Saving Peppers From Fall Cold

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Ill.: imgbin.com, pngall.com & www.netclipart.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog

Whether they’re hot peppers or sweet peppers (i.e. bell peppers), green, red, yellow or whatever color, the plants known botanically as Capsicum (most belong to the species C. annuum) don’t like the cold … at all. They’re popular in home gardens, but when fall arrives, decisions have to be made.

When night temperatures drop below 55˚F (13˚C), it’s pretty much over for peppers, especially if this happens repeatedly. It won’t kill them (actual frost will, though), but they stop growing and flowering and their fruits no long mature. At this point, the most logical thing to do is to harvest the peppers. 

Harvesting Peppers Green

Little girl eating green pepper, kitchen
Although a green pepper isn’t mature, it’s still edible. Photo: http://www.freepik.com

The good news is that peppers are edible at all stages of their development. 

Many novice gardeners don’t realize that green peppers and red peppers are the same fruit, just at different stages of maturity. Most people find mature sweet peppers (red peppers) are sweeter, tastier and easier to digest than green ones, but still, green peppers are very popular, as you know if you’ve ever eaten a pizza. With hot peppers, they reach their peak strength at full maturity, when they turn their final color, but are still hot and edible when green. So, you can just bring in your peppers green and cook them up any way you like. 

Well, that was easy!

Don’t Waste Your Time Pulling Off Leaves

Don’t strip the leaves off your pepper plants “to expose the fruit to the sun” in the hopes that will speed up maturation. Direct exposure of a pepper fruit to sun does nothing to increase the speed of maturation and, in fact, even a fruit completely in the shade will mature as fast any other on the plant. All removing the leaves does is to reduce the solar energy the pepper plant receives and will actually slow down maturation!

Turning Green Peppers Red

elongated pepper turning from red to green, on countertop
A pepper that has started to change color will continue after you harvest it… if you keep it warm! Photo: iammandalore, imgur.com

Will pepper fruits mature after harvesting? Yes, to a certain degree, but not as readily as their cousin, the tomato. Entirely green fruits rarely mature at all after plucking, but if the fruits are starting to change color, they will often continue … if you keep them at 68˚F (20˚C) or more, which should be doable in most homes. 

Never put a pepper you want to encourage to mature in the refrigerator: that will stop it cold! (Sorry for the pun!)

Pepper plant, greenhouse, fruit tuning red
Dug up from the outdoor garden and brought into the warmth of my cold frame, this pepper may look a bit worse for the wear, but its fruits will continue to mature. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

You can also dig up a pepper plant facing cold nights and bring it indoors (spray it with insecticidal soap to remove any pests) to a warm, sunny spot. That way you might even be able to get even the green fruits to ripen. 

Or, if your plants are facing just a few cold nights, but warmer temperatures are on their way, just cover the plants at night by creating a sort of protective shelter using a few stakes and floating row cover, old sheets, newspaper or even large plastic or paper bags. 

Again, this is not frost protection… and don’t wait until frost threatens before you react! You’d do best to put these techniques into practice when temperatures are expected to drop below 55˚F (13˚C) at night … and certainly if 50˚F (10˚C) is expected.

Planning for Next Year

If you’re stuck with a ton of green peppers this year and really wanted red ones, you’ll have to plan ahead next year. And I mean more than just starting your peppers indoors 6 to 8 weeks before planting out time, which is usually about 2 weeks after the spring frost free date. (Never plant out pepper outdoors while it’s still cool!) Starting peppers indoors is just “business as usual” in most climates.

Seed pack, red bell pepper Bendigo, organic
‘Bendigo’ is a 60-day pepper, ideal for short growing seasons, but there are many others. Photo: seedsofchange.com
  1. Start by looking for early peppers, ones with a “days to maturity” rating of 60 to 75 days. If you live in a climate where summers are short, why even bother with anything else? 

There seems to be a trend underway towards growing more exotic peppers, but that’s a trend you should just ignore if you live in a short-summer climate: exotic peppers are almost always very slow to mature … like up to 150 days!

  1. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Yes, mulch tends to keep the soil cooler in the summer, but by fall, it will keep it warmer, often much warmer. And a pepper with warm feet is a much happier plant than one with cold ones.
  2. Keep your peppers well fertilized and well watered, as this stimulates faster maturation, although do avoid fertilizers overly rich in nitrogen (the first number). 
  3. If you’re regularly plagued by cool summers, consider growing your peppers “under glass,” i.e. inside a greenhouse, a cold frame, a cloche, a plastic tunnel, on a covered porch, etc. But you have to be able to open your protective structure in hot weather. At temperatures above 90˚F (32˚C), flower buds drop off without producing fruit, leaving you no further ahead.
  4. Or grow your pepper plants in pots. That way you can quickly whisk them indoors on cool nights.

Peppers: they do like things warm … and now you have a few ideas on how to make that happen!