There is a great divergence of opinion about fertilizing pepper plants. D.J. Cotter of New Mexico State University made a succinct observation: “The chile plant appears to be relatively insensitive to soil-applied nutrients.” He has cited studies of New Mexican varieties that indicated little or no yield increases when nitrogen was applied during the growing season. He also wrote, “Chile appears to be non-responsive to phosphorous.”
Of course, Cotter was referring to the effect of fertilizers on fruit yield. Pepper plants respond very well to fertilizers, but that response is mostly vegetative. Pepper grower Jeff Campbell of Stonewall, Texas, told us the story of his attempt to fertilize tabasco plants with large amounts of worm casings. The casings were so loaded with nitrogen that his plants grew six feet tall, and not one of them had a single pod!
Excessive nitrogen causes the plant to return to vegetative growth and abort flowers and small pods. Seedlings can be fertilized with fairly high levels of nitrogen to encourage strong vegetative growth, but after the plants have adjusted to the garden, fertilizers should not be applied unless the plants have low nitrogen symptoms, such as leaf yellowing and stunted growth. Then they should be fertilized modestly. However, a lack of nitrogen can cause poor foliage growth, which exposes pods to direct sunlight and causes sunscald.
For home pepper gardeners, organic techniques seem to triumph over chemical gardening because the vast majority of growers will be able to raise great pepper crops by simply adding compost and aged manure to the garden each year. However, nearly all commercial growers use a preplant fertilizer and regular applications of fertilizer throughout the growing season, undoubtedly because the heavy concentration of peppers depletes the soil and because manure and compost is not generally added to commercial fields.
If you want more advice on how to get the most peppers out of your plants, check out our article on that very subject here.
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