Guide To Growing The Perfect Peppers
Peppers are one of the most popular vegetables you can grow in your garden. This vegetable (but technically a fruit!) comes in so many different colors, shapes, flavors and most importantly- spice level! While pepper plants and their leaves all look very similar, that’s where the resemblance ends. The fruits of peppers vary from wrinkled to smooth skin texture, bulbous to thin and from pale lavender all the way to chocolate brown, with every shade of green, yellow, orange and red in between.
Peppers can be a bit of a challenge to grow, because they need a good amount of heat and sunlight to get their fruit to ripen. Challenge accepted! With just a few techniques and the right conditions, you can grow peppers during the dog days of summer and reap a rewarding harvest in the fall.
1. Planting Peppers
Peppers are best transplanted as seedlings into your garden, benefiting from controlled indoor conditions, particularly lots of light and heat to get established. However if you’re lucky enough to live in a warmer climate (like the tropics!), you can direct sow pepper seeds. But many of us- starting your seeds indoors and growing seedlings are your best best to growing peppers.
Starting Your Seeds
Pepper seeds need a good amount of time to get growing and the rule of thumb is to start pepper seeds about 8 to 12 weeks before your last frost date. The seeds are slow germinators too, but depending on the variety some will germinate faster than others. Sow your seeds in a high quality growing medium or peat pellets, reserving one seed per pellet and watering thoroughly. It is important that your seeds don’t dry out during the germination process or else they wont’ grow!
Peppers love heat. So if you have a heating pad or a warmer spot in your home that you can place your pepper seeds (like on the top of a refrigerator) the added heat will speed up germination. But this can also lead to drying out your medium or pellets faster- so make sure you are checking that the soil hasn’t dried out.
Once your seeds sprout, move them under grow lights, but if you don’t have grow lights you can use a south-facing window if that’s all you have. Aim to give your seedlings around 12 hours of sunlight a day. To avoid leggy pepper plants, avoid having too much distance between the light source and your seedlings- a longer distance will encourage legginess of your seedlings. It is important to develop stockier, sturdy pepper plants to avoid toppling over when they begin to develop their fruits.
When the seedlings are about 6 weeks old or so, the plants should be developing their true leaves. Once you see two leaves, transplant them into larger pots about 3 inches in size and continue growing them indoors. At this point you can start to strengthen up your peppers and this can be done by stimulating a }breeze} indoors. You can brush them along with your hands (delicately!) or add a fan for a light, gentle breeze. This will help you grow stronger, stockier pepper seedlings and prevent damping off as well.
About a week or two before your last frost date, you should begin hardening off your seedlings. Gradually start taking your plants outdoors during the day for a few hours at a time, eventually leaving them out overnight. This will ensure that your seedlings are not shocked when you transplant them into your garden. Peppers do not like cold temperatures, so keep an eye out and avoid putting them outdoors if the temperature is below 50 Fahrenheit or 12 Celcius.
Where To Grow Peppers
Peppers do best in hot conditions and can be grown across most zones in the summertime. They are native to tropical climates, but if you plant them with the right conditions they can do well in most regions.
Choosing the best site in your garden should be based on where you get at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day and where it is the warmest. Good drainage is also key, but you can amend your soil to suit what the peppers need.
Peppers are grown as annuals but are in fact perennial plants, so you could technically bring a pepper plant indoors during the winter months.
When To Plant Peppers
After ANY chance of frost in your region is gone! Depending on where you live, that could be as early as March or as late as May in northern climates. These are a heat-loving crop, so once your frost date is well and gone you are safe to put your peppers in the ground. A great resource to use in determining what and when to plant is the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Many seed packets and plants will reference this, so it is good to get acquainted with which zone you’re in.
Prepping Your Planting Site
Pepper plants need full sun and lots of heat to produce the largest and healthiest fruits. Choosing a site in your garden that doesn’t get a lot of shade or if they are in danger of having sunlight blocked from other plants.
Amend your soil with organic matter, working in about 2 inches or so of manure or compost. Peppers do not like to have their roots wet and soggy, so make sure you avoid a planting location that doesn’t drain well. If you want to improve water drainage at your planting site, you can add some sand when you amend your soil to increase drainage. A sandier soil allows for better heat uptake too and peppers love the heat, so it might be worthwhile to add some sand or silt to your soil or potting mixture when you go to plant your peppers. Silt has the added benefit of having better nutrient retention. If you grew nightshade vegetables last year- don’t plant your peppers there! Rotate your crops to avoid returning pests and diseases.
Planting Pepper Seedlings
The most important thing when you go to plant your peppers is the temperature. Peppers hate the cold! A frost will destroy pepper seedlings, either killing them outright or completely inhibiting pepper fruit development. Because of this, it’s a good idea to plant your peppers well past your last frost date. Some gardeners even suggest up to 2 to 3 weeks afterwards if you live in a temperamental climate where you could potentially see a late spring or early summer frost. It may be best to look into the weather forecast for your region and once you see a steady nighttime temperature of at least 10 degrees Celsius or 50 Fahrenheit, then it’s a safe time to plant your seedlings.
When your pepper seedlings are ready to plant and you’ve hardened them off, now it’s time to get them in the garden. After you’ve amended your soil to add some nutrients, transplant your seedlings into the garden at a depth of about 1 inch deeper than how they were growing in their pots. The deeper you can plant them the better, as stronger, more roots will make stronger and more fruitful plants. Some gardeners swear by using a small handful of Epsom salts to the soil when they amend, as the salts will provide a bit of a magnesium boost.
They will need a lot of space to grow and flourish, so plant about 18 to 24 inches apart and up to about the first set of leaves. Pepper stems are unique in that they grow extra roots, so the deeper you plant your peppers will be beneficial and strengthen the plants in the long run.
Growing Peppers In Containers
Peppers are perfect for growing in containers! As long as you have your plants in full sun and in a warm location your peppers will thrive. Pick a larger container, one that is at least 12 inches in diameter, to allow their roots to spread and promote the growth of large plants. Make sure that whichever container you choose that there are holes in the bottom. Peppers need a lot of drainage, as these plants do not do well with soggy roots and poorly drained soil. Although peppers do not like wet, soggy soil, peppers do require consistently moist soil. When you pick a container, a plastic or metal one is best, but avoid terracotta since that material will absorb moisture away from the soil.
A good quality, organic potting mix or seed starting mix is recommended for your containers, as these types of mixes promote good drainage. When midsummer hits and the temperatures climb, make sure to water your peppers in containers almost daily, as properly draining containers will lose more water than those in the ground. Check the soil and see if the top inch is dry- if it is, give you plants a good watering at their base.
2. How To Grow And Care For Your Peppers
Once you have strong, sturdy pepper seedlings planted in your garden, taking care of the plants can be quite easy. The goal is to get your peppers to produce a good amount of the white and yellow star-shaped flowers that end up being the site for fruit production. Once these flowers begin to drop (and drop when they’re supposed to) then the pepper fruit will begin to form at that site.
If you can establish good watering techniques, provide some added nutrients throughout the season and encourage pollination, you’ll have a flourishing pepper crop.
Peppers love water, but hate soggy roots! That can be a bit of a challenge, but if you provide the appropriate amount of drainage and water properly, it can be quite easy to maintain. Water your peppers every 2 to 3 days, preferably in the morning hours. On really hot days it might not be a bad idea to water on a daily basis, so use your judgment and check to see if the soil has dried out. When you go to water, avoid getting water on the leaves as that can promote pest infestation and water the base of the plant thoroughly.
If you notice that your pepper plants have droopy leaves, that is a clear indication that you’ve overwatered your plants and it’s best to let them dry out as much as you can before you water again. Moisture meters can help you to determine when to water your peppers and can be purchased at most gardening supply shops.
Peppers are considered light-feeding plants, they generally don’t need too many nutrients to grow well, but these plants can still benefit from some fertilizer every now and again. An organic, balanced plant food will work, just fertilize according to the label’s instructions. Feed your plants when you plant them and then again when you start to see the first flowers form. After that, you can feed your peppers every one to two weeks. Don’t pick a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, as that will promote foliage growth but leave you with less peppers.
Mulching your pepper plants is a great way to not only maintain water retention in the soil, but also great at minimizing weeds and as an added bonus, mulch will help protect the roots of the plants from colder nights, providing some insulation. Wood chips, straw, hay or even grass can all work well.
Pinching off the first few pepper blossoms of your plant is a good practice, as this encourages your plant to put its energy back into growing stronger roots and foliage for better peppers later.
Peppers are a self-pollinating flowering fruit, which means that these plants don’t require a male and female plant to reproduce, they can do it all on their own! However, these plants greatly benefit from pollinators and particularly in times of stress, so it’s a great idea to plant a pollinator mix in your garden that includes flowers and herbs that can attract beneficial insects to promote pepper pollination. If your peppers fail to become pollinated, you will only have pepper blossoms and have no fruit development.
Sometimes hand pollinating is needed to get your peppers to fruit. It can be time consuming, but necessary if you want peppers! Around mid-day, take a small paintbrush or a cotton swab to gently transfer pollen from flower to flower from the same plant. Do not cross-pollinate, or mix two separate plants together.
Staking or caging your peppers offer great support for when your plants grow large and begin to bear fruit. Staking with tomato stakes or whatever you have will work (hockey sticks can work in a pinch!), but a personal preference is supporting pepper plants in tomato cages.
3. Pepper Heirloom Varieties
Peppers come in many colors, shapes, spice-levels and flavors. Native to Mesoamercia, this plant has roots in human civilization dating as far back as 5000 BCE! It wasn’t until the 1400s, when Columbus brought the chili pepper back to Spain that this fruiting vegetable was introduced to other parts of the world and now there are over 3500 varieties across the globe.
Peppers, both chili and bell-types, are members of the Capsicum genus and relatives of tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. The chemical capsaicin is the molecule that determines the spice level of peppers, so when you go to choose your peppers to plant, pay close attention to how much is in your peppers. Heirloom varieties in particular can add a uniqueness to your garden that you wouldn’t be able to achieve with the regular hybrid types.
Below are some of the common varieties of peppers:
Bell Pepper: Bell peppers are generally larger peppers that are free of capsaicinoids (what makes peppers spicy!), so these are a good pepper if you don’t like spicy foods. This type has a wide range of flavor profiles and a wide range of colors, including red, green, yellow, orange and purple.
Banana Pepper: These peppers look exactly the way their name suggests! Waxy-looking and yellow in color, but they can ripen to red or orange. Banana peppers are oblong and can grow quite large, with a mild, sweet taste.
Pepperoncini: Milder peppers that are most often eaten green, before they ripen. A milder, slightly bitter pepper.
Shishito Pepper: Originally cultivated in Japan, these plants are often prolific and compact, and perfect for containers. This pepper is commonly eaten when it’s bright green and before it fully ripens to red.
Paprika or Hungarian Pepper: Large, oblong-shaped pepper from Hungary. Often consumed when it has been dried and in powder form.
Poblano or Ancho Pepper: Mild chili pepper popularly used for grilling.
Jalapeno Pepper: One of the most popular types of hot peppers, this variety is commonly eaten when it’s unripe and green, but once it ripens to red these peppers can get sweeter.
Serrano Pepper: Smaller than a jalapeno, but spicier.
Cayenne Pepper: A curvy-looking, small, very spicy pepper commonly harvested when it’s bright red.
Thai Chiles: One of the spiciest types around with over 75 varieties, Thai chiles are staples in Southeast Asian cuisine.
Habanero Pepper: A hot pepper with a hint of sweetness, this pepper is commonly orange but can be red, white or brown.
Scotch Bonnet Pepper: A very hot, but sweet, tiny wrinkly-looking pepper. These are generally brightly coloured.
Here are some heirloom varieties to consider planting in your garden:
Alma Paprika: Great flavor for drying and grinding into paprika powder. These fruits start out white and ripen all the way through to red. This pepper has a sweeter taste.
Ashe County Pimento: This pepper is a bright-red, sweet pepper that is great for eating raw, cooking or preserving.
Black Hungarian: This pepper has a smoky taste, starting out as a black pepper and eventually maturing to red. This plant is quite pretty, with lavender flowers and dark green leaves veined with purple, this variety will be a showstopper in your garden.
Buran: A sweet, Polish heirloom pepper.
Carmagnola: A popular heirloom from Italy, this pepper has bright red and yellow skin
Candlelight: Eye-catching, small, tapered fruits that mature from green, to yellow, orange and then finally ripening to red. These fruits look great and can double as an ornamental.
Chervena Chushka: A Bulgarian heirloom variety that’s great as a roasting pepper, but is very sweet in its raw form.
Chocolate Beauty: A sweet pepper that matures from dark green to a rich, chocolate brown.
Coban Red Pimiento: A small, sweet, bell pepper from Guatemala.
Doe Hill Golden Bell: An heirloom that dates before the 1900s, this plant produces flattened, bright orange bell peppers.
Doux D’Espagne: Another old heirloom pepper, dating back all the way to the 1800s. This pepper is flavourful and delicious.
Mini Chocolate: Very small bell peppers that ripen to a chocolate brown and are perfect for containers.
Napoleon Sweet: An early pepper variety, with larger, sweet fruits.
Orange Bell: A large, sweet bell pepper.
Orange Habanero: Very hot variety that turns into a bright orange, small pepper with the classic habanero-style wrinkled skin.
Sweet Chinese Giant: Big, sweet red peppers that produce peppers early.
4. Common Insects & Disease
Just like all plants, there are a few common pests or issues that can arise when you are growing peppers. There are proactive measures you can take to avoid these problems in the first place and ways to reduce the damage on your crops if you catch the issues early.
Spider Mites & Aphids
Spider-mites love hot, dry weather. If you have mites, it’s quite easy to identify, since they will leave fine webbing on the underside of pepper leaves. Misting these areas regularly will help deter these common pests.
Aphids can spread a fungal disease that can cause havoc on your peppers, causing distorted growth and even warts developing on your fruits. Spray the aphids with cold water to dislodge them from your plants or use a spray bottle filled with water and a dash of dish soap, spray and wipe the plant thoroughly, repeating every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks. If aphids persist, an insecticidal spray or oil, such as neem oil, might be needed. Read the directions carefully before applying to your plants.
Companion planting is a good way to attract aphids away from your peppers in the first place, such as growing nasturtiums, basil and rosemary.
Potato beetles will chew your pepper leaves and lay eggs in clusters underneath the leaves. You can remove these clusters by hand and a good method of prevention for these insects would be to consider mulching your plants if you haven’t, practice consistent weeding and opt for row covers for extra protection.
Flea beetles will leave tiny (flea-size) holes in your pepper leaves. Row covers and mulching will help to deter these pests.
Blossom End Rot
Blossom-end rot can affect your pepper crop and turn the ends of the fruits black. This is caused by a lack of calcium, which is needed to grow the cell walls of the pepper fruits and if the plant isn’t getting enough calcium, the walls of fruit begin to shrink. Once this happens, where the ends of the pepper fruits are collapsing, this leads to black, fungal growth.
A calcium deficiency can be caused by several factors, including a lack of calcium in the soil, periods of drought followed by heavy amounts of rain, over watering or other excess nutrients. To help prevent this, make sure you are watering your plants evenly and use mulch to help keep evaporation to a minimum. Choosing a fertilizer that is lower in nitrogen and potassium can help with calcium absorption. Another option would be to add some extra calcium to your soil. You can do that by working calcium granules into the soil surrounding your plants, or adding egg shells, lime, gypsum or bone meal overtime will add more calcium to your soil.
If you find that your pepper plants are dropping their flowers, this could be caused by extreme heat or very low humidity. Consider a shade cloth if it’s getting too hot, but make sure you still have proper air circulation going to your plants. If low humidity is an issue, spray a gentle mist on your plants.
Why Do My Pepper Plants Have Leaves But No Blooms?
Properly fertilizing your pepper plants is very important. If you use a fertilizer with too much nitrogen, this nutrient will work hard to produce more foliage and not flowers. When the fruit is growing, it is advised that you stop fertilizing your pepper plants because some plant stress causes the plant to put all its resources into reproduction, which would mean producing more, viable fruit for the next season and you’ll end up with a good crop for the current season.
5. Harvesting Peppers
Now comes the fun part! Peppers are ready to be picked as soon as they are large enough to eat, or reach the level of maturity you want for the variety you planted. Most often, peppers will be ready in around 70 days or so, with other, hotter varieties taking longer. Whichever type of pepper you’ve grown, it’s wonderful to reap the harvest of your peppers because you continually get to harvest them all season long.
You can harvest peppers when they are any color. Most are green when they are young and change color to red, orange, yellow, purple or brown when they age. It is good to note that milder peppers tend to get sweeter the longer you wait to harvest them, and hot peppers will get hotter the longer you keep them on the plant. Make sure you harvest them when they are firm, if you leave them for too long they can shrivel and lose their freshness and flavor. You must harvest them all before your last frost date, as frost will destroy your crop.
How to Harvest
Cut the peppers with a sharp pruning shear or knife, still leaving a short stem attached to the pepper. Sometimes a gentle tug is all you need, but if you’re picking a green pepper using something sharp will do. Make sure you wear gloves when you harvest your hot peppers! if you don’t wear gloves, avoid touching your face and make sure you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards. Otherwise the capsaicin oil from the pepper can burn your skin.
Peppers can last in the refrigerator for up to two weeks in your crisper. If you leave your peppers on the counter, they will continue to ripen until you put them in the refrigerator and can be useful if you have many peppers left over from your crop, but were forced to pick them due to an early frost.
If you find that you have copious amounts of leftover peppers, it may be a good idea to preserve your harvest and can your peppers. There are numerous recipes out there for canning and pickling peppers (pickled jalapenos are a fan favorite!). There are specific instructions you need to follow when you pressure this way that is dependent on your region’s altitude, so take some time and explore your favorite recipe blogs and cookbooks to find a recipe that speaks to you.
Peppers can freeze quite well when cooked and in sauces or salsas. You can freeze fresh, raw peppers, but it can change their texture a bit. If you’re going to freeze them raw, it will be easier if you chop them up into bite sized pieces and frozen flat on a baking sheet, then stored in freezer bags, plastic containers or even glass jars. When they’re already chopped up, they can be an easy addition to stir-fries, soups and stews. You can even freeze peppers whole if you prefer. Just make sure you wash your peppers thoroughly before you freeze them!
Drying is a great way to store your peppers. You can either air dry your peppers or dehydrate them in your oven or dehydrator. To air dry, find a spot in your house that doesn’t have much moisture (the drier the better) and simply hang your peppers by their stems, using twine or rope or whatever you have on hand and thread the peppers together, creating a garland of peppers. Place them in an area that gets good air circulation to avoid molding and lots of sunshine. This method generally takes about 3 to 4 weeks to dry the peppers out. Air drying works best on thin-skinned peppers.
Dehydrating your peppers will take a substantially less amount of time. Smaller peppers can be dehydrated whole, while bigger ones should be cut to reduce drying time. Spread the peppers evenly out in your dehydrator and set your temperature to 125 Fahrenheit to 135 Fahrenheit. Sit back and relax because depending on how high you dehydrate or your own dehydrator, it can take about 4 to 12 hours to dry fully.
Once they’re dry you can store them in your pantry (in glass containers or storage bags) to rehydrate for later or grind them up into powder to use as a spice to your favorite dishes.
Peppers have loads of seeds in their fruits and you can easily save these for later, you don’t have to wait for the fruits to dry out. Simply dry out your seeds (discard any discolored seeds as these tend to not germinate later) on a paper towel for about a week until they are fully dried, then label your varieties and place in your container in a darker area with low moisture.
6. Companion Planting
There are many companion plants that will benefit your peppers and it’s a wonderful garden technique to practice. Not only can companion planting help increase the yield of your crops, but this method can be beneficial in deterring pests and disease, or act as a growing aid or help with nutrient absorption. No matter the reason to experiment with companion planting, it is a great practice to increase the productivity of your garden.
Alliums: Interplanting members of the Allium family such as carrots, radishes, garlic, chives, cucumbers and squash, help deter aphids from attacking your pepper plants.
Basil: The strong scent of basil wards off harmful insects, such as thrips, flies and mosquitoes.
Parsley: This herb attracts a beneficial wasp that feeds off of aphids. We don’t want the aphids on our plants!
Spinach, Lettuces & Chard: If you plant lettuce underneath your pepper plants, not only are you maximizing your space and providing shade for lettuce or whichever leafy green you’ve planted (leafy greens do not like heat or too much sun), but you are also helping to control the growth of weeds.
Beets & Parsnips: Beets and parsnips can also help you maximize space, control weeds and keep the soil cool and moist.
Flowering Herbs: Dill, fennel and cilantro (members of the carrot family) attracts beneficial insects and helps to ward off pests. Their flowers will attract an array of insect predators that prey on pepper pests. Plant these herbs between your pepper plants for added protection.
Sunflowers: Do you really need another reason to grow sunflowers? The answer is yes! These flowers attract beneficial pest-eating insects, both when the flowers are in bloom and not, so even if they haven’t flowered yet they are already working hard to deter pepper pests.
Trap Crops: Trap crops are used for what you’d think- to trap unwanted pests and keep them away from the crops that you want to protect. These are planted to target a particular pest, which lures unwanted insects to another plant and keeps them away from your peppers. Trap crops for peppers include pak choi or radish for flea beetles and nasturtiums for aphids. Planting these crops close to your peppers will encourage these pests to go for the trap crop, leaving your peppers alone to flourish.
7. Cooking & Eating Peppers
As mentioned earlier, peppers have been cultivated in cuisine around the world for over a millennia. There is no shortage of pepper recipes! Both sweet and spicy peppers can be cooked and prepared quite similarly, but always be cautious depending on the heat-level (spiciness) of your pepper variety. I wouldn’t advise eating a Scotch Bonnet variety raw! It’s a good idea to wear gloves if you are dealing with spicy peppers to avoid burning or irritating your eyes or skin.
You can roast, bake, saute, grill, boil, steam and fry peppers. Adding aromatics, like garlic, onions and herbs, only enhance their flavors. Sweet, milder peppers are a great snack when eaten raw on their own, with a dip or in salads or wraps.
A Final Note
Peppers are a great addition to any home vegetable garden. There are so many varieties with different shapes, colors and sizes, that the options are endless! The key to a successful crop is establishing strong seedlings from the get-go and planting your plants in the right location- lots of sunlight and a spot in your garden that would get a good amount of heat.
Maintaining a steady flow of watering, but not overwatering, is important to avoid damaging plants and to deter pests. Keeping your plants happy and healthy is the best defense against pests and other diseases, so careful planning and proper maintenance will be worth it in the long run. Selecting an heirloom variety seed will add a uniqueness to your garden and when you choose a higher-quality seed you will most definitely see better results.
Harvesting peppers is the best part, with a continuous supply of peppers rewarding you throughout the late summer season, you’ll have so many peppers that you might even consider freezing or drying some before the last frost.
Have fun growing!