Some problems with peppers

Peppers (Capsicum annuum).

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The good news about peppers is that over the last several seasons I have made progress in identifying sweet and hot pepper varieties that are best for my taste and needs. The bad news is that I haven’t figured out the best methods for growing them. Maybe next year.

The problem is with space in the enclosed vegetable garden and has to do mainly with crop rotation. Tomatoes and peppers count the same in terms of crop rotation. My solution is to leave the tomatoes inside the vegetable garden fence in a 3-year crop rotation, and plant the pepper plants outside the vegetable garden in grow bags. The need to plant in grow bags is 2-fold. First, I’m not happy with the soil in the gardens when it comes to vegetables. I’m told it was the city dump before the house was built in the 1940’s. We dig up old bottles, old rusted metal objects, and crumbled cement from old foundations. At least the trash is from a pre-plastics era, but it’s not pretty. Second, pepper plants, particularly when small, need protection from Daisy, my yellow lab, and her dog friends. So, grow bags seem like a practical solution to planting peppers outside the fenced-in vegetable garden.

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Unfortunately, peppers in grow bags did not produce well this year. Here you can see some Havasu Santa Fe peppers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds prospering in their grow bags. They look good. We have enjoyed Havasu peppers in salads and salsa. Their warm heat and lovely pale yellow color make them an essential pepper in my garden every year so far as I’m concerned. The problem is that 2 plants in 2 grow bags have not produced enough peppers for dehydrating and freezing for winter use.

The same sad story can be told of the bell peppers, the frying peppers, the jalapeños, and the ancho/poblanos. On the other hand, the habaneros, the cheyenne chiles, and the pepperoncini peppers have produced enough for my needs, but that’s mostly because I don’t seem to need so many to last the winter.

I don’t want to give up the crop rotation for the tomatoes. In a small space, it’s important to keep vegetable crops healthy from year to year. So, I’m stubborn enough to decide that I have to make the grow bags work for the peppers. Otherwise, I have to enlarge the vegetable garden, which is a huge undertaking that I’d just as soon not do.

My solution to the pepper problem is fairly simple. If I’m going to ask pepper plants to produce over an extended period of time in a limited amount of soil, I have to amend the soil aggressively. Not only to start with the best soil for peppers, but to fertilize on a regular schedule, and to water, water, water.

As with tomatoes, peppers require abundant phosphorus and calcium to produce well. Possibly I didn’t pay enough attention to really good soil in the grow bags this year. A mixture of good top soil and compost, with the addition of rock phosphate and lime may give them the start they need. Followed by a regular schedule of fertilizing with a fish/seaweed emulsion fertilizer watered into the soil. This is my plan for both tomatoes and peppers next year. I’m thinking I will fertilize on the 1st and 15th of each month that peppers and tomatoes are in production.

I have acquired 3 sizes of grow bags over the years. Gardener’s Supply has them, but they keep getting fancier and more expensive each year. I think the grow-bag market is moving toward rooftop or patio or deck gardeners. Handles and built-in plant supports have been added. More colors to choose from. There are other online sources, but the quality varies. Glad I bought some good ones while they were still reasonably priced. My oldest ones must be 10 years old, and they have not deteriorated. The largest ones hold 5 gallons of soil. That’s a huge amount of quality soil, but this is not the right time and place to be economical and cut corners. I also have 3-gallon and 2-gallon grow bags. Easier and cheaper to fill with good soil, but perhaps they are too small to support good production.

Here’s a rundown of the varieties I’m becoming attached to and their performance in grow bags this year.

Intruder sweet bell peppers from Johnny’s, seen above and at the top of this post, are far and away my favorite sweet bell. I love their dark green color and thick walls. Flavor is everything a sweet bell should be. They maintain their good color and texture in salads, chunky salsa, or onion-pepper sautés. They were grown in the smaller grow bags this year, but I think they need the big 5-gallon grow bags. I’m planning on 4 or 5 Intruder plants next year, in 5-gallon grow bags, with abundant fertilizer and water.

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Carmen sweet Italian frying peppers from Johnny’s are my frying pepper choice for next year. I never have enough frying peppers. This year they are so scarce in my garden and so in demand in my kitchen they have not had a chance to turn red and achieve their full flavor potential. These particular Carmen frying peppers are on the kitchen counter right now, waiting to be made into hot sausage with peppers and onions for dinner tonight. Can’t wait. Next year, the same as with the Intruder sweet bells, more Carmen plants in 5-gallon bags with abundant fertilizer and water.

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Moving into the hot pepper category, Havasu Santa Fe peppers from Johnny’s have been a favorite of mine for several years. It started with the name, Havasu, which reminds me of good times hiking in the Grand Canyon, but I soon learned to love them for their pale yellow color and warm taste. Last year, I grew so many that I still have dehydrated Havasu peppers in the freezer. Yes, I freeze dehydrated stuff. Sounds redundant, I know. It’s a matter of pantry space and an over-abundance of caution. Works for me.

The Havasu pepper plants were grown in medium-sized 3-gallon grow bags this year. The fruit is smaller than it was last year. Unless I buy more pricey 5-gallon grow bags, Havasus need to be in the 3-gallon bags again next year. I’m hoping better soil and more frequent fertilizing/watering will increase size and production. So, next year, 4 or 5 Havasu plants in 3-gallon grow bags with rich soil and frequent fertilizer/water. With hopes that my grow-bag economy is well-considered.

Tiburon ancho/poblano peppers from Johnny’s have intrigued me for several years, but my plants never produce well. Johnny’s catalog promises abundant fruit. Not so with mine. I don’t know about anchos, since they are the dried version, but the few green poblanos my Tiburon plants have produced are intriguingly beautiful. Shiny dark color with thin but strong walls. I really want to have a successful season with these. My plan for Tiburon peppers is the same as for Havasus above. 3-gallon grow bags. Rich soil. Abundant fertilizer and water.

Finally, we are down to the hot peppers I figure can grow and produce nicely in the small 2-gallon grow bags, with rich soil and appropriate fertilizing/watering, of course.

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El Jefe jalapeños from Johnny’s. Last year I had almost too many of these, if such a thing is possible. This year there are not enough for freezing. Medium heat. Very thick walls. Good both green and red. Next year, plan for 3 or 4 El Jefe plants.

I should say a word here about cross pollination. In past years, I have had sweet peppers that were hot, and jalapeños that were startlingly sweet and mild. That’s not right. This year I planted the sweet bell and frying peppers in grow bags in a flower bed at the front of the gardens. The hot peppers were planted together in grow bags in a back wildflower area. Both areas get adequate sun. For this reason or for whatever reason, all the peppers seemed to be true to themselves this year. The jalapeños were medium hot and delicious as they should be.

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Pepperoncini peppers from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. Lidia talks about pepperoncini flakes. I wasn’t sure what they were. I saw pepperoncinis pickled in a jar in Trader Joe’s. Didn’t buy any, but at least I could see their shape and coloring. I grew 1 pepperoncini plant this year in a 2-gallon grow bag. It grew nicely and produced quite well. Next year I need 2 or 3 plants in 2-gallow grow bags. They are mild. A good addition to salads. In this photo, 3 red and 1 green pepperoncinis can be seen at center bottom. 3 red jalapeños are to their left. Sweet bells and Havasus are above. Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog says if pepperoncinis are picked green, they will lose their crunch. Oops.

Cheyenne cayenne chiles from Johnny’s are a favorite of mine. 1 plant in a 2-gallon grow bag produced what I needed. The plant did give up production after a few weeks, perhaps from lack of nutrients and/or water. 2 beautiful red cayennes can be seen at left in the photo, along with Intruder sweet bells, pale yellow Havasus, and 3 smallish green jalapeños.

Perhaps I should find more uses for cayenne chiles. I dream of drying them for flakes, and will try again this year. Otherwise, they are a good flavor and color addition to salsa. Maybe 2 plants next year with lots of TLC.

Finally, where would we be without habaneros for chili. Helios habaneros from Johnny’s. Very hot. Remember to wear gloves when handling them. If your fingers feel hot after touching habaneros, for heaven sake don’t rub your eyes. It’s painful. One little habanero plant in a 2-gallon grow bag is all I need. Mostly for chili through the winter. Once you’ve used habaneros to make a nice spicy hot winter chili, you’ll never go back. I seed the habernos, cut them into small pieces, and pack them in olive oil in small jars. And freeze them. Remember to leave the lids loose on the jars. I love just looking at beautiful orange habaneros.

Some final thoughts on pepper plans for next year. I hope I have enough of the right-sized grow bags. Will need to take a grow-bag inventory as they are put away this fall. 4 of the 5-gallon bags were used for pumpkins and winter squash this year. I may need them for peppers next year. Then what. I hate to think of buying more bags. So this is a puzzle to be worked out when there’s time for garden dreaming in January.

Watering grow bags can be tedious. Irrigation hoses don’t work. Too much water is lost between the bags. I use a soaker nozzle on a hose and move it from bag to bag. The grow bags are porous, so it’s easy to see when the soil is saturated, but frequent watering is essential. Dealing with this takes a certain mind set. It’s not tedious, l tell myself. It’s an opportunity to weed or harvest in the general vicinity of the pepper plants. Or better yet, it’s an opportunity to read or perhaps take photos. Just remember to provide a safe place for the book or camera when you move the hose from grow bag to grow bag. Perhaps working supplemental fertilizing into the watering routine would be a timesaver. Hmm. Got to think about that possibility.

As I’m writing this post, it occurs to me that I have hardly begun to explore the possibilities of cooking with peppers. Those Intruder sweet bells are just begging to be stuffed with something delicious. Johnny’s catalog says Tiburon ancho/poblanos are traditionally used for chile rellenos. I should explore that. And on and on. First, I must grow many, many more peppers next year. In grow bags. With rich soil. And abundant fertilizer/water throughout the growing season. It’s a good thing to write posts like this that keep me focused on garden possibilities.

 

 

 

 

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