By Jane Villa

My first time sowing a Jalapeno seed, or any hot pepper seed, was on 12 May 2017. I was just starting to learn about building an edible garden at home, and plants that bear fruit were way advanced for me. In August of 2017, I posted in my gardening IG and in my Manila Grows Food Facebook group that my Jalapeno seedling was starting to flower, but all were dropping.

Nothing became of that plant, by the way. It died without growing bigger or bearing fruit. However, today, three years later, I have a fully grown one-year old productive Jalapeño plant with over 40 peppers at a time. It continues to bear more fruit as I harvest.

My next attempt at sowing several varieties of hot pepper plants was last December 2018 to January 2019 – Jalapeño, Serrano, Anaheim, Marusot, Habanero Red Caribbean, Shishito, and Santa Fe Grande. Out of this batch of sowing, only one Jalapeno plant and one Santa Fe Grande plant survived and thrived to maturity. This is because I still have not learned much about my previous attempt.

After practicing daily hand pollination, the Jalapeño plant was able to develop more fruit faster. The plant currently has over 40 fruits waiting to get bigger. The more you harvest, the more fruit will produce.

I decided to pay a lot of attention to the two plants that survived and record my lessons and observations. Finally, I am confident enough to grow more pepper plants. As of this writing, I have siling labuyo, Habanero Red Carribean, Serrano, Shishito, Emerald Giant, Purple Beauty, and Poblano seedlings at different levels of their growth journey. Some are still small, while the Habanero and Shishito are starting to bear fruit.

For this article, I will talk about my experience with the Jalapeno plant only, and will be addressing a number of questions relatively new chili growers encounter. Readers who have not yet attempted to grow peppers may find comprehensive how-tos in gardening websites and books on how to grow chili peppers in containers. I will be sharing the lessons I learned in the last few years.

Very few fruit emerging

My Jalapeno plant did not start to bear fruit until eight months after transplant. This is way behind on schedule given that I should be able to harvest hot peppers anywhere from 55 days to 120 days after transplant. There were plenty of flowers but none were becoming fruit.

Solution: Hand-pollination. I used a cotton bud or an old thin brush and brushed the open blooms every morning. [As early as] the next few days, I started seeing plenty of fruit! You will know that a flower has fertilized when the stem end starts to swell. Soon, the bloom will dry up and will be pushed out by the fruit.

Flowering and fruiting taking so long!

I have the tendency to get impatient and abandon my seedlings midway into their growth journey. They won’t die, but they will also be stunted. As a result, instead of enjoying so many peppers in the middle of last year, I am only getting to enjoy them now. That’s a waste of space and productivity. To facilitate proper growth, pepper plants need to be transplanted to a big container as they grow bigger. I follow this schedule: transplant to a 3- or 4-inch pot seven days after germination, transplant to a 5- or 7-inch pot 35 days after germination, and transplant to its final container, ideally not less than 12 inches diameter and depth, 60 days after germination. To be honest, I get lazy with the multiple transplanting. There is no rule that says we have to follow these faithfully. The only basis is that if the plant has outgrown its container, they should be moved to a bigger one. The bigger the container, the more space the peppers have to grow stronger roots, get more nutrients, and therefore bloom and create fruit.

Are my soil nutrients enough?

One disadvantage to container growing is that nutrients get depleted. Pepper plants need more nitrogen during the early growing stages and more phosphorus and potassium when blooming and fruiting starts. I make sure that the soil is replenished with nutrients by regularly adding compost or vermicompost on top of the soil. Once a month, I bury finely chopped banana peels and crushed eggshells. From time to time I bury used ground coffee to make the soil a little acidic, which pepper plants like. I use two solutions as foliar spray as well – Epsom salts and blackstrap molasses.

The final home of the Jalapeño. I transplanted it in a 4 ft x 2 ft raised bed, together with lime basil, citronella, and Santa Fe Grande.

Dissolve one-fourth tablespoon of Epsom salt into 1 liter of water and put in a spray can. Spray the leaves with the solution when flowering and fruiting starts. Dissolve 10 ml of molasses into 1 liter of water for a 1 per cent solution.

Spray the leaves of established young seedlings and mature plants. These foliar sprays allow the leaves to absorb additional trace nutrients directly through the leaves. The molasses also help attract pollinators and beneficial insects such as butterflies and lacewings that help the pepper plant develop more fruit and naturally keep bad insects away.

The seeds are not germinating!

Many of the plants I sow germinate in two to four days on average. These are edible flowers such as marigolds and cosmos, herbs such as basil and lemon balm, and leafy vegetables such as lettuce, kale, and mizuna. Hot peppers, however, take between seven to 21 days to germinate. Patience is required in making sure that the seed starter cells are constantly moist, not soaking wet, until the pepper seeds decide to wake up and sprout. If the pepper seeds seem to be taking forever to germinate and you are sure that they are good viable seeds, then you just need to wait longer before they come out. Otherwise, try, and try again.

Final note

Pepper plants grow well in our tropical climate. With a little bit of attention and patience, newbie gardeners can have a good success rate in growing and harvesting chili peppers. I am one example of someone who has found success after several tries. Once they bear fruit, daily hand-pollination, if you don’t have natural pollinators in your area, will ensure regular fruiting and constant harvest. By the way, the majority of online sites will tell us that a pepper plant will only have several months to bear fruit. This is because many of the sites garden are in temperate and winter countries. In our climate, pepper plants are perennials and we can enjoy a plant for several years, which makes the initial hard work in the first few months so worth it!

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2020 issue.