Garden Planning

Pepper growing techniques can fill a book. I would suggest that you get The Pepper Garden by Paul Bosland and Dave Dewitt. Following are some additional planning tips that I find useful.

Pepper Growing Time Frame

Growing peppers requires careful planning which begins for me in early winter for the next summer crop. Too often people start thinking about growing peppers when spring arrives which for most of the USA is too late for starting seeds. Fortunately there are many commercial vendors of seedlings so you can still plant something – though your selection will be limited.

For my area the best time to put seedling into the ground is around May 1. Using this a reference point I extrapolate backwards to generate a table of time guidelines:

Event:  Date:  Next step  Time Req’d
Planting Outside May 1 Produce Fruit 60 – 120 days
Seedlings are ready to Harden Off April 23 Hardening Off 1 week
Seeds have Germinated February 1 Seedling Growth 8-12 weeks
Plant Seeds January 15 Germination 1-4 weeks
Order Seeds January 1 Receive & plant seeds 2 weeks

Note the wide variations in times listed above. This is actually a good thing since one can spread out each task over time as plants become individually ready. When I start planting seeds in mid January I start with the longer germinating and/or slower growing varieties first. This would include all of the capsicum chinense’s, any non-domesticated species, chiltepines or other notoriously slow peppers, etc. Last peppers to plant would be the common commercial varieties such as Jalapenos, New mex types, Bell peppers, etc.

Using Sun Maps for Efficient Use of Limited Space

What’s a Sun Map?

If your growing space is limited, and you want to use every square foot of available space for growing, and you have anything that produces shade in and around your garden, then a sun map is very helpful for garden planning.

A Sun Map is a contour map of your garden space with the contours being hours of sunlight per day. Most people are familiar with contour maps like those of national parks or national forests, with the contours showing elevation – Sun Maps are similar except they show changes in total sunlight with location instead of changes in elevation.

Why a Sun Map?

Peppers require 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. Many areas of typical gardens are in shade for part of the day, some parts more than others. Shade comes from many common sources such as trees, buildings, fences, etc. To determine what areas are suitable for peppers and what areas are not you need a map.

You might think that determining sunny areas would be obvious without all this trouble of map making. For some gardens in the wide open this is right but for most backyards it is not as trivial as you think. It also varies with the season as the sun moves higher across the sky as summer approaches (then lower as summer progresses) so several maps will be needed.

Making a Sun Map

  1. Draw a scale map of your garden area.
  2. Pick a sunny day and from sunup to sundown, every hour on the hour, go out and draw on your scale map where the division lines are from shade to sun. Label each line with the time that the data was taken. Also show which side of the line is sunny and which is in shade.
  3. At the end of the day start a new map of the garden, divide the garden into a grid pattern and for each cell in the grid add up the hours that it was in full sun, and write this number down in the cell.
  4. When all cells all labeled draw the contours on another map showing all areas that get 8 hours plus sun, then 7 hours, then 6 hours, etc.

The first year you will not complete information from the first sun map since the amount of sun will change as the days grow longer and the sun arcs across the sky higher. Also, deciduous trees will grow leaves and block more light as the season progresses. What you need to do is make a couple more Sun Maps, one in June and another in September. These can be reused for next years planning.

After you make your maps you will be surprised at how different the real full sun times are compared to what you anticipated.

Keep in mind that the shadow lines you draw in step 2 above is at ground level. As the pepper plant grows it will usually grow into a sunnier position, so it is often possible to grow decent plants at the fringes of full sun areas. If you have areas that are sunny in the spring but less so into the summer (like near my apricot tree, after the leaves grow in and block more sun) then use this to your advantage by planting spring annuals there (basil, cilantro, etc.) or plants that produce in spring and don’t like summer heat (like artichokes). This frees up other space where you can put more peppers.

Keeping track of all the plants

If you grow a large garden you will need some method to record what is planted where. This has to start from the very beginning since most seedlings look alike and don’t differentiate in appearance for many months. If you’re growing peppers you haven’t grown before you need to be especially careful about keeping track of your plants

Bookkeeping

I draw up a crude garden map showing each raised bed location and assign each bed a letter. Each planted pepper gets a number and I right the number on the map where the plant is planted. On a computer spread sheet I record the variety and location (Fatalii, Chinense, Bed ‘E’, plant #27). I can then sort by specie, name, or location easily.

Even before the planting stage I have to keep track of varieties from the time the seeds are planted. This has always been a difficult process for me since I start off with about 500 plant seed cells. As they germinate one by one I take them out under fluorescent light so each and every cell must be labeled. Not only is this a lot of work but I haven’t found a commercially available labeling system that is practical. I would like the label to last the whole season, going from six pack cell to four inch pot, to being stapled to the pepper cage when planted. Commercial plant label stakes become brittle with UV and break up. Even Sharpie black permanent markers fade away with UV and/or insecticidal soap contact. Fine line pens allow for more info but they fade really fast. Fat line pens last longer but I can’t fit enough info to be useful on one tag.

Labeling Plants to Last the Season

I’ve come up with my own method of labeling plants. It is still a lot of work but I think it is better than the standard UV susceptible methods above:

Two Liter Soda Bottles (for plant labeling stakes)

The plastic used in these bottles doesn’t seem to be affected by UV at all. Even after years of sunlight the bottles are still pliable and strong. So I use these bottles as raw material to make seedling labels as follows:

I cut up a two liter bottle into 4 inch by 3/4 inch strips. All the strips come form the 6 inch cylindrical center portion (throw the top and bottom away). Each strip is then creased slightly lengthwise which stiffens it and keeps it straight. I also cut the corners off at one end to make a point for easy insertion into the soil. This goes very quickly – each bottle makes around 30 stakes and takes just minutes to accomplish.

Avery Clear Plastic Laser Labels (to label the stakes)

These are incredible. I started using these last year not knowing how long they would last. The main reason for using these at first was the big time savings to be had by block replicating one set of label data on a word processor and printing multiple labels from one entry. For example, if I plant two six packs of Rocotos that’s twelve labels. I used to hand write all twelve. Not only does printing save the effort of handwriting multiple labels, but by using a teeny tiny font I can fit 3 lines of text at 30 characters each line on every label. I can fit the name, species, seed source, seed planting date, and other stuff on every label.

But the real joy from these labels is their longevity. They don’t fade. They don’t weather. All are just as readable today (late september) as they were when printed late last winter (late january). On the down side, they require access to a laser printer. Also note that these are clear plastic laser labels, if you substitute anything else you are doing a new research endeavor.

The Avery number for these labels is 2660. The labels are precut to 1 inch by 2 and 5/8 inches which is way too big. They don’t yet make smaller ones. Not to worry though, I defined the labels in my word processor to be 1/4 that size so that four small labels fit nicely on one printed label which I then cut out with scissors. By defining the smaller labels in the word processor each small label’s boundaries and margins are enforced by the word processor so you don’t have to fudge each label into position. Also note that these labels are “mini sheets” which usually feed into the letter slot of the printer. The advantage here is that is doesn’t take as many labels to fill a page so there is less waste if you want to print just part of a page. The disadvantage is that now your laser printer must also support envelope printing. There are full page clear laser labels available, but one page would hold 120 mini labels – I doubt most growers would want to enter and print that many at one time.

Put the Avery labels and Soda bottles together and you have a very reliable labeling system. The label can go from cell to 4 inch pot, and finally with the plant in the ground. I usually fold the pointed end over the top rail of the pepper cage (called tomato cages in stores – silly when you consider that most tomato plants can grow 8 feet high in one season) and staple it in place.

Saving up cheap pots (milk cartons, etc.)

If you want to save on the cost of buying 4 inch pots for transplanted seedlings I would suggest saving up 1/2 gallon wax cardboard milk cartons. I save these all year long and still don’t have enough but it does reduce the number of pots I need to buy. I simple rinse them out and store. To use I cut them in half, stab them through the bottom several times for drainage, and fill with potting soil. When stabbing the bottom I twist the knife to open the hole wide enough so it can’t seal back together with soil settling..

What you have in your mind?