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Make Your Peppers Perennial!

Q. Dan in Coeur d'Alene {'core-da-lane'} Idaho laments that his short season makes pepper growing difficult. Anna Hecht from the CBS website named 'Chowhound' emails with questions about growing peppers and what to plant in the Fall. And our very own audio editor, the always lovely Jonas Bowen writes that he plans to bring his peppers inside for the winter 'as per my recommendations'. So let's revisit the topic of perennializing pepper plants.

A. Part of the idea came from a visit to a frost-free portion of New Mexico where I saw habanero TREES growing; close to eight feet tall and covered with those beautiful spicy fruits. When I asked about them, I was told that unless there was a freaky frost, the trees would continue to grow and set fruit for decades.

Now if you also garden in a frost-free region like San Diego or Southern Florida, you don't need this trick. But if you're in the other 99 percent, it is a trick worth trying.

If your pepper plants are in the ground, dig them up on the next nice day, leaving as much soil around the roots as possible (to ease the shock of being transplanted) and move them into containers, adding a high-quality potting mix (no chemical fertilizers or water-holding crystals) and compost to fill in the empty areas. Most of my peppers are in twelve-inch pots (twelve inches high and twelve inches across), one plant per pot. Unless frost is predicted, leave the pots sit outside for a few days to settle and then begin your aphid intervention.

The biggest enemy of overwintering peppers is/are aphids. These masses of small sap suckers love to ruin roses and then move on to peppers. But for some weird reason, you don't normally see them on the peppers as you're preparing to bring them in; but you should assume that they're there. Using a pressurized sprayer or an adjustable garden hose nozzle set to 'laser beam', blast every crevice of the plant with the sharpest streams of water possible. Cradle the plant with one hand while you blast it, but don't worry about the seeming roughness; I've never even lost a flower doing this.

If temps in the 30s are predicted that night, bring the plants inside to a safe area; if temps will be decent, leave them outside. Repeat your aphid annihilation protocol twice more, the final time also rinsing off every part of the pot, especially the inside rim. Do not skip this step or plants that were to be perennialized will instead be aphidized. It's not pretty.

Don't add soap, oil, neem or anything else to this initial protocol. If things go South over the winter, yes; insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and/or neem would be intelligent responses, but for now just follow the old adage that "water is the best pesticide".

Make sure the frost-sensitive plants go indoors before nighttime temps drop lower than the mid-forties. Once inside, you'll get the best results if you arrange your peppers beneath florescent shop lights that contain four tubes that are four-feet-long each. Yes, you can use two-tube fixtures, but if you do, be sure the tops of the plants are within an inch of touching the lights and don't stray to the outskirts of the lights. Four tube fixtures give you much more leeway. No matter what, select the florescent tubes with the highest number of lumens. The higher the number of lumens, the more light for your plants. Set a timer so they get 16 hours of light a day and eight hours of darkness.

Carefully consider your location options. If your 'basement' is actually an unfinished cellar, try and find a place where the level of heat would be acceptable to you. That means no unheated garage or greenhouse unless you're in one of those frost-free zones and then we don't care what you do. Coward!

The more light and the more normal the heat the plants receive the more water and nutrients they will need, so feed them monthly with a balanced organic liquid fertilizer. If you do this correctly, every existing flower should become a pepper and every green pepper should be able to ripen up. If you really show off your opposable thumbs, new flowers will appear and you'll post so many pictures on Instagram their servers will crash.

But if you are only somewhat realistic about providing light and ambient heat, your pepper plants (or at least some of them) should survive to go out again next season; when they will be a foot or more tall instead of the shrimpy little things you typically start the season with. These second-year plants will flower and fruit FAST! Do this halfway right, and you'll be picking ripe, fully-colored-up peppers before you get your first ripe tomato.

Make sure the neighbors know this. In fact, consider waiting until you see a neighbor outside and ask them for help, {quote} "because my pepper plants are almost too big for me to handle. Oh; and look at your cute little plants; they're so TINY..."

Because in gardening it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail (or at least be deceived into thinking they have).

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