Peppers are great additions to a permaculture plot, not only because they are relatively easy to grow and provide good crops when given the right growing conditions, but also because there is such a range of potential cultivars, so that every permaculture gardener should be able to find one that suits their taste. Cultivars in the pepper family range from big, round capsicums to long thin chili peppers. All have similar requirements in the garden, and provide similar nutrients, including high levels of antioxidants and Vitamin C. The other benefit of growing peppers is that they can be harvested at various stages of their mature development, providing the permaculturists with a crop right through the growing season; a crop that changes in taste and texture as the time passes.
While peppers have a diversity of tastes – ranging from a deep fruitiness to an almost chocolate flavor – they are typically differentiated by their respective amounts of heat when eaten. The crucial substance in this regard is capsaicin, and the more of it that a pepper variety contains the more it will provide heat. Ironically, the varieties that take their name from this substance, capsicums, do not contain any of it! Capsicums are a mild pepper that can be harvested at different stages of maturity for different flavor profiles, and can be used raw or cooked. The options range all the way up to the Habanero varieties, which pack a significant punch of heat and are used in curries and other spicy dishes. Some popular choices for permaculture gardeners include the Nepalese Bell which ripens later in the season than many of its cousins, providing good late season crops; the Bulgarian Carrot which is a medium on the heat scale and so is very adaptable in the kitchen, being used every way from raw in a salad to cooked in a tomato-based stew; the Padron, which lends itself well to barbecuing; and the Red cayenne, which has an earthy, fruity flavor that goes well with a wide variety of vegetable dishes.
In cool locations, peppers are best started out by sowing seeds in trays and keeping them indoors until they have germinated and turned into seedlings, by which time conditions should be suitable for transplanting to the garden. You want to transplant a couple of weeks after the average last frost date to ensure they avoid damage by sudden low temperatures and freezing soil. In warmer areas, where the last frost of the season comes earlier, you can sow seeds directly into the garden. Again, wait for two weeks or so after the last frost to ensure the survival of the seeds. Ideally you are looking for a soil temperature above 18 degrees for the best start in the permaculture plot for your pepper seedlings or seeds. Plant between 20 and 50 inches apart, depending on the variety, and water well. If planting seeds, sow at a depth of around three times the diameter of the seed. When you have seedlings that are a few inches tall and established (either from seeds outdoors or after transplanting) mulch with straw to keep weeds down and avoid competition for soil nutrients and moisture.
Peppers need to grow in a position of full sunlight. This energy from the sun is what helps them develop bounteous and healthy crops. Six hours a day is ideal. If you are growing peppers in a hot tropical location, you may want to rig up a light shade cloth over the plants, particularly in the early stages of fruit development, to avoid heat damage, but ensure the cloth still lets through the majority of the sunlight. Peppers do well if planted in proximity to eggplant, basil and parsley.
All varieties of pepper plants prefer a loamy soil that is well drained and is rich in organic matter. A soil pH of neutral or slightly acidic provides the best growing medium for peppers. Adding plenty of organic compost and maintaining a healthy soil should mean that the pH remains suitable, but if you have a very alkaline soil, consider adding some peat moss, pine needles or some organic agricultural sulfur to reduce the pH level.
Pepper plants like their soil to be kept moist, but not waterlogged. Even overhead watering on a regular basis is fine until the plants set fruit. After that, avoid watering from above, as the stalks can be brittle as thpepper-103579_640e fruit matures and you risk dislodging the crop. Water well, giving the plants a good soaking, once a week or so, but check the soil moisture level during very warm spells of weather and water as required to prevent the soil drying out completely. Once the fruit is set, you could always institute a drip irrigation system for your pepper plants. This will ensure they get the regular supply of moisture that they need to flourish, and direct it at the roots where it will be most useful. Use in combination with a rainwater harvesting system to make your water use efficient and sustainable.
Peppers change colour on the plant, and you can harvest them at any time from green to fully colored. The earlier you harvest them, the subtler and less hot the taste will be. Depending on when you planted your seeds or seedlings, you should see the first harvestable fruits in late summer or early fall. They will keep maturing until late fall. When harvesting, cut the fruit so that a small portion of the stem remains attached. This not only makes handling them easier, it also helps preserve them if you need to store for later use. Harvesting a few fruits at a time from a plant, rather than the while crop, will help stimulate growth and ensure you have a good supply of peppers throughout the season. If, however, you want to harvest more than you need for immediate use, you can store uncut peppers in the refrigerator for around a week. Keep in a bag to prevent any moisture reaching the fruits, as this will cause them to degrade rapidly.