Coaxing Pepper Plants to Bloom

ARE YOUR PEPPER PLANTS BEHAVING BADLY? I mean, are they pushing out lots of lush foliage, but few (if any) flowers? Mine, too, thought they were ferns one June. Then I convinced them to give up this life of indolence, and to bud, bloom, and set a lavish amount of fruit. How? By giving them chocolate cake for breakfast:

Okay, I did not give them cake. But I did give them an unbalanced diet. You see, if bell peppers (and other pepper plants for that matter) are to flower, they need more phosphorous and potassium, and less nitrogen. Nitrogen encourages only abundant leaf-growth.

Consequently, if you’ve been plying your peppers with a balanced food, such as 5-5-5 (these numbers always refer to the percentage of nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium or N-P-K in the mixture), you need to stop this program immediately. You also need to avoid Miracle Gro’s popular “All Purpose” plant food, which, at 24-8-16, is extra high in nitrogen. Feed them instead with a high-phosphorous blend, or “blossom booster.”

There are several blossom-boosting mixtures on the market. Currently I’m using Jack’s Classic 10-30-20 at the rate of one tablespoon dissolved in a gallon of water. My peppers have already started to flower. Apply the blossom booster weekly for two or three weeks, but not more. Phosphorous tends to linger in the soil.

Of course other cultural conditions must be met, too. Peppers want long hours of full sun, one inch of water per week, and a humussy soil which drains well. My plants, located in a raised bed in the Herb Garden, receive 6 hours of full sun. To keep roots moist and cool, the plants are mulched with a two-inch layer of shredded maple leaves.

Don’t let your pepper plants make a fool out of you this summer. Give them the right food, plus all of the other cultural conditions I’ve just mentioned, and I promise — they will reward you with a handsome harvest by summer’s end.

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  1. Janis in Chicago says:

    Kevin, what a great tip! I had NO peppers last year. The plants never bloomed. I didn't feed them with anything, because I'd amended my entire veggie garden with composted cow manure, and thought that was enough. Apparently the manure made the garden waaaaay too nitrogen-rich.

  2. Yep – great tip. Heading out to buy blossom booster tomorrow.

  3. Will this also work for zucchini? We have had the same problem with lovely plants but no vegetables…frustrating!

  4. Lisa – You can try a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous food to initiate blooms on your zucchini. But this squash normally flowers/fruits when it is planted in any fertile, loamy soil, and in an area that receives 6-8 hours of full sun daily.

    Here in the Northeast, I'm not surprised that zucchini isn't flowering. It's been much too gray and wet!

  5. Kevin, I recently read that if you spray your pepper plants with a mixture of 2 tsp epsom salts dissolved in water, every couple of days, it gives your peppers just the boost they need and they will begin to flower within two weeks.I'm planning to try it.

  6. Vicki – that is because epsom salts help the peppers to absorb phosphorous. If you feed the plants a phosphorous-rich diet, you won't need the epsom salts at all.

  7. Sandy Hutchison says:

    The other trick is to pick the fist peppers early, so the plant doesn't think it has already successfully reproduced and stop trying. Especially you don't want to wait until the first ones turn red or whatever.

    And yes, I find this really painful to do! I don't even particularly like green peppers.

  8. Sandy Hutchison – welcome. That is a GREAT tip. Peppers are so expensive to buy at market, best to keep them producing, right?

  9. What do you do if they just seem to be stalled in the growing bigger stage? My started from seed plants are only about 2 inches tall in late June!!! They get full sun – approx 8 hours worth, good tomato producing soil, water…What's wrong here? Help!
    Dianne “The Good Egg” Pearce

  10. Dianne – In which region do you garden?

    If your weather has been unstable (gray skies, lots of rain, and cool temperatures), you can expect your peppers to grow very, very slowly. Be patient — they will pick up when warmer weather arrives.

    And…take care not to over water. Plants grown in soggy soil will be stunted. Peppers (unlike tomatoes) do not enjoy steady moisture at their roots.

  11. Kathleen Conner says:

    My first newsletter from you, and you have already helped me out! My beautiful pepper plants are completely blossomless, and I've been regularly giving them Miracle-gro. Thanks so much for the help!

  12. Kathleen – nice to “meet” you! Glad you found this article useful.

  13. Anonymous says:

    The buildup of phosphorus, the middle number on your fertilizer label,in lawns and gardens
    can cause plants to grow poorly. Excessive
    phosphorus reduces the plant’s
    ability to take up required micronutrients,
    particularly iron and zinc. It can stay in the soil for years since it doesn't leach out of the soil as quickly as nitrogen and potassium. High soil phosphorus levels also can threaten streams, rivers, lakes and
    oceans causing excessive algae to grow, reducing water quality, desirable fish and aquatic plants. Florida law actually limits the amount of phosphorus that can be put in fertilizer for lawns. Annual soil testing to monitor soil phosphorus levels is recommended.

  14. Anonymous – Amen to soil testing. Your words about phosphorous are taken to heart, and greatly appreciated.

    In any event, I'm not suggesting that readers spread phosphorous all over the lawn and garden. This would be bad. However, I have found that its limited use on stubborn pepper plants, in a limited dose, and for a limited time, is of value.

  15. John Morrissey says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Another good tip for Pepper growing in the Northeast (from Elliot Coleman) is to pinch off the blossoms before the 4th of July. This is similar to the suggestion of picking the first peppers and encourages the plant to grow more before setting fruit. I've done this the last few years and have had excellent results and peppers into October.

    Also, I never got to thank you for the wonderful garden tour last summer when I stopped by with Dan.

  16. John – thanks for another great tip! I do the same disbudding-routine with my geraniums and other annuals. It creates additional branching, and hence more flowers.

    It was nice meeting you last summer. Do stop by next time you're in the area.

  17. I am growing a rare heirloom tomato and want to save the seeds, but I have never done this before and have no idea how to grow tomatoes for seed, or how to harvest and save the seeds, please give me some advice on how to save tomato seeds. Thanks, Abe

  18. Lynn Patton says:

    9/134/2013~This is really strange and I don’t know what to do. We planted Bell Peppers back in May (topsy turvy) We got 1 pepper. My husband moved the plant to another location about a month ago and It’s really taking off. We have 3 which still seem to be too small to pick and about 10 more starting. We are also now experiencing cool nights, 50’s. Should I bring the plant inside? Any help is greatly appreciated.

  19. Hi Lynn – Night temperatures in the 50s won’t kill your plant. But cooler temperatures and the shortening hours of daylight will definitely slow it down. On the other hand, the plant will probably die from stress if you move it indoors. I’d leave it where it is and just hope that daytime heat is sufficient to let the young peppers mature.

  20. It’s a bit late to start feeding pepper plants correctly here in Rhode Island. I wished I’d looked this up sooner, but it’s great info for next summer. And I’ll be sure to pinch the blossoms before July 4th. I had been using MiracleGro, too.

    Thank you for posting this valuable information!!!

  21. Brenda Cole says:

    I’m going to give this a try this year. Thanks for the useful advice.

  22. brian asher says:

    I live in surprise az and i have a beautiful pepper plant that has a ton of flowers but not one pepper i dont know what to do HELP!

  23. Hi Brian – It’s possible that your plants simply need more time to set fruit. Otherwise, from what I’ve read, pepper plants can produce sterile (non-fruiting) flowers when temperatures are too high, or light is too low. They want warm days (not exceeding 95°F), and cool-ish nights (not warmer than 78°F.). Direct sun for 7 hours a day is the rule. Consequently if your plants are in pots on a semi-shaded deck, you’ll need to move them to sunnier quarters.

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