Thoughts on Growing….Peppers & Tomatoes!

There are as many ways to grow vegetables as there are gardeners, and opinions abound. People need to find what works for their growing situation – as the saying goes, all gardening is local. That said, here are some of my thoughts after the last 15 years of growing pepper plants and tomato plants – these are some approaches that have worked for me. I was not a very successful pepper grower in particular when I started gardening! It is one of the vegetables that I struggled with most to get consistently good harvests with, some years the plants had pretty paltry yields. I think peppers benefit most, of all home veggies, from continuing to upgrade technique & approach and I’m still learning. A good approach will benefit tomatoes too, but tomatoes seem to do relatively well even when the technique is not ideal. The tomato tips here are more about putting a fine point on cultivating superior flavor and simplicity of growing, with the least amount of staking fuss, which can be a real pain in the rear if you have lots of plants. So here goes.

I can’t emphasize this enough for both peppers and tomatoes- germination mats, germination mats, germination mats!

All nightshades will benefit from these mats, peppers most especially. I don’t recommend trying hot peppers seeds over a year old if you don’t have one – I consider mats that essential. Pepper seeds with some wildness in their genes will fall into dormancy just as perennials will, because in their original habitat peppers grow as perennials. Germination mats really help to awaken seeds from dormancy, they both speed germination and increase germination rates. Pepper seeds will usually sprout without a mat even if they have gone dormant, but this can take a long time, sometimes weeks or even months. I have seen pepper seed I’ve given up on sprout 3 months later when I reuse the soil elsewhere. Tomatoes, too, sprout so much more quickly and vigorously on heating mats; it isn’t nearly as essential for them as it is for peppers, but mats really are the cat’s meow when it comes to sprouting these kinds of seeds. If you have a small number of rare seeds, using mats also helps to ensure you’ll succeed with what you have. I feel that if people bought even one, to try it, and saw how well they work, they would be committed thereafter to using them. I was skeptical until I tried them too. I do forgo the dome covers on the mat sets, and use individual baggies over each pot, secured with an elastic. This way I can control humidity and moisture by flipping the baggies inside out and recovering the pots with the dry side. You can also snip a little hole in the top of the baggies for air circulation. Trapping the heat in there with the baggies takes using the mats to the next level.

Pepper Growing 

As far as hot varieties go, starting early is a very good idea.  If you have decent lighting for them, even January is not too early.  It’s surprising how well they can do as a houseplant in a good window. I highly recommend pruning the growth tips at least once when the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, especially for hots.  This can really increase your harvests.  Sweet peppers are more quick growing, so they shouldn’t be started as early as hots.  I do find the standard 8 week mark to be a little late though; personally, I prefer 12 or even 10 weeks before the last frost date to start sweet peppers.  Growing pepper plants is easy, but growing them really well and reaping large harvests is an art form.  I’m only just starting to get the hang of what works in my garden.  What I’ve learned so far in regards to fertility – they love granulated chicken manure as a fertility source.  Fish meal works absolute wonders for them too, I make a trench 6 inches out from the pepper row and fill it with fish meal.  I also sprinkle with a bit of Epsom salts, and turn in some kelp around the plants.  Every time I water I make sure to drench all the way out to the trench. Also VERY important – DON’T let small plants flower! This will stunt your plants and knock back most of their yield. Sweet peppers are very domesticated and have instincts that work against themselves, they will flower before the plants are capable of bearing a load of fruit. Keep picking off flowers until the plant is a good size – this is part of why starting early is a good idea. (It isn’t so necessary to pick flowers from hot peppers, they aren’t as affected by fruit production when immature.) The bigger the plant you set out is, the bigger harvest you’ll reap and the same goes for branching.

Peppers need both heat and sun to do well outdoors, BUT the ratio for those requirements is not  50/50.  I would say they need 60 heat / 40 sun.  My peppers often do better in areas where they get a little shade for part of the day. Direct hot sun in a hot summer can actually work against your sweet and hot pepper plants!  It’s heat that they really need to produce well, not so much direct sun, along with good fertility.  So anything you can do to increase trapped heat for outdoor peppers will help, like against a south facing wall for instance.  In nature peppers are understory plants, so direct sun all day long is not what they have evolved to prefer. If you feel your potted pepper plants are sitting their doing nothing, move them to a spot where they get some shade in the day and see if they seem to perk up and experience a spurt of growth. If they do, you know you made the right move. Sensitivity to direct sun does vary from one variety to another so it’s worth experimenting.

Tomato Growing

Oh, the eternal debate on pruning! It’s a good place to start since that’s the meat and potatoes of tomato growing topics. I’ll begin saying this – more leaves means more taste in your fruit! The more green matter you allow on the plant, the more flavour because flavor is actually manufactured in the leaves through photosynthesis and transferred to the tomato at maturity; this is why it’s better (when possible, I realize chipminks exist and early fall frosts) to ripen tomato varieties on the vine or you lose some flavour. It’s also why those potato leaved tomato plants (the ones with the huge leaves that don’t have serrated edges) tend to have tomatoes with great taste. Determinate tomatoes often don’t taste as good as indeterminates – indeterminates have much more leaves. In fact, famously great tasting tomatoes like Brandywine have such great taste because they are also famously low yielding – so they have LOTS of leaves and less fruit than average so each fruit has maximum flavor. This is something akin to giant pumpkin growing where they allow only one pumpkin per vine to maximize its’ size, only with tomatoes its about maximizing the taste. Of course, there is a balance to be had between good taste and good yields. Personally, I think the single stem method tied to a support is far overrated and drastically reduces your harvest and some of its taste. This has to be weighed, of course, against problems you might have with a huge, sprawling plant  – particularly if you’re in a humid climate and blight is a problem.

My preferred support is a homemade circular cage made of livestock wire fencing with a 20 to 22 inch diameter, 4 feet in height. Studies were done at OSU in regards to cage circumference related to yields, and I mimicked that experiment in my garden and got the same results: with each inch lost in circumference on a cage, the yield goes down. 22 inches is really ideal for the cages, under 20 is not and yields will drop. The downsides of cages like this are that they take up space, and occasionally tomatoes grow trapped in the mesh.  Sometimes picking them is a hand over hand exercise up the cage if they are growing low on the plant. The cost of the roll for making the cages is pricey too, though they do last a long time. I’ve had mine for a decade and they are showing no signs of needing retirement. The upsides are many; the yields are utterly maximized, taste is maximized, no pruning needed and no sunscald to the fruit. Plants stay fully upright and off the ground, no messing with stakes that fall over and take the plant with it. Plants left to sprawl without cages are often tempting to critters, including slugs and chipmunks.  Cages are a very low maintenance way to grow lots of tomatoes without a lot of trouble and fuss. You need space to store them in winter though because they are a fair size – I have 23, 22 and 21 inches cages and I nest them inside one another in 3’s to take up less space.

​Container grown plants can do very well, and often result in a better flavour, especially for cherry tomatoes. I don’t grow cherry tomatoes in the ground anymore, only in pots for this reason. Plants that are slightly nutrient deprived taste better. I’ve met so many people struggling to get great tasting tomatoes – aside from poor variety choice, without a doubt pampering the plants too much is the root of the problem. Too much fertility will result in a gorgeous, luxuriously verdant green plant – but that does not necessarily mean great tomatoes. By the time fruits are maturing the plants should look less than perfect because they are transferring energy from leaves into fruits. Trying to keep the plants looking beautiful right to the end with fertilizer will take away from the taste of the tomatoes. Much like rosemary or basil, their flavors improve with some deprivation. Watering has to be done judiciously too. Potted tomatoes, though they often taste a bit better, need more attention than those in the ground because they dry out more quickly and need to be given fertility and be watered frequently (I never amend in ground tomatoes with fertility once planted, only pots). I rely on chicken manure, and worm casting tea for potted tomatoes.  Keeping the watering even can be tricky in a hot summer; I water in the morning and evening to try to keep things balanced so they never go from super dry to saturated – which can lead to problems. The most ideal method for watering container tomatoes bar none is bottom watering, though it’s not easy to do that if you have a lot of pots. I sometimes use a kiddie pool and plunk a couple pots in at a time. The water is held so much better by the soil, and I don’t need to give the plants water as frequently.

3 thoughts on “Optimizing Pepper and Tomato Growth: Unique Insights and Methods”

  1. Susan

    This is very helpful information. Thank you!

  2. I was recommended this website by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my difficulty. You are wonderful! Thanks!

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