Monday, May 6, 2013

Pepper Culture


My pepper and tomato starts are looking great this year after last year’s disaster using a coir and perlite planting medium. After two disappointing years trying to grow peppers in my raised bed garden, it’s a new year and I am more optimistic than ever. Today I potted-up the tomatoes and peppers from their 2 inch soil blocks (made from Johnny’s 512 Mix) to 4 inch pots or cups. I used McEnroe’s organic potting soil, a blend of compost, peat moss and natural fertilizers. I also plan to make the following changes to my cultural practices for peppers:

  • Varieties – I give up on bell peppers and plan to devote my limited space to smaller varieties that can hopefully produce ripe fruit in our shorter growing season. I also selected some varieties developed to ripen early for northern gardens. This year the list includes Padron, Lipstick, Red Cherry, Jimmy Nardello, Tiburon Ancho, Aconcagua and the usual JalapeƱo and Thai chilies.
  • Transplants – Of course you always want to set out healthy, vigorous plants. That’s why I buy a lot of my plants from the local garden centers. I can select only the best looking plants, and if they don’t look good I won’t buy them. But that is assuming you can find the varieties you want to grow, which is not always the case. So I start some seeds every year and hope I get robust plants. I think vigorous plants are particularly important for peppers, which tend to grow slowly and are very picky about their environment. They grow so slowly here that there really is no time to recover from setbacks. So I will be very choosy about what goes in my limited space.
  • Timing – I used to plant my peppers at the same time as the toms, which is usually the last week of May, give or take depending on weather. This year I will be planting the peppers later, 2-3 weeks after the toms, making sure the soil temp is a reliable 65 F/18 C or better and daytime temps are reliably at least 70 F/21 C. Peppers planted in cold soil will be stunted and slow to grow so planting early is actually of no benefit.
  • Fertilizer – What really surprised me and got me thinking was the pepper culture instructions in the Territorial Seed catalog. Conventional wisdom is to avoid excess fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, which might cause lush foliage growth at the expense of fruit. The Territorial catalog advises the opposite. When setting out the plants, they recommend stirring a half cup of nitrogen fertilizer (blood meal, fish bone meal or composted chicken manure) into the planting hole. The purpose is to encourage rapid vegetative growth the first six weeks so the plant has the “bones” to support a large fruit set. It makes sense to me. I can affirm from my experience the last few years that puny little pepper plants do not produce a lot of (or any) fruit. When the plants start to blossom, they recommend top dressing with another half cup of general purpose fertilizer.

I plan to follow the above guide lines this year since I have nothing to lose. Most of it is common sense, but using the dose of nitrogen fertilizer is different. Anyone have experience doing this?


  1. Thanks for sharing your pepper growing tips — we're trying them for the first time this season with shishito. We're especially interested in seeing how these do since no one at the local farmers' markets seem to be growing them — they seem a less heat roulette version of the padrone.

    1. I saw Shisito in the catalogs and thought it looked like a Padron substitute. I'll be following your experience with them with interest.


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