Growing Sweet Lunchbox Peppers
“Lunchbox peppers" are miniature hybrid sweet peppers ( Capsicum annum) known for their fruit-like, sweet flavor, crisp texture and colorful appearance. They are harvested when fully ripened to a red, yellow or orange color. They mature at a size of 1 to 2 inches wide and 1 to 3 inches long. Their size and small number of seeds make them a portable, quick, healthy snack, thus the name “lunchbox” peppers.
The hardiness of lunchbox pepper plants, their size, strong stem and prolific
production makes them an excellent choice to grow during warm weather in any size
garden providing adequate soil depth and at any level of gardening experience.
- Lunchbox peppers aren’t really a pepper variety, but rather named for their mix of ripened fruit colors— red, yellow and orange
- Seeds can be bought in a mixture or separately by color, but they all maintain relatively the same flavor profile.
- Companion plants include parsley, beans, tomatoes and green onions.
- Starting plants in cooler weather or using stressed transplants can result in slow, early season growth.
- Pinching off early blooms can strengthen the pepper production.
- Rated with zero Scoville units means that lunchbox peppers do not have any heat to their taste.
- Order: Solanales
- Family: Solanaceae (Nightshade)
- Genus: Capsicum (Pepper)
- Species: Capsicum Annuum
- Binomial Name: Capsicum Annuum 'Lunchbox Pepper'
Due to their compact nature, these peppers can be grown in containers or in the garden. They are ideal for limited-space gardens. They will grow in all types of soils, but as with other peppers, they thrive in well-drained, fertile soils with a 6.5 to 7.0 pH and need plenty of phosphorus and calcium.
These peppers need a minimum of a 3 to 5 gallon container per plant as they are prolific producers. They can grow between 24 to 36 inches tall and get weighed down with fruits. Plant stems become semi-woody when mature and a support pole in a container or field might be a good addition to ensure stability of a fully developed plant.
Peppers need at least six hours of full sun, but eight to 10 hours would be best. Afternoon shade is beneficial during the hot, summer weather, where evening time temperatures can be above 75 F.
Seed Starting and Transplants
Start from seed indoors about eight weeks prior to planting outside, after night temperatures are above 50 F. They are very tender warm-season annual plants that need warm weather to grow and will be damaged by frost. They are native to hardiness zones 11 and 12. Soil temperature should be at 65 F before planting outdoors (typically mid-May in West Virginia). If planting a fall crop, plant peppers 12 to 16 weeks prior to the first expected frost (typically around the first two weeks of October in West Virginia).
Sow seed very shallow, about ¼ inch deep in a seed starting growing medium know as a germination mix or a soilless potting mix. Using soil from you garden can cause disease problems for tender seedlings. There are several mixtures available at lawn and garden stores and can even mix your own is your follow a sterilization process. For a summer garden in West Virginia, most growers will start pepper seedlings in late March as it takes about eight weeks to grow a healthy transplant that is ready for outdoors. Place no more than four seedling per inch in your seed start container.
If buying transplants, choose healthy plants. Transplants will vary from 4 inches to 6 inches in height. Leaves should be dark green and free of any spots or damage to lower the chance of diseases in your plants.
Plant only what you can use, plan to preserve or sell. Eight to 10 pepper plants tend to be enough for a family of four to enjoy throughout the growing season.
Make transplant holes in the soil about 3 to 4 inches deep and about 18 inches apart in a row. Rows should be spaced at least 3 feet apart to allow for good air circulation in a garden. The same concept applies to container spacing.
Before planting, water transplants well and fill the holes with water to ensure the new plants are well hydrated and easier to remove from the cell pack or transplant container. Soil around the roots of the transplant should be moved into the hole in the soil along with the plant to prevent root damage. Secure plants with soil around the hole to cover the root ball at the point the plant is level with the top of the soil. Water the plants again when finished planting.
Planting should occur during the evening or on a cloudy day to prevent drying out too quickly and wilting from the sun.
A complete water-soluble all-purpose or vegetable fertilizer at planting boost the growth of these peppers. Be sure to follow the label directions. Generally, for single plants, place about 2 teaspoons of a complete fertilizer like 10-10-10 around the planting area (1-foot-deep by 2-feet-wide) and work it in. For a row of plants, place about 2 pounds of fertilizer in a 100-foot linear row or 100-square-foot garden bed and be sure to incorporate it into the soil well.
Adequate water is essential for proper development. Peppers need a uniform soil moisture throughout the growing season. Moist, well-drained soil provides optimal conditions for peppers to develop a strong root system that supports the plant.
If the garden or container receives less than at least one inch of rainfall per week, a slow, deep watering is needed to ensure that roots continues to grow deeply as the foliage and size of the plant increase. Avoid wetting the leaves with water as that will make them more prone to disease in humid conditions. Water thoroughly to allow water to get below roots to avoid shallow root development and poor fruit quality. Plant leaves will wilt if the pepper doesn’t receive enough water and that can reduce yield and the quality of the peppers available for harvest.
Very hot, dry conditions can halt bloom production, cause blossom drop, small fruit, and blossom end rot. Water should be increased during periods of very hot temperatures. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation are excellent watering tools in garden beds, rows or multiple containers of pepper plants, as they provide that consistent level of water needed.
To check soil moisture, use your finger or a small trowel to dig in and examine the soil. If the first 2 to 4 inches of soil is dry, it is time to water. Peppers in sandy soils will require more frequent watering.
Never water plants during the heat of the day. Water during early mornings or late evenings when the sun is not out.
Care During Growth
Mulch plants with weed-free straw, herbicide-free grass clippings, or other organic materials three to four inches deep to prevent weeds, retain soil moisture and decrease the need to cultivate.
If not using mulch, hoe, rake, or till the soil lightly to kill weeds before they become a problem. Tilling too deeply will damage the pepper roots and impede growth. If any weeds are too close to the plants, pull them by hand.
Pepper plants are mostly self-fertile. Insects may be responsible for considerable crossing within and between species. So, saving seed can lead to unpredictable results.
To increase the yield and quality of your peppers, side dress them with about 2 tablespoons of fertilizer per plant when the first fruit is visible. Water it into the soil well, after placing it in a 6-inch circle around the base of the plant.
Pests, Diseases and Other Issues
Pests, diseases, and disorders possible for peppers grown in West Virginia are manageable. Good IPM (Integrated Pest Management) or cultural control practices, such as choosing appropriate varieties, crop family rotation, weed management, monitoring often for pests and diseases, and addressing problems when necessary, reduce problems and maintain plant vigor. If you start your own plants, start with clean seed. If you buy plants, examine them carefully and reject any that have spots on their leaves, wilting leaves, or appear pruned. Remove all plant debris at end of the growing season to limit problems the following year.
Many peppers have natural resistance to common diseases. A code printed on the seed packet or plant tag identifies the resistance. However, in warm weather diseases start easily, monitor plants closely.
Verticillium wilt is a disease that can cause yellowing and wilt. Early blight can infect peppers, although this is not common. Bacterial leaf spot is a common disease—choose resistant varieties when possible. It can be treated with neem oil, sulfur, or other fungicides.
Sulfur has fungicidal properties and helps control many diseases. Before using a pesticide, read the label and always follow cautions, warnings, and directions. Insecticides, nutrient control, watering and removing infected plants are ways to manage disease problems as well.
Aphids, flea beetles, hornworms, virus and sunscald are common issues for peppers. Cutworms chew stems at the soil line, leaving the severed tops uneaten. Tomato hornworms can chew holes in the fruit. For assistance in diagnosing unknown problems, contact your local WVU Extension office.
Several pesticides are approved for use on peppers. When using pesticides, observe the preharvest intervals put in place to ensure that there is no negative residual effect of pesticides.
Less harmful organic options should also be selected first, such as sulfur and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)-based insecticides. When using Bt products, it is important to apply them soon after egg hatch while the worms and/or caterpillars are no more than 1/4 inch long, or the application will not be very effective. Spinosad™ is an example of an organic pesticide, which only affects insects consuming the target plant. Therefore, it is safe for use around pollinators. On the other hand, carbaryl based Sevin™ is a non-selective synthetic insecticide.
Harvest and Storage
Peppers should be picked as they mature. This occurs around 60 to 70 days after planting depending on temperatures. The sooner mature fruit is picked, the greater the yields from each plant. Fruit should be firm and shiny, smooth skinned, and fully colored for best flavor and quality.
Mature peppers will separate easily from the plant. Sharp shears can also be used to harvest by clipping the stem of the fruit. As you continue to harvest, the plants will continue to produce flowers and set more fruit. Continue to pick fruits as they mature, harvesting at peak flavor and texture and enabling the plant to provide more energy to young developing fruits. If the weather turns cool, they will still set fruit up to a heavy frost, along the fruit color change is slower. Prior to the frost, harvest all fruits that are mature or colored slightly. Once picked, they won’t ripen further, but are fine to eat and will still have some sweetness.
Peppers will store for one to two weeks if held at 50 F to 55 F. Store peppers in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator or use other covered containers. Use them within three days after harvesting for peak freshness. They are sensitive to the cold, and their skins may become pitted after too long under refrigeration.
Lunchbox peppers are low in calories and high in nutrients. They are a good source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin E (I), vitamin B6, folate, some vitamin A, potassium, folic acid, and small amounts of other minerals. They're an incredibly versatile vegetable that comes in three distinct colors—red, orange, yellow.
They are good for heart and digestive health. They are rich in potassium, which helps heart health by lowering blood pressure and fights belly bloat by reducing water retention. The vitamins A and C, especially in the red peppers, with various carotenoids function as antioxidants and support eye and cardiovascular health. Yellow and orange bell peppers provide beta-carotene (an antioxidant form of vitamin A), vitamin C and potassium.
Since lunchbox peppers are in the nightshade family, it is important to note that some people have an intolerance for this plant family and even small amounts eaten can cause them digestive and other inflammatory symptoms.
Cooking and Preserving
Lunchbox peppers are tasty when eaten raw or cooked. Be sure to wash peppers thoroughly before eating. They can be eaten as a snack, stuffed with creamy sauces, herbs, meats, hummus or other combinations. They are used to add to salads and casseroles or used to decorate other food. Although the best way to eat a lunchbox pepper is raw or lightly sautéed, grilled, stir-fried, roasted or baked, there are also many ways to preserve your pepper harvest. They can be frozen, dried or canned.
Wash, core, and slice the bell peppers into halves or spears. Blanch them by boiling them for three minutes and then cooling them in ice water. Spread them on a baking sheet before placing them in the freezer. When they are completely frozen, move them to a plastic bag. The sealed bag can be stored in the freezer for up to a year. Add the date on the bag to ensure use before the year mark.
Prepare the peppers as you would for freezing, except blanch for four minutes. Drain and follow a tested recipe to dry using an oven or dehydrator. Always store dried foods inside sealed jars or bags in a cool, dry place. Dried bell peppers will keep for six to 12 months.
Wash, core, and slice the peppers into quarters. Remove the skins by blanching them to make the skin blister for easy peeling. For normal canning, use the pressure method for safety, as lunchbox peppers vary in acidity. For pickling, use the water bath method. Canned or pickled peppers will stay good for up to a year. For safety, follow only expert-tested recipes, such as those in the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.
Contact your local WVU Extension office for more detailed information about safely
preserving peppers, or visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Growing Peppers in West Virginia from WVU Extension https://extension.wvu.edu/% 20lawn-gardening-pests/ gardening/wv-garden-guide/growing-peppers-in-west-virginia
Growing Peppers in a Home Garden from University of Maryland Extension Service https://extension.umd.edu/resources/growing-peppers-home-garden
Easy Gardening: Peppers from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/asset-external/easy-gardening-peppers/
Tips For Eating More Fruits And Vegetables: Bell Peppers from University of Arizona Cooperative Extension https://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1924-2021.pdf
Lunchbox Peppers from Texas Real Food https://www.texasrealfood.com/promptuary/vegetables/peppers/lunchbox-peppers/
Author: Brandy Brabham, WVU Extension Agent – Roane County