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High Mowing Organic Seeds
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Getting Started - Pepper, Tomatoes and Eggplants - Paul Betz

Farmer Paul BetzAt High Ledge Farm we grow a lot of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants for plant sales and production at our farm. While they are all nightshades, they all need a little different handling in the greenhouse and field.

Peppers and eggplants are slow growing, and need extra time to get to a transplantable size. We start our peppers and eggplants in late march, for sale or transplant around the last week of May, in about 10-11 weeks. This includes at least a week in the cold frame where we harden them off.

A lot of the concerns about peppers especially is the length of time it takes for them to germinate. Peppers will not do well if the soil is cold, and the likelihood that the seed will rot will increase the longer the seeds sit in cold soil. The ideal temperature for germination is around 85 F, much warmer than the average windowsill. I use a 1020 flat/tray full of soil with a bottom heat mat to keep my soil at an ideal temperature, and most of my seeds are up in 5 to 6 days. Before I used the mat, I used the oven in the kitchen. We have a gas oven, and if I put a wooden spoon in the door to keep it open a little, the pilot will keep the temp at 80 F.  Just remember to let everyone in the house who likes to bake know they are in there. The bottom line is that they have to be warm.

After the plants are up and have their first true leaves, we pot them up into either a six pack for retail sale or a 36 cell tray for farm use. The bigger cells I use for the farm give me a little more flexibility in when they need to be planted out in the garden. After this they should be in the cold frame for about 1 week. My nighttime temperature in the greenhouse is around 60F. That keeps them from growing too quickly and getting leggy. A short, stocky plant will always do better than a tall, leggy one, and experience less transplant shock.

Pepper Transplants
Once the seedlings are in the field, warm nights will go a long way to a more successful harvest. Consider covering them with a row cover overnight, especially in the spring when it can still be cool. On the other hand it is important that the plants do not get too hot. Pepper flowers will drop if the temperature gets higher than 85F, so its important to get the row covers off before the sun heats them up too much.

Where we are, Tarnished Plant Bug is a major pest of peppers and eggplants. It sucks sap from plants, and leaves a dead zone around the site of attack. They love to suck at the base of the flowers, which causes the flowers to drop. We use a very light row cover (AG-06), which keeps them out while not building up as much heat as thicker row covers.

Tomatoes will germinate at a lower temperature than the peppers and eggplants, but I use the same setting on my heat mat to get them up as quick as I can. In my experience, they need much less time in the greenhouse, and I plan on having a plant that is 4-5 weeks old being ready to go in the field. I move them into a four pack for sale and a 3 " pot for the farm.

Mulched Tomatoes
Once out in the field, we use lots of mulch to keep the plants off the ground. We do not trellis, and keeping soil off the plants gives us cleaner fruit and a lower incidence of Early Blight and Septoria Blight, the major disease of tomatoes in our area. They are both soil borne fungi, and get started when the soil splashes up on the leaves of the plants. I use Serenade and a copper spray in rotation when I first see the disease.

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