Peppers don’t really want to grow in Maine. Our temperatures are too cool and our seasons too short for them to produce well without a lot of help.

For example, nobody recommends growing peppers from seed in the garden in Maine. Experienced local gardeners always say to plant your seeds indoors in late March when sometimes, like this year, there is still snow on the ground with more snow arriving on a fairly regular basis.

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My wife and I are buying seedlings from the Portland Farmers’ Market, so we didn’t have to start until mid-May, when it was still cold and soggy but the snow had finally melted.

But I have vowed, as I said in my season-opening column in late April, to grow a lot of peppers this year – enough to cut up and keep in the freezer for at least 12 months.

The first step has been completed. We purchased some pepper seedlings – Cubanelle and Sweet Bell – and put them in the garden under a miniature greenhouse in mid-May. They seem to be doing well so far, although I admit it was a gamble putting them out that early.

Why did I pick those varieties? Well, it’s a bit complicated. My wife, Nancy, was selecting flowering annuals at Snell’s Family Farm, while I was looking at the Meadowwood Farm stand next door, and the descriptions suited my needs.

Sweet Bell is a bell pepper, similar to Ace. I should have purchased California Wonder, but not being near California, the name turned me off.

Despite its name, research tells me California Wonder is suited for cool, northern gardens and produces green peppers in 55 days and red ones in 70, similar to the more popular Ace. It is supposed to be a heavy producer, with peppers that are good for roasting, grilling and eating raw. For the second planting, I reconsidered and looked for California Wonder – but had no luck finding it.

Cubanelle is another sweet pepper – we don’t like hot peppers, sorry to say. It grows about 5 inches long in a tapered shape; it’s slender, about an inch wide at the top narrows to a point at the bottom. Cubanelles produced a bumper crop for us several years ago, and I hope they will again.

I began preparing the soil last August when I planted oats as a winter cover crop in a section of the garden where we had grown peas earlier in the season. At the same time, I put down some leaf mold that had been packed in bins in the fall of 2017 and was now nicely aged. We also spread some lime, to counteract the acidity of the mostly oak leaves.

Not to sound like an advertisement, but for fertilizer we use Pro-Gro 5-3-4, made by North Country Organics in Vermont. We use it on everything – our flower beds, vegetable gardens and lawn – and have no complaints. It’s as local as we can find, OMRI-certified and releases its nutrients slowly, so I will likely add fertilizer only one other time during the growing season.

The seedlings were placed 18 inches apart, to give them plenty of space and no competition.

The second part of the experiment came two weeks later on the traditional Memorial Day starting time for warm-weather plants. I planted a second batch of peppers, which will be grown without protection.

Now you, dear readers, may be asking, why am I writing this column, scheduled to appear on June 2, when I will have already finished planting my peppers by then? Many cooperative extension educators and other experts say that the first-time-you-can-plant date is really meant for the mental health of the gardener, not the physical health of the plants. Gardeners just want to get outside to do something.

Planting warm-weather plants directly outside later – in mid-June – means happier plants that will grow better. This is true for tomatoes and peppers, and even more so for squash, pumpkins and cucumbers. I’m definitely waiting with our squashes this year, and if I still have garden space I’ll try it with a third planting of peppers, as well.

Part of the experiment will be to compare the batches of peppers to find out whether planting early under cover provides any benefit. I haven’t used the miniature greenhouses – called a plastic row cover and made with 50-foot-long sheets of clear plastic placed over metal hoops – for several years, and this will be the first time I’ll be able to do a side-by-side comparison.

Pepper plants usually won’t grow more than 18 inches tall, but I stake them anyway because they can get knocked over on windy days.

Because this is going to be a scientific experiment, I plan to be much more careful about weeding than I normally am. And – Nancy will be finding this out only when she reads the column – if some of her precious poppies, which we let self-seed in the vegetable garden, sprout too closely to my precious peppers, the poppies are going to disappear.

Toward the end of the season, I’ll have to make a choice. Do we want green peppers or red peppers? We like both, but prefer red peppers for grilling and salads. Red peppers are sweeter but the green ones, which are not technically ripe, have more tang.

The problem is that as the peppers begin turning red, a lot of them also start to rot or get eaten by critters.

I plan to pick some of them when green, just to make sure we have some to freeze, but hope to let a lot of them ripen to a wonderfully sweet red.

Goals are great. Attempts at reaching them can sometimes be disappointing.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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