Crops

How to grow black pepper

Black pepper also called “Black Gold” is one of the most expensive and popular essential spices. It is the cooked and dried unripe fruit of the Piper Nigrum plant. White pepper on the other hand, is the ripe fruit seeds.

A flowering vine, the pepper plant attaches itself to trees or trellises by means of aerial roots. Its root system will penetrate to a depth of 2m.  The black pepper plant loves very humid climates with temperatures above 16 C. It is a flowering vine with beautiful heart-shaped leaves. It attaches itself to trees or trellises and produces small white flowers in summer before setting fruits.

This plant is native to the rain forest where the relative humidity and rainfall are high. The pepper plant needs about 2 000mm of rain annually. Therefore, ensure  you have an alternative water supply such as irrigation in case of dwindling rainfall. Black pepper also needs rich soil that drains easily to prevent root rot. Furthermore, the soil must have a good structure and water-holding capacity. These can be clay loams, red loams and sandy loam.

The three types of branches (runners) on the pepper plant include:

1. The main or primary runner which forms the permanent stem from which other runners develop.

2. The secondary runners are round, long shoots. They climb to a considerable height and later droop downwards.

3. Tertiary runners are short, sturdier branches that spread horizontally from the primary and secondary runners.

The fruit is a round berry, 4mm to 10mm in diameter, borne in oblong clusters. Each berry has one spherical seed of 3mm to 6mm in diameter, surrounded by the fruit flesh.

Planting

You can grow black pepper from seeds or cuttings. Soak your black pepper seeds in water for 24 hours before planting. Then, plant the seeds very lightly, only about 7mm below the surface of the soil and about 8 cm apart. Keep the soil moist and warm until the seeds germinate about 30 days later. Move them to indirect sunlight once they sprout. Transplant the healthiest seedlings.

The best method is propagation by cuttings. If you’re growing from cuttings, take one-leaf or two-leaf cuttings from secondary runners. Grow the cuttings in the shade or partial shade and keep the soil moist but without puddles. You can also root them in mist beds and transplant them into the land after nine months. Space the rows 3m apart and plants 2m apart on the row. This can give you a density of 1 666 plants/ha.

As pepper is a climbing vine. So,  provide supports. Use treated poles, as the expected lifetime of a pepper plant is 20 years.

Fertilising

Pepper plants respond very well to manure. If the soil pH is slightly high (6,5), use ammonium sulphate as a nitrogen source at about 600g/mature plant annually at 100g per application. The plants also respond well to nitrogen in soil only when there is a high potassium level as well. So, apply magnesium as magnesium sulphate at about 750g/plant.

If the soil is too acidic, apply 500g to 1 000g dolomitic lime to every plant every second year. A general pepper fertilisation guideline is 450g potassium chloride, divided into two or three applications.

Mulching

You have to mulch with organic matter to prevent moisture and weeds. Mulching helps keep the soil moist and dramatically reduces temperature fluctuation between day and night.  You also have to prune your pepper plants to get stronger plants, reduce wild growth of the runners, keep the plants at a certain height and stimulate the growth of lateral fruit-bearing branches.

When you don’t prune the plants, the secondary runners grow densely and suppress the tertiary runners, with a resultant loss in yield. Allow your young plants to retain 3 main runners. To strengthen these runners, you must prune back to 7 internodes. You can prune the long secondary runners hanging from the top must every year

Harvesting

You can harvest the black, white or green peppers from a single plant starting about one year after planting, but most will take 3 to 4 years to develop. The color depends on the different degrees of maturity and how the black pepper is processed. First, flowers will appear and then fruit will begin to form shortly after in clusters. They will ripen from green to red and you can harvest them at different stages.

Pepper fruit is harvested before maturity and dried in the hot sun. After drying it becomes wrinkled and black.

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