By George Munene
Capsicum or bell pepper, colloquially known as pilipili hoho, is a high-value crop that has increasingly become a popular vegetable in Kenyan households.
Capsicums are classed as determinate, meaning those that grow in the open field, such as California Wonder, and indeterminate, being those grown in greenhouses, such as Commandant from Syngenta.
Most capsicums have green as their primary mature colour and may turn yellow, red or orange when they fully mature (secondary maturity). Green capsicum is the most popular in the local Kenyan market. It also keeps longer. The coloured varieties are more of a niche product mainly used to flavour and add colour in salad making. They are also sweeter. It is, therefore, important to study your market before deciding on which varieties to grow.
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Capsicums take on average three months to mature and harvest for four to six months.
Hybrid capsicums offer higher yields and a longer harvest window of up to 6 months. They are also bred to be more tolerant of prevalent capsicum diseases.
Some of the capsicum varieties available in Kenya are Ilanga F1, California wonder, Commandant F1, Yolo wonder, Buffalo F1, Green Bell F1, Admiral F1 and Pascarella F1.
Different capsicum varieties are suited to different regions in Kenya. Consult your agro dealer whilst buying seeds on what variety does best in your particular locality. The bulb size of capsicums also varies depending on the variety.
Capsicums are best suited to thrive in hot or warm areas, especially in Eastern Kenya and the Coast region. They require well-drained and aerated soils that are slightly acidic with high organic matter. For open field planting, capsicum does best in regions that are 2,000 meters above sea level and have rainfall levels of between 800-1,200 millimetres per year.
It is advisable that you test your soil to determine soil PH, its nutrient status and the availability of soil-borne pests and diseases such as fusarium and bacterial wilt. Capsicum prefers soils with a PH of between 5.5 and 6.5. Soil PH can be raised by liming or adding dolomite. Pre planting, you can fumigate your soils to kill off soil-borne pests and diseases.
To encourage seed germination once they are planted, you can soak the seeds in lukewarm water overnight and dress them to kill off any seed-borne pathogens before planting.
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- Beds used for sowing capsicum seeds should be of fine soil and approximately one by two meters with 1.5 inches between each seed row
- Slightly manure the soil; manure is rich in phosphorous which encourages root formation
- Water the nursery before sowing and cover it with grass afterward
- Once the seeds have begun to germinate, remove the cover grass and place it at about one meter above covering the seedling bed
- Seeds take two to three weeks depending on the pepper variety to germinate. Transplanting should be done after 32-46 days.
- You can ‘toughen’ the capsicum seedling by gradually reducing their water intake one week before transplanting.
- Seedlings should be transferred early in the morning or late in the evening when the sun is less biting to allow the seedlings to absorb the shock of transplanting. Water generously before transplanting to avoid damaging the seedlings while uprooting. Carry the seedling in bits, ensuring you scoop them out in lumps, do not pluck them out
- Only remove the seedling number you’ll be able to entirely transplant for the day and have the nursery near as is possible to the land you’ll be transplanting them to
- Transplanted capsicum seedlings will lose their first two to three leaves, do not be alarmed
- It is preferable to sow capsicums in wet warm soils. In colder regions, open field sowing should be carried out over the warmer seasons
- In open field, the planting area chosen should have a direct source of sunlight. Avoid areas with too much wind, this can break the stem of the plant
- Plough and harrow land the land so it is finely tilled, mix in well-decomposed manure a week to transplanting
- Water and mulch the seedlings once you have transplanted them
- Ensure land is clean to avoid common diseases spread by plant debris
- Add some manure after about a week as the roots start to flourish and easily take up soil nutrients
- Plant on raised beds of two feet width, with half a foot spacing between each crop. Leave adequate navigating space, at least one foot between each bed for routine management practices. If you are using a drip irrigation system, place your drip lines on top of the bed. Drip irrigation coupled with mulch helps keep weeds at a minimum
- Use 10 grams, one teaspoon, of DAP fertiliser and 50 grams of starter fertiliser mixed in with soil for each capsicum seedling at planting
- Three to four weeks after transplanting top dress using with CAN fertiliser
- On the fourth to the fifth week, apply a compound fertiliser like NPK as the plant begins to flower at the rate of 10 grams per plant
- After five to nine weeks, apply NPK fertiliser to aid in proper fruit development. Remember to always water adequately after fertiliser application so that the fertiliser is dissolved and easily taken up by the plant
- Water twice a day depending on soil moisture content. The rate of watering is increased over the flowering and fruiting stages
- Prune excess branches to avoid having too many fruits. Too many fruits on one plant leads to a reduction in their sizes. Pruning also hastens the maturing of the remaining fruits. Prune old, weathered, or diseased leaves. Do not compost but burry/ burn diseased leaves to prevent the spread of pests and diseases to your other healthy plants. Use pruning shears to avoid wounding the plant. Pruning is also done to improve light penetration and allow for free air movement especially if the capsicums are grown in a greenhouse.
- In field-grown capsicums horizontal growth is not as inhibited as with capsicums grown in the greenhouse which reach heights of up to two meters and have a single apical stem with very few secondary branches
- Capsicums need constant scouting to spot and quickly address the emergence of any disease or pest. Weed regularly to keep weeds which ‘steal’ water and nutrients from the plant at a minimum
- Greenhouse-grown capsicums have to be supported by training and trellising. Tying string attached to plants to handlebars running parallel across the beds to encourage vertical growth. This is done before the capsicum flowers to avoid knocking down potential fruits.
- Harvesting can begin at three months but the first month’s yield is lower. Harvest volumes continue to increase with time. Over the fourth to sixth months, the harvesting schedule steadies to every three days in a week. As the tree grows taller, the quantities of capsicums it yields also increase. Farmers usually harvest the fruit when it’s green, thick-walled and firm, it can however be left to turn yellow/red depending on what your market is looking for
- Harvest leaving a small stalk on the fruit so it can still be nourished and avoid it ripening too quickly
- Have treated footbaths at the entry, if you are practicing greenhouse farming. Place sticky card traps: yellow ones for whiteflies, and blue ones to catch thrips. You can also plant marigolds interspaced within your capsicum population to ward off nematodes
- Give at least a two-year interval before planting capsicums again
- 6,000 to 8,000 capsicum seeds are suitable for an acre to allow for adequate spacing as the crop matures, which equates to about 125-150 grams of seeds.