Planning for Pepper Perfection

By Susan Littlefield

We hope your pepper patch yielded much more than a peck of peppers this past season. But whether you grew fiery hot habaneros, sweet mild bells, or a combination; and whether your harvest was bountiful or not quite as big as you hoped for, now is a good time to begin planning for a big harvest from productive plants next summer. Here are some tips on ways to maximize your pepper production.

Starting Indoors from Seed

Peppers are easy to start early from seed as long as you keep their love of warmth and their need for lots of light in mind. Bottom heat, while not essential, will help to speed germination and make it more uniform. After germination, continue to keep seedlings relatively warm -- daytime temperatures of 75-80 degrees F are ideal. And water your plants with lukewarm, not cold water.

Pepper seedlings also need lots of light. While you may have success in a sunny, south-facing window, keeping your seedlings under grow lights hung just a few inches from the tops of plants will greatly improve the quality of your seedlings.

Start pepper seeds about 8-10 weeks before you plan to set them out in the garden, which should be at least a week or two after your last spring frost date. Don't be too eager to get transplants out in the garden. Planting them out when soil and weather are still chilly may permanently set them back. Instead, wait until it is nice and warm and weather conditions are settled before setting plants in the garden. Ideally the soil should be at least 65 degrees F and nights should stay reliably above 50 degrees F.

Gardeners in short season areas can use black plastic to pre-warm the soil. You can also give plants some extra protection by setting them in a cage enclosed in clear plastic or row cover fabric. Be sure to vent plants on warm days and remove the covers as the weather warms.

Tips for Productive Peppers

Protect Transplants with Cutworm Collars Cutworms are night-feeding caterpillars that would love nothing better than to chomp through the stems of your carefully nurtured transplants once you set them in the garden. Encircle each stem with collars fashioned from sections of toilet paper or paper towel tubes, old tuna cans, or cut-down yogurt containers, or wrap the base of stems in multiple layers of newspaper.

Support Plants Pepper plants, especially those of sweet peppers, may not reach the same heights as tomatoes, but they can get top-heavy when loaded with fruits, causing branches to break or the entire plant to topple over in the wind. Use cages or stakes to help keep plants upright.

Keep Soil Moisture Consistent Peppers won't tolerate soggy soil, but they do need consistent moisture in well-drained soil to do their best. Fluctuations in soil moisture can lead to problems like blossom end rot, which causes dark, leathery spots to form on the blossom end of the fruit.

Don't Overdo Nitrogen Peppers need a balanced supply of nutrients, but too much nitrogen will encourage lots of leaves and fewer fruits. Start out with soil that's been amended with compost; then sidedress plants lightly with a balanced fertilizer as they come into flower and again about three weeks later.

Keep on Picking! The more you harvest, the more peppers your plants will produce.

Watch Out for Hot Weather While temperatures that are too low will slow pepper growth down and may even stunt plants permanently, at the other extreme, peppers may drop their blossoms and stop producing fruits if the daytime temperatures remain above 90 degrees. Hot peppers tend to be more tolerant of high temperatures than sweet peppers. While you may simply need to wait until temperatures moderate for plants to begin bearing again, you can help by keeping the soil consistently moist. If you garden where summers are hot, use an organic mulch rather than plastic to help keep the soil cool. Covering plants with shade cloth stretched on supports may help, or try placing them in the garden where they'll get some afternoon shade in midsummer from taller plants nearby.

After Pepper Heat? Wait to Harvest Hot peppers will develop more heat as they turn to their mature color, so if five-alarm chili is your goal, let them ripen completely on the plant. You can pick them when they are green, but they will be more flavorful if you let them develop some color. The heat will vary with the variety of hot pepper (habaneros are hotter than jalapenos), as well as the weather and the stress the plants experience as the fruits mature. Hot weather produces hotter peppers. You can't do much about the weather, but you can refrain from fertilizing hot pepper plants as they set fruits and keep watering to a minimum as the peppers ripen for maximum heat.

After Vitamin C? Go for Red Sweet peppers can be harvested and enjoyed both green and at their mature color. But if you're interested in maximizing the vitamin C content of these veggies, let pepper fruits remain on the vine until they've turned red, orange, yellow, or whatever the mature color is for the variety you're growing.

Harvest with Care The stems of peppers are brittle, so the safest way to harvest is with scissors, rather than trying to pull peppers off by hand.

Preserve the Harvest To preserve hot peppers, freeze them whole in plastic freezer bags. The smaller hot peppers, or chilies, can be dried individually when mature or strung into ristras or long ropes of dried fruits for use through the winter. Remember to wear rubber or disposable gloves when working with hot peppers and don't touch your eyes or face until washing your hands well with soap and water.

Wash, dry, and seed sweet peppers; then slice or dice them as desired. Spread the cut pieces out on a cookie sheet and set them in the freezer for an hour or so until frozen. Place the frozen pieces in a freezer storage bag, pushing as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing. Then it will be easy to pour out the amount of peppers you need for cooking, reseal the bag, and put the remainder back in the freezer.

Question of the Month: Harvesting Collards

Q: I grew collards for the first time this season. What's the best way to harvest this crop?

A: Start harvesting the leaves of this hardy and nutritious green when they are no more than 10 inches long; larger, older leaves are likely to be tough. Begin picking leaves at the bottom of the plant, working your way up. Eventually you may have what looks almost like a miniature tree, with a bare "trunk" and a cluster of new leaves at the top. Light frost won't trouble collards; in fact the leaves will taste sweetest after they have been touched by frost.

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