Garden Q&A: Pepper success requires some prep
Question: The past few years I've tried to grow peppers, but I never have any luck. The plant grows beautifully — and even develops flowers — but hardly any fruit grows. I've tried several types of peppers, including bell, pimento, hot wax and a few others. None of them prove successful. What am I doing wrong?
Answer: By and large, peppers are not a fussy crop, but they are particular about a few things, namely the weather and soil pH. Both can affect fruit set.
First, I know gardeners can't control the weather, but there are a few things we can do to help our peppers. Peppers are a warm-season crop that does not tolerate frosts. If the plants are subjected to early-season frosts, this can affect overall plant health for weeks afterward. It's always best to delay planting peppers in the garden until the nights are regularly above 50 degrees F. In Western Pennsylvania, that means waiting until the end of May.
Peppers prefer warm soil to cold. Spread a sheet of black plastic over the planting site for a few weeks before transplanting. The dark cover will absorb heat from the sun and raise the soil temperature. Your peppers will practically take off running the moment you plant them in the warmed soil!
There's another important weather-related item to remember about peppers. Fruit set is always best when daytime temperatures are between 70 and 85 degrees F. If the thermometer creeps above 80 degrees F at night or 90 degrees F during the day, the flowers will abort and fall off before fruit is developed. Don't despair, though, because as soon as temperatures cool off a little, the fruit will begin to set again. Because of this, peppers do not often produce a good crop during extremely hot summers.
A frustrating problem known as bud or flower drop can occur when stressors are present. The buds, flowers and developing fruits may drop off the plant if pollination is inhibited or if environmental stressors, such as drought or excessive wind, are present. Give each plant plenty of space to allow access to pollinators, and plant lots of flowering herbs and annuals in the vegetable garden to entice a greater diversity of pollinators.
Keep plants well-watered when there's no natural rainfall. Peppers need about one inch of water per week, either from your hose or from Mother Nature.
Yet another factor that may come into play with pepper fruit set is the proper soil pH. Peppers perform their best when soil pH measures between 6.2 and 7.0. If your soil is too far off the mark, nutrients may be unavailable for plant use. This can affect the fruit set and the eventual size of the plants and fruits. Test your garden's soil every three to four years using a soil test kit from your county's office of the Penn State Extension Service. The test results will aid you in determining how to adjust your pH, if necessary.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
Send your gardening or landscaping questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.