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Sweet Pepper Woes

Sweet Pepper Woes

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Red, orange, yellow, even chocolate brown: whatever the color, crunchy, Vitamin C-laden sweet peppers are a highlight of the summer vegetable garden. Even after years growing them, however, I find sweet peppers challenging. Whether started from seed or transplants, I rarely had a year where I got more than a couple of bells. It didn’t seem to matter which variety I chose, or whether plants were grown in the ground or containers. The overall payoff was underwhelming.

So I skipped peppers this summer, deciding instead to spend time figuring out what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it before taking another swing at growing them next year. I looked at the variables and narrowed down my mistakes.

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Was it the variety?

The large bell pepper varieties found at the supermarket need about 90 days from transplant to grow and mature. In a colder climate with a shorter growing season, these peppers won’t have enough time to put out a good crop. Early on I made the classic rookie mistake: falling for a pretty pepper photo before checking the days to harvest on the seed packet, then wondering in September where the harvest was.

There are varieties that are bred for shorter days: Sweet Chocolate Bell (57 days), King of the North (68 days), Corno di Toro (75 days). Generally, any pepper that yields in less than 80 days from transplant is a good bet where daylight hours start getting noticeably shorter by early September. But adjust expectations: faster growth means some varieties won’t achieve the girth of those supermarket chunkers.

Was it the climate?

Peppers need long, warm days with night temps above 60 degrees F or they will sit there doing nothing, which is why in my Zone 6 climate there’s no point planting them until two weeks after May 31, the last frost date. That doesn’t leave a lot of growing time, which circles back to choosing varieties that mature sooner.

Was it the site?

Sweet peppers need lots and lots of sun, the more the better. Give them less than eight hours a day, and they’ll disappoint. I tried growing peppers in containers on my deck, and even with moving them to follow the sun, it wasn’t enough.

Pepper stems are brittle, especially prone to breaking when loaded with fruit, which I found out one year, after planting them in one of the windier spots in my garden. Lesson learned. Next year, I staked them.

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Was it the soil?

Sweet peppers want soil that is warm, rich and well drained, and deep enough to grow substantial roots. This one I’m almost embarrassed to admit: after the containers were a bust I built a raised bed garden on my sunny driveway. But I didn’t add enough soil, at least 14 inches, to provide the roots the running room peppers need. They started strong but petered out once their roots met the asphalt.

Also, to keep diseases down, peppers shouldn’t be planted in soil that recently held other nightshade crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, or potatoes.

Or was it just me?

Perhaps the most boneheaded pepper malfunction was not fertilizing enough. Whether in containers or in the ground, tasty peppers require lots of nutrients. It helps to mix some compost into the soil at planting. Available nitrogen (N) when pepper plants are small helps leaf production, but too much later on means lots of leaves and no peppers. Right after the first fruit set, use a fertilizer that’s higher in phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) rather than nitrogen. Both are vital for the plant’s health and fruit quality and flavor.

Taking stock of successes is easy. Drilling down and looking hard at failures isn’t as fun, but it’s where the learning happens. King of the North, next year I’m coming for you.

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