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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 Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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