Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: Growing small, bitter bell peppers? Here’s how to fix that problem

Bell peppers are tropical plants that require heat and water to grow properly. The best way to grown them in Whatcom County is under cover.
Bell peppers are tropical plants that require heat and water to grow properly. The best way to grown them in Whatcom County is under cover. McClatchy

Question: Last year my bell peppers looked fine, but were small and bitter tasting. Any idea why, so I can have a better crop this year?

Answer: Two things that peppers require to grow successfully are heat and water. Tropical plants, peppers need day temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees, and night temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees. They also require moist conditions, and do not recover fully if stressed for lack of water or warm temperatures.

The best way to successfully grow good peppers in our fickle weather is to grow them under cover, in a hoop covering a raised bed or even use a simple covering of soil fabric sold at any big box store or nursery.

Q: I know there’s a difference between hay and straw, but I’ve forgotten what it is. Please remind me what are the advantages and disadvantages of each when used as a garden mulch. I love the look of both.

A: Straw is the dry stems and leaves of a grain crop, such as oats or wheat. Hay is grass that is cut green. It’s usually a mix of legumes (alfalfa, clover) and weeds.

Hay introduces many weed seeds when used as garden mulch. Straw isn’t nearly as weedy. Like most things, both hay and straw have increased in price in the past few years. Hay can be bought from local farmers, but straw has to be trucked in from Eastern Washington, and is therefore significantly more expensive than what can be grown locally.

Q: As a woodworker, I have a lot of sawdust and wonder if it’s useful as a mulch in my gardens, both ornamental and vegetable. Can you shed light?

A: The problem with sawdust used in gardening is that in its raw form, it robs the soil of nitrogen. That nitrogen is used up by the soil microorganisms in their effort to decompose the sawdust.

Completely composting sawdust works, but takes time. If before you use sawdust as mulch or a soil amendment, first add nitrogen-rich material, such as finished compost, manure, blood deal, soybean or cottonseed meal. And don’t pile the sawdust on too thickly; an inch is plenty.

Q: I’m planning on using a cover crop this winter for both my raised beds and some new, large ornamental beds I dug and will be preparing to plant next year. I’ve heard that buckwheat is a good bet. What do you think?

A: Believe it or not, buckwheat is not what people think it is – a legume. Instead, it’s an herb.

Organic growers love buckwheat used as a cover crop. It uses phosphates in the soil that are unavailable to other plants, and grows so quickly it can make three crops in one season. It produces a lot of organic material that can be worked into the soil, and it kills off weeds.

So what’s not to love? Best time to plant is in early fall. Come spring, be sure to turn the plants under before they get too tall and thick. Always get them before they produce seeds.

How to do this? Simple. First, you cut or mow the plants down. Then you turn the plants into the soil, covering as much under soil as possible. Wait a couple of weeks, and you can plant.

Q: I have several healthy flowering shrubs, but they’re done showing off and are looking somewhat tattered. Can I prune them now, or must I wait until fall, as I hear that is better for pruning?

A: Any flowering shrub can be pruned following its blooming. Summer pruning allows plenty of time for the new wood to grow.

First, cut out any dead wood, then thin by cutting one-third of the older, woodier wood. Cut back long branches. If the plant is unsightly, rejuvenate completely by cutting everything back to 2 inches from the ground. Sounds radical, but it can rescue a plant that you’ve just about given up on.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener and Master Gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to