Planting tomatoes and peppers

By Rebecca Jepsen
for the Mercury News
April 3, 2009

For all of you early risers who already have your cup of coffee and paper in hand — it's not too late to get over to the Spring Garden Market at History San Jose. The market runs today from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. You will be able to choose from more than 80 varieties of tomatoes and 90 varieties of peppers. For details, click on http://www.mastergardeners.org/spring-garden-market.

If you miss today's event, don't despair — we will be having a second market in Palo Alto on April 11 from 9 a.m. to noon.

Then comes the question of what to do with all those fabulous plants once you get them home.

Patience is the first requirement. It's generally recommended to wait until the first couple of weeks of May to plant your tomatoes; that's when nighttime temperatures normally stay above the mid-50s.

Until then, keep your plants in a warm, sunny location, protected from the cold.

A common practice among avid tomato growers is to pinch off lower leaves, leaving just the top two or three sets a few days before planting. Place the plant in the soil all way up to the lower leaves when planting. This allows roots to form where leaf nodes were, resulting in a stronger, more stable plant.

Tomatoes do best when planted in full sun. If planting in the ground, plant in plain soil, mixing in a bit of organic compost; no other amendment is required.

To avoid disease and fungus, it is best to rotate your planting location. Avoid areas where you have grown tomatoes, peppers or eggplants in the past three years. If that is not possible, buy disease-resistant varieties; plants labeled with a V will be resistant to Verticillium wilt, and those with an F will resist Fusarium wilt — two common problems with many tomatoes.

Tomatoes also do well in containers. Depending on the size of the pot, you may want to choose bush or determinate varieties that normally grow to 3 feet or less. When planting in a container, use a good quality potting soil, with organic compost and slow release fertilizer mixed in.

Tomatoes do best with consistent water. Irrigate about twice a week during the early part of the growing season and reduce watering by as much as 50 percent once the fruit has started to ripen.

Over- or inconsistent watering can lead to blossom end rot — a brownish, rotten-looking section at the bottom of the fruit. Although not pretty to look at, blossom end rot does not damage the entire tomato; simply cut it off and enjoy the rest.

As with your new tomatoes, peppers need to be protected from the cold and planted once nighttime temperatures stay above the mid-50s. When you are ready to plant your peppers, soak the plants in a bucket of water to make sure the root ball is thoroughly wet. If the plant is root-bound, (a tight mass of white roots), gently tear them apart with your hand or a sharp knife.

If planting in the ground, space the peppers about 10 to 12 inches apart. For peppers that produce large-sized fruit, planting two peppers per hole will allow them to support each other and produce a dense leaf cover; this will reduce sunburn by providing additional shade. Sunburn isn't as big a problem for peppers with smaller fruit so just plant them one per hole.

For best fruit production, especially on larger-podded peppers, pick off all flowers and fruit for the first three to six weeks after planting. This "tough love" will result in deeper root growth and more foliage on the plant before the fruiting starts.

Peppers need more water than tomatoes, especially if you are planting in containers.

Water pots every other day for the first few weeks. Watering by hand in the early growing stage is recommended to ensure that you thoroughly soak the potting soil. Again, when planting in containers, mix in organic compost and slow release fertilizer.

Peppers and chiles need nitrogen for leaf growth. Feed the plants about once a month using an organic general-purpose vegetable fertilizer. Follow directions on the box and be sure to keep the fertilizer about four inches away from the stem of the plant.

Some varieties grow quite large, so they may need to be staked; small tomatoes cages work as well. To get the biggest bang out of your peppers, it's important to pick them when they are the right size and color — label them as you plant and make harvesting notes.

Once the peppers are established, drip irrigation and soaker hoses work well.

If you have the peppers on timers, be sure to cut back with cooler weather and add more time when the weather is hot. Using a moisture meter will help take the guess work out of watering.

If you are new to growing peppers, you might want to start out with a sweet one, such as Corno di Toro. A mild option would be one of the NuMex varieties. If it's heat you are looking for, try a jalapeño or Serrano chili. Rocoto is a great perennial option that will last for many years if protected from excessive frost.

EARTH DAY: Earth Day is April 22; there are many "green" events happening this month all around the Bay Area, including the Green Fair in Willow Glen on April 18th. Get out and plant a tree on April 24th in honor of Arbor Day; look for a native, water-wise option.

Master Gardener Jim Maley contributed to this column. Master gardener Sue Van Stee contributed to last month's column on bees. Sorry for the omission.