Vanshing Pepper Plants

May 25, 2007

Kim, who gardens in sunny Southern California just shared the following strange and puzzling experience that sounds like something right out of the X-Files:

“I love your gardening newsletter. I find it very helpful and full of useful information. I have a question about pepper plants.”

The Case of the Missing Peppers

“I live in the high desert of So. Calif. (Victorville). I love growing peppers; Jalapeno, Habanero, Anaheim, etc. I have had successful plants every year but this one… so far. I planted my plants about three weeks ago, (first week of May). Within 10 days all of the pepper plants were dead, gone, not even skeletons.”

“Our daytime temps are in the high 70’s to mid 80’s. Not sure of the night time temps, I would say within the high 50’s. The plants are getting lots of water, and are in full sun. I am also growing beets, green beans, sweat peas, three types of squash and tomatoes.”

“Everything is growing great but the peppers. My soil is very high in nitrogen, as I had chickens (corn fed only) for a while in my gardening area (1000 sq feet). I rototilled about two months before planting to let the soil stabilize.”

“Any ideas? I am at a loss with the exception that the night time temps might still be too cold for the peppers to do well.”

Gardening Forensics 101

Kim, I’m afraid you may have to contact the producers of the Cold Case TV show on this one because I don’t have a clue. It is curious and bizarre that the pepper plants would disappear without a trace in a very short period of time.

I didn’t notice anything obvious that you did wrong and I sure don’t know the cause of death. Did you watch the progression of the pepper plant’s demise? Did they wilt and fail to recover after being transplanted, did they sicken and gradually perish, or did they suddenly go from healthy to dead and missing overnight?

I doubt that it was temperature related because it really wasn’t cold enough to harm the pepper plants and the tender squash and tomato plants were unaffected. Disease, transplant shock, sun scald, and insects all usually take time to kill a plant and will normally leave signs or symptoms that can be diagnosed.

On the Trail of a Garden Assassin

I’ve watched squirrels and birds destroy young seedlings on occasion but they leave behind the remains of a bruised and batterd plant. Even those sneaky, ambushing, little cutworms aren’t smart enough to dispose of the evidence of their assaults.

Plants that mysteriously and suddenly disappear without a trace are usually done in by wildlife such as deer or groundhogs. I’ve experienced cases of rabbits eating seedlings such as beets and green beans down to where there was nothing left of the plant except for a slight nub.

Did you notice any tracks, signs of nibbling, fur fibers, or animal droppings in the vicinity of the offense? I’m investigating a similar crime that occurred in my garden involving a Goji Berry Plant. In my case there’s a stump with Goji Berry leaves scattered about the scene and a not so innocent looking baby bunny sighted nearby.

I’m pretty sure of the culprit in my case, but your vanishing peppers have me stumped. Are there any garden sleuths or eye witnesses to similar occurrences with a clue about what happened to Kim’s peppers? Any leads or tips can be reported in the comment section below but I’m not sure about any rewards.

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  • Joe Mikitish

    The first thing I would look for is slugs (the larger slugs can take small pepper plants all the way to the ground overnight). Also, I had a rabbit taking out select pepper plant in my garden…my neighbor’s rat terrier flushed him out from under my garden shed so I knew what I was up against and was able to live trap him. Mice will also take out pepper plants – I like to live trap these little guys as well (“snap traps” tend to kill birds so avoid them).

  • It sounds like a rabbit to me, though the free ranging chickens will sometimes devour your greens. Last year we introduced guinea fowl into our garden, and they went after veggies that we never thought they would touch, including onions…
    We are still gardening with the guinneas (they love squash bugs) but have kept them out of our crops with plastic mesh bird netting..

  • Terri

    This may sound strange, but I have two cats that love to eat my pepper plants – but I usually catch them before they can do more than damage the leaves.

  • Kenny Point

    I’ve seen cats go after grasses and catnip, but yours are the first I ever heard of attacking pepper plants!

  • Bev

    I have some definite bites in the leaves of some of my pepper plants that look healthy I think besides that… haven’t seen any bugs… did catch a chipmunk near them once… and saw a bite taken low on the stem… so maybe you have chipmunks raiding your peppers? I have my peppers in pots which a chipmunk can still get up to,but some of the bites in the plants are up on the top leaves which I know they can’t reach… I think some birds must be getting them early in the morning when I am not around to see them…. I would really like to get to the bottom of this as well!

  • ryan

    slugs and snails probably or other insect pests

  • This Past year we grew an assortment of different peppers in flower pots on the patio. I observed that if you want peppers that resemble the ones that you would buy, you want to keep the leaves healthy so they cover the peppers because the ones that get too much sun turn a different color. I thought they looked festive and they had no difference in taste.

  • Lisa

    Did you ever figure out what the problem was? I live in Orange County and the same exact thing happened to my sweet pepper plants and one strawberry plant. So frustrating. I have not seen any slugs around. I think it is a bird or squirell.

  • Nathan Bell

    I think it’s Birds…. The same thing happens to mine, but there is always a stem nub. I do have chipmonks around also, but birds are heard and seen when the crime takes place. I put chicken wire over them.

  • Randy Lahnum

    I just planted my garden yesterday and this morning when I walked out in my back yard to gaze on my plants I was caught off guard by the fact that (one) out of (four) of my hot pepper plants looked like it was dug up sometime last night. I have had problems with ground hogs for the past three years, but mostly as a Nuisance, any way if a ground hog took my hot pepper plant…why is it that I see no evidence? why did it seem to take the little plastic marker that was in the ground beside it? Why did’nt it take the other three pepper plants?

  • Kenny Point

    Randy don’t worry, if it was a groundhog he will return for more! Doesn’t really sound like a groundhog to me, they usually have a healthier appetite than that.

  • Lisa

    Update. It was a squirell. I caught him or her in the act saw it with my own eyes. The peanuts I was feeding the blue jays was attracting him. I cut back on the all the nuts for the birds and picked up the excess seed on the ground and he stopped coming around. It was not the birds.

  • Kim

    CHIPMUNKS….They started to eat my peppers this year. Stripped
    one plant of all it’s leaves in one night. I was stunned at first to find my naked little plant with a single pepper dangling from it because I have my garden surrounded by small gauge chicken wire. What got into my fortress? Well… I figured it out quickly. Chipmunks. They climb can over everything. Plus, They left their tell-tale-turds behind. Aha! So, now I have surrounded each individual pepper plant with the small gauge poultry wire, complete with hinging the wire across the top. I don’t want the chipmunks in with my peppers but I still have to be able to harvest them. Anyway… That did the trick. They cannot get to the peppers.

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