I have a horticultural mystery on my hands, and it’s weird, weird, weird.
One of the plants that seems to thrive in our hydroponic system is peppers. Although they’re a little tall and weedy, they’re nice and green, with lots of flowers. Until about a week ago, I thought we were going to have a bumper crop of those long, skinny Portuguese hot peppers.
Then I noticed that something nasty was happening to the skinny ends of the peppers. They were turning brown and shriveling.
I looked more closely, and I could see how it developed. It started as a small brown spot, just where the pepper bends, about an inch from the bottom. Always just there – nowhere else. Then the end of the pepper turns brown, then black, then shrivelly. The pestilence then creeps up the body of the pepper.
I took one pepper to the farmer who’s been helping us with our hydroponics, and he was stumped. There were some mites on the pepper I brought him, and he thought it was possible an insect was laying eggs, and the eggs were hatching and the little insects muching on the pepper flesh. When I checked other peppers, though, I didn’t find insects, so it may have been a coincidence.
I then trotted my diseased peppers over to the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension in Barnstable, where they mystified everyone. “Never seen that,” said one master gardener with twenty-five years experience growing peppers under his belt. That is to say, the experience was under his belt. The peppers were in his garden. He thought it was possible our peppers were overwatered. “They like it a little drier,” he said.
Another Cooperative Extension staffer speculated that it could be a nutrient deficiency. Lack of calcium?
I thought this sounded entirely reasonable. Our fertilizer is Peters Professional Hydro-Sol 5-11-26. It contains magnesium, sulfur, boron, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. A close look at the label indicates that you’re supposed to add calcium nitrate to your mix. Oops.
Further investigation reveals that calcium deficiency can lead to blossom end rot, which starts as little shrivelly areas near the skinny end of the pepper. Hmmm. It’s also supposed to make the leaves crinkly and bunched up, and we don’t have that problem, but I suspect nutrient deficiencies don’t always manifest themselves in exactly the same way.
So that’s my working hypothesis: calcium deficiency leading to blossom end rot. But here’s the weird thing – it always starts in the bend of the pepper. There are a couple of peppers that don’t have a bend, they’re straight all the way to the end, and they seem to be fine. What’s up with that? Can peppers have joint diseases? Rheumatoid arthritis, perhaps?
I’ll be fortifying our hydroponic mix with calcium post haste, but if you’ve seen this kind of thing before and can tell me definitely what it is and what to do about it, you’ll win my undying gratitude and maybe even a jar of my home-made Cape Cod sea salt.