Chiles Not Setting Fruit
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Sasha McInnes
Posted on: August 29, 1999

I recently read a reference to you in Canadian Gardening in the context of advice about growing chile peppers.

I grew up in Peru and missed the aji amarillo and rocoto so much that friends sent me seeds which I started in early February. The plants (August 28) are gorgeous – the aji amarillo is almost 7 feet tall, covered in blossoms and the rocoto, much smaller, is also covered. They look just as I remember them, however, I’m afraid that I might not get peppers because we’ve only a month or two left of decent weather.

I understood that I was to treat them as tomatoes and fed them religiously with Miracle Grow and fish emulsion – maybe too much?

Can you suggest anything to give them now to encourage the growth of the chiles? The plants are green, strong and lovely but.....

I’m aware that they are perennials and will bring some in for the winter, however, they are *very* large and I wonder if they’ll survive the transplant.

I’d appreciate and be very grateful for any advice you might give me – and perhaps you’d like some seeds for next year? If you’ve never tasted Peruvian aji you’ve missed something *wonderful*.

The challenge with growing chiles in Canada is our short season. Even in the warmest parts of the country where we can expect 4-5 months of frost-free weather are not enough for some of the exotic chiles of Central and South America. These varieties will do just as you have decribed: they grow well, maybe produce abundant flowers, and then perish in the killing fall frosts before the fruits can develop. These chile varieties can take months for the fruits to develop after flowering.

The chiles Richters offers have been selected for their relatively quick fruit maturation. They were tried in our fields in Goodwood, Ontario (zone 5), and all were proved to be capable of yielding chiles in our climate.

Too much fertilizer can delay fruiting in many plants, as can too much water. However, because your plants are covered with flowers now it is unlikely that either of these are a factor. A lack of pollinators could explain the problem, but if they are grown outdoors and you see flying insects on the flowers, then pollination is not the problem. The key factor is genetics: these varieties simply were not programmed to set fruit quickly.

What can you do now? Transplanting is unlikely to save the existing flowers. Disturbing the root system now will disrupt the fruiting process and likely will cause the flowers and primordial fruits to drop. Moving the plants to an indoors where the light is reduced will cause leaf yellowing and drop.

You may have to resign yourself to a crop failure this season. Your best option may be to try to winter the plants indoors and then plant them out in the spring. Next year they will be more mature and may begin flowering sooner in time to set fruit before the fall frosts. I cannot guarantee that this will work, however!

I would select a few of the smaller plants – whatever I have room for indoors. I would dig them up, prune the roots and cut the foliage down to get them to a manageable size. Pot them up in a good quality potting soil that drains very well. The pots should be big enough to get the roots room to grow but not too big so that the soil is perpetually wet between waterings. I am guessing that you will need a 30 cm pot, at least. While the weather is still warm, you can allow the plants to recover from surgery outdoors in dappled shade of a tree. Keep the plants outdoors until the weather is too cold, but gradually accustom them to the lower light levels of indoors by keeping them in the dappled shade.

Once indoors, you need to concern yourself with low light levels, overwatering, and pests. Peppers are prone to suffer attacks from pests such as spider mites and whiteflies. At the first sign of outbreak spray thoroughly with insecticidal soap, making sure to get all leaf surfaces covered, especially the undersides. If the light levels are too low the plants will "reach" toward the window. You will need to experiment to find the position that gives the plants maximum exposure, and you may need to rotate them weekly to give even exposure and you may need to prune them if they become too leggy.

Next spring plant in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, protected from the wind. Do not fertilize as much as you did this year. I top dressing around the roots with well-rotted manure when the plants begin to flower is about all that is necessary if the soil is fertile to begin with.

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