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Sunday, August 17, 2014

How To Grow Jalapeño Peppers In Containers

Jalapeño plant
Welcome back to My Garden Haven! As promised, here's the section for how to grow jalapeño peppers in containers. Jalapeños are relatively easy to take care of once you have the right requirements, but can be challenging to grow in places that have cold temperatures and wet climates. However, those conditions should not discourage you. If you have started with basil, oregano, and other easy-to-grow herbs, it’s time to step things up a notch and grow peppers in your garden.

I got my seeds from Canada, and I went ballistic when I saw them in the balikbayan box that my mom sent in. I did the crazy pepper dance (whatever that is, I leave it for you to imagine) and plans start blooming in my head, all of them starting from salsa, enchiladas, and sauces – and I haven’t even planted the seeds yet. Crazy I know, but these thoughts really spurred me to growing jalapeño peppers on my balcony.


The Basics

Do not be daunted over the task. First, you need to know that jalapeños are native to Mexico, which translates for the need to provide a dry and warm environment. Stress on the dry, we’ll get to that later. If you live in the tropics as I do, or if you have awesome winters like in the States and Europe, container gardening will give you the flexibility of providing a controlled environment. You can change the location of your containers by bringing them indoors, or by placing them inside cold frames to protect them from frosts if you wish to extend your growing period.

The second part that you need to consider is the size. Jalapeño peppers can grow 2-4 feet high, so provide ample space for the peppers to grow. A pot size of 3 gallons or 10 inches minimum will serve you well – relatively smaller compared to container requirements for tomatoes, eh? This makes your peppers perfect to grow in a small balcony or window sill. Regardless, if you wish to plant several jalapeños in a large pot, plant them at least 12 inches apart from each other. I advise the use of terra cotta pots as they can leech out excess moisture from the plant better than ceramic or plastic containers. Do not forget to add drainage holes at the bottom of the pot as well as small pebbles or broken pieces of terra cotta pots to further help with the drainage

The third and most important of all is the sun. An average of 6 hours direct sunlight will give you the best jalapeños ever, better if you can push it up to 8 hours. My balcony gives my peppers direct sunlight for 6-7 hours, and the result is a green and lush pepper plant with lots of flowers.

Soil

Your jalapeños will grow best in a medium that has excellent drainage – and poor water retention. Which means you do not have to spend so much on getting the best potting mix that has all the fixins that most fruit plants need. All you need is a reliable, well-draining organic soil mix amended with compost. If you live in the tropics, then by all means use a 4:1 ratio of organic soil mix and sand for better drainage. If you prefer to make your own mix, do with:
  • 1/3 garden soil (avoid clay!)
  • 1/3 vermiculite
  • 1/3 sand
Jiffy Compost Plug Pellets
For seedling plugs, a regular organic potting mix amended with compost will do great as a starter. If you want to make things easier, then go for Jiffy Compost Plug Pellets. I used them once, and they are really handy once the need for transplanting arrives. About 2-3 seeds per plug that are preferably at least 2 inches deep will do quite nicely.

Note: Prepare the Jiffy Compost Plug Pellets according to package instructions before you plant the seeds.

Timing and Temperature

Yes, timing is crucial because temperatures play a major role in germination and seedling health. My seed packet said to sow the seeds indoors 8 weeks before the final frost for successful germination and to prevent diseases. Generally, your window is within 6-10 weeks before your area’s last frost. Ambient temperatures of 23-29 degrees Celsius or 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit backed up with soil temperatures on a regular 18 degrees Celsius or 65 degrees Fahrenheit will give you satisfactory germination rates. A place above your refrigerator will do nicely, and be careful when using heating trays because they can cook seedlings.

Seeds: Patience is a Virtue

For the seeds, different people will tell you different ways how to start your jalapeño. These can include:
  • Soaking the seeds in warm water overnight before planting
  • Wrapping the seeds in damp paper towels placed inside a Ziploc bag
  • No prepping, just plant it according to package instructions!
Jalapeño seeds
A lot of gardeners will attest to the prepping part of the seeds, especially during cold temperatures. Your seeds will come out looking like those in the picture when you take them out of the package: all shriveled and full of potential. I did a little experiment after planting and prepped a second batch of seeds using the 2nd option. The seeds came out plump, smooth, and eager to germinate.

As for the featured jalapeño plant, what I did was the last one: no prepping. I just did as the package instructed, which was to sow the seeds ¼” or 5 mm deep. I took out a dying Philippine Oregano that’s been in this flower box since 2010 (great herb, totally cleaned the pot of bacteria and parasite), and prepped it by removing small stones, loosening the soil, and adding compost for good measure.

If you are going to start in a seedling plug, place 2-3 seeds per plug. Keep the medium moist but not wet. Your seeds need moisture, but a wet environment will result in seed rot. Keep the soil moisture similar to a well-wrung sponge, and cover the tray with plastic wrap to lock the moisture in. If you are using plug pellets, place them inside a container that is an inch taller compared to the plugs, then place a plastic wrap over it. Use a mister every now and then once you see the soil surface lighten up in color. proper air circulation is also needed to avoid molds and fungus from developing in your plugs.

Seeds will show signs of germination 7-12 days after planting, while other jalapeño cultivars may need 3-5 weeks to germinate. Our temperature was within 36-38 degrees Celsius, perfect for seed germination and my unprepped seeds took about nearly about 4-5 days to germinate. As for the prepped ones? Ants ate them. Yes, we have mutant ants that eat chili pepper seeds, how rotten is that?

Thinning Out

Thin out your seedlings by cutting the thin and small ones in each plug close to the ground using small clippers, leaving behind 1 healthy seedling per plug. Thinning out is done once you see a pair of true leaves emerge, and should not be done by pulling out the seedlings. You might pull out the healthy seedling along with the one you’re pulling out, or injure the roots of the healthy one if you do so.

Hardening

Hardening is done once the seedlings are 2-3 inches tall. Start by placing a small fan near the seedlings and turning it to a setting similar to a light breeze several times a day, with each session lasting 1-2 minutes, for a total accumulated time of 15-30 minutes a day. Or you can go manual by gently brushing the seedlings with your fingers back and forth. This is to encourage your plants to toughen up the stems against strong winds and rain.

You have the option of transplanting the jalapeño seedlings to a larger pot and continue the hardening process, or harden the seedlings in their trays or plugs before you transplant them in your container outside if you are going to use a large pot. If you have opted to transplant prior to hardening, place the plants inside a trolley to help make the trip easier and less tiring, especially if you have several pots or a large pot with several seedlings.

For the rest of the hardening process, you will need to gradually introduce your seedlings outside its controlled environment for an hour for the first day. Increase the length of exposure by an hour each day until it you are able to reach 8 hours of full external exposure. Once this is reached, typically 8-10 days after the start of the hardening process, you can now leave your seedling outside overnight once the threat of frost has stopped in your area.

Transplanting

Transplant the seedlings once you see 2-3 pairs of true leaves. This will give you a better success for your seedlings to thrive because they have enough roots and leaves to cope with the stress of transplanting. Layer the bottom of the pot with an inch of compost, or according to the suggested ratio of your chosen compost brand.

Slowly take out the seedling from the plug tray and carefully loosen up the roots before you place them in the pot. If you are using Jiffy Compost Plug Pellets, just loosen the roots if needed, then place the seedling inside the pot. Take out two pairs of bottom leaves while you’re at it. Carefully cover your seedling with soil, right up to where you took out the leaves and lightly press the soil down to remove air pockets. This is ensure a healthy plant that has a good root system and not leggy. Water deeply.

TLC – Yes or No

There are different views on just how good or how poor soil conditions should be when it comes to fertilizers and moisture.
   Left: withered = water            Right: okay = no watering

Watering

Fallen buds
Remember that I told you that you really need to seriously consider that jalapeños are native to Mexico?
Mexico has a very dry climate, and soil conditions are sandy at best. With that in mind, your jalapeño needs to be given water, but will thrive best if moisture is kept to a minimal. Some will also tell you that you need to wait for the plant to wilt before you give it water so that it will produce peppers that give off great flavor and heat.

From my experience, too much water can lead to complications that can affect plant vitality and fruit production. It’s very easy for jalapeños to experience root rot if you give it too much water. My jalapeño suffered through 7 days of heavy monsoon rains after Typhoon Glenda, resulting to a massive flower drop. The flowers were already in full bloom, with the anthers all fuzzy and green with all that pollen. Unfortunately, the flowers died before they turned into full grown jalapeño peppers.
Young jalapeño fruits

A week of dry and hot weather graced my jalapeño, so right now I have about 6 peppers waiting to become
fully matured. Yay! Unfortunately, wet season has started again, so I am now seeing massive bloom drop.

There is also a very interesting discussion about growing jalapeños in a tropical environment. Too much water can also kill seedlings, so if you are successful in germinating seeds but failing in terms of seedling growth, check your moisture level.

The best way to go is water your plants every 2-3 days during hot weather, and every 4-5 days during cool temperatures. Do not give water if you live in a tropical country. Containers will be your friend if you are in a tropical climate because you can remove the peppers from the rain or place a canopy or cover over it so that it will not get soaked. I regret planting my jalapeños in the fixed flower box because I cannot do anything about it during this monsoon season.

Fertilizer

Plants generally need fertilizers to produce high yield and promote vigor, and this I agree on. But considering the dry, arid lands of Mexico, the general rule for jalapeños is the poorer the soil, the better the harvest.

As for fertilizing, I am still in the experimenting stage. I use fish emulsion as spray and feed every two weeks according to package instructions. Compost will be applied every 3-4 weeks to keep the leaves green, but not overly large. I am being careful with the fertilizer because too much can also lead to flower drop.

One thing is common over the idea of fertilizers for jalapeños in containers: less and regular. Mild application given in fixed and stable schedules will give you a healthy plant and a satisfactory yield.

Harvesting

Jalapeño flowers
Your jalapeño peppers will enthusiastically produce beautiful pristine white flowers with violet anthers about 2-3 months from planting. These anthers will gradually turn into a pale green color and become fuzzy once it is ready to become a prized jalapeño pepper, which you can pick roughly a month or two once the buds bloom - granted that they are successfully pollinated. You can harvest them while they are smooth and vivid green in color, or wait for them to turn red and cork for a sweeter flavor and milder heat with a soft texture.

Jalapeños are ready for harvesting when they are deep green and glossy, if they have small cracks on the skin near the junction of the stem and fruit, or when they turn red in color. Sometimes corking will be your indication for harvesting, which is the appearance of several tiny brown lines on the surface of your pepper.

Some harvest jalapeños while they are smooth, but enthusiasts prefer to wait for corking because that’s when you will get the best heat from jalapeño peppers. Once you see corking, pick out the peppers regardless of how small or big they are because they are good to go.

Harvest by using a knife or small shears to cut through the stem as you hold the jalapeño pepper. This is to prevent damaging the plant which can result to poor yield in the future.
You can also leave the peppers in the plant until they turn red in color. The catch is, your plant will no longer produce as much flowers, or stop producing flowers entirely because it’s concentrating on the fruits. Just don’t leave them on too long because they can rot and cause disease.

You can store the peppers in a sealed bag placed in your crisper, or preserve them by roasting, canning, pickling, freezing, or drying. Take note that only red ones can be dried for storage.

Now that you have the basics down, go ahead and get started on your jalapeño pepper seeds. It’s really easy to grow as long as you have good observation skills. Keep a journal on what you have been doing with your peppers so far so that you can trace what you’re doing right, and pinpoint what you are doing wrong. If you have questions, feel free to do so using the comment section below.

Good luck, and happy gardening!



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