When planning your pepper garden, you must first determine what you want to do with your chile harvest. Would you prefer big sweet bells for stuffing and salads? Do want to make hot sauce for friends and foes? Do you want to make ristras, vinegars and oils for gifts? Dry, pickle and/or freeze them for the winter? Or do you want to place ornamentals throughout your flower garden? Plan your crop accordingly. Each variety will need a required amount of space in your garden to fulfill the needs of your objective. Different varieties will have different growth habits, ranging from dwarf shrubs-like plants, tall erect plants to wild branching bushes. If you are new to chile gardening, be open to some experimentation. You will soon know what works best for you and what varieties suit your fancy.
Things To Know Before You Grow: Peppers are a warm weather crop, requiring a long growing season. Temperature is the single most important factor when planning your pepper garden. Chiles are a lot like us, they do best when the temperatures are in the upper 70's to lower 80's. The toughest problem in our area is the high summer temperatures. When temperatures get consistently into the 90's fruit set will be reduced, and pod drop occurs. Same goes for the evening temperature - pod set is reduced when the evenings are too warm (above 80-85). To help avoid this, plan your garden so that they will receive shade in the afternoon (after 2 - 3:00PM). Consider planting near a "nurse tree" that will shade the plot in the late after noon. A "mist" system can be somewhat beneficial for the summer. There is also evidence that spraying blooms with hormones such as "Bloom-Set" can also help. One more important recommendation to combat our summer heat is GOOD AIR CIRCULATION.
Because chiles are actually perennials, they often overwinter well in our area. This is not to say that they will survive an Arctic Blast, but with a little protection they will survive a light freeze or a little frost as long as the temperatures rise during the day. They will lose their leaves and look bad. When spring comes and all danger of frost has gone you can prune them to promote new growth. If you really wish to overwinter your chiles, consider container gardening, especially if you a bright sunny location indoors. Do not place the plants in the draft of the heater vent. If your chiles are in containers, you can always move them in and out of the garage as temperatures vary.
Starting From Seed: Because varieties are limited (but becoming more widely available) in the form of plants, it is sometimes necessary to start from seed if you desire to grow chiles of the "exotic" nature. There are plenty of reliable sources of seed, many offering extensive information and tips. Diligence is key for successful seed germination and seedling survival. Note that chile seed is sometimes slow to germinate, with the main factors being variety and soil temperature. Don't give up; some varieties may take up to two months for some varieties (examples: tepin, habanero, scotch bonnet) to sprout if temperature is less than 85 degrees. Seed from a reliable source should give an 80-85% germination rate with proper propagation management.
To get a jump on production, start your seed early indoors. In our area, late January - mid February. This is a good idea so that you can beat our summer heat and reap a good harvest. Follow these simple steps:
• You will have to first have a warm bright location. A windowsill will not be warm enough (unless you have insulated windows). Avoid the draft of heater vents. Ultimately, you need a shelve or shelves that you can suspend fluorescent shop lights from. For warmth, you can purchase growers heat pads or cable to run in the soil. Many place their trays on top of the refrigerator. Heating pads from Wal-Mart or old waterbed heating pads will work. You will find what will work be for you for optimum seed starting conditions.
• Prepare a planting mix of 1 part peat-based potting soil and 1 part perlite. It is very important that the soil is sterile. Use previously unopened bags of soil. Soil can be further sterilized by running boiling water through it (allow to drain well and add some peat) or by microwaving or baking in the over for a short period of time
• For containers, you can use plastic mouthwash cups, Styrofoam egg cartons, domed planting trays available at Wal-Mart or other garden centers or anything similar to the above. Punch holes in the bottom of the containers. You will then need a drain tray of some nature to keep water from flowing out everywhere. Fill containers with soil mix and do not compact.
• For added insurance, soak seeds in a mixture of 3 teaspoons bleach to 1 quart of warm water for 15 - 25 minutes. Dab out any "floaters" - these are not good. Then rinse for 5 - 10 minutes in cold running water. This will kill most seed born diseases and help soften the seed hull for better germination. Layer on paper towels for easier handling.
• Moisten (not soak) soil with warm water. Place 2 - 3 seeds in each container. Label if you are starting more than one variety. It will be extremely difficult to identify later, especially if growing similar pods. Cover with dome or use plastic wrap or split 2-liter bottles (all clear).
• Initially, you will need about 16 hours of light. Once the seeds have germinated, reduce to about 10 - 12 hours a day. Be sure the seedlings have a gentle air circulation - not a draft.
• Soil temperature should be in the range of 75 - 90 degrees, with 85 degrees the optimum.
• First true leaves should appear several days after germination. You can them lightly wet soil and leaves with a half strength solution mix of Miracle Grow, Peters or Schultz. If you prefer to stay organic, use a dilute solution of Fish Emulsion.
• Leave the seedlings in the little containers until their second set of leaves appear. They can remain in the small container until roots appear from the bottom. It is now time to transplant to slightly larger containers such as the 4" plastic pots bedding plants come in or Jiffy Pots. Soil temperature should be at least 70 - 75 degrees. Be careful with the tiny rootballs. Leave indoor until our temperature begin to rise outdoors. Beware of chilly nights and winds. It is now time to begin hardening off. This is the process of tempering the seedlings to the facts of nature. You will want to set them out for a few hours a day, bring them in or setting out in the garage at night until temperature warm. Our spring rains and winds can be brutal on the seedlings. Direct sunlight can burn the gentle seedlings. Use you judgment - treat them as if they were children.
• You can begin warming the garden soil by doing the following. Prepare your garden area where you plan to place the seedlings. Then cover with a clear plastic. Sunlight will reach the soil and the plastic will trap the heat.
• After the soil warms, you can now plant your seedlings. In case of severe weather, prepare some mini greenhouses by cutting the bottoms off of 2-liter plastic bottles or gallon milk jugs. Place over the newly planted seedlings when the forecast looks rough. To help develop healthy root systems, drop 2 - 3 matching in their planting hole. The additional phosphorus will contribute to establishing the root systems.
With diligence, patience and a little hard work, your chile garden will now be set and you will be harvesting soon. Just remember, chiles do not like cold feet!
Direct Sowing: If you don't have the patience for the above procedures, you can direct sow your chile seeds. You will have to wait until the soil warms to 70 - 75 degrees. Prepare soil prior so that it can sit undisturbed until you set your seeds. Set your seeds, leaving plenty of room for future growth, at least 12 inches for most varieties. It would be a good idea to have the mini greenhouses ready for direct sowing.
Container Gardening: Most chile varieties will grow great in containers. Clay pots, especially the un-tapered "azalea" style, work well. If cosmetics are not a factor, the 3 - 5 gallon plastic pots (the ones your plants come in from the garden center) work really well. These pots offer excellent drainage. Avoid decorative or ceramic pots, these pots do allow moisture to escape sufficiently from the root zone, increasing the vulnerability of the plant to fungal disease. If using clay pots, fill bottom about 2" of pebbles or lava rock. The key is good drainage. In addition to overwintering, container gardening allows you to easily move your plants to a shaded area should the summer sun and heat become too intense.
Soil Mix For Containers & Garden: Whether you plan to grow your chiles in the garden or in containers, GOOD DRAINAGE IS MOST IMPORTANT. Because of the heavy rains and deep clay soil in our area, is highly recommended to plant you chiles in a raised bed. A light medium containing organic material such as compost, composted manure, peat moss in addition to the soil is excellent. Add bone meal and blood meal for nutrition. They like a neutral of soil with a pH of 6.5 - 7.
Feeding Your Chiles: Chile plants don't have any special needs when it comes to their food. What you use will depend on your preferences. Chiles do like organic food, namely seaweed/fish emulsion. Many growers prefer this to the alternative plant food. Depending on the schedule set to water (if you use water-soluble food), feed every 2-3 weeks. Slow-release fertilizers are great, but consider the water-soluble method because it will give reason to enjoy the garden. A good vegetable food should suffice BUT CAUTION TO NITROGEN once established in the garden. You may have 6-foot plant, but may find the plant will return to the vegetative state (growth) and abort flowers and small pods. In general, a balanced fertilizer of 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 is sufficient, BUT WATCH THE NITROGEN. Fish emulsion or seaweed emulsion are very highly recommended by this chile grower. Misting leaves with a mixture of approximately 1-2 tablespoons of Epsom salts to a quart of water increases the available magnesium, thus aiding in blossom set and green leafs. Evidence shows applying the Epsom salt mixture as a topical, rather than soil amendment, produces best results.
Water Management: Too much or too little water will cause stress to a chile plant, resulting in blossom and pod drop, as well as ceasing of production. 2 - 3 inches a week should to be sufficient. Water deep and on a consistent schedule. Check the soil about the roots to determine the schedule that is needed during the season. Requirements will change with the heat and rain or lack of. Chiles do like a moist but not wet soil. A cool mist in the heat of summer is refreshing to the chile plants.