Sweet Bell Peppers are one the most difficult vegetables to grow organically, especially in the Central Valley of California. The standard supermarket bell pepper is dark green, almost black, while it is ripening. Meanwhile, the plants generally make excessive amounts of fruit, and not enough leaves to shade them. Any part of the pepper sticking out from under the leaves is vulnerable to sunburn, which renders them useless. Conventional farmers generally use a tremendous amount of fertilizer to combat this problem by pushing the plant to make more foliage, but still lose lots of peppers. On our farm, we used to compost four out of five peppers.
Then we discovered Hungarian peppers. These are varieties that are pale yellow before they ripen. They don’t get as hot in the sun, and so are less likely to sunburn. They ripen first to a pale orange color, and finally to red. We grow two varieties. Gypsy are smaller, pointed peppers that resemble certain types of hot peppers. Traditionally they would be called “frying peppers”. Flamingos look more like a bell pepper, although not quite as square. Both are milder than green bell peppers when unripe (yellow), and sweeten up just like bells once they turn color.
But even the Gypsys and Flamingos will sunburn if it gets hot enough. So for several years now, we have planted our peppers as late as possible, hoping to avoid the intense sun of mid-summer on the ripening fruit. Unfortunately this decision also meant not having any peppers until almost Labor Day some years. So last year we tried a small experiment. We planted a few beds of peppers in between rows of staked and trellised tomatoes. By the time the peppers began to ripen, the tomato plants were 5 feet tall, effectively protecting them from the sun for most of the day — especially during the afternoon. The experiment was a success. We were harvesting ripe peppers by mid-July.
This year we expanded the early pepper field, tweaking a few details, and it looks even better. In fact ,there was so much fruit on the plants that we harvested some of them unripe — to lighten the load — and sent them along to you a few weeks back. But the real test of our experiment came last week, when it was over 100 degrees for 6 days straight. The “walls” of tomato plants did their job, protecting the peppers from the sun. As a result, this week we can finally share the success with you, putting a few orange-ripe peppers in each of your boxes. We expect this planting to continue producing until the later field comes into production in August.