Pepper plant maintenance - mulch, beneficial nematodes, or ???
Trying out growing peppers in some containers for the first time this year, and have a couple of questions for controlling / preventing / helping some (probably self-inflicted) issues...
They have been growing slowly, flowering, and for the most part there are lots of little baby peppers bulbs starting, with 1 bell pepper and 2 hots showing some promise, so things aren't in crisis... yet.
Pot 1 - Bell Pepper & Hot Pepper purchased from local greenhouse.Planted outside just before a drop in temperature that most likely stunted them, although the Bell pepper is growing well.
Pot 2 - Mini Bell pepper, Mexibell (also purchased from local greenhouse), Hot variety (don't remember)- sadly purchased from a large DIY box store.
Potting mix: organic "potting" soil mix, mixed with peat moss, and a "sprinkle" of organic fertilizer (probably closer to a handful thanks to my "more is better" boyfriend).
I have been fighting an aphid invasion, which makes me think we over-fertilized when we potted them. I washed each leaf down with soapy water, and then rinsed, and killed off the masses, and am now hand-squishing a couple of aphids each morning, usually around new growth. So it seems to be under control, albeit not exactly ideal.
The other morning though, while hunting for aphids, I started to notice small black flies around the soil surface, that I fear are fungus gnats.
Then some of the lower leaves on the plants started turning yellow and falling off.
I can only attach one photo so I'm including the one of the yellowing leaves.
Most of the "baby" peppers are not really "growing"- they are just there, the size of pencil eraser, however 1 bell pepper is the size of golf ball, and 2 of the unknown hots are about 2 inches long now.
If it is any help as well, in the same conditions, I have a tomato plant that is doing well, but that has had 2 deformed tomatoes, and 1 with bottom rot (and about 11 small, healthy looking tomatoes, so I'm not too worried yet) - guessing water stress from the cold weather followed by stifling heat where I forgot to increase the watering to it.
So finally my questions...
Should I mulch the open soil areas with rocks or mulch to try to help keep water content more consistent and possibly help kill off the fungus gnats? Or should I try beneficial nematodes and lady bugs to try to control the pests? Do I need to try to fix the over-fertilization, or wait it out? Or all of the above? Can the beneficial nematodes survive through a rock type mulch?
I would prefer to avoid harsh chemicals as much as possible since I do hope to eat whatever we do manage to grow.
We are in a high wind area, so the top of the soil dries out very quickly, but the containers are definitely still holding some water mid-way through (they do have lots of drainage holes though), so I'd like to help protect the surface and water a little less frequently, since I don't want to over-water.
The plants get some morning sun (7-9:30 am), followed by direct overhead mid-day sun (12-2?), and half sun (broken up by the railings / some tree shade) for the rest of the afternoon.
Sorry this is so long, but I really would love some guidance for the best next steps since my boyfriend is SO excited to have his own home-grown peppers... I just need to get them there now... and I know the details are important in order to offer any help. Thanks a bunch in advance!!