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MORE ORGANIC VEGETABLE TIPS: PEPPERS, BROCCOLI & ONIONS
by George Bushell
Peppers, or more correctly chiles, appear to have originated in the uplands and mountain slopes of South America where temperatures are even and moderate, moisture plentiful and the season long almost the complete opposite of conditions in most Canadian gardens. Nevertheless, peppers can be grown in abundance almost anywhere in Canada, given a little care and attention to their special needs.
First, choose an early maturing variety. You may not get peppers in the time specified in the seed catalogue, but if your season is short, the early maturing varieties will give you a better chance of picking some fruit, at least. Big, blocky wonders usually take a long time to mature, and do better in California than in most parts of Canada. Pick a smaller, more slender variety, as they generally ripen faster.
Pepper seed must be started indoors and plants moved to the garden later. The seed needs plenty of heat (23° to 30°C) for proper germination. You can use a heating pad under the tray, place the tray in a plastic bag under a light, or set it on the back of a refrigerator. However you keep it warm, check the temperature with a thermometer to ensure conditions are right. Use a sterile planting mix for best results. Once the plants appear, reduce temperatures to about 20°C and provide plenty of light.
As pepper plants require even and moderate growing temperatures, I do not transplant them to the garden until after June 1 here in Ottawa. The plants will drop blossoms if night-time temperatures dip much below 13°C for more than a couple of days. (Freezing temperatures will kill the plants, of course, so be sure to cover them if you get a late frost). Peppers also drop blossoms if they are subjected to cool, drying winds. You can protect plants from the wind by covering them with a spun fabric such as reemay. This material permits rain and sunlight to pass through, but dampens the wind and keeps insects out (peppers are generally self-pollinating). Unlike clear poly covers, reemay does not produce over-heating, which can also cause blossoms to drop (over 30°C damages blossoms). Cover entire rows with a fabric tunnel (it is better to provide support for the material with wire hoops, but not essential). You can also wrap wooden stakes or tomato cages that have been placed around individual plants.
All transplants need water, especially if it is hot and dry when they are first set out. However, sub-tropical pepper plants suffer a setback if you use cold water. I leave a bucket of water in the garden, covered with a piece of glass or a clear plastic bag, and use the resulting sun-warmed water to irrigate my peppers late in the afternoon.
In most parts of Canada, the heat waves of July begin just as the cold snaps of June subside. Again, pepper blossoms will drop and fail to set fruit if temperatures remain above 30°C for any period of time. During some seasons, in many parts of Canada, the discriminating pepper does not start to set fruit until temperatures begin to moderate in the month of August. Even so, if you have protected your plants in June from the wind and cold, you will likely have plenty of small peppers on your plants that will grow and mature despite the heat. Fruit may not set in hot weather, but once started, it grows well in the heat. If you really want to be guaranteed green peppers in early July and ripe ones by the end of the month, start a few plants 8-10 weeks before your transplanting date (late March in Ottawa). Grow them indoors in individual pots with plenty of light, and they will set tiny peppers before they are transplanted to the garden. While blossoms may drop in the cool nights of June, fruit already set will continue to grow despite a few cool nights and drying winds (of course, a fabric cover will still assist growth during cool or windy weather).
I pick my early-started plants bare of peppers first so they will set a second crop during the moderate weather of August. This second crop is ready here in Ottawa as green fruit during September and early October (if protected from the occasional ground frost). You can extend the fresh pepper season even further by pulling the plants, roots and all, at the end of the season and placing several of them in a bucket containing a little water. By storing them in a cool frost-free place, such as an unheated garage, you can pick fresh peppers for another month.
Do not give nitrogen to your peppers. A little well-rotted compost is sufficient; too much nitrogen encourages leafy plants and blossom drop. Calcium and phosphorous (bone meal is a good source) encourage ripening and enhance flavor, though.
Peppers are normally green when immature, and turn red, yellow or orange when ripe. But even if your season does not produce much ripe fruit, you can still get some color from your peppers by choosing varieties that start out pale yellow, purple, and even chocolate (they will still turn red when fully ripe). For those who like their peppers hot and spicy, there are a number of hot pepper cultivars that do well in Canada just consult your favorite catalogs for suggestions. If you pamper this sub-tropical import, you too can pick that proverbial peck of peppers next summer no matter where you live well, almost anywhere!
George Bushell feeds his family from his organic home garden near Ottawa, Ontario.
Copyright © 1997. George Bushell.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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