Peppers demand pampering
When is the best time to plant peppers in the garden? The answer rests on nighttime temperatures. Peppers demand overnight temperatures that are consistently 55°F or warmer. Anything less, peppers will suffer.
That means planting peppers in the Sonoma Valley is still several weeks away – not until the end of May at the earliest, probably in early June.
If you want to start peppers in the garden sooner, do this: place a small tomato cage around your pepper transplant and then wrap clear plastic around the cage to create a mini-greenhouse. Nighttime temperatures in your mini-greenhouse will be 5 degrees warmer than the outdoor temperature.
Remember, peppers (and eggplants) are less forgiving than tomatoes. Peppers demand pampering.
Here are some more pepper growing tips:
- Peppers prefer deep, aged-compost-rich soil. If your soil is heavy with clay, grow peppers in a raised bed, adding loam and sand.
- If you plant peppers in your native soil, add at least two inches of aged compost across the planting bed and sprinkle 5-10-10 organic fertilizer across the bed as well; then turn the soil to at least 18-inches deep. (Soil that is too rich with nitrogen will produce plants with luscious foliage but few flowers and fruit.
- Peppers should be closely spaced. The leaves of mature pepper plants should touch each other. Set bell peppers 18 inches apart and hot peppers 12 inches apart.
- Feed peppers at transplant time. Dig a hole about 6 inches deep, add a 2-inch layer of aged compost and a handful of 5-10-10 organic fertilizer – mix this well at the bottom of the hole. Then set the plant in the hole.
- Keep the soil evenly moist, not too wet, not too dry. The critical time for watering is from flowering through harvest. Water stress can cause buds and blossoms to drop (so can cold temperatures).
- Once soil and nighttime temperatures have warmed and summer heat comes, mulch around pepper plants with a finely-shredded organic mulch such as a mixture of grass clippings and straw. Mulch will retain soil moisture.
- When blossoming starts, side-dress plants with a sprinkling of 5-10-10 organic fertilizer and a half-handful of bone meal. Carefully turn the fertilizer into the soil. Repeat this feeding when fruits are about 1-inch long.
- Peppers that produce a lot of flowers but few fruits need a shot of magnesium. Spray your plants with a solution of Epsom salts when blossoming begins. Mix 2 teaspoons of Epsom salts in a quart of warm water and spray it on the leaves and blossoms; repeat every two weeks.
- Stake or cage peppers heavy with fruit (it’s easier to set the cage or stake at planting time). Peppers have brittle stems and branches.
- Temperatures greater than 90°F can cause buds and blossoms to drop, particularly when the air is dry. Put shade cloth frames in place to protect peppers, or plant on the north side of taller plants such as tomatoes or corn.
- Peppers can be attacked by aphids, pepper maggots, pepper weevils, tomato hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, leaf miners, flea beetles, and corn borers. Control these pest insects with insecticides like Bt for the caterpillars and pyrethrum for the others. Hot pepper spray will also repel these pests: combine a handful of hot peppers, several cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of non-detergent soap, and three cups of luke warm water to make the spray.
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.