Peppers are one of the most rewarding plants grown in an edible garden. They are very productive — giving gardeners all the fruit they can eat, and then some — and the fruit look gorgeous as they develop. If you want to grow peppers in your garden, here’s what you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Peppers? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
Peppers are in the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and eggplants. Not only are peppers easy to grow, there are countless varieties to choose from, ranging from sweet, like bell peppers, to spicy, like jalapeno peppers, to unbelievable hot, like the Carolina Reaper. Once a plant is established, it will continue to produce right up until the first frost of fall, and many types of peppers can be dried or pickled to enjoy in cuisine all year long.
When to Plant Peppers
Pepper plants cannot tolerate frost and are adverse to even cool weather. To ensure plants have adequate time to mature and produce between frost dates, start pepper seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last possible frost date for the region.
Sow pepper seeds a quarter-inch deep in sterile seed-starting mix and use a seedling heat mat to maintain a soil temperature of between 70° and 85°F. However, even at this optimal temperature range, germination can be spotty. Some seeds may germinate in as soon as a week while others of the exact same variety may take up to 21 days. The hottest peppers tend to be the slowest to germinate, especially if the soil temperature is too low.
Peppers do not require light to germinate, but seedlings must be grown under lights to be vigorous enough to eventually survive outdoors. Peppers grown in inadequate light will become leggy and weak. It also helps to run a fan to prevent damping off disease.
As the seedlings grow, they should be “potted up” to larger containers, and before planting them outdoors, they should be gradually introduced to the new environment in a process known as “hardening off.” This involves putting them out in the sun for a short time on the first day — a half hour to one hour — and gradually increasing the time spent outdoors each day for between a week and 10 days until the plants are ready to receive eight hours of direct sun in a day.
Alternatively, pick up seedlings from a nursery. Beginning with pepper starts is more convenient, but remember that there is less variety to choose from when buying plants rather than seeds.
Transplant seedlings outdoors two to three weeks after the last possible frost date. The plants will do best when the air temperature stays above 50° overnight and after the soil temperature has reached 60°.
Where and How to Plant Peppers
Pepper plants require full sun — a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight daily — and well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. A soil test will reveal the garden’s pH and will also note any nutrient deficiencies in the soil.
Peppers are heavy feeders, so start by amending the soil with plenty of compost and a light application of rotted manure. Don’t go overboard with the manure, however, because excess nitrogen will lead to more foliar growth at the expense of fruit production.
Cut off any fruit or flowers that have developed prior to transplanting. This may be painful, but it’s the best thing to be for the plant. Snip them off so the plant can put its energy into root and stem development and acclimate to the outdoor environment. The plant will then produce new flowers and fruit with a stronger foundation and in warmer weather. The yield will ultimately be higher.
Space the seedlings between 12 and 18 inches apart, depending on the variety. (The seed packet will include the specific variety’s ideal spacing.) Pepper plants tend to do best when grown in close proximity to each other, but not quite touching.
When transplanting, it is ok to bury a little of the stem, but there are no advantages to planting deep. Unlike tomato plants, pepper plants will not readily grow roots from their stems.
Pepper plants tend to collapse under the weight of the fruit if they are not supported. Stake plants or install tomato cages early, before the plants have grown much.
Types of Peppers
Peppers come in so many colors — red, orange, white, purple, yellow, etc. — and sizes, and the different types each have their own culinary uses. Once you begin growing peppers, you’ll be champing at the bit to diversify what’s in your garden.
Peppers belong to the genus Capsicum, and most cultivated peppers are the species Capsicum annuum. “Chile pepper” refers to hot peppers, and there are many varieties that fall into the category, for instance, habanero peppers, which are the species C. chinense, and Tabasco peppers, of the species C. frutescens. Below is just a narrow selection of the wide range of peppers available to gardeners.
Bell peppers, also known as the Grossum group peppers, are large, sweet peppers with high water content that can be enjoyed fresh or cooked. Some varieties start green and bitter tasting before maturing to red and reaching their flavor potential. Others will stay green, and some mature to white, orange, pink or purple. Red bell peppers are generally the sweetest while orange bell peppers are tangy.
Cajun Belle is an All-America Selections-winning bell pepper plant that grows fruit that are 2 to 3 inches long. The plants grow to be 2 feet tall and wide, making them perfect for small plots or container gardens, and are known for disease resistance. They are quick to reach maturity; just 60 days. The peppers may be picked while green or allowed to mature to a red luster. The flavor is mildly spicy.
Islander is a three-lobed bell pepper that starts purple, turns yellow with orange streaks, and then red. They may be enjoyed while still lavender-colored or picked after fully ripening. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet.
Banana pepper is chile pepper that’s bright yellow and curved, like a banana, though only 2 to 3 inches long. They are not all that hot — just 0-500 on the Scoville scale. The more mature they are when picked, the sweeter they will be. Banana pepper is also called yellow wax pepper.
Poblano is a mild chile pepper that is called an ancho when dried. It is one of the most popular chiles in Mexican cuisine. There are many recipes readily available for enjoying stuffed poblanos, while ancho chiles are used in mole sauce. Poblanos are typically between 1,000–1,500 Scoville units.
Jalapeno is a popular chile pepper often used in salsa and pico de gallo. Fried with cheese, they make jalapeno “poppers.” The fruit typically grow to be 3 inches long on plants that grow between 14 and 18 inches tall. Jalapenos are usually picked while they are still green but, if left on the plant long enough, they will turn black and then red. Jalapeno peppers are between 2,500–8,000 Scoville units. White scars, called “corking,” on older fruit indicate a pepper will be hotter.
Hungarian hot wax looks like a banana pepper but is hotter, anywhere from 1,000 to 15,000 on the Scoville scale. The fruit grow to be between 4 and 6 inches long and are typically harvested before they mature, when they turn orange and then red. These are popular pickling peppers.
Cayenne is used as a ground spice or in pepper sauce, and it’s even an ingredient in squirrel repellent. The skinny red chiles grow to be 6 to 8 inches long. Cayenne peppers are 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units.
Tabasco is a small pepper that packs heat — 30,000–50,000 on the Scoville scale. It gives its name to Tabasco sauce and is used for flavoring vinegar. They grow upright, changing colors from yellow to orange to red, making them attractive ornamental plants in pots.
Habanero is a variety of chile pepper popular in hot sauce and salsa. The fruit are 1 to 2 inches long, and cultivars are typically red or bright orange when ripe, though they can also be white or purple. Habaneros are known for being hot (100,000–350,000 Scoville units) but there are new “heat-less” varieties as well.
Scotch bonnet is a C. chinense chile pepper, like habanero, with a heat rating of 100,000–350,000. It is named for its odd shape, which resembles a traditional Scottish hot. It is sweeter and smaller than habanero.
Water infrequently, but deep. An inch of water a week is the goal. If it has rained any less than an inch in a week’s time, make up the difference with supplemental irrigation. Water under the foliage, right at ground level. (Overhead watering leaves the fruit and foliage wet, which invites disease.)
A 2-inch layer of organic mulch (applied after the soil temperature has heated up above 60°) will help the garden retain moisture between waterings. Shredded leaves, arborist’s wood chips and straw are all good mulch choices.
In the hottest days of summer, up to 2 inches of water per week may be necessary — but don’t let the plants sit in water. Pepper plants do not enjoy wet feet, which is why well-drained soil is so important.
A bit of rotted manure at planting time will help the plants along in the beginning. But when pepper plants are getting ready to set fruit, nitrogen-rich manure can be counterproductive.
Slow-release organic fertilizers with more phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen will make for the best pepper plants. Synthetic fertilizers are not ideal because most will give plants a jolt of nitrogen, leading to more stem and leaf growth, but not more fruit.
Fertilizer for peppers should have less nitrogen (N) than phosphorus (P). For example, an organic tomato fertilizer with an NPK of 3-5-3. Apply according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (More does not equal better.)
Pepper Pests & Diseases
Pepper plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases than many other plants in the edible garden, but problems do arise.
Cutworms feed on the stems of young plants. They are actually moth larvae and can be controlled with paper collars around the stems.
Fruitworms and armyworms are moth larvae that bore into the fruits themselves on pepper plants. Handpick eggs on stems, under leaves and on fruit, and pick off any caterpillars, which may be green or black and gray. Bt is an organic control for moth and butterfly larvae that is safe around humans and pets and will not harm other wildlife. Just be sure not to apply it around butterfly larvae host plants such as milkweed and fennel.
Hornworms, the larvae of hawkmoths, are more often a pest of tomato plants, and they can be devastating. The green caterpillars with horns on their rear ends grow to be between 2 and 4 inches long. Because of their size, they are easily handpicked. They will be easier to find at night with a flashlight, especially a UV light. A parasitoid wasp known as the Cotesia wasp lays its eggs in hornworms, so a hornworm with white cocoons sticking out of its body should be moved but not killed, so a new generation of Cotesia wasps will follow to continue to control the hornworm population.
Aphids are sucking insects that are vectors for plant diseases. As they eat plant leaves they excrete honeydew, which attracts ants and other insects. They are easily controlled by knocking them off plants with a sharp stream of water.
Whiteflies are similar to aphids in that they suck sap and cover plants in honeydew. They are naturally controlled by wasps, but peppers can also be treated with insecticidal soap.
Flea beetles are small black or bronze jumping leaf beetles, just an eighth of an inch long. Flea beetles can be kept off young plants with floating row cover. Another strategy is to plant a trap crop of radishes, which flea beetles prefer over peppers. By summer, pepper plants are big and strong enough to shrug off flea beetle damage, and their presence then should not raise concerns.
Blossom end rot is a symptom of calcium deficiency. It can arise as a result of overwatering or inconsistent water. Watering on a regular schedule can often resolve this issue. A calcium deficiency in the soil is rare. Get a soil test to identify deficiencies or excess nutrients if the watering schedule has not helped.
Fusarium wilt and Verticillium wilt can cause pepper plants to wilt and die. Affected plants should be disposed of outside of the garden to prevent recurrences and spread. Practice crop rotation by refraining from growing nightshades in that spot for the next two or three years, if not longer.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that sometimes affects pepper plants. Proper spacing of plants to provide air circulation can stop powdery mildew from becoming an issue. A solution of baking soda or diluted milk can slow the spread or be used as a preventative measure. (Read my comprehensive guide to powdery mildew control for more.)
Pepper mild mottle virus presents on leaves first, as the leaves appear faded or yellow. The plant’s growth will be stunted and the fruit will be lumpy. This is a seed-borne disease. Prevention starts with buying tested seed from a trusted source. It can also be spread during crop maintenance. Dispose of affected plants offsite and practice crop rotation.
All peppers start out as green but most mature to be another color. At planting time, it’s important to take note of the ideal color a pepper should be at harvest time. Otherwise, a pepper that tastes best when it turns red may be picked prematurely, or a pepper that stays green at maturity may sit on the plant for longer than it should.
Trying to yank a fruit off a pepper plant can cause a lot of damage. To harvest, use a sharp knife or pruning shears, cutting just above where the stem meets the fruit.
Unwashed peppers will store for a week or two in a refrigerator. They can also be dried in a dehydrator or oven for long-term storage.
What are your secrets to successfully growing peppers? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
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