The easiest way to feed and water your garden is with slow release plant food and a garden hose. Just shake some food on the soil in the beginning of the season and water. Notice how I said “easiest”, and not “best for high yields”? If you want to grow your plants to their full potential, you should not take the easy way out. One benefit to using a good soil, is that it already contains all of the correct nutrients. As they get used they may have to be replenished. Some people till fertilizer into their soil each year. Unless you get a soil analysis done, you will just be guessing what your plants need.
The next option is to supplement your soil with a good plant food. This is the method that I prefer when growing plants in raised beds. This option works great for feedings, but once it rains or gets watered, the plant food could wash away. However I prefer this to guessing what needs to be tilled into the soil, or even worse yet, shaking slow release food on the soil. Another benefit to replenishing nutrients is that you can add exactly what you want, exactly when you want. For example you can add some calcium during the late stages of fruit production, or take some nitrogen away.
Most fertilizers are rated by N-P-K. This stands for how much Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium that there is by ratio. These are also called macronutrients. Plant food that is high in nitrogen is good for vegetative growth. These are referred to as “Grow” formulas. This is good for growing spinach, lettuce, or any vegetative plant. Plant foods that are low in nitrogen are typically sold as “Bloom” formulas, and are better for fruit production. Some people start plants such as tomatoes on a grow formula, then switch them to a bloom formula when its time for them to set fruit.
Pepper plants however, seem to do best on a bloom formula their whole lives, especially the supper hots like habaneros and ghost peppers. Some generic plant foods have a ratio that is even like a 10-10-10, or 13-13-13. These are for universally feeding everything, just nothing perfectly. Just remember, if you want amazing yields, then you have to give the plants what they need. I once had a one foot by one foot Dwarf Thai plant that had 393 peppers on it!
In addition to N-P-K there are other nutrients that also matter. Generic fertilizers may or may not contain; magnesium, calcium, and sulphur. Even though these are macronutrients, these are often called secondary nutrients. They are also used by the plant in large amounts. Another thing that generic plant foods are often missing is micronutrients. These aid the plant in photosynthesis, so the plant will grow larger, and produce much more fruit. This is why its so important to use a high quality plant food, that is made for the plant that you are trying to grow.
Another HUGE consideration is your PH. PH refers to how acidic or alkaline your water/soil is. In a soil garden, testing the PH of the soil will let you know if it needs to be adjusted. For pepper and tomato growing we have found that a PH of 5.5-6.5 works best, with 5.8-6.0 being optimum. It is also very important to adjust the PH of the nutrient solution before feeding. Once the solution is mixed, simply check the PH, and adjust until correct. Why the correct PH is so important is that it allows the plant to use all the nutrients that it needs. If the ph is too high certain nutrients can be used(like nitrogen and potassium), while others cannot(like Iron and Manganese). Sure you can get by if you skip this step, but it will definitely affect the the nutrition your plants get and affect the yield you will receive.
You can mix your nutrients solution according to the instructions on the packaging, or you can get meter and know exactly how much food you are giving your plant. Meters measure in electrical conductivity(EC), or parts per million (PPM). Parts per million is not always the best way to measure your nutrient solution. There are three different standards for this method. EC is the easiest way to know that you have it correct. Once we feed transplanted pepper and tomato plants, we start with a low amount of food. We start with an EC of about 1. Keep in mind that this is about double what we feed seedlings. To prevent transplant shock, we do not feed for a few weeks, or until we see that the plant is creating new growth. As the plant grows, the EC is increased according to the plant’s size and amount of yield. Many sources of information that I have read say never to exceed an EC of 2.5. To be honest I never exceed an EC of 2. As the plants grow some additional nutrients help some types of plants grow. I have found that calcium and magnesium is a must in the late stages of fruit set. The super hots like habaneros and ghost peppers will also require extra P+K.
One more concern is plain waterings. If you are using plain water out of your hose, you might not know what you are giving your plant. City water can have chlorine and other chemicals that can harm your plants. You should also ask what is the EC of the plain water? I have seen city water with an ec of .5, and that’s without anything added. I have seen well water with an EC close to 1. Filtered or reverse osmosis water is a much better choice.
All of these details add up to incredible harvests. I know it can be a little overwhelming. Start working these principles one by one until you get your desired results.