pepper flowering occurs progressively over several months and usually stops with the arrival of cold weather, when the plant has exhausted its productive capacity. It is advisable to remove the first flower that forms immediately at the first branch of the plant. This is because the sap it absorbs to form the first fruit slows down the balanced development of the entire plant. However, it is a simple recommendation and not essential. Some people, for example, prefer to let the first pepper, called the King, develop.
Fruit and Seed
The fruit, i.e., the peppers, is a fleshy berry that, depending on the variety, can be swollen or elongated. The starting color is green, and upon ripening, it becomes red, yellow, or purple, depending on the variety. It is attached to the plant by a more or less long and thick peduncle. Inside the fruit is an ovary in which the seeds form.
The pepper seed is flat, yellowish, and depending on the variety, measures between 3 to 5 mm, making it very small and lightweight. The average weight of 1000 seeds is just under 10 grams. Properly stored in a dry place, the seed can retain its germination properties for up to 2 years.
Varieties of Peppers to Grow
We have finally decided to grow peppers, alright, but which type should we choose?
The question is not simple because this crop has many existing varieties.
In this brief examination, we will refer only to sweet pepper varieties belonging to the species Capsicum Annum.
For different spicy species, you can refer to our post on how to grow spicy chili peppers.
The different varieties of sweet peppers that can be grown can be distinguished by two main characteristics:
- Size. The fruits can be large or medium.
- Shape, which can be square, conical, heart-shaped, or horn-shaped.
Below are some examples.
Among the peppers with large and square-shaped fruit, the most famous in our country is the Quadrato d’Asti. It has the classic square shape, with 3 or 4 points and a height not exceeding 1/3 of its width. The taste is very sweet, and the flesh is fleshy. The color is red or yellow at full ripening.
Corno di Bue
Among the long peppers, we have the classic Corno di Bue or Marconi. Its shape is conical, very elongated, and regular, with a length of over 20 cm. The stem attachment is slightly indented, and the color ranges from green to yellow and red.
Then there are many hybrid varieties, which mainly meet commercial requirements. We do not believe it is worth dwelling on these.
Cultivating peppers from your own region is probably the wisest choice. Many local varieties have established themselves over time, and each region has its own unique varieties. The regions with a long tradition of pepper cultivation are Piedmont, Sicily, Puglia, and Campania.
How to Grow Peppers
Now let’s see how to grow peppers organically in the vegetable garden, starting with the pedoclimatic requirements.
Peppers are typically spring-summer crops. Under the right conditions, their cultivation cycle can extend well into autumn.
Peppers grow well in temperate to warm climates, always in a sunny position.
They are also very sensitive to temperature variations and large fluctuations between day and night. The ideal vegetative growth temperature is between 26°C during the day and not dropping below 15°C at night.
Flowering and subsequent fruit setting, on the other hand, are favored by slightly higher daytime temperatures, up to 32°C.
Excessive heat, with temperatures above 35°C, can cause a problem called “scalding” of the fruits exposed to the sun. Discolored spots initially of soft consistency form on the peppers, which then dry out.
For this reason, it is essential to maintain a certain vegetative balance of the plant, with a dense leafy canopy acting as protection.
Sowing and Transplanting Period
For the reasons mentioned above, when growing peppers in open fields, transplanting should never occur before April. You need to ensure that there are no feared cold returns, which are frequent in March.
From April until the end of May (June in areas with warm autumns), you can transplant the seedlings in your home garden.
However, if you start with our organic pepper cultivation directly from seeds, you need to observe some precautions.
First of all, keep in mind that pepper seeds have quite long germination times. It takes about 45-60 days to have a well-formed plant ready for transplanting when starting from seeds.
Pepper seeds can be sown as early as February, but you need to provide a heated seedbed or position the classic polystyrene seedbed in a protected area. An ideal option could be a small balcony greenhouse like this one.
For proper development, pepper seeds require high and constant temperatures, above 20°C. However, these temperatures are difficult to achieve outdoors during February and March.
In April, if temperatures stabilize, you can proceed with outdoor sowing in the seedbed. However, you need to pay attention to possible temperature fluctuations and be ready to bring the tiny seedlings indoors if needed.
Keep the seedbed soil consistently moist but not excessively wet. Excessive water retention in the soil could cause seed rot.
Soil and Fertilization
As we described earlier, pepper plants have shallow and spread-out root systems. For this reason, the cultivation soil must be loose, worked deeply, soft, fresh, and well-draining. Proper soil preparation is crucial, and for large surfaces, using a tractor and ripper is recommended.
Fertilization is also crucial for the healthy and vigorous growth of peppers. In organic agriculture, it is advisable, before working the soil, to perform intense manuring with well-aged and decomposed manure.
If you do not have access to countryside manure, you can opt for the purchase of well-ripened manure.
Another alternative for organic fertilization is the use of home compost or worm humus. These types of organic fertilizers, natural and often artisanal, can be applied to the soil just before transplanting or in subsequent stages, gently tilling them near the plant’s base.
For green fertilization, a valid solution is to precede pepper cultivation with a leguminous green manure.
Irrigation and Transplanting Distances
To grow peppers, it is necessary to set up a drip irrigation system. Plants need a constant water supply over time. Temperature fluctuations, stress, and water stagnation can have negative effects. Providing a constant but limited water supply, such as with a drip system, where 10-15 minutes per day may be sufficient, is better. Of course, if the pepper cultivation is in open fields and rainfall occurs, artificial irrigation should be suspended.
For the transplanting distances in the irrigation system, leave 40 cm between each seedling in a row and one meter between rows.
The lightweight root system and the tall height that the plant can reach, combined with the considerable weight of the fruits, necessitate the use of supports and ties when growing peppers. These supports will keep the plants upright and prevent them from breaking.
You can use the classic support structure with bamboo canes, readily available online. Alternatively, you can opt for a system with wooden stakes and tie them with nylon string.
The wooden stakes, over 2 meters in height, are planted in the ground at a distance of two meters from each other and should be placed at the center of the plant row.
Between the stakes, pass a nylon string (specifically for the garden) from one side to the other to create a support for the peppers. Alternatively, you can grow peppers with the classic jute twine, which has excellent resistance. You can find this type of twine at this link.
To grow organic peppers, it is essential to control weeds. Weeds, especially in spring and summer, can serve as carriers for pests and diseases, as well as consume a lot of the plant’s energy. To reduce manual weeding operations, we recommend using natural mulching. With this technique, besides the aforementioned benefits, the soil’s moisture will improve, resulting in considerable water savings.
Since pepper cultivation has a relatively long cycle, the only precaution we recommend with natural mulching is periodic replenishment during cultivation.
If you want to experiment with alternative materials, you can read our article on natural mulching with jute.
Pepper harvesting is staggered over time. If the plant is healthy and has grown regularly, you can have great results. If you want to grow peppers at their best, do not let the fruit ripen 100% on the plant. Harvesting it a little before full maturity will lower the risk of the pepper spoiling.
For manual harvesting, it is advisable to use scissors. Those used for grape harvesting are very practical in this case (if you don’t have them, you can find them here).
Using these scissors is essential because, if the peduncle that holds the fruit to the plant is not cut but torn, there is a risk of damaging the fruit or the plant.
Biological Parasitic Defense
Unlike hot peppers, which are unattractive to animal parasites due to their high capsaicin content, sweet pepper plants are susceptible to parasitic attacks.
The main pests encountered when growing peppers are aphids, thrips, whiteflies, red spider mites, tomato leafminer (Tuta absoluta), and bugs.
To combat these pests, it is necessary to take preventive measures with natural macerates, such as nettle macerate and garlic infusion.
To monitor the presence of insects in the field, you can use chromotropic traps. These traps serve the dual purpose of alerting you to the presence of pests and mass capturing them.
Pay particular attention to the presence of the tiny western flower thrips (Frankiniella Occidentalis). This insect is a vector of the serious and problematic leaf bronzing disease.
If insect infestations are already present, you can intervene in two ways: either with a solution of pure Marseille soap and water (for aphids, whiteflies, and bugs) or with azadirachtin, the active ingredient in neem oil (for red spider mites, thrips, adult stages of Tuta absoluta, and bugs).
For the larval stages of Tuta absoluta, the most effective intervention is to use Bacillus thuringiensis varietà kurstaki (la varietà kurstaki la trovate qui).
Defense against Fungal Diseases
Pepper cultivation also has risks associated with fungal diseases, such as downy mildew and powdery mildew. These risks are dependent on the presence of parasites and fungal pathogen spores. To avoid increasing these risks, it is crucial to adhere to crop rotations. As a solanaceous crop, it is essential to avoid transplanting peppers in areas of the garden that hosted plants of the same family the previous year, especially tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes.
- ResearchGate – Evaluation of guajillo and chile de árbol peppers in a hydroponic greenhouse system – A study on cultivating specific pepper varieties using hydroponics.
- ResearchGate – Botanical Briefs: Handling the Heat From Capsicum Peppers – Discusses handling the heat from Capsicum peppers.
- ResearchGate – A Comprehensive Review of Pesticide Residues in Peppers – Reviews pesticide residues in peppers and their impact.
- Environ Sci Pollut Res Int – Residue behavior and risk assessment of pyraclostrobin and tebuconazole in peppers – Evaluates fungicides’ residue behavior and risks in peppers.
- Food Chem – Metabolic shifts during fruit development in pungent and non-pungent peppers – Investigates metabolic changes in pungent and non-pungent peppers during development.