Managing peppers through to maturity

As noted last week, the balance between fruit set and leaf volume can have a major effect on the yield and bearing pattern of a pepper plant through its lifetime.

To ensure firm, thick-walled, healthy fruit, provide good nutrition.
Photo: Bill Kerr

Some varieties tend to bear continuously, while others have a concentrated bearing pattern. For the latter, it is worth making sure that the plants have a large enough frame before allowing the fruit to set. This will result in a good harvest over a short period. After this, wait until the plant starts to set another crop in its attempt to produce seed.

This approach may not suit all producers, but the effects of this bearing pattern can be offset by staggered plantings to provide a more even flow of fruit. In areas with a shorter growing season, this practice means that a later planting will have a shorter bearing period. But this, in turn, can be offset by planting different varieties, some of which will mature later.

Another way to spread the bearing from one planting is to select a section of the land and strip off all the buds and small fruit. These plants will regenerate buds, while the vegetative growth will make a larger frame to support more fruit.

This fruit can be harvested later than the fruit on unpruned plants. Note that if you do this when the plant is too advanced, the yield will be much higher and the plant may need support. Without this, it could topple over as the fruits grow.

The importance of nitrogen
Nutrition plays a vital role in managing peppers to maturity. In particular, a farmer should pay close attention to the nitrogen level throughout the growth cycle of the crop. Insufficient nitrogen will lead to smaller, paler fruit with thinner walls. You can start off with everything in balance, but if the nitrogen level drops later, the fruits will suffer.

This often happens with organic crops. They tend to start off well, but later on, the low nitrogen level reduces yield and wall thickness. The problem is that most organic nitrogenous fertilisers contain nitrogen as well as other elements, and the latter may accumulate and create an imbalance. It took me years of organic growing to get the organic content high enough to supply sufficient nitrogen throughout the growth cycle.

Calcium and potassium
Calcium contributes to quality and prevents blossom end rot, which occurs when the plants are subjected to drought stress, even for a short period. The calcium content of the soil is in any case important for all crops and must never be neglected. Potassium is also crucial. If it is a little on the low side, it should be supplemented with side dressings containing potassium, especially if the fruit is developing rapidly.

First fruits and getting the timing right
If you find that the yield is too low on account of the plant frame being too small, harvest the first fruits as soon as they are marketable. As fruits mature, the walls thicken and the fruit becomes firmer and heavier. Slightly immature fruits will be the same size, but with thinner walls. If they are marketable, they can also be harvested to relieve the plants of the burden so they can put on more growth and the next set of fruit.

The same principle applies to allowing the fruit to ripen fully and colour up. In most field-grown varieties, by the time you harvest coloured fruit, the plant has already achieved its objective of producing seed and will stop producing unnecessary buds. After these ripe fruits are harvested, the plant will take much longer to start bearing again. Ripe, coloured fruit is also subject to sunburn and rot and needs to be sold at a much higher price to justify its production on unprotected lands.