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Bringing Peppers Inside for the Winter, & Begonias, Herbs and maybe Rosemary

Q. Alicia in Damascus, Maryland writes: "This was my first year growing habanero hot peppers (the basic orange ones). The plant fruited quickly but I only claimed ten peppers as we had a serious plant lice issue that I got under control with a soap and water spray that included a unique blend of tomato leaves, cumin and garlic. The plant is now flowering again, and with the cold weather coming, should I repot it and move it indoors? Do you think that it requires a heat lamp for the off season?"

A. Well, first let's talk about your 'plant lice', which were almost certainly aphids: sap-sucking insects that cluster in large numbers on plants; especially roses and peppers. If (or more likely, when) this happens next season just spray the tiny terrors off the plants with super-sharp steams of water. There's no need for soap or your 'unique blend' of plant parts plus Eye of Newt. (But I like the 'unique blend' line; makes it sound like a premium herbal tea mix—or maybe a shampoo.)

Anyway, yes—plain water. In one of my favorite horticultural studies, British researchers tested a variety of sprays to see which ones were most effective at getting aphids off of roses—a serious problem in cool and rainy Great Britain. They tested several chemical insecticides and a couple of natural and/or organic ones. But because they were good researchers, they also tested 'a control'—plain water. But to make sure the control—kind of like a plant placebo—was similar to the active agents, they used the same kind of high pressure sprayer to get the water on the plants. (And then they maybe leaned into it a bit as aphids went flying all over the place.)

When the dust—eh water—settled, they had achieved an amazing 95% knockdown. The spray had killed most of the aphids on contact; and most of the survivors were presumably too depressed to continue sucking sap. The researchers then moved on to testing different delivery systems, and in a British garden center today you will still find their special 'rose nozzles' that help garden hoses deliver the exact right concentrated blasts of water.

Cradle the affected plant with one hand and blast the aphids with the sharpest stream of water your adjustable nozzle can deliver. Yes, you will get wet—so do this on a nice day and don't wear your school clothes. Cut roses in full flower for display first. But the spray won't hurt buds.

(Always do things like this in the early morning so the plants can dry off quickly afterwards. Never wet your plants deliberately in the evening; sitting wet overnight can encourage disease. It's not good for your plants either.)

OK—so we're halfway done and I have not even remotely addressed the topic. Is this your first show? If so, please realize that this is the bargain we have struck.

All seriousness aside, this is what Alicia—and other pepper growers—must do before they bring their plants inside. And bring them in they should; peppers both hot and sweet are perennial in frost-free climates and will live many years if treated like houseplants—outside in the summer; indoors in the winter. Bonus: Second and third-year plants produce ripe peppers in half the time of new plants. You'll have ripe peppers by the 4th of July. (Unless you live somewhere like Minnie-snow-ta, where you'll simply get ripe peppers. Maybe for the first time.)

It sounds like Alicia's plant is already potted. In such a case, do not repot, prune or otherwise pre-stress the poor thing. But if your plants are in the ground, dig them up now, trying to keep a big island of soil around the roots and move them into individual pots, using a high-quality soil-free mix to fill in the bottom and sides.

Use a hose with an adjustable nozzle to blast water into every nook and cranny of the plants. Then move the plants to a different location and repeat the same kind of super-soaking a few days later. Then wipe the outside and rim of the pot with a damp cloth to get any lurking aphids. Only then can you safely bring the plants inside. Keep a close eye, and if you see a single aphid, take the plants back outside and shoot them again.

Forget the heat lamp—room temp is fine. But you must provide bright artificial light over winter; they'll die in a {quote} 'sunny windowsill'. The best option is a two-tube four-foot long shoplight equipped with either T-8 fluorescents or the new look-alike LED tubes. Either way, keep the tops of the plants right up close to the (cool) tubes—no more than an inch away. They need those lumens!

A four-foot long light can typically accommodate four normal size pots; Alicia seems to only have one. Other plants she can overwinter indoors include herbs and bedding-plant begonias, which can live for decades if protected from frost. This is also a good place for rosemary if you live in an area (colder than USDA Zone 7) where rosemary has a poor chance of survival over the winter.

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