Problem-Free Sweet Peppers
If you find it easy to grow chillies and wonder why you don’t have the same success with sweet peppers, here’s the answer. Sweet peppers have a weaker root system, which makes them sensitive to a whole host of problems: overwatering, nutrient deficiencies, damping off, viruses that cause deformed fruit, and more. That’s the reason why sweet peppers are generally more expensive than other vegetables, explains Johan Stronkhorst, specialist consultant for capsicums and other fruiting vegetables, for Sakata. In fact, commercial farmers are grafting sweet peppers onto chilli rootstock as an experiment to improve yields and performance. Home gardeners don’t have that luxury, but following some basic do’s and don’ts will improve your chances of success, says Johan. It really makes sense to grow your own sweet peppers. Ripe peppers are expensive to buy, and well-tended bushes can bear fruit on and o for up to six months. They are also luscious to look at and can even be grown in pots. Peppers contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, although they are not short on calories because of the sweetness. They are delicious eaten raw, or chopped into stir-fries, sauces, casseroles and stews, and can even be pickled.Here are his tips:
● Sweet peppers can be sown until December, directly into the ground or in seed trays (usually the preferred option).
● Peppers grow best in full sun (except those in pots), but can take afternoon shade.
● Before planting, enrich the soil with compost and bonemeal, or sprinkle Talborne Organics Vita Veg 6:3:4 (16) over the soil and work it in.
● Water frequently during summer, even daily when it is very hot. Water-stressed plants produce less fruit, and even the flavour is affected.
● Water around the roots in the morning (rather than at night) so that moisture is available to plants throughout the day.
● Keep the soil and roots cool with thick mulch.
● Fertilise again, with a liquid or granular fertiliser for flowers and fruit (high in potassium), when plants start to flower.
● Fertilise again after two months or with each flush of flowers.
Peppers can’t cope with wet feet and waterlogged soil. They need good drainage and aeration. Check the soil before watering. If it feels moist, delay watering by another day. The soil should almost dry out between watering. Should peppers wilt in the intense midday sun, you can give them a little water, but rather wait and see whether they revive when it gets cooler. Too much water leads to damping of and other rotting diseases.
Look out for:
Wilting leaves can be a sign of overwatering or under-watering, which is why it is so important to check the soil moisture levels. Dig a small hole next to the pepper. If it is bone-dry 30cm down that means that you need to increase watering. But if it is very wet, reduce watering.
Build a strong plant frame:
Pinching the growing tips does not stimulate better growth. To get a strong, bushy plant, rather remove early flowers on a plant that is less than 40cm high, because once the plant starts to develop fruit it stops growing. By removing flowers and letting its energy go into growth, one can have a plant up to l.2m high that produces much more fruit. If the leaves are small, feed with a potassium-rich fertiliser (3:1:5 or 2:3:4). A high nitrogen feed will result in leafy growth at the expense of future flowers. Johan’s rule of thumb is that it takes five good-sized green leaves to produce one fruit. Count the leaves and that will give a good indication of how much fruit to expect and whether to remove flowers.
Practice preventive pest control:
Aphids and thrips are the two main pests for peppers, and both transmit viruses like the pepper mosaic virus, tobacco etch virus, and the tomato mosaic virus that deforms the fruit and leaves. Although the fruit is still edible, thrips deforms the leaves as well, which reduces the yield. Broad mites are invisible to the eye and live on the underside of the leaves. They suck the sap out of the leaves, causing them to curl. Other indications of a mite infestation are woody or leathery stems and fruit. All three pests should be eradicated before the plants set flowers, which means setting up a programme of preventive spraying, preferably with organic insecticides like Ludwig’s Insect Spray, which contains canola oil (smothers), garlic (irritates the adults out of their hiding places) and pyrethrin, which kills on contact. Spraying tip: To break the lifecycle of the pest, spray every five days for the first two weeks, and thereafter every 7 – 10 days, for six weeks.
Monitor for boron deficiency:
Peppers are particularly sensitive to a deficiency of boron, a micronutrient that is essential for crop health and the uptake of nitrogen and potassium. The symptoms can look like a mosaic virus (curling leaves) or broad mite infestation (cork-like stems and leathery fruit). The best indicator, however, is the appearance of tiny holes in the leaves that look like small hail damage. Best remedy: Buy boracic acid or borax from the pharmacy but use minute amounts, because an overdose will burn the plants. Use ½ml in 5 litres of water and use as a soil drench.
Keep plants happy… but not too happy!
Be careful of overfeeding sweet peppers. Too much nitrogen encourages them to abort the flowers. That means they are ‘too happy’ and don’t feel the need to produce of spring. The setting of flowers and fruit is a survival mechanism and occurs when plants are under stress. To bring a little stress into the equation, send a signal to the plant by reducing the watering and stopping feeding. When they start flowering and setting fruit, increase watering if necessary.
Harvest the tips:
Picking encourages the plant to produce more flowers. Leaving the peppers on the plant to turn yellow or red will reduce your harvest. But you can have the best of both worlds: Leave the fruit on some plants so that it can mature. On other plants, keep picking and using the peppers while they are green. Towards the end of the season let the last set of fruit mature. That way you will have peppers throughout the season.
Sweet success: one tip that counts
Establish a good root system through regular watering, feeding, and mulching to keep the roots cool. That’s the advice from Sean Freeman of Living Seeds, who picks his first peppers at the end of November and harvests until the first frost.
Five minutes to spare
Pinch out the growing tips when plants are 20 cm high, to make them bushy. If necessary, support the stem with a stake once the fruit starts to form and weigh down the plant.
Sweet pepper varieties
‘California Wonder’ is a good pepper for beginners and grows well in pots, too. For a greater variety, check out the websites of seed suppliers like Living Seeds (www.livingseeds.co.za), who have ‘Orange Sun’, ‘Marconi Golden’ and two varieties that look like chillies but aren’t: ‘Padron Spanish Fryer’ and Venezuelan Red’. A mini sweet pepper is ‘Cute Stu’, with red or gold fruit (8 cm in diameter) for growing in pots as a patio veggie. It’s available in a pot from garden centres.
Growing sweet peppers in pots
While sweet peppers can be grown in pots, they suffer from water stress a lot faster than plants in the ground. Here are some tips for pots:
● Grow peppers in a good-size pot, the minimum being a 20-litre pot.
● Use a good-quality potting soil and add vermiculite (25% of the mix) as this retains water, but still allows for good drainage.
● Place pots in semi-shade. Morning sun and afternoon shade is safest.
● Mulch the surface of the pot to keep the soil cool. This also prevents the soil from compacting when watered by hose.
● Water daily in summer.
● Feed more regularly as nutrients leech out with the watering.
Sweet peppers can take from 75-120 days to produce the first fruit. Green peppers are just unripe yellow, red or purple fruit. They can be picked green if you like the flavour or left to ripen fully for a much sweeter flavour. Picking peppers when green will encourage the plant to produce more flowers, and therefore fruit. Some gardeners allow the first few peppers to ripen and pick them, letting the plant put its energy into ripening the remaining fruit. Another options is: once some fruit is ripe, pick all the fruit (including the green peppers), and fertilise the plant to kickstart the next flush of flowers.