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Lowenfels: Growing peppers in Alaska worth the effort

Jeff Lowenfels
SECONDARY-- Serrano peppers, Fresno peppers, Habanero peppers, and assorted dried peppers shot on Monday July 10, 2006. Sacramento Bee/ Randall Benton zuma Randall Benton

If the Holy Grail of gardening is the perfect tomato, the perfect pepper can't be too far away. If want to grow a good pepper here in Alaska, as with the tomato, you need two things. First, you need an outdoor greenhouse or an indoor space to grow your plants. They won't set fruit below 55 degrees.

The second thing you need is to start seed early. These are slow-growing plants, and you need them to put on as many leaves as possible to support as many fruits as possible. You can use seed from a favorite grocery store or buy from local racks. Either way, know that pepper seeds begin to lose viability quickly. After two years, the germination rate goes way down.

There are so many varieties of peppers that you really should grow several different ones. In addition to nursery-bought seed, consider growing some hot, Thai chiles from seed liberated from a store-bought pepper. Almost any pepper you encounter while eating is fair game as long as the seed has not been cooked.

The most popular pepper for some reason is the so-called "annual" or "sweet" or "bell" pepper. Of course, all peppers are perennials, but these are the ones most folks grow in their Alaska greenhouse for one season. They do best with temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. I guess it take heat to produce heat, because the Chilean or Chinese peppers do best with ideal temperatures between 75 and 90 degrees. Plant the type of seed that will best match the growing temperatures you have.

When starting seed, the seed heating mat mentioned last week would be useful here. Seeds germinate in 14 days or so with 70 degree bottom heat. Lower temperatures up the time considerably. It takes 21 days at 60 degrees. A seed heating mat, or maybe even two, is a great investment and less than $20 if memory serves.

You can plant pepper seeds in individual pots, cell paks or in flats. Rich, compost-filled soil mixes work the best. The trick is to get lots of leaves and fruiting sites early, and this requires soil with lots of organics to supply nitrogen, among other things. Nitrogen is available using compost tea, alfalfa meal and kelp meal. Depending on soil tests (a must, if you want to be a sustainable gardener), provide missing elements.

Transplanting takes place when the plants start to grow out of their containers. You don't want to have them root bound. When transferring pepper plants, remove some of the bottom leaves and bury the exposed nodes; these will produce roots. This is a great way to get a scraggly plant into better shape. Oh, and don't forget to apply some mycorrhizal fungal spores, which you can get at your nursery.

One last note: Red peppers are mature green peppers. By waiting for yours to redden up you will increase the sweetness, nutrition and vitamin C. In Alaska, the cool temperatures in a fall greenhouse will increase the sugar content considerably. Yes, a greenhouse is required to grow good peppers (though they can be grown in the house), but the end result is a wonderful tasting fruit that is so much better than anything you can buy at the store, and peppers are a great excuse to consider erecting an outdoor greenhouse.

 

Jeff Lowenfels is author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web."

Garden calendar

Garden Lessons Learned Along the Way: March 30, 10 a.m. Alaska Mill and Feed. Robbie Frankevich has designed, installed and managed gardens in Alaska for over 20 years. Get inspired by a great slide show and learn some of his secrets. Free. Call 276-6016 to register.

VEGETABLE SEEDS TO START: TOMATOES AND PEPPERS (FRUITS, I KNOW).

FLOWERS TO START: TUBEROUS BEGONIAS, GLADS, SNAPDRAGONS, CARNATIONS VERBENA, MALVA, DUSTY MILLER, PETUNIA, LINARIA, PANSIES, VIOLETS AND PELARGONIUMS

HERBS TO START: THYME AND OREGANO


By Jeff Lowenfels
Gardening columnist