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Hot Time in Fullerton This Weekend

April 25, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Peter Piper were picking his peck of pickled peppers nowadays, he'd probably have trouble deciding which varieties to choose from. With all the new hybrids and old heirloom types available today, pepper lovers can find just about anything--from big, red sweet bell peppers to banana-shaped yellow peppers and small hot chile peppers sure to set your mouth aflame.

Native to South America, peppers grow wild there year-round, but here they more commonly grow as annuals, says Dennis Glowniak of the California Organic Gardening Club.

He is the growing chairman for this weekend's 25th annual Fullerton Arboretum Green Scene Garden Show. Glowniak's club will be selling about 30 varieties of sweet and hot peppers.

Richer in vitamin C than oranges and higher in vitamin A than carrots, peppers grow well in warm weather, and now is the time to plant them.

Not only do they provide food, but peppers are also an ornamental crop with green, glossy leaves, perky white blossoms and colorful fruit. Essentially small shrubs, peppers can grow just about anywhere in the garden, from borders to containers. Some of the smaller chile peppers even do well in hanging baskets.

Just be extremely careful when handling the hot chile peppers, warns Paul Erickson, who is weekend caretaker of the Fullerton Arboretum and plant propagator. He has grown more than 30 pepper varieties for the Green Scene, in addition to 20 specialty peppers for "chileheads."

"When they're picking hot peppers, people should always wear gloves and never put their hands anywhere near their face," he says. "The only treatment I know of for hot pepper burns is to wash the area several times with hot water and lava soap."

Although they're a little persnickety about their growing conditions, once established, sweet and hot peppers do really well in our climate. They are often prolific and long-lived. Many will produce fruit for months, often bearing into November and December.

For the best crop, keep the following tips in mind.

* Pepper plants are currently small, due to wet, cold conditions at the beginning of this month. If a plant is smaller than 2 inches, let it grow another week or two in a part-sun area, making sure to keep it well watered.

* Choose a sunny location with good drainage, as peppers do not like wet feet. Amend the soil by one-third to one-half with well-aged compost.

* Plant in the late afternoon or evening so the pepper has a chance to recuperate before the next morning.

* To quickly bear fruit, peppers require a hot ground temperature. Erickson heats up his soil by laying down black plastic, cutting holes in it and planting peppers in each hole.

Mulching pepper plants is another good way to keep them moist and weed-free, says Glowniak.

* Keep peppers well watered, as they suffer if allowed to dry out. This usually means daily watering until the plant has become established. Established plants should be watered about once a week, depending on the weather. Erickson installs a soaker hose under his black plastic, although you can also water at the base of each plant.

* Peppers grow well in containers. Small pepper varieties such as Jingle Bells can be grown in a 2-gallon pot. For larger types you will need a 5-gallon container. Three pepper plants do well together in a half-whiskey-barrel-sized pot.

Use 4 parts high quality potting soil to 1 part compost. Also add chicken manure or blood meal and bone meal according to package directions. Or try one of the new potting soils that contain time-released fertilizer. Water pots two to three times a week or more, depending on the weather.

* After in-ground and container plants have been growing for about a month, fertilize every two to four weeks with fish emulsion, unless you've used time-released fertilizer. In that case, you can wait two months before using liquid fertilizer.

* Peppers can be harvested at just about any stage, although bell peppers taste the sweetest when they've ripened from green to their mature color.

Don't be alarmed if your peppers aren't a dark green, says Erickson. "Really dark-green peppers means that you're giving the plant too much nitrogen, which could cause excess foliage growth and few peppers," he says.

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* The Green Scene Garden Show is today and Sunday at the Fullerton Arboretum, 1900 Associated Road, Fullerton. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5, free for those under 17; parking is free. Call (714) 278-3404 for more information.

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