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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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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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