Growing Your Own South American Peppers

pruning and overwintering

Chiles belong to the genus Capsicum and the Solanaceae or nightshade family. This large  plant family includes the tomato, potato, eggplant, and petunia. South American peppers (primarily baccatum and pubescens) are as easy to grow as the annuum, chinense, &frutescens.  There are no real secrets, just goon plant growing sense.

In South America, the two primary domesticated peppers are the Aji and Rocoto (aka Locoto in Bolivia).  There are a number of other peppers used but these are wild collected.

Start Early
One of the most important things about growing peppers is that it is important to get your seeds started as early in the season as possible. The following tips work well for me in my growing region.  I you want to try them, please give me feedback -- I would love to know if they work in other parts of the country.

Some peppers (Bird and other small wild peppers) require extreme measures like bleaching or feeding to birds to get them to germinate. Luckily most peppers will germinate fine without such measures. One thing I have noticed is that peppers like it warm for germination. My method is to setup a warming tray using a few off the shelf components.

  • Heating Pad from K-Mart
  • Plastic tray (holds 8 3x3 9 pack trays)
  • 9 3x3 plastic seed starting packs
  • Saran wrap

First, I prepare the starter packs by cutting 8 of the 9 cell packs into individual cell carriers.  I fill each 1 cell with a high quality seed starting mix and insert the single cells into the 9 cell starting packs. The individual cell in the 9 cell carrier allows individual movement of seedlings to grow lights.  Place between 2 & 3 seeds in each cell (or other quantity based on predicted germination ratio). Insert seeded cells into 9 cell groups and arrange in plastic tray. When the tray is full, cover and set it over the heating pad. I set the heating pad off at the highest setting and monitor the  temperature with a Radio Shack digital thermometer.  Optimum soil temperature is 85 degrees F, adjust accordingly to maintain this temperature.

Adjacent to the germination trays, I have an adjustable height, overhead fluorescent grow light setup. When a seed germinates, I move it out off of the heat pads and under the lights as soon as it breaks ground. It is crucial to grow a  healthy plant so cull anything less than perfect. Also, be sure to label plants well as it is easy to get mixed up when you have several different types of pepper in each 9 pack.  I print labels on transparent envelope labels (Avery #2660 ) and cut/stick them on plastic stakes.

After the seedlings have 3 sets of leaves, they can be moved outside.  For at least a few  weeks, I prefer to bring them indoors at night.  After 2 to 3 weeks of this routine, I leave them outside.

Between April and June, most peppers will need to be transplanted into larger containers.  I sterilize and reuse plastic containers of varying sizes for all my plants. I don't have any specific guidelines for when to transplant. When the plant looks small for it's pot, it's time to move. I use use regular potting soil available almost anywhere.  Be sure to keep the plants well hydrated. Also it is best to transplant when it is not excessively hot, this lessens the impact of transplant shock. Fertilize after a week with WEAK fertilizer.

In the Garden
By May, most peppers can move out of to enjoy natural unfiltered sunlight.   Plant baccatum peppers  in the ground between 1-2 feet apart. Rocotos I recommend planting in containers the first year but I must plant in the ground, give them at least 2 feet from neighbors and consider how you will add a trellis later.   If the weather is slow to warm, it is helpful to cover the ground around the seedlings with plastic wrap. This helps elevate the soil temperature.  It is also sometimes helpful to cover plants with mini greenhouses.  To do this, cut the neck off of clear plastic 2 liter (or larger) bottles. Drill a large hole in the center of the clear plastic container and then place the container over the center stake that the chile is tied to.  Make sure to drill air holes around the side of the container to provide for ventilation. If you do this, be sure to watch  the temperature and remove when it gets warm.

In the Garden
Aji (baccatum) and rocotos (pubescens) both do great in containers. Baccatum can easily be grown and sometimes overwintered in 5 gallon containers. Rocotos I always recommend stay in containers the first year as they do not get that large the first year and it facilitates overwintering. First year rocotos should also go in 5 gallon containers.  Use high quality potting soil that has both perlite and vermiculite (or add them).  Both the Aji and rocoto will both need some sort of support as they grow and especially when they start producing peppers.

Potassium and phosphorus are important for flowering and fruiting plants but be careful about adding too much nitrogen. If you over use nitrogen, you'll get a nice big robust plant, but no peppers. Use any fertilizer recommended for tomatoes -- something with a low nitrogen ration like 1-3-3. If a soil test shows you need to add calcium and also raise the pH, add some limestone. If you need to add calcium but don't want to affect the pH, use gypsum. Links on soil and additives.  Fertilize as needed, usually every other week.

Watch out for aphids and white flies, two very common pests. The University of CA has a great  page on Pest Management. See this page for information specific to peppers.

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© 2006 Joe Carrasco