Peppers are finicky plants. When the weather is too hot (above 90° F) or cold (below 55° F), they can drop their blossoms and not yield many fruits. If the soil fertility is off, they may produce lots of leaves but few flowers. Then there are the insects and diseases that can attack them. Even though peppers can be fickle, with a little knowledge you can produce a ton of sweet and hot peppers. Here are some guidelines to get the best pepper crop ever.
It's important that soil for growing peppers has a balance of nitrogen, phosphorus,and potassium. Compost gives them a good start to the season, but if the leaves are yellowing during the growing season, they may need more nitrogen. Try adding some fish emulsion or a high-nitrogen fertilizer. If you have too many leaves but no fruit, try cutting back on your nitrogen fertilizer and adding a phosphorus- and potassium-rich fertilizer.
If your plants are growing great, side-dressing them with an all-purpose, balanced fertilizer during the growing season is still a good idea to keep them producing.
To side-dress, dig a trench around the drip line of the plant about 1 inch deep and 3 to 4 inches away from the stem. Put a handful of compost or 2 to 3 tablespoons of a balanced fertilizer in a band in the trench. Cover the fertilizer with soil. If the plants are in rows, dig a shallow trench by hand or with a fertilizer applicator 1 to 3 inches deep along either side of the row at the drip line of the plants. Sprinkle a band of balanced fertilizer in the trench using about 1/2 cup per 10 feet of row, or spread a layer of compost about 1 inch deep along the length of the row. Cover with soil. Whether you use the circular-trench or row-trench method, don't sprinkle any fertilizer on the plants as it will burn the leaves. Water the soil to send the fertilizer down to the roots.
Some pepper disorders look like disease but are actually caused by nutritional imbalances. Blossom end rot appears as a black, sunken area on the base of a fruit. It's caused by a nutrient deficiency. Fluctuations in soil moisture can make roots unable to take up adequate calcium, and the cells at the fruit's growing tip die. To avoid blossom end rot, maintain soil pH between 6.0 and 6.8, and maintain adequate, regular moisture by improving soil, spreading mulch, and watering deeply and evenly when needed.
While aphids, flea beetles, and cutworms attack the foliage early in the season, by midsummer insect damage shows up on the fruits. Pepper maggot adults are bright yellow flies with brown bands on each wing. They lay eggs in the developing pepper fruits. The young maggots feed from the inside out, causing considerable damage. To control this pest, destroy weeds such as horse nettle, which are alternative hosts for the maggots. Hang yellow sticky traps 4 feet above the pepper plants to check for maggot fly activity. If you catch a few flies, begin spraying with neem oil. Once the maggots are inside the fruit, there's little you can do but pick and destroy infested peppers. Pepper varieties with thin walls, such as cayenne, jalapeno, banana peppers, are not as attractive to the adult flies.
Pepper weevils are a common insect in many areas. These tiny, black-snouted beetles are only 1/8 inch long. Although small, they can cause a great deal of damage. Adult weevils migrate from the south in spring. They feed on pepper foliage and lay eggs on immature buds and pepper pods. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat through the buds and fruit, causing them to drop or be misshapen. There may be several generations in a year. To control pepper weevils, clean up and destroy dropped peppers and foliage and any crops in the same family near your plants where the weevils may hide. Pepper varieties that produce large numbers of small fruit, such as 'Red Cherry', are less likely to have all their fruits infected.
Tomato fruit worms (a.k.a., corn earworms) love peppers as well as tomatoes and sweet corn. This 2-inch-long, yellowish green or brown pest has light and dark stripes along its length. It bores into the pods and fruit. To control tomato fruit worms, cover the plants with floating row covers to prevent adults from laying eggs, handpick the worms, or spray with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) as soon as you notice them or the small holes they bore into the fruit.
There are many diseases that can attack peppers, but mosaic viruses and wilt diseases are the most deadly. Wilts are caused by various fungi in the soil. Symptoms include wilting leaves and plants, and small, poor quality fruits. Eventually the plants die. The fungi live in the soil or on crop residues. The best controls are to rotate crops, add compost to increase the soil organic matter content, and improve water drainage.
Mosiac virus symptoms include yellow mottling of leaves. They leaves also become curved and distorted, the plant stunted, and fruits yellowed or wrinkled with dark spots that are small and bumpy. Viral diseases can survive on crop refuse, and gardeners can also transfer it from infected areas as they move among plants.
To control mosaic virus, destroy infected plants and crop refuse, wash hands with soap and water before handling plants, and grow resistant varieties, such as 'Blushing Beauty', 'Spanish Spice', and 'Garden Salsa'. Aphid insects also transmit the cucumber mosaic virus with their feeding. Control aphids with sprays of hot pepper wax.
Despite all the possible pest problems, chances are if your soil is healthy and you've taken care of your peppers, you'll get a good harvest. Here's how to pick your maturing peppers. You can start harvesting peppers when they're as small as golf balls, but for best flavor, let them mature to full size. Most peppers, except for a few varieties like 'Banana', are green when young. Peppers may turn a variety of colors as they mature, such as yellow, orange, red, and chocolate, depending on the variety. Letting peppers mature to these colors takes longer, but the fruit tends to be sweeter than when picked at the green stage. However, letting the peppers mature to this colorful stage will delay the formation of new peppers on the plant. Therefore, it's best to let peppers turn color later in the season since it's too late for young fruits to grow.
You can have an almost continuous harvest from your pepper plants by cutting often, as this encourages the plant to keep blossoming. Harvest fruit by cutting through the stem with a sharp knife. In the south, pepper plants can be cut back after the first big harvest to encourage another crop. If your season is long enough, cut back the plant to a few inches above the soil surface, and it will grow back and give you a second, large harvest.
For more information on taking care of your pepper patch, go to http://www.willhiteseed.com/food.php.
Question of the Week
Mexican Bean Beetles
Q. How do I control Mexican bean beetles using organic gardening methods?
Mexican bean beetles are best controlled early in the season by handpicking and destroying the copper-colored, ladybug-like adults before they lay eggs. The adult beetles have 16 black spots on their wings versus ladybugs (a beneficial insect), which have 19 spots. If you miss the adults, crush the clusters of yellow eggs on the undersides of bean leaves. If you miss some eggs and notice the yellow, spiney, soft-bodied larvae munching on the leaves, spray with a pyrethrum botanical insecticide.
To prevent -- or at least minimize -- next year's attacks, clean up the garden completely at the end of the season. Remove all plant waste and mulching materials and leave the ground bare for a couple of weeks to allow birds to dine on any adult beetles.