The best part of gardening is enjoying the fruits of your labor. Eating a sun-warmed tomato. Nibbling on the peas that you're picking for dinner. Biting into a peach as it hangs from the tree.

Oops, I just drooled on the keyboard.

My favorite food, however, is none of the above. My favorite food is firm, red and juicy, and goes crunch at first bite.

What is it?

A sweet pepper, of course.

I love peppers. I take them to work and eat them like apples, after rubbing them on my shirt to work up a good shine. At lunch I'll polish off a pepper or two, munching merrily until only the lTC stems and seeds remain. I love the smell, the taste, the sound of scrunching peppers.

I usually eat lunch alone.

Another reason I like sweet peppers is that they are fun and easy to grow, although cool summers produce bizarre, misshapen fruits. I've grown peppers with arms, legs and noses, as well as some X-rated ones that I wouldn't allow in the house.

With their glossy foliage and decorative fruits, peppers are one of the few vegetables allowed in flower beds. Peppers will grow in tubs and window boxes, and even indoors, under artificial lights.

Peppers come in many colors, from generic green to yellow, orange, purple and chocolate. Red peppers, a great source of vitamin C, are simply green ones that are left on the plants to ripen further.

When purchasing pepper plants, look for strong stems and healthy, dark green leaves. Avoid the temptation to buy flowering plants, which rarely produce fruit. Transplant to the garden after all danger of frost has passed, when the ground is warm. Peppers abhor being left out in the cold, and have been known to brood about it all summer.

Peppers like lots of sun, moisture and fairly rich, neutral soil. Stake plants to keep the fragile branches from breaking on windy days. Every plant I've left unprotected has wound up limbless and looking like a stick.

Water daily during dry spells, or the plants will stop setting fruit. To avoid disease, rotate the patch regularly and never grow peppers in soil last used by tomatoes, potatoes or eggplants, their kin in the Nightshade family.

Peppers hail from Central America, where they've been harvested for 7,000 years. The Aztecs, Mayans and the Incas all cultivated chili peppers, and tinkered with them as well. These wild peppers grew upright, like candles on a Christmas tree. The Indians trained the fruit to grow downward, making it less visible to marauding birds.

Christopher Columbus named the fiery plant, thinking he'd found the source of peppercorns, then the world's most popular spice. Columbus was wrong, but the name stuck.

Peppermaniacs today can choose from more than 100 types of sweet peppers and 50 varieties of chili, or hot peppers. Just don't grow them side by side in the garden: The plants will cross-pollinate, affecting the taste of both fruits. (Hot and sweet pepper seedlings look very much alike, so label them carefully.)

Hot peppers are a gardener's dream plant: attractive as any ornamental, and virtually indestructible. Garden pests steer clear hot peppers, whose fruits may be ground up and sprayed onto other plants as an organic pesticide. It's particularly effective against aphids, who act like they've been Maced.

Hot peppers are a cinch to grow. They are more tolerant of poorer clay soils than sweet peppers. Nor do chilies demand as much moisture. In fact, droughts often make chili peppers hotter in taste.

Warm nights result in hotter peppers, as does allowing the fruit to ripen indefinitely. But a cool, wet summer is a salsa lover's nightmare. Hot peppers become pussycats. Cool weather has hosed down many a hot pepper plant.

Gardeners are reminded to wear rubber gloves while handling chilies. Generally, tiny peppers pack the hottest punch. The all-time scorcher is a 2-inch chili called habanero, which is 50 times hotter than the jalapeno, which is no slouch itself.

L This is one pepper I won't be caught nibbling at lunch time.

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