Growing peppers and melons in the Sonoma Valley
For hot pepper lovers, it’s all about the heat. For pepper and melon growers in the Sonoma Valley – where summer days and nights can alternate between cool and warm and hot – it’s also about the heat, that is, temperature, and also watering, feeding, and patience.
Here are easy-to-follow tips to grow flavorful peppers and melons in the Sonoma Valley:
Temperature: Peppers and melons demand very warm temperatures. Don’t put peppers and melons starts in the garden until the soil temperature is approaching 70F. That’s usually about June 1 in the Sonoma Valley. Use black plastic to warm the soil in advance of planting or plant peppers in raised beds, which warm quickly in spring. You can take your soil temperature with a simple outdoor thermometer. Simply bury it in about six inches of soil for 15 minutes, then uncover it and read the soil temperature.
Peppers and melons grow best when night temperatures are between 60 and 70F and daytime temperatures average 75F. When very hot temperatures arrive in mid- to late-summer, don’t be surprised if your peppers take a break. When night temperatures top 70F, peppers can drop their flowers or fruit. Don’t pull them up; they will rest until the weather cools and then begin producing again. And protect peppers with shade cloth when temperatures get too hot (melons will be just fine).
Soil: Peppers and melons grow best in slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Add organic compost to the planting bed in advance of planting. Peppers and melons will grow in sandy or gravelly loam as well. Soil can affect pepper flavor; sweet peppers grow sweeter when the soil is sweet – that is, compost rich, not alkaline.
Dust the planting bed with a fine layer of Epsom salts before planting peppers and melons or add a half handful of Epsom salts to the bottom of each planting hole. Epsom salts contain magnesium which peppers and melons (and tomatoes) need for fruit development.
Plant peppers 20 inches apart, not closer. Give melons even more room if you can. This will give each plant ample room to develop which in turn will produce more fruit. The extra space will also allow for more even ripening of fruit.
Water: Keep the soil around peppers and melons evenly moist for best fruit development. (A note about melons: in a drought year, choose small melons. Any melon with the name “baby” in it is a give-away that it will require less water to fruit and be flavorful.)
Young peppers and melons putting down roots need at least two inches of water each week. Once peppers and melons flower and begin to fruit, give each plant an inch of water every week, a bit more than a half-gallon of water for each square foot of planting area. When fruits reach maturity – full size – but are still ripening they will need water only when the soil is dry.
Hot peppers can be made even hotter if you flood the roots just before harvest, as this stress causes plants to produce more heat.
Feeding: Feed peppers and melons after the first flowers appear for best fruit development. Feeding before flowering can prompt green growth, not fruit growth, so wait for flowering to feed. Place a side-dressing of aged compost around plants when the first flowers open, or feed plants with a liquid kelp meal mixture or compost tea. Feed them again three weeks later.
Flowering: Nip off the first flower buds that appear on peppers. This will allow plants to mature and direct their energy to strong roots and branch development before fruiting. A plant with strong roots and branches will bear more fruit and hold fruit until ripeness.
Pollination: Peppers and melons are pollinated by insects. Peppers easily cross-pollinate which can affect fruit development and flavor. Keep hot peppers and sweet peppers well separated – 900 feet between varieties is optimal, or stagger planting so that differing varieties are not flowering at the same time.
Ripening: Peppers, both sweet and hot, require at least 70 days from transplanting to maturity. Melons can require 70 to 100 days depending upon the variety. Once the fruit is full-size it can take another one to three or four weeks for fruit to ripen to full flavor. Let peppers and melons ripen on the plant for the very best flavor.
Peppers stay green until they reach their mature size. If left on the plant they will then ripen to a bright red, orange, or yellow depending upon the variety and they will gain in flavor becoming much sweeter or hotter depending upon the variety. For the very best flavor, allow each fruit to completely change colors before you pick it.
When melons reach full size and stems turn brown, they are ready for harvest. Leave melons on the vine until they are ripe. Ripe melons will slip easily off the stem; a half-ripe melon will require more pressure and may come off with half the stem attached. Ripe melons will have a sweet aroma at the stem end. Limit water for a week in advance of harvest to concentrate sweetness.
Steve Albert is the author of The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide available at Amazon.com. He teaches in the landscape design program at the U.C. Berkeley Extension. He lives in Oakmont.