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The Plant Lady: How to grow a peck of perfect peppers in California’s dry heat

How to make Caribbean-style habanero hot sauce

Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness demonstrates his recipe for Mango Habanero Hot Sauce.
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Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness demonstrates his recipe for Mango Habanero Hot Sauce.

In salsa, stuffed, grilled. The number of ways to prepare and eat peppers are innumerable. Peppers are a staple crop for many gardeners. Although relatively easy to grow, there are a few tips and tricks that will have your peppers producing right up until the first frost.

Peppers like it hot, requiring a minimum of 6 hours of full sun per day, and night temperatures no cooler than 55 degrees. Many people make the mistake of planting peppers at the same time as tomatoes, which tolerate slightly lower night temps. Peppers will show their dislike with stunted growth and weak root development. This poor growth may last the full extent of the season. Make sure to plant no earlier than mid-May to evade dips in temperatures.

Well-draining soil is also key. In-ground beds (especially those with clay) should be amended with compost before planting. If planting in raised beds or containers, a potting soil with pumice or red lava rock is recommended.

Hot Peppers

Hot peppers are ranked on the Scoville scale which measures the capsaicin in each variety. Many people want to put their taste buds to the test (or abuse) and grow the hottest pepper possible. However, I hear from a lot of gardeners who are dissatisfied with the production output of their hot peppers. Their ghost peppers, Carolina reapers, scorpion and other spicy varieties fail to produce despite meeting all the growing conditions. Why? Peppers are perennial plants in their native South America, meaning they live year to year.

As with many perennial plants, in the first year resources and energy is put into developing a healthy root system and abundant photosynthetic material (leaves and stems). For this reason, hot peppers should be grown as perennial plants. The reason hot peppers need more time isn’t quite understood. This means, however, in cold locales, protecting them from frost is a must. The easiest way to do so is by growing in a pot – a 5- to 10-gallon container is an ideal size. In late fall, cut the pepper down to 8 to 12 inches and either bring the plant inside the house or place it against an outside wall. Cover with a cotton sheet or frost blanket when frost is forecast. This growing technique can be utilized with all peppers.

Fruit-Set

Pepper flowers are considered “perfect,” being comprised of both female (pistil) and male (stamen) parts. They are capable of self-pollinating, meaning pollen from the male anther needs to come in contact with the female stigma on the same flower for a fruit to develop. If you notice a lack of fruit set on your peppers you can hand pollinate. Use a small artist’s paintbrush, cotton swab, or soldering flux brush and move the pollen from the stamens onto the stigma in the very center of the flower.

Various species of bees are pollinators for peppers. To encourage bees in your garden, it is a good idea to plant bee loving flowers such as cosmos, lavender, sunflower and thyme, just to name a few.

Sunburn

Yes, peppers need full sun all day long to be productive and healthy. Having said that, individual peppers can burn if exposed to direct sun. Sunburn shows up as a tan leathery blotch in the center of a pepper. This is usually more pronounced on bell peppers due to their large surface area. An umbrella or shade structure placed temporarily above the plants will help. Alternatively, gently tuck the peppers amongst the foliage to shade.

Blossom End Rot

As with tomatoes, peppers can also get blossom end rot. This shows up as a black/brown mushy area on the blossom end of the pepper. This is the plant’s inability to utilize calcium correctly. It is almost always not from the lack of calcium in the soil, but moreover due to uneven soil moisture and temperature. It generally will correct itself after the first fruit set. Mulching is a good way to keep soil temps even and constant. Don’t waste your money on calcium sprays. Calcium cannot be absorbed by the fruit skin and the small amount absorbed through the leaves does not translocate to the fruit. Remember this is purely aesthetic. Don’t throw an affected pepper away, simply cut off the end and enjoy.

Earwigs

Peppers are relatively carefree when it comes to pest infestation. Earwigs are the biggest threat. Symptoms range from small holes in the center of the leaves to slight shredding of leaves. If a plant is healthy and has abundant foliage, I would leave it be.

If you notice a good amount of leaves affected, then a few steps can be taken to protect the plant. One is to take a small section of moist newspaper, roll it up and place overnight on the soil under the plant. Earwigs will congregate in this dark, moist spot. Check in the early morning to monitor for earwigs or to use as a method to eradicate them. Diatomaceous earth is a good organic control. DE is fossilized diatoms (silica) that cause damage to the exterior of most insects when crawled across. Be careful to avoid getting on flowers, as it is harmful to any insect, including pollinators and beneficials.

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