February and March are the months of the year when we start to sow seeds in earnest, particularly those that require a long growing season to ripen. Of course, this is easier if you have a greenhouse or can start seeds under cover, such as on a sunny windowsill. If you can start to sow seeds now in batches, then you still have time to sow a few more again later if you have any problems with germination.
Peppers have to be one of my favourite crops to grow as there are so many different colours and varieties to suit all tastes, such as the standard bell pepper as well as ornamental, cayenne and chili peppers. They are versatile in cooking and can be stored in many ways once harvested. Here are a few different varieties to try.
Pepper seeds can be sown from the end of February in a heated environment or under cover in a conservatory or on a sunny windowsill. Sow in warm soil, use tepid water to dampen the soil and do not overwater – just water trays when soil is dry. I like to keep my trays in a warm area until I see the seedlings popping through the soil and then move them into the greenhouse. Pepper seeds are quite small, so don’t cover with too much soil – just poke seeds into the soil when sowing.
- The Ega piquillo pepper is a typical Spanish variety often roasted, stuffed and used for making tapas or preserving in jars. Rare in the UK, these peppers are versatile and excellent for cocktail parties.
- The Marconi Giallo pepper is also known as the Golden Marconi, producing a late, traditional heirloom Italian pepper with large, lobed, yellow, tapering fruit, very mild and sweet, great for frying or fresh. It can be used for frying, but is also delicious when eaten fresh.
- The Benac paprika pepper can be dried on the plant or in an oven and then ground to make paprika pepper which can be stored and is much tastier than the powder sold in shops. Ground paprika can be used as a spice in many dishes.
- The Tondo Piccante Calabrese (pictured) is a large cherry sized pepper that grows on compact plants, ideal for containers so can be grown even if you don’t have a garden. It can be used fresh or dried to add spice to dishes. As only a little is needed for flavouring, you only need to grow a few plants and they are decorative enough to be used as houseplants.
- The Friariello is a famous small conical sweet pepper of Naples, known for its high yield and taste. Red when fully mature, but often harvested when still green, the pepper is thin skinned and ideal for frying and added to tomatoes and herbs.
Pepper plants are part of the Capsicum genus in the nightshade family, native to America where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. Whilst said to be named by Christopher Columbus due to the fruit’s similar hot taste to the condiment, Piper nigrum, there is no botanical relationship between the plants. Since at least the 19th century, the word “pepper” has been used to mean “spirit” or “energy” and this was shortened to “pep”, hence the term “pep talk”.
If you are busy this month and need some “pep”, take heart that February is the shortest month of the year and you will soon reap the benefits that you have sown. I will talk about harvesting and storing peppers later on in the year.