Sweet and hot peppers are indigenous to Central and South America. They have been cultivated since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found chili peppers at sites dating to 7000 BC. The Aztecs, Incans and Mayans all cultivated peppers. The Aztecs had at least seven different words for hot peppers. We derive the term chili pepper from some of the Aztec words for hot pepper. The Incas used peppers as a form of currency.
Columbus named the peppers he saw growing in the West Indies, pimiento, because he thought they were the pimienta, spice pepper, grown in the East Indies. He was painfully surprised to find out that the West Indian peppers were incredibly hot. On his several voyages to the New World, Columbus collected many varieties of hot and sweet pepper and brought them back to Spain. The peppers immediately gained popularity and spread to Africa, India and the Far East before they became popular in the rest of Europe and North America.
In Central and South America, peppers are perennial plants, which can grow four to six feet in height, but in North America, peppers are grown as annuals because they are very sensitive to frost.
Pepper plants should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. Because peppers germinate slowly, pepper plants should be started with bottom heat applied to the flats. The bottom heat speeds up germination and seems to produce stronger seedlings. After one week of hardening off, plants should be transplanted to the garden or a container after all danger of frost has passed. Pepper plants are excellent container plants. Three pepper plants can be planted in a half barrel planter.
Transplants in the garden should be planted 12-18 inches apart in rows 2-3 feet apart. Mix bone meal and cost or dried manure in the planting hole. If the soil is too rich or too much nitrogen fertilizer has been added to the soil, the plant will produce lush green leaves, but few peppers. As plants begin to blossom, dissolve a spoonful of Epsom salts in a spray bottle full of water and spray the leaves. The magnesium in the Epsom salts encourages early and prolific fruit set.
Peppers should be harvested when they change color from green to red, yellow, orange, purple or brown. Once the color change occurs, sweet peppers become sweeter and hot peppers become hotter. The more you pick peppers, the more they will produce.