GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY

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ABOVE: A PICTURE OF ‘CAYENNE LONG SLIM’ HOT PEPPER

GROWING SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS ORGANICALLY

Peppers are one of the garden crops that must be started inside and transplanted out to the garden later, when weather has warmed.  Years ago, people grew more sweet peppers than hot, but now hot peppers are very popular here in the northern Rocky Mountain and plains region.  I will discuss some pointers on how to start and grow your plants organically and I will include some information on the many varieties available today. 

Peppers (Capsicum annuum) prefer warm days and nights to grow and produce well.  In our mountainous area, with a short growing season and cool nights, peppers benefit from protection from cold early and late in the season.  So, we time our planting for after the last frost (usually around May 15 here at 3,000 feet altitude) and find it beneficial to cover our plants for the night until temperatures warm.  Row covers, hot caps, even cardboard boxes will collect heat from the soil and release it during the night.  The warm conditions promote faster growth.  Organically enriched soil and the use of organic fertilizers will also speed up growth. 

Hot peppers take longer to germinate than sweet peppers.  Seeds of both types will germinate between 60-95 degrees, but 80-85 degrees is ideal.  The germ time for sweet peppers is 7-14 days; for hot peppers, 14-28 days.  Here, we usually start our plants in February.  A mix of peat, vermiculite and perlite makes a great seed starting mix, as it is sterile (no soil-borne diseases).  Peat pots are great for starting seeds as they can be planted right into the ground when plants are large enough.  A solid flat with a dome cover will keep the seeds moist until they sprout.  Pepper seeds do not need light to germinate, but lights over the plants will promote sturdy growth and prevent spindly, “leggy” growth.  If you do not have lights, put the plants in a warm spot in a south window as soon as they sprout. 

Nights should be 55 degrees or above before planting out into the garden.  (If you are at a high elevation, use row covers.)  Make sure to harden plants off before planting, by putting them outside for a few hours at a time (in shade).  Gradually give the plants more time outside and brighter light for about a week of time.  When you are sure weather has stabilized, plant them out.  If they are in peat pots, make sure the peat pots are very damp and plant the peppers deeper, with about 2 inches of soil over the pots, so they will degrade.   If not covered, peat pots tend to dry out and a plant cannot pierce the pot with its roots.  Protect your plants from cutworms with jugs or cans or paper rings.  Water regularly, keeping them moist, not wet.  Water early in the day only; allowing leaves to dry early in the day.  Watch for aphids, their worst pest.  A preventative spray of Garlic Barrier will deter aphids.  Follow directions and use garlic sprays very early in the day, so as to not interfere with the activities of bees and other beneficial insects.  You will only need to spray garlic three times in a whole season.  A foliar spray of liquid organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest Fish fertilizer will greatly increase the size and productivity of your plants.  This type of fertilizer is very low in salts, an important feature.  Worm castings will increase nitrogen levels in your soil and silica will strengthen stems. 

Insulating row covers (protection blankets) are very useful to extend our season for about 3-4 weeks.  These are more effective at lower temperatures than using poly film.   Mulch your peppers after soil is warm— June or early July, with red plastic or 2” organic straw.  Trim off all flowers until June 22, to enable plants to produce more heavily; otherwise, plants put all their energy into ripening an early crop and seasonal production is much lower. 

Here in the Mission Valley we put our peppers out about May 21-June 1 as weather permits.  Plant peppers about 14” apart.  Plant in full sun.  The growing temperature range for peppers is 55–85 degrees, with 75-80 being ideal.  Optimum soil pH is 5.5-7.0.  Peppers like even steady moisture—not wet soil conditions.  Try to practice regular, even watering; early in the day.

Pests of peppers include: gophers; leafhoppers; cutworms, leaf miners, hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, pepper weevils, mites, nematodes and aphids.  Diseases include: early blight, southern blight, anthracnose, bacterial spot and verticillium wilt. 

Harvest peppers when full size, 4-5 weeks from pollination + 4-5 weeks to ripen (about 9-10 weeks).  If the summer is cool, more time will be needed.  Harvest by cutting the fruit from the plant.  Check/pick every 3 days.  The first peppers should be ready about September 1 or earlier.  After harvesting keep cool, above 55 degrees, in high humidity and out of the sun.  Harvested fruit last about 7 days when stored out of the sun. 

Varieties (all open-pollinated, so seed can be saved each season):

‘King of the North’ heirloom sweet pepper (57 days to green, 65 days to red).   An early variety, grown for seed in the Mission Valley.  Fruit are 3-4” and production is good in our cool climate.

‘California Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (65 days to green, 75 days to red).  Another popular variety here, maturing a little later than ‘King of the North’, but more productive with larger fruit. 

‘Golden Cal. Wonder’ heirloom sweet pepper (60 days to green, 75 days to golden yellow).  A good, sweet variety for cool seasons, with large, 4” fruit. 

‘Purple Beauty’ sweet pepper (55 days to purple, 75 days to red).  A very productive, early variety with 3-4” fruit.

‘Chocolate Bell’ sweet pepper (70 days to green, 75 days to brown).  An interesting, early pepper that matures well and is grown for seed here in the Mission Valley. 

‘Jimmy Nardello’ heirloom sweet pepper (75 days to red).  A popular, 6-9” long, thin-skinned sweet pepper great for frying or drying.

‘Anaheim’ heirloom mildly-hot pepper (80 days to red).  The best pepper for stuffing.  An 8 inch long, thick-walled pepper that can be roasted, fresh dried, canned or stuffed and baked. 

‘Tesuque Chili’, Estacano Chili’, ‘San Felipe Chili’ heirloom chili peppers (about 70 days to red).  These three chili peppers are from Native American Pueblos in the Southwest.  They all are thin-walled, and excellent for drying.  They are excellent to use dried, ground up and added to dishes.  

‘Early Jalapeno’ heirloom hot pepper (60 days ).  The most popular hot pepper, used fresh and pickled.

‘Cayenne Long Slim’ heirloom hot pepper (70 days to red).  This pepper grows to about 6 or 7 inches long, is quite hot, and dries well.  Plants are very productive and early. 

‘Viet Hot Chili’ (95 days to red).  A very hot pepper grown locally (Mission Valley, Montana) for seed.  Plants must be started earlier than other peppers as they sprout slowly and mature slowly.   The fruit dry well.

‘Habanero’ heirloom chili pepper (95 days to red).   One of the hottest peppers available, it requires a long season, but is tops for flavor. 

 

 

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PLANTING SPRING FLOWERING BULBS AND NATIVE WILDFLOWERS

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PLANTING SPRING-FLOWERING BULBS

 Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, glacier lilies and crocus are adapted to most Montana climate zones (USDA zones 4 and 5).  Tulips are very hardy and adapted to the cold eastern Montana climate (USDA zone 3).  All should be planted in fall, usually in October or November.  You can plant spring-flowering bulbs until the ground freezes, but they will bloom better if you get them in before November 15, when soil is in the 40 degrees to 55 degrees range.    

SOIL PREPARATION

Bulbs prefer a well-drained location in the garden.  Tulips, hyacinths, crocus and grape hyacinths need full sun.  Daffodils and glacier lilies (trout lilies) like part shade, though daffodils will grow in full sun in Montana.  Daffodils are deer and rodent proof, but the others, especially tulips, need to be in a place protected from deer and voles.  The new wire baskets from Vole King are flexible and easy to place around your bulbs before you plant.  When a vole chews into the wire, its nose is poked by the wires curling back after being cut. 

Dig your bulb bed to 10 or 12 inches deep.  Sandy loam is the best soil for bulbs, but you can improve your soil by adding gypsum to break down clay, or peat moss, compost and bone meal.  Bone meal degrades into the soil while it adds phosphorous, which will promote good blooms.  Mix bone meal well with the soil in the bottom of the bed for best results.  PH should be about neutral for these bulbs, but hyacinths and tulips will tolerate more alkaline soils.  Plant tulips and daffodils at 5 per square foot, hyacinths and glacier lilies at 3 to 4 per square foot, and grape hyacinths and crocus at 8 to 10 per square foot.  After planting, backfill the soil but do not pack it down over the bulbs.  Water well. 

PLANTING DEPTH

The general recommended planting depth for bulbs is: 3 times the height of the bulb deep, pointed end up.  Tulips, hyacinths and daffodils should be planted about 6 to 8 inches deep; Grape hyacinths, crocus and glacier lilies about 4 inches deep. 

HEIGHT WHEN IN BLOOM

Our tulips grow to about 20 inches tall and bloom midseason.  Our daffodils bloom early and grow and bloom to about 16 inches.  Our hyacinths and glacier lilies bloom at about 10 inches, and bloom early.  Our grape hyacinths bloom about 6 inches high and bloom midseason.   Crocus bloom at 3 inches high and bloom very early. 

AFTERCARE

Leave foliage on your bulbs and let it die down naturally.  This feeds the bulbs so they will flower well the next year.  Most bulbs, especially tulips, like dry conditions after foliage dies down.  In some climates, or if summer bedding is planned for that location, people dig and store their tulip bulbs and replant them in fall.  Here in Montana, you can leave the bulbs in the ground if you give no additional summer water.  Do not water them until October to give the roots a boost before winter.  Spread bone meal over your bulb beds every October.  Glacier lilies like to grow in moist soil, but can tolerate dry soil conditions for a short period during late summer. 

 

PLANTING A WILDFLOWER MEADOW

 

A wildflower garden or meadow will attract and feed native pollinators, beneficial insects and birds.  Maintenance and watering is generally less than most gardens of ornamental plants, which require frequent watering and weeding. 

 

NORTHERN REGION WILDFLOWER MIX is a blend of annual and perennial flowers adapted to the Montana climate.  Flower height varies from about 8 inches to 5 feet.  This taller mix contains both native and introduced species.  Plant one pound for 2,000 square feet.

 

MONTANA NATIVE WILDFLOWER MIX contains only seed from plants native to Montana.  This shorter mix is a combination of annuals and perennials.  Flower height varies from 8 inches to 24 inches.   Plant one pound for 2,000 square feet.

 

The best time to plant wildflower mixes is in fall.  You can sow the seed mid-October into November and even into December.  If the soil is prepared the seeds can be spread right over the snow, but birds or rodents may eat some of the seeds.  Winter temperatures will stratify the seeds and help them to germinate at a higher rate than if planted in the spring.  

 

Prepare your spot in full sun, if possible, or part shade.  Remove weeds and grasses, cultivate lightly then rake the area smooth.  Mix the seed with coarse sand to spread it evenly, in a ratio of 3 parts sand to 1 part seed.  After you broadcast the seed, press it into the soil in the same way you would if you were planting grass seed.  If it does not rain or snow within a week, water the area well.  It is not necessary to add fertilizers, as wildflowers generally prefer a soil of low fertility.  

 

Every summer, you can gather seed from your wildflowers and sow it right in the same bed to perpetuate the show of flowers, or you can start a new bed.