Wild chili peppers, the ancestors of all peppers, likely originated in South America. They belong to the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family along with tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and eggplant.
Starting with the original red berry about the size of a large pea, and through selective breeding, Indians in the central and southern parts of the New World, over the course of many years, developed and domesticated peppers of all colors, flavors, shapes and pungency. First gathered in the wild, peppers have been eaten by humans for at least 9,000 years and cultivated for about 6,000 years. However, the first European Americans, whose diets employed fewer hot spices, may have developed the sweet bell pepper (the first description of which is only some 300 years old). This pepper was not held in high regard by natives and even today it is known as chili agua, water chili; a chili with no spice or flavor and ranked accordingly.
Reflecting their tropical origins, pepper plants love warm weather — don’t plant them before the soil temperature is above 60º degrees. Peppers can be planted only after mid-May in the Washington, D.C. area. Pinch off any flowers or fruit before planting.
The soil should be well prepared. Add some lime to the soil and as much organic material as possible. Soil pH should be near neutral (between 6 and 8 on the scale). While you cannot add too much compost to your soil, do not over fertilize. All you will get is a lot of vegetation and no fruit. Add slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer at the time of planting or first fruit and a little later in the season if the plant is producing heavily.
Pepper plants should be planted in areas that receive at least 6 hours of full sun. Staggered, double-row plantings with plants about 24 inches apart is a good start in determining what spacing works for you. Planting the plants closer together allows a denser canopy for ground cover to conserve moisture and reduce weeds and to provide increased mutual support in rough weather. Further apart allows more growth and more and larger fruits (to a point) and better access to the plant for maintenance and picking and less stress on the soil. Plants must be staked.
Plants should never be allowed to dry out completely. Periodically water the soil at the base of the plant. Do not be alarmed if the pepper plants are slow to grow at first. They need time, up to a month, to settle in, grow roots, and strengthen before flowering. Pepper flowers will not set when it gets too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry and blossoms may even drop off.
Early varieties aside, peppers take a long time to develop so do not pick them before their time. Do not try to speed things along by adding fertilizer. Most peppers are picked too early; however, picking fruit periodically will encourage more flowers and more fruit if the growing season is sufficiently long. Ripe peppers are nutritious and contain large amounts of vitamins A and C.