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No, peppers are not cold-weather plants

Vegetables do their best in the right conditions

Many green pepper plants in small pots
Oh, these poor pepper plants, at a big-box store on Feb. 9. Note the flower buds already
on some of them. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

There they were Tuesday, flats and flats of them, on shelves that were empty less than a week before: Snackabelle Red pepper plants. Most of them were 5 to 6 inches tall, and several already had flower buds.

Really? And February not even half over yet?

Across the aisle were many dozen tomato plants, apparently just off the truck, all the perfect size for transplanting. If only it were April. Or even late March.

It made my heart break to see them all.

These plants, even if they are purchased soon, are going to have rough, rough lives. When they go into the ground, their little roots are going to be so cold. The soil in my raised bed today is 52 degrees; the ground itself is even colder, 51.  The roots are where the action is when a seedling is transplanted. They anchor the plant against wind and weather, and send nutrients and water up to the leaves, where the plant's food is made via photosynthesis.

Oh, yeah, there's not much sunlight out there right now, either. And we still have lows in the 30s in the forecast.

Now, if an experienced gardener really, really wanted to buy one of those Snackabelles right this second ,  he or she could bring it home, pot it up immediately, and put the container in the warmest outdoor spot in the garden, preferably under the eaves next to the house. Maybe even move the pot into the house. And then baby it until mid-spring, when UCCE Sacramento County master gardeners recommend planting out peppers. (See their great vegetable planting chart -- for both seeds and plants.)

But you know that's not going to happen because:

a) many experienced gardeners like to grow their peppers from seed, having started them in the past few weeks, or

b) they know they can buy fresh transplants at local nurseries in April, and/or

c) they have better things to do with their gardening time than babying a potted bell pepper through unpredictable weather.

So it will be inexperienced gardeners or impulse buyers who take home a few of those pepper plants. Then the plants -- newly moved from their cozy greenhouses to outdoors at a big-box store and then to someone's garden -- will just sit there for a long time, assuming we don't get any more frost. The stressed plants won't grow much, might drop their leaves and might be chomped by slugs or birds. The flower buds will fall off, too, unpollinated. Finally the owner will pull the plant out and go buy something else.

Tomato plants on shelves
Some good tomato varieties here, but it's at least 6 weeks too
early to plant them in the Sacramento area. And 11 weeks until
our unofficial "tomato planting day," April 28.
Who benefits from this? The wholesaler and the retailer. The gardener has spent the money and harvested nothing but frustration.

Moral of story: Just because a plant is offered for sale doesn't mean it's the right season or right climate to plant it. A little homework on planting will save any gardener a bucket of money.

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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Sept. 25

This week's warm break will revive summer crops such as peppers and tomatoes that may still be trying to produce fruit. Pumpkins and winter squash will add weight rapidly.

Be on the lookout for powdery mildew and other fungal diseases that may be enjoying this combination of warm air and moist soil.

* Late September is ideal for sowing a new lawn or re-seeding bare spots.

* Compost annuals and vegetable crops that have finished producing.

* Cultivate and add compost to the soil to replenish its nutrients for fall and winter vegetables and flowers.

* Plant for fall now. The warm soil will get cool-season veggies and flowers off to a fast start.

* Plant onions, lettuce, peas, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, bok choy, spinach and potatoes directly into the vegetable beds.

* Transplant lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

* Sow seeds of California poppies, clarkia and African daisies.

* Transplant cool-weather annuals such as pansies, violas, fairy primroses, calendulas, stocks and snapdragons.

* Divide and replant bulbs, rhizomes and perennials.

* Dig up and divide daylilies as they complete their bloom cycle.

* Divide and transplant peonies that have become overcrowded. Replant with "eyes" about an inch below the soil surface.

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