Peppers are 2016 Herb of the Year

February 7, 2016 lawanda Newspaper Columns

      The International Herb Association has chosen peppers as the Herb of the Year for 2016.  Peppers seem an odd choice, given that past winners have included plants that we more normally think of as herbs:  lavender, dill, sage, thyme, basil and rosemary.  However, one of the many definitions of an herb is a “useful plant” and peppers are certainly that.

      There are so many kinds of peppers!  One seed catalog devotes ten pages to 56 varieties of peppers and divides them into five categories:  sweet bell, greenhouse, sweet specialty, hot specialty, and hot southwestern.

      Bell peppers are the large green or red ones you find year-round in the produce section of the grocery store.  When you grow your own, you can choose green or red plus yellow, orange, ivory, purple and chocolate colors.  Bell peppers can be sliced and eaten fresh or stuffed with various meats, rice, tomatoes and cheeses and baked.

      Greenhouse peppers are those grown entirely in the greenhouse and varieties are similar to bell peppers.

      Sweet specialty peppers are generally smaller and sweeter than bell peppers and come in a variety of colors ranging from light yellow to cherry red.  Shapes range from mini-bell to round to long and thin.  They can be eaten fresh, stir-fried or pickled.

      Hot specialty peppers are mildly hot to mouth-blisteringly hot and come in a multitude of colors and shapes.  They can be eaten fresh, added to salsas and sauces, or dried and ground for use as seasoning.

      Hot southwestern peppers have thick, mildly hot flesh and are mostly green although there are some yellows.  Some of the green ones ripen to red when left longer on the plant.  They can be stuffed, grilled or roasted.

      Peppers need warm weather and full sun to thrive.  With Wisconsin’s relatively short growing season, seeds should be started indoors in mid-to-late March, about 8 weeks prior to planting outdoors.  If you’re not equipped to start your own seeds, you’ll have considerably fewer choices in variety of peppers to plant, but nurseries are offering a wider selection of already-started seedlings recently.

      Transplant outdoors after the last spring frost when the soil is warm.  Ideally seedlings will have buds but no open flowers. 

      Set plants in rows or grids, spacing them 18” apart.  Dig holes a bit larger and deeper than the nursery pot.  You might want to throw some dried milk to provide calcium and Epsom salts to provide magnesium into the bottom of the hole.  Ease the plant out of its pot and hold it in the hole so that the soil is at the same level it was in the nursery pot.  Fill in under and around it with soil and use your hands to pat the soil firmly but gently around the plant.  Water well. 

      After transplanting outdoors, you’ll harvest peppers 50 to 75 days later, depending on the variety. When the first peppers reach full size, harvest them promptly to encourage further fruit set.

Fruits and vegetablesHerbs

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