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What's causing those brown spots on my peppers?

Blossom end rot shows up on peppers when they've received uneven watering and too much sun. (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

Signs of uneven irrigation pop up in late summer

It’s a maddening malady of late summer. You wait weeks and weeks for peppers to ripen – or at least get big enough to pick. Then they develop an ugly brown spot or callus.

What happened?

Most likely, those brown spots are pepper blossom-end rot. This can happen on the sides of peppers as well as the bottom. It’s not a fungal disease or the result of a pest invasion, but a calcium deficiency. The pepper plant didn’t have enough calcium available while the fruit was developing. Without that necessary building block, these too-thin cell walls collapse, then rot.

The answer is not to add more calcium to the soil (although that probably won’t hurt), but to be consistent with irrigation. Overwatering as well as underwatering can lead to those brown spots.

Blossom end rot, which also affects tomatoes and squash, usually occurs if soil was allowed to dry out too much, then flooded with water. That happens a lot during late summer vacations; gardeners return and overcompensate for not irrigating while they were gone.

The plant responds by pulling up as much water as it can, growing rapidly. But if there isn’t enough calcium available to go with that sudden abundance of moisture, brown rot follows.

The good news: It can be corrected. The damaged peppers are edible; just cut off the brown spots.

Then, remember to be more consistent in irrigation. Mulch around plants can help keep moisture even and let the remaining peppers develop normally.

Other factors that can lead to blossom-end rot are too much nitrogen-heavy fertilizer or ammonia. For peppers, stick to fertilizers with more phosphate than nitrogen or potassium. Excess sodium also can be an issue.

To boost calcium, add bone meal, rock phosphate or crushed egg shells to your planting bed next spring.

For more on blossom-end rot:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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