I’ve struggled to grow bell peppers in my garden. Prolific varieties like ‘California Wonder’ produced small peppers for me. Other plants produced beautiful golden or red bell peppers, but only one or two per plant, per season. I tried many hybrids before realizing I had to learn to think outside the bell…
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2008.)
Although bell peppers seem puny and unproductive in my garden, the performance of other pepper varieties is outstanding. Some of these sweet peppers are similar to bells but are slightly smaller and more tapered. Like bell peppers, most sweet peppers turn red when fully ripe, although some varieties ripen to orange or gold.
My all time favorite sweet pepper is the hybrid 'Gypsy', a 1981 All-America Selections winner. This beautiful, fist-sized pepper ripens from pale green to orange to red, creating a riot of color in my pepper patch. The plants are remarkably tough, even in our hot, humid summers. 'Gypsy' is sweetest when fully ripened to red, but I also pick a few at other stages for a mix of colors, especially when making sweet pickled peppers (see recipe below).
Bull's horn peppers are large, conical peppers with outstanding sweet flavor. I always had to make room for a few 'Corno di Toro' plants in my pepper patch. Productivity was low for me, however, so I couldn't count on these as a "main crop" type. Then I found a spectacular hybrid variety.
'Carmen', a 2006 All-America Selections winner, has all the sweet flavor and large size of the open pollinated bull's horn varieties, and in my garden the plants were just loaded with peppers. The peppers ripen fairly quickly (75 days to maturity, according to the packet) and are as thick-walled as some bell varieties. I've grown 'Carmen' for the past two years, and it's a variety I'll grow every year.
Ordinary sweet banana peppers aren't quite as large or thick-walled as the above types, but you might consider trying hybrid varieties. 'Bananarama' is a variety I've grown in my garden for several years, and it's a prolific producer of 8-10 inch, slender but sturdy peppers. They slice into beautiful rings for decorating salads or enhancing jars of mixed pickles.
By now, you may be wondering why so many hybrid peppers have made my list of favorites. When it comes to tomatoes, I rave about the unbeatable flavor of the heirloom and open pollinated varieties. I'm not willing to sacrifice sweet, juicy "real tomato" flavor for a little extra productivity or possible disease resistance. But with peppers, the hybrids seem to have all the advantages without those limitations. However, seeds saved from hybrid peppers won't come "true" to the parent plant, so new seed must be ordered each year.
'Sweet Pickle' is one heirloom variety of sweet pepper that I do grow every year. Often, I tuck a few plants along the front of my pepper patch. I also scatter clumps of them elsewhere in my landscape plantings. This variety is a wonderful "edible ornamental!" The multi-colored little peppers are held upright, just as on some ornamental hot pepper plants. The crisp, sweet peppers taste even more wonderful when they've completely ripened to red. Since the seeds aren't bitter, these peppers can be eaten out of hand -- right down to the stem -- or pickled whole.
Other non-bell pepper varieties that you might try in your garden include 'Aconcagua' (large Anaheim type), 'Giant Marconi' (2001 All-America Selection winner), and Italian frying peppers such as 'Jimmy Nardello's', 'Melrose', and 'Tollie's Sweet'. See the DG Peppers Forum for further discussion and additional information on growing peppers.
Last year, I did have some success with 'Big Red' hybrid bell peppers, so I'm not quite giving up. Every year, I'll continue to try a variety or three and plant out half a dozen bell pepper plants. But the mainstay of my sweet pepper patch will be my non-bell peppers. That way, I'm sure of a steady supply of delicious sweet peppers for salads, sauces, stir-fries, pickles, kebabs, salsas, and anything else II can think of.
I don't know why bell peppers don't like my garden. But with all these wonderful alternatives, I don't fret about it. If I get desperate for a bell pepper, I can drive to the grocery store.
4 thin slices fresh ginger 4 small garlic cloves 4 slices fresh chile pepper 2 tsp. pickling salt
2 pounds sweet peppers, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch strips or rings
2 cups white wine vinegar 2 cups water 1 1/4 cups sugar
1. Prepare 4 clean pint canning jars. Put 1 ginger slice, 1 garlic clove, 1 slice chile pepper, and 1/2 tsp pickling salt into the bottom of each jar. Pack the pepper strips snugly into the jars.
2. In a nonreactive saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and sugar to a boil. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat, and cover the pan. Simmer the liquid, covered, for 5 minutes.
3. Pour the hot liquid over the pepper strips, leaving a 1/2 inch headspace. Close the jars with hot two-piece lids. Process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
4. Jars will seal as they cool. Store them in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks before eating the peppers.
The sliced chile pepper is the "sassy" part of the recipe. Leave it out if you just want sweet pickles without extra zing.
 See the AAS website for descriptions of past All-America Selection winners.
 Ziedrich, Linda. The Joy of Pickling. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1988. p. 134.
About Jill M. Nicolaus
Better known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. Sunshine Girl's crocus lawn (a gift from her DG "family") is in bloom, so Spring is on its way! We're looking forward to sowing seeds, picking daffodils, and looking for Easter Bunny Apprentices.
(Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)