Organic Gardening
Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Low-Tech Farming Pest Control in Testing

flowersA farm near Buckingham, England is testing a new method of pest control for farms that does not involve any commercial pesticides. Instead of spraying the fields with potentially harmful chemicals, these farmers are planting rows of flowers that run directly through the middle of their farm to attract pest-eating bugs to their farms, and replace the need for chemical pesticides. This farm is 1 of 14 sites in a study testing how well wildflowers attract pest-eating bugs, and how well they can replace commercial pesticides.

The study also includes planting a border of wildflowers around the field to promote general biodiversity, which these farmers have done for nearly two decades. Although not used specifically for pest control, these wildflower borders have helped researchers and farmers see that perhaps the flowers can be used as pesticides. However, since small bugs cannot travel far, the farmers have begun planting the wildflowers in strips right through their farms. This way, the small bugs can handle the flight time from one wildflower patch to the next, and stay on task of eating the farm pests.

“The wide-scale adoption of precision agricultural systems, particularly GPS mapping and precision application technologies, means that it should now possible to implement and protect these in-field habitats,” researchers Ben Woodcock and Richard Pywell, of the U.K.-based Center for Ecology and Hydrology, write in an email. “This would have been very challenging a few years ago. While this is unlikely to eliminate the need to apply pesticide, it may mean that pests populations are maintained below levels at which they cause damage to crops for longer periods, thus reducing the number of pesticide sprays applied.”

Many pesticides in the UK have been taken off the market due to the growing evidence that link many cases of polluted drinking water and dead bees. However, many pesticides that are still in use are sprayed so frequently that it causes the pesticide to become less effective as pests become more resistant to the chemicals. This bright side of this is that options for pest control on farms are waning, which makes now a good time to rethink the future of crop protection methods.

A similar study in Switzerland planted poppies and other flowers along the fields, and reported a 61 percent decreased in leaf damages, due to the flowers’ ability to shield insects like ladybugs that eat wheat-eating pests. Scientists with this study suggest that the real effectiveness behind this method is choosing the right combination of flowers for each particular field or farm.

The next step of this research is to bring the method to larger commercial farms, to test if the results are the same and can be applied on a much larger scale. Researchers also want to look further into the economic value of this method, and how it can be incorporated with more modern farming tech and practices.

This method probably will not completely eliminate the use of pesticides, but it could significantly decrease its use on farms, serving as a backup plan rather than a primary defense.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

Growing Soft Fruits for Beginners

 fruit

Strawberries

Strawberries will produce a crop the first summer after planting. Choose a mix of early, mid and late-season varieties to extend your harvest from spring right through to fall. Extend the season even further by planting a late variety under row covers.

Mulch with straw once the plants begin to flower to keep fruits clean and prevent them from rotting on the soil surface. The only ‘pruning’ strawberries need is snipping off the leaves once they’ve finished fruiting.

Raspberries

There are two types of raspberry: summer-fruiting and fall-bearing. Fall-bearing raspberries are the easier of the two, and will produce berries from late summer until the first frosts. They need only minimal support, and to prune simply cut back all of the old canes after they’ve fruited but before new growth begins in spring.

Blackberries

Most modern varieties of blackberries are vigorous and thornless, with large fruits that are sweeter than those of their wild relatives.  Simply tie them to supports to keep them tidy, and cut out old canes to promote new growth.

Currants

Blackcurrants, redcurrants and whitecurrants all fruit freely, producing heavy crops of currants to eat fresh, use in sauces or turn into jam.

Currants are best grown in cooler climates and can cope with some shade. They require very little care, even cropping when neglected, but winter pruning to cut out some of the older and crossing branches will encourage vigorous new growth and good fruiting.

Gooseberries

Gooseberries prefer cooler climates and some shelter from the wind, but will thrive in just about any soil type. There are culinary varieties for using in jams, pies and jellies, and dessert varieties which can be eaten fresh.

Like currants, gooseberries will crop even when they are neglected. Regular feeding, pruning and mulching will help to insure heavy harvests however.

Some states restrict the growing of currants and gooseberries because they can host white pine blister rust, which causes major problems for the lumber industry. Modern breeding has created varieties resistant to the disease so restrictions have been lifted in most states, but check before planting.

Growing Soft Fruits

Plant container-grown soft fruits at any time of year, and bare-root fruits from late fall onwards; delay until early spring in colder regions.

Water soft fruits thoroughly at least once a week in the first year after planting, and in dry weather thereafter. Spread a layer of organic mulch such as compost 2” deep in spring to feed your plants and improve the soil.

Birds love soft fruits too. To keep them off use netting, or build a walk-in fruit cage for a more permanent solution.

 

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

 

Some Resources for Three Sisters Gardening

 

Here are a few resources for those starting or teaching Three Sisters gardening this year. Warning: some of these books, articles, and web links are so engaging, they could be addictive! This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are substantial gaps; please add resources you find particularly useful.

And please remember that the written word, excellent as it is, is meant as a blueprint only, a starting place. It can never replace oral tradition for your locale. Search out indigenous and other heritage Three Sisters gardeners and farmers where you live or as close as you can get, to learn from those people and seeds who have “the long memory.”

Oral Resources

How to Grow a Three-Sisters' Garden

A good place to start finding local heritage gardeners and farmers to ask is local seed saving groups, seed exchanges, and seed libraries, often located at or affiliated with local book libraries. If nothing pops out right away, visit RMSA Seed Libraries to find the closest group.

Books

Beautiful Corn by Anthony Boutard

Farmers Boutard and his wife, Carol, own Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, OR. If you read nothing else on corn, read this. A slim book, it is nevertheless an essential foundation text on heritage and adapted corn and corn-growing. Boutard covers topics including the origins of corn, what the difference is between popcorn, flint, dent, flour, (and broom, which is not a corn), which type grow best where and which makes the most flavorful, best-textured cornbread, hominy, etc., the geography of corn, different stages of corn growth, heritage varieties of each type, eating the quelites (the wild greens in the cornfield), corn cooking and recipes, choosing seed, harvest and storage.

The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell

The jacket cover says this book “changes completely one's sense of the shape and nature of the American experience. You will never again munch on a hush puppy...or simply pass a cornfield in the same way.” That was true for me. Fussell includes both South and North American history in her wry, panoramic survey of the reaches of corn into every facet of our lives. I came away awestruck at the entwined, complex, riveting history of humans and corn.

Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden “by” Gilbert L. Wilson

Buffalo Bird Woman of the Hidatsa people was born in 1839 in what is now North Dakota. Anthropologist Gilbert L. Wilson meticulously transcribed her detailed gardening advice and first published it in 1917. It's still in print. She covers all aspects of traditional Hidatsa growing, harvesting, and storing of the Three Sisters, with accompanying traditional cultural practices. This book is priceless both for its gardening knowledge and its glimpse into a way of life in which the Three Sisters were fully integrated.

Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother's Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta

Cherokee/Appalachian writer Marilou Awiakta writes that the word for corn as grain and the word for corn as spirit, “Mother of us all,” are both pronounced Selu. Corn thus nourishes in two ways that must not be separated. Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, writes in the Foreword: “In the old days the Cherokee people believed that the world existed in a precarious balance and that only right or correct actions kept it from tumbling. Wrong actions were believed to disturb the balance.” The Corn Mother taught and teaches these right actions. Awiakta writes: “Through corn's natural ways of growing and being, the spirit sings of strength, respect, balance, harmony. Of adaptability, cooperation, unity in diversity. Songs of survival.” Awiakta urges hope in the application of this traditional wisdom to our relationship with both the human community and the natural world.

Oaxaca al Gusto by Diana Kennedy

British-born Diana Kennedy has lived in Mexico since 1957 and celebrated in her cookbooks Mexican culinary cultures which still prepare corn the traditional way, with mano and metate. Most recipes in this book, which won the James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year award, feature corn, beans, and sometimes squash—daily food, festival food. Reading these recipes, I feel like I'm back at the source where the community of corn, beans and squash began, where a big part of life revolves around growing, preparing, and eating them in infinitely varied and mouth-watering ways.

Articles

This article from Native Seeds/SEARCH mentions why corn is mounded in wet areas of our country, which does not apply to those living in semi-arid and arid areas (unless in a flood situation).

Downloadable pdf based on the article

How to Plant the Three Sisters from Cornell University Cooperative Extension

and its related articles, such as The Need for Diversity and Classroom Activities

Note: Diversity of Advice

I've read so many "How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden" articles from all over the country and the only thing they have in common is the important basics about how one plant helps another. That's where the similarities mostly end.

They differ on garden plans, advice on how many kernels to put in each hole, where to put the holes, what kernels go in each hole, how far apart everything should be. They differ about other plants in the system. One source tells us that Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata) was and is a fourth sister in the Tewa culture. It's a food, medicine, and dye and grows over a wide range of our country. Other sources say other plants are the definitive “fourth sister.” Some authors thankfully call them all “cousins.” Some sources say “plant sunflowers [sometimes called a fourth sister], right next to the corn.” Others say “sunflowers are allelopathic [slowing or inhibiting growth of nearby plants]; don't let them near your Three Sisters!” Some articles say, “plant sweet corn!” Other say, “never plant sweet corn! Won't work!” Some say, “never plant popcorn!” Others say, “plant popcorn!”

The reader comments following each article are equally wide and seemingly contradictory.

Who's right? Whom to follow--who's the authority?

There is no one-size-fits-all authoritative how-to guide for our gigantic country. What works one place may fail in another and vice versa.  On a micro scale, what works in one soil could do poorly even five feet away in a different soil or under different conditions. A variety adapted to my place may behave very differently from one adapted to yours. Thank heaven for the diversity. Ask indigenous and other heritage gardeners local to your area (see third paragraph of this article), know your land, trust yourself, talk it over, and experiment. Just try. Honor your adventure. And after a year or few of saving seeds from each experiment, your garden will be a wise teacher of local adaptation, local terroir, local savoir.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Grow Chestnuts and Hazelnuts and Why You Should

This year’s NOFA New York Winter Conference had a huge range of workshops, from practical presentations on cover cropping and compost to discussions about reducing food waste and how to advocate for a better farm bill to intensive, hands-on bread baking classes. With dozens of workshops each day there were topics of interest and utility for farmers, gardeners, and individuals interested in the connection between health and farming.

One fascinating talk, given by Akiva Silver, owner of Twisted Tree Nursery, and Brian Caldwell, a farmer and Cornell researcher, discussed the history and practical use of hazelnuts and chestnuts. These two species are beautifully complementary: chestnuts produce a carbohydrate rich nut, while hazels are high in fat and protein. Chestnuts are full-sized trees, while hazels are modest shrubs. There are varieties of each that are adapted to a wide range of climates. They are hardy and vigorous, and together yield an abundance of food.

In the first post, I’ll summarize Akiva and Brian’s key points about hazelnut cultivation, and in the second I’ll deal with chestnuts.

About Hazelnuts

There are species of hazelnut that can grow anywhere from subtropical Asia all the way to northern Canada. Though some hazels mature to the size of proper trees, most varieties, including all of the types grown for nuts, are multi-stemmed shrubs. Their small size and high level of production makes them a perfect choice for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers alike.

But getting the right plant is critical. Almost all commercially grown nuts — those you’ll find in the grocery store or in confections — come from the Common or European Hazel. While this may be a good variety for large hazelnut producers, its particular requirements mean it isn’t suitable for most people in most parts of America. It requires cool summers and very mild winters, and it is larger than many other hazels, easily reaching 20 feet in height. Further, it is not resistant to Filbert Blight, a disease endemic to the eastern United States.

But hazelnut bushes readily hybridize, and for decades plant breeders have been working to cross European with native Beaked and American hazels. The result is a smaller shrub - usually about eight feet tall - that is prolific, cold hardy, and resistant to Filbert Blight and other common diseases. In good soil these hybrids will begin bearing nuts in three to four years, and in seven to eight they will reach full production. While there are not yet any named, clonally produced varieties, quality stock propagated from seed is available from several sources.

Once hazels are established they are incredibly hardy. They store a huge amount of energy in their roots, and they grow vigorous new stalks each spring. When they are bearing they appreciate fertilizer, but they will produce a good crop even in relatively poor soils with minimal inputs.

But just because you’ve grown a bunch of nuts doesn’t mean you’ll get to eat them. Squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, and other birds love hazels, and they will happily spend every waking hour harvesting them once they ripen. This is another reason it’s good to get shrubs that mature at a relatively small size — they can be harvested by hand, which gives you a chance to beat the wildlife to them. Planting shrubs with American genetics helps here, too.

The husks of European hazelnuts open early, meaning birds have an easy time picking them out. Hybrid and American hazelnuts can be harvested while the husk is still tightly closed, before other critters have eaten them, and then dried inside. This can be done in a dehydrator, but simply placing them in an area of the house with good air circulation also works well.

There are a few insect pests to consider. Planting high-quality trees will reduce the risk of serious infestations, but good management practices also help. Proper soil preparation, particularly adequate liming, can significantly reduce disease and pests. Making sure all nuts are harvested from the bushes and the ground will help limit populations of weevils and other bugs that rely on them for food, and removing any dead wood is always a good idea.

Big bud mites are a pest that attack flowers, causing them to swell and then drop. American hazelnuts are more susceptible than European trees, which is yet another reason that hybrid trees, with their blend of advantageous traits, are the best choice for most people.

Fully dried nuts can be stored for at least a year in shell without losing quality. They can be shelled with most common nut crackers, but if you grow a lot it’s worth investing in a hand crank model. They are delicious eaten raw or roasted, and they can be ground into meal, or, if you own or have access to a press, they yield a fragrant oil.

Tips for Planting Hazelnuts

1. If you have acid soils, it is important to add some lime. Aim for a Ph of 6.5.

2. Good drainage is also critical. Making a small mound for an individual tree or a berm for a row will go a long way to keeping your hazels happy, particularly if you have heavy, clay-rich soils.

3. Generally, plant in the fall or early spring, but ask whoever you get your trees from what they recommend.

4. Young trees will appreciate having a scoop of well aged compost mixed in with their soil, but avoid chemical fertilizers, chicken manure, or any other amendment with highly available nitrogen.

5. Transplanting is always stressful, so water the trees as necessary. (But don’t waterlog them!)

6. Protect them from deer. If you’re only planting a few trees, staking a hoop of wire mesh fencing around each works well. Some people also have luck with pepper or egg sprays.

7. If you want nuts, plant at least two, but preferably three or more plants, with four feet between them. Hazelnuts do not self-pollinate, so they need friends!

8. When hazelnuts are fully mature prune them by removing some of the oldest wood each winter, starting when the shrubs are in their tenth year. Removing old live wood promotes vigorous growth, which keeps shrubs producing well.

Photos by Akiva Silver

Garth Brown is an owner of Cairncrest Farm. He sells 100% grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured pork and poultry to Long Island, Brooklyn, and the greater New York City area. You can read more of his writing on his farm’s blog. Read all of Garth’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts with his brother, Edmund, here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Save with These Varieties of Bare Root Fruit Trees and Berries

 

In northern forests, leaves falling to the soil each fall serves a big function. First, all of the carbon from last season’s leaves falls to the ground to both provide nutrients as well as to mulch and insulate the soil temperature. Second, by dropping their leaves, the canopy trees above allow for the winter sun to penetrate into the soil below, spawning the growth and flowering of understory herbs and shrubs.

At the beginning of each year, nurseries around the county offer bare root fruit trees. These berries and trees are still dormant until warmer weather and longer days coax them from their winter rest.  For dormant fruit trees, winter is the time to do pruning. While they rest without leaves, they are less fussy about pruning or transplanting.

Now is the best time to get them for ~40% of the price they will be in the spring. An added bonus, as they are “bare”, they are lighter and easier to transport.

Good Varieties for Bare Root Fruit Trees

Apples: “Gala” or other low-chill variety*

Pears: “20th Century Asian” or “D’Anjou”

Plum: “Elephant Heart” or “Santa Rosa”

Pluot: “Flavor Grenade” or “Flavor King”

Apricot: “Blenheim”

Persimmon: “Jiro Fuyu”

Good Varieties for Bare Root Berries

Red Raspberry: try “Willamette”or “Autumn Bliss”

Fall Golden Raspberry: “Fall Golden”

Black Raspberry: try “Black Munger” or “Cumberland Black Cap”

Grapes: “Flame”or “Thompsons”

Kiwi: “Vincent Tender”

Planting Guidelines for Bare Root Fruit Trees

Because bare root are without soil, it is important to create a fertile soil blend. One easy way is to utilize an OMRI-listed organic bag planting mix, i.e. Fox Farm’s Ocean Forest.

Step One: Dig an over-sized hole.

Step Two: Create a soil “pyramid” under where plant will go.

Step Three: Measure the height of the bare root from root bottom to root crown.

Step Four: Open the roots to “skirt” on the soil “pyramid”.

Step Five: Fill hole with soil and lightly tamp it to secure tree/shrub at proper height and that it sits straight up and down in its new hole.

Step Six: Mulch with wood chips or straw. This will insulate and protect its roots while it regenerates.

Step Seven: Water in the new plants.

You can order bare root stock from Grow Organic and learn more about food forestry at Native Sun Gardens. Here’s a helpful link specific to currants.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Spring 2018 Featured Vegetable Seeds

Each spring brings the anticipation of a new gardening season—and the promise of a bountiful crop of new vegetable varieties to grow in the garden. Spring 2018 is no different, with lots of new vegetable varieties and seed collections to entice new and experienced gardeners alike.

Seed catalogs and websites are always looking to make each spring season a better growing experience than the last, whether it be growing bigger harvest, giving a garden classic a new twist, or designing new growing containers to take your garden to the next level.

There will be tons of new seeds on the online shelves this season, but a few truly stand out from the rest, and are sure to be this season’s biggest hits.

tomatoPark’s Legacy Tomato Seeds

This season, Park Seed Company is celebrating 150 years of selling seeds. To mark this occasion, the company has released Park’s Legacy Tomato Seeds, boasting its unbeatable flavor while being easy to care for. The seed will produce round 10-12 ounce ruby-red tomatoes, and is superb disease resistance, making your job of growing them that much easier.

 

tomatoAtlas Hybrid Tomato Seeds

Beefsteak tomatoes have always been a popular choice for backyard gardens, but unfortunately have always grown too large for anyone who may not have the backyard space. Now, there is Burpee’s new Beefsteak Hybrid Tomato, designed to grow in smaller spaces such as porches or patios. The seeds are designed to produce a more compacted tomato plant, so that anyone can now grow them without worrying about having the space.

 

 

cucumberGateway Hybrid Cucumber Seeds

Park Seed Company loves their new Gateway Hybrid Cucumber seeds so much, they’ve featured it alongside their anniversary legacy tomatoes! The seeds are designed to withstand almost any disease, including downy mildew, powdery mildew, target leaf spot, angular leaf spot, and zucchini yellow mosaic virus.

  

potatoBlue Belle Potatoes

A mid-season potato, the Blue Belle from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds an unusual variety with a wide range of wonderful culinary uses. No matter how you eat it – roasted, boiled, baked, or mashed – this potato will always taste amazing, and will become a staple in your garden, as well as in your kitchen. Every order of Blue Bell Potato seeds comes with a free recipe book filled with colorful photos and delicious French-inspired recipes by chef Jason Bayes including Blue Belle Millefeuille and Blue Belle Flower.

 

pepperWhopper II Hybrid Bell Pepper Seeds

A garden favorite for many years, Park’s Whopper II Hybrid Bell Pepper returns with better disease resistance, higher yields, and even more delicious fruit. This giant summer-season bell measure 4 inches cross and 4 inches long, with very thick walls and a sweet, juicy and tender flavor perfect that is great for raw or cooked eating. As the peppers mature, they turn from bright green to red—and the flavor sweetens further still.

 

seedsLandreth Vegetable Seed Collection

The oldest seed house in America, D. Landreth Seed Company, offers a historic collection of seeds this season. The seed collection is based around varieties of vegetables that have thrived in American gardens for decades upon decades, and is packaged in original historic packets that can be considered collectible works-of-art, having come straight from the historical archives of Landreth’s Seed Company.

  

cowpotsCowPots Biodegradable Seed-Starting Pots

CowPots, the biodegradable seed-starting pots, can help you start your garden this year on an eco-friendly foot. The pots re 100 percent natural and biodegradable, made from composted cow manure. The true beauty of CowPots is their ability to eliminate transplant, since the entire pot can be planted in the ground, where the pot decomposes as it provides nutrients for the plant.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase. 

Growing Peppers 101: Know More and Grow Better

Beautiful Roasting Peppers

Growing peppers seems to come naturally for some gardeners, while others always seem to struggle. Sometimes this stems from easily-avoided mistakes or accepting certain myths or misinformation as correct.

Today we’re looking at the basics of growing peppers in your home garden and some mistakes and myths to be aware of and avoid. You might look at this as a how-not-to guide because occasionally it’s just easier showing what not to do than describing and explaining the right way. Plus, seeing other’s mistakes sometimes sinks in faster.

These are our observations from our 20+ years of gardening experience combined with the past 10 years of gardening questions we’ve answered.

Conditions

The initial conditions you choose are critical to sprouting, transplanting and growing success, no matter what seed you are planting. Here are some things to consider as you grow your peppers this season.

Starting Seeds

Pepper seed germination – even under optimum conditions – is often slow and erratic. Don’t compare your tomato seed germination with peppers and think they aren’t performing as they should.

Tomatoes can sprout in 3 – 5 days in ideal conditions, while peppers might take 14 to 21 days. This is normal, be patient, and don’t worry!

The two most common problems in pepper seed germination for home gardeners is soil that is too cool and not moist enough.

Use any readily available thermometer that will accurately read in the 60° to 100°F range and insert it an inch into the soil. If it’s 80° or above, you should have good success. Soil temperature below 75° can delay seed germination by 3 weeks or more!

An effortless way to determine soil moisture is by touching the surface of the soil with your finger – it should be damp to slightly wet where you touched the soil, and you can feel the moisture when you rub your fingers together. If not, it’s a little too dry.A good rule of thumb for germinating pepper seeds is warm, moist soil – meaning 80° – 90°F – watered from above with warm water.

This will consistently give you better germination on all pepper seeds – sweet or hot. Maintain the soil temperature with heat mats or placing the seedling flats in a consistently warm area such as on top of a freezer or refrigerator. Warm water from above minimizes the cooling effect on the soil as opposed to bottom watering during sprouting. Once the seedlings have sprouted, switch to bottom watering to minimize mold and fungus issues.

Transplanting

Young seedlings need to be conditioned or prepared for the outside garden environment, or they will suffer greatly or die. Seedlings are tender with soft tissues, sensitive leaves, and small root systems. They aren’t ready to be plopped into the early spring garden without hardening off, sort of like a boot camp or physical conditioning program. This usually takes about 2 weeks of setting the seedlings outside for short periods and going longer as they toughen up.

The ideal transplanting day is warm soil with cloud cover and little to no breeze. Seedlings need warm and moist soil, much like they have before transplanting. Give them a drink of water immediately after transplanting to help avoid shock.

The biggest issues with transplanting are soil that is too cold, too dry (or too wet) or the seedlings are still too tender and need more hardening off. It’s better to wait a few days to a week than jump the gun, transplant too early and lose your hard work.

Peppers like to be close, but not too close. 18 inch spacing between plants is a good start – smaller plants can be planted a foot apart, while larger ones will need 18-24 inches. You want the plants to grow a good leaf canopy that shades the fruit from sunscald while not competing with each other and becoming leggy or spindly.

Chocolate Mini Bell Peppers

Growing

To keep your sweet peppers sweet, don’t plant them close to your hot ones; they will readily cross-pollinate, and you’ll have extremely hot sweet peppers! We learned this one summer when we had Jalapenos upwind of our bell peppers. The unexpected bite of a fiery bell shocked us; we later taste-tested and found the bell peppers were hotter than the Jalapenos.

Giving your peppers some space is the best solution – distance minimizes the chance of hot pepper pollen finding your sweet pepper’s flower, either by wind or pollinators. Seed growers isolate peppers by 1,500 feet, but if we’ve found planting sweets 50 feet or more upwind of the prevailing breeze is pretty dependable. Peppers also grow well in containers or large pots so you can grow them well away from the garden if needed.

Peppers produce best with moderate temperatures, although they can tolerate warmer days if it cools off at night.

Much like tomatoes, the key to getting big harvests is night-time temperatures. Peppers set the most flowers – thus the most fruit – between 65° and 80°F at night. Above about 86°F the blossoms drop off, costing you precious peppers. High winds, lack of pollinators and excessive nitrogen – such as with synthetic fertilizers – also cause blossom drop.

Sustained daytime temperatures above 95°F causes the pollen to become sterile with lower harvests. Shading the peppers also reduces sunscald and the loss of immature pods from heat stress. Sunscald happens when leaves don’t protect ripening peppers from the sun and they get a sunburned appearance.

Pod drop happens when immature pepper pods drop off the plant, most often caused by high heat combined with water stress or excessive nitrogen fertilizer. Shade cloth reduces the heat, and a drip system on a timer moderates the moisture and avoids large swings that stress the plant, causing it to shed pepper pods. Consistent moisture is best for healthy growth – not just with peppers – and avoids the soil getting too dry between waterings.

A good layer of straw mulch also maintains soil moisture levels between watering. We’ve found mulch reduces the amount of time our drip system is on, by cutting down the amount of water that is lost to evaporation.

Peppers, along with most vegetables, like rich, well-balanced, and fertile soil to grow in. Too much of any one thing can be detrimental, and too much nitrogen leads to exuberant leaf and flower growth with little to no fruit set – most often seen in peppers and tomatoes. There aren’t enough other nutrients to support the fruit growth from all of those flowers.

Rotating beds where you grow peppers every year helps prevent many diseases and over-wintered bugs from attacking. Good soil fertility is the best prevention.

Blossom end rot in peppers is much the same as in tomatoes, caused mainly by a lack of available calcium in the plant as it starts setting fruit – often large amounts of fruit at the same time. It can also be caused by large fluctuations in soil moisture, such as forgetting to water or a rain after it’s gotten dry. The usual suspect – excess nitrogen – also plays a part here.

Feeding the plants with a 20% solution of milk   – 2 cups of milk in 8 cups of water – with a teaspoon of molasses gives the plants a boost in calcium and much-needed sugars for fruit production. Give each plant a cup of the solution once a week until the new fruit starts setting, then twice a month during heavy production.

Capsaicin Line in Pepper

Harvesting and Handling

Almost all peppers go through several colors before ripening to maturity – both in color and flavor. The green stage is usually the least flavorful and sweet, but sometimes the spiciest and a bit bitter. As it ripens through yellow, orange and into red, the flavors become richer and deeper, with the sweetness developing and the heat mellowing. Try picking your peppers at all of the stages to see what you like best!

A good rule of thumb for picking is if the pepper is easily removed from the stem, it’s ready. If you have to pull or tug on the pod, it’s still too early.

This changes, of course, if you are harvesting continuously to increase the harvest – you’ll be removing slightly young peppers. In this case, it’s best to cut the peppers off the stem to avoid damaging the plant by pulling, as the plant will usually break before the stem does.

Capsaicin – the “heat” in peppers – is located on the ribs and seeds. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny yellow dots on the ribs – this is the pure form and is concentrated. If you prick one of these dots, you’ll feel it’s effects – sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Avoid touching it with bare skin to prevent spreading it to your face, eyes, etc.

Some otherwise sweet peppers have a hot streak on the ribs and seeds, so now you know how to handle them.

Some people are simply extremely sensitive, no matter how mild!

Myths

One of the biggest myths we’ve seen is the one that the different number of lobes on a bell pepper determines it’s sex – such as “3 lobes means it’s female and sweeter, 4 lobes are male and hotter”…

First – peppers, like tomatoes, are “perfect” flowers, meaning they have both male and female organs in the same flower and can self-pollinate.

Second off – and this is common sense – if this was true, you would need to buy “male” and “female” pepper seeds for reproduction, right? After all, if 3 lobes are “female” and 4 lobes are “male”, it stands to reason they would produce the same sex seeds, thus the need for male and female seeds to be planted close to each other.

So, where have you seen “male” or “female” pepper seeds for sale? Or maybe we should capture that market share?

Another myth is that all red peppers are hot, while green peppers are sweet. 

This most likely arises from people only seeing green bell peppers in the supermarket, and not realizing that they ripen into different shades of yellow, orange, or red and are still sweet. 

The fallacy is easily seen with both bell peppers and Jalapeños are both green on store shelves! 

Your Tips?

What are your proven, never-fail tips for growing the best peppers? Share your experiences below so we can all grow better peppers!


Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice, and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this! Read all of Stephen and Cindy's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.