'Groundwork' for March 10, 2013

The fire in Louisiana cooking is provided primarily by the use of hot peppers or products made from them like red pepper and hot sauce. A backyard garden wouldn’t be complete without a few pepper plants — hot and sweet — to pick from.

The degree of heat is related to the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. This chemical is concentrated in the pepper pod where the seeds are attached and in the veins of the inner wall. Peppers are at the peak of their hotness when fully ripe and are usually five times hotter when they are mature compared with the green or immature fruit.

Based on the amount of capsaicin they generally contain, pepper varieties can be classified as sweet, mild, hot and very hot. Remember, you cannot always identify a hot pepper by its shape or color. Various peppers are classified as follows:

Sweet: sweet bells, pimento, sweet banana and Gypsy.

Mild: Mexi-Bell, cherry, NuMex Big Jim, Anaheim, ancho, pasilla, espanola and cascabell.

Hot: jalapeƱ o, mirasol, Hungarian wax (hot banana), serrano, cayenne and tabasco.

Very hot: chiltepin, Thai, habanero, Scotch bonnet.

Sweet bell peppers are commonly planted in the home garden. They have a blocky shape with three or four lobes on the bottom. For many years gardeners could choose only one color of bell pepper, a green that matured red. R ed bell peppers are just ripe green ones.

Through modern breeding efforts, we can now grow bell peppers that mature red, yellow or orange and may be purple, lavender or chocolate-brown instead green when unripe.

Mid-March to mid-April is an ideal time to plant peppers in the garden. Bell peppers are more sensitive to heat than other types of peppers, so plant them early in the spring garden. Hot peppers and other sweet peppers are much more heat tolerant and can be planted through the summer.

Choose a sunny area because peppers need full sun to blossom and set fruit. Plant peppers in well-drained beds enriched by compost and an all-purpose fertilizer.

Once they are planted, peppers should be watered-in with your favorite soluble fertilizer. Sidedress pepper plants with additional fertilizer every four to six weeks with 1 tablespoon per plant.

Production of bell peppers often drops off in the hottest part of the summer but will pick back up as weather cools in September. Excellent summer production of sweet peppers can be obtained from Gypsy and sweet banana.

Peppers can be harvested at any stage of development. Bell types are usually harvested when firm and full size but still green. They also may be harvested when mature and turning red, orange or yellow, depending on variety.

Other types of peppers vary, with jalapeƱos generally harvested green and cayenne peppers harvested mature red. But it’s largely up to you to decide. When you’re harvesting the fruit, hold the branch and snap or cut the fruit off carefully. Remember, pepper plants are brittle and break easily.

Container gardening

Container gardening has been on the uptrend the past five years and continues to grow in popularity, especially in urban areas where green space can be limited. But to ensure the most success, it is crucial for the 21 million households planting container gardens to pick the right plant for the pot. Going the container route saves space, helps control pests and overcomes soil issues, enabling the availability of homegrown fresh produce without a yard. But it is important to choose a seed or a plant that was specifically developed for the compact container space.

With increasing interest in container gardening, seed companies are developing vegetable seeds specifically bred for container gardens. Today’s container gardeners now have access to even more plants that are compact in size, yield more, taste great and feature unique colors and shapes.

Regardless of the type of vegetable you plant, here are some general tips provided by the University of Illinois Extension for growing vegetable container gardens:

  • Anything that holds soil and has drainage holes in the bottom may be transformed into a container garden.
  • For vibrant plant growth, the containers must provide adequate space for roots and soil media, allowing the plant to thrive. Don’t skimp on container size. A single tomato plant performs best in at least a 7-gallon container.
  • When choosing what to use to fill containers, never use soil from the yard by itself no matter how good it looks or how well things grow in it out in the garden. Soils for containers need to be well-aerated and well-drained while still being able to retain enough moisture for plant growth.
  • A regular fertilizer program is needed to keep plants growing well and attractive all season.
  • Most fruit-bearing vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and eggplant require full sun.
  • Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, collards, mustard greens, spinach and parsley can tolerate more shady locations compared to the root vegetables such as turnips, beets, radishes, carrots and onions.
  • The best way to tell if a plant needs water is to feel the soil. And if the first inch or so of the soil is dry, water. Use enough water each time so water starts to drip out of the drainage holes.

Got a gardening question? Write to Bob Souvestre, horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter, at Burden Center, 4560 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA 70809, or email to bsouvestre@agcenter.lsu.edu, or call Master Gardeners at (225) 763-3990.