Originally created 09/30/05

Ornamental peppers perfect for fall



Much of the country is entering its second planting season, bringing many choices to liven up tired landscapes. There are mums and marigolds, salvias of all sorts, late-season zinnias and one of my favorites, the ornamental pepper.

Ornamental peppers have changed dramatically over the past few years to become real landscape assets. We now have choices, such as the colorful Medusa, Chilly Chili, Masquerade and a new one called Black Pearl that will steal your heart.

Black Pearl is an All-America Selections winner for next year, but you might just get lucky enough to find it this fall. Whenever you see it for sale, grab at least half a dozen.

This pepper will reach at least 18 to 24 inches tall, with a whole season of growth, and will spread 12 to 16 inches. It contributes to the landscape much like the Purple Knight alternanthera, although it is not quite as tall.

Black Pearl produces semiglossy, deep purple-black leaves that contrast nicely with yellow marigolds or lantanas, pink verbenas, hibiscus or salvias, and whites petunias.

The foliage is enough to warrant growing the pepper, but of course that isn't all. The plants produce scores of shiny, round, black, pearllike peppers that seem to always glisten in the garden.

As the peppers mature, they turn a bright, cheerful red. These peppers are edible but are fiery hot, so be warned. Use them in moderation in a pot of red beans.

Whether you grow Black Pearl or one of the other great choices, select a site in full sun with fertile, well-drained soil. Space the plants about 12 to 14 inches apart for landscape applications, and wider when growing for harvest.

Before removing the peppers from their container, dig the holes in the garden soil. Gardeners know they can plant a tomato deeper than it grew in the container, but you must plant the pepper at the same depth it is presently growing.

Feed your peppers with a complete garden fertilizer, preferably one that is higher in phosphorous such as a 10-20-10. Apply two tablespoons per plant at three- to four-week intervals.

Diluted water-soluble fertilizer can be used every other week if preferred, or if growing in a container.

Keep your plants watered and mulched through the long growing season, and they will give you an unfailing performance.

Try the 2002 All-America Selections winner Chilly Chili that produces chartreuse, orange and red peppers that are not hot. Medusa's peppers change from ivory to orange and crimson as they mature. Explosive Ignite has ivory, green and orange fruit.

In addition to Black Pearl, there are other purple-leaf forms to try such as Explosive Ember, Black Prince and Royal Black.

If the high winds of Hurricane Katrina did your landscape no favors, or your landscape looks tired from a long season, get out now and start your fall planting a little early. In my opinion, peppers should play a vital role in this fall's gardens.

HORTICULTURIST NORMAN WINTER IS THE AUTHOR OF PARADISE FOUND: GROWING TROPICALS IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, MISSISSIPPI GARDENER'S GUIDE AND Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South. Reach him at normanwext.msstate.edu.