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How to grow peppers

Awesome, you just bought a new pepper plant to add some spice to your life....now what?!?!?

If you're anything like me, you probably stumbled into the world of growing peppers out of nowhere. I wanted to start growing peppers for years, but held off as it seemed so daunting. How much water do they get? What, when, and how do I feed them (plants have food???)? What happens if something goes wrong? The list of "what if's" and "how do I's" is never ending. 

Fear not! it really is a lot easier than it seems, is incredibly rewarding, and pretty cost efficient. I mean if a dumb grunt like me can grow them, surely you can, right?

This page is all about growing peppers, from seed to harvest and everything in between. I'll go over germination, light control, plant maintenance, troubleshooting, and everything you need to get hot, delicious peppers fresh from your own plant, from my own personal experience and research. 

Don't have time to read the whole thing? skip to a specific section!

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overview

General information on growing peppers and background of my experiences

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maintain

Caring for your plants throughout their lifecycle, keeping them happy, healthy and growing!

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germinate

Starting from seeds and early care for the extra ambitious

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Harvest

The most exciting time of the year, harvesting peppers!

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Transplant

Start here if you've just purchased a seedling, or seedlings you've grown are ready to be transplanted.

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Troubleshoot

Pest, diseases, and operator error! What to do if you or another organism screws up your pepper plants!

Overview

overview

Growing peppers, and plants in general, can be very intimidating for a lot of folks. In fact, the most commonly uttered reason I've heard people give is "Oh I can't grow anything, I'd just kill it". But it really doesn't have to be that intimidating, I promise! Again, if a stupid grunt can do it, don't you think you can?

Peppers are best planted as an annual (meaning you start each year out with new plants). They can be grown in containers, raised beds, greenhouses, or in open fields and will adapt to most mediums (soils) you can buy, but they grow best in Sandy Loam type soils (for those of you interested in raised beds) with a generally neutral pH of 6-7. Generally speaking, they will grow to a height of roughly 3-4 feet and can produce 3-5 pounds of fresh peppers, depending on the variety you plant and how well you maintain them. 

Life cycles of peppers also vary dependent upon the variety you have, so it is important to not get too discouraged if it seems your plant is slower to grow than other pepper plants. Harvesting time frames can vary between 60 and 120 days (and beyond if the right conditions for production aren't met). 

I often tell my friends and family that the 4 most important concepts (for me at least) to understand when growing peppers are water, light, food, and plant maintenance​. These four variables have some of the biggest effects I've seen on the health of my plants. 

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The first pepper plants I grew from seeds, these Jalapeno and Habanero plants did AMAZING!

Germinate

GERMINATE

Are you excited yet? Can you taste the heat already? I just started my seedlings barely two months ago and I'm already drooling over the prospect of fresh, hot, delicious peppers growing like crazy in my garden beds. Buuut I digress, this section is supposed to show you how to start your seeds out. I recommend doing this as early as possible in the year if you plan on growing them outdoors. In Oregon, I typically start my seedlings on New Year's Eve so they're ready to transplant when the weather gets better. 

First, you're going to want to consider where you are purchasing your seeds. I HIGHLY recommend reading as many reviews from customers as you can, as you can easily get slammed with low germination rates, or in my experience, none of the plants turning out to be the variety advertised (it's incredibly frustrating to plant 40 Habanero plants and they all turn out to be Mad Hatters or Big Jim Chilis)due to cross pollination. I've found both Tradewinds Fruit and Pepper Joe to be both incredibly consistent and reliable in both germination and lack of cross-fertilization. 

Once you've got your seeds, you'll need your starting medium (soil), as well as your containers. Sphagnum Peat Moss is a fantastic starting medium as it is lightly packed (great for root propagation), retains water well, and stores nutrients so they aren't washed away when you water your plants.  While I have used it by itself repeatedly very successfully, some manufacturers recommend cutting it with other sources of nutrition such as vermiculite, both can be found in just about any garden section of garden supply store. 

For seeds at home, you'll want to use small, biodegradable pot strips commonly available at your local garden section/store as well. Many places sell complete seedling starter kits with pods, a tray, and dome to cover. If you're looking for the easy route, this is it. In larger quantities, you'll want to use the pot strips with a 1020 tray (black plastic trays that they pot strips are placed in) with a dome. Seeds, medium, and pots should cost you about $10 if you're just doing the one batch. 

To actually sow the seeds, prepare the medium (in the pot strips if you're using them) with a generous dose of water. The medium should be well saturated, but not swimming. You might have to use your fingers to mash things up and get the water to really soak in, adding more moss if needed. Once thoroughly wet, place a 1/2" hole directly in the center of each pot or pod and place 3-4 seeds in it, covering them up after. If you want to really up your germination rate, purchase a seedling heat mat (NOTE: ONLY use seedling heat mats as others are too hot and will scorch your peppers and they are not made to work well with water, something your pepper seedlings will need) and place your tray on top. Cover your tray with a clear plastic dome (to retain moisture) and leave in a dark, room temperature (~70 degrees Fahrenheit) space. 

Once you have a few seedlings started (all of mine typically sprout right at one week after sowing), prop up the dome to allow airflow and get it under lights. When most seedlings have sprouted up, completely remove the dome, ensuring to add water if things start to dry out. At this point your goal is to maintain a damp medium: not completely dry, but you don't want the medium soaking wet (its a tricky concept to reach this balance at first, but you'll get the hang of it with experience). Don't worry about fertilizers or anything crazy right now, as the seeds you planted contain the nutrients necessary for your plants newborn stages. 

Keep them under lighting as they continue to grow. If your grow space has natural lighting, I recommend narrow spectrum lights (the red and blue guys that make everything look purple). For those that have no natural light in their grow space (like me), I recommend getting broad or full spectrum lights (white/yellow in color) to make up for the lack of natural light.

Once you have your first set of true leaves, you're ready to thin the herd and up-pot them for their the first time. True leaves are the second set of leaves on your plant, and the first set grown outside the soil. You'll be able to spot these easily as they will have a well defined vein pattern, whereas your first set won't. The process for this is easy: for each pod or pot, pick the strongest and healthiest looking seedling. Gently pull all of the other seedlings out of the pod or pot and discard, while leaving the strongest intact. Take the pod or pot and plant it in a slightly larger pot. At home and in small quantities, one quart pots (roughly 6" in diameter) work great, but you can use Styrofoam cups if you need to cut costs, just keep in mind to punch a few drainage holes so the soil can drain, preventing root rot (this is crucial as pepper plants DO NOT like soggy roots).. When up-planting this time around, you'll want to leave at least 1/2"-1" from the top of the (new, bigger) pot, and bunker the seedling in alllmost up to its first leaves with potting soil (NOT garden soil). Give it a healthy dose of water, and return to the light, repeating for every plant you have. 

This is where I start my plants' fertilizer regimen, starting them off with a half dose of a nitrogen heavy fertilizer every other week, working them up to a full dose a couple cycles in. On alternating weeks, I also give them an epsom salt bath by dissolving 1 tbsp of epsom salt in a gallon of water and spraying it over the plants. This is incredibly important as it gives a healthy dose of magnesium to the plants, helping prevent yellowing of leaves, spindly plants, and help fruit mature later on. As they start to grow, monitor their soil and water it every few days. Don't water it if the soil looks damp, and don't over water it.  

When your plant has 8-10 true leaves, you can now "top" them. While this step isn't absolutely necessary, I prefer it with some varieties that tend to grow quicker like Cayenne, Jalapeno, and Serrano as it strengthens the stems. It also increases the vegetative growth along the stem, and will hopefully produce a higher yield. To do this, you simply (but GENTLY!) snip the stem with a sharp pair of scissors above the 6th (roughly, but 5-7 depending on where you can get the scissors in) leaf. 

If you're planning on growing your peppers in containers, you can skip the next section, which is meant for those planning to grow in beds. Before you move on to the maintain section, however, you need to understand how to up-pot. Up-potting is exactly how it sounds: moving your plants into bigger pots. This is vital as your plants NEED room to grow their roots, and waiting too long can cause them to become root-bound, which can restrict further development. It is incredibly easy though, so never fear! Simply look at the bottom of your pot. if it has roots coming out of it, its time to move into a bigger home, gradually increasing in size until they reach their final home (I typically end up putting them in 7 gallon pots by July). Gently squeeze the sides of your pot to pull the soil away from it, then slowly and gently slide the plant and soil out of the pot, and replant in its new home. Always remember to use potting soil and not garden soil when adding in your additional soil, and always giving it a deep watering to saturate the new soil (be quick, they'll wilt fast in summer heat!)

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Seedlings sprouting! Picture taken ~9 after sowing

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My first ever seedlings, Habanero and Jalapeno; March 2018

Looking to go organic? Try these organic, Nitrogen heavy fertilizers!

FYI: Fertilizers

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This Cayenne plant was topped at approximately 5 weeks old. Here it is 1, 3, and 5 days after!

Transplant

Transplanting

The very first consideration you should have when it comes to garden beds is location. Place your bed in the wrong spot and you could rob your plants of valuable sunshine, or even worse, keeping them soaked and water-logged. 

Build your garden bed in a spot with as much sunlight as you can manage and a gentle slope to promote drainage. If you have a south-facing yard with minimal shade, that will work perfectly as this will maximize your sunshine (depending on the surrounding terrain and topography). Build your beds using Western Red Cedar as it is highly water resistant and requires minimal treatment. However, if you do go cheaper like I did, you can treat your beds with organic, plant safe sealants that won't harm your plants. NEVER use standard sealants on a garden bed as they can damage your plants. 

last year I built 5 beds in our backyard, each roughly 18" tall, 3.5' wide, and 20' long, and filled them with 13 tons of sandy loam by hand using a wheel barrow and a shovel, but really the size you build them is up to you, your space, and your creativity. I've seen incredibly unique tiered deck beds that look awesome, so creativity (or pinteresting abilities) are your only limiting factor here. 

If you are considering purchasing seedlings, beware as many commercially, mass produced pepper plants are loaded with pests. I have yet to purchase a plant that didn't develop an aphid colony under its leaves, or powdery mildew, while I've noticed none that I have grown from seed have had pest or disease issues. Carefully check any plants you consider purchasing for any insects, white powdery spots, discoloration, or excessive roots poking out of the bottom. Chances are, these pepper plants were kept outdoors and are already hardened off, in which case skip this next paragraph. 

Hardening off is the process of gradually increasing the plants exposure to natural daylight, wind, and temperatures. As I've learned the hard way, this is the quickest way to kill a lot of your pepper plants really quick, so don't mess this up. Your plants have been kept indoors with still air, no direct sunlight, and climate controlled and cannot handle the shock of suddenly being thrust outdoors. Start this process soon as daytime temperatures get above 60 degrees, but never on windy days, and begin with approximately an hour of direct sunlight, followed by a couple of hours of indirect sunlight, gradually increasing each day until they can be left outside all day and night (usually about a week). However, if nighttime temperatures are set to go below 55 degrees, don't be a jerk and bring them inside. 

When they're finally ready to transplant, I'd recommend tilling in a few inches of compost into the soil and covering it with black poly mulch sheeting (this helps retain moisture and heat). Dig holes approximately 12" apart from each other a few inches deeper than your starter pots. Add a healthy dose of compost, sand, and 1 tsp of sulfur to provide some vital nutrients, and carefully plant your seedlings a couple inches deeper than their current root line. Roots will grow out of the stem that is now underground, and will give the plant a little more anchor to stabilize them. Water them thoroughly and keep an eye on them for the first week as they adjust to their new homes. If you live in a hotter climate, you may need to water them more often, so keep checking to see if they start to wilt. 

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New beds, fresh dirt, and young transplants getting ready to take off; June 2020

Don't have the room for large beds? Pots, containers, and beds that will fit anyone's situation can be used to grow peppers!

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Maintain

Maintain

Once your pepper plants have adjusted to their new homes, whether it be a new pot or their beds, continue your normal routine of every other week feeding them a dose of nitrogen heavy fertilizer and giving them the Epsom salt foliar spray on alternating weeks. If using beds, keep watering them approximately 1" per week, adjusting if you see them wilting between watering, especially during the hottest months. In pots this is less crucial as any excess water will drain, but it will wash out food and nutrients, so keep an eye on how much you water them, reducing the amount if you see excessive water draining out of the bottom. 

Keep an eye out for pests such as aphids and white flies, as well as any disease, discoloration, or anything out of the ordinary. Your plants should be green, vibrant, and growing like crazy. Any holes in leaves, discoloration, or odd growth should be thoroughly investigated to identify the cause and correct it (see our troubleshooting section). It is also a great idea to either cage or stake your plants at this point as they tend to get too heavy for their stem. I've had many a stem snapped due to high winds, so learn from my mistake and support them. Cages are easily found at any hardware or garden store, and are about $2 for a 33" cage. Bamboo stakes offer less support, but are cheaper if you plan on growing a lot of peppers. Just be sure to use plant safe tying material that is meant to expand as it grows, otherwise you might choke off its growth. 

As your plants start to grow, they'll start producing little buds at each node that will eventually flower and turn into peppers, which is by far the most exciting time for me. When your plants get to this point, switch them over to a potassium heavy fertilizer as this will focus the plants energy more on growing peppers than green vegetation. Keep it on the same schedule as before, alternating weeks with foliar spray. Trim back any broken branches, dead or badly discolored leaves, and watch your peppers as they start to grow for any signs of nutrient deficiencies, correcting them if they do appear. 

If you choose to, you can also prune your plants as they grow. While this isn't absolutely necessary, and you'll still get plenty of peppers without it, pruning does improve pepper yields by redirecting the plants' focus. In their first few weeks after transplanting, keep the lower portion of your plant's stem trimmed of all but just a few stems in order to increase airflow and sunlight which in turn will prevent disease and increase photosynthesis. Be sure to prune off any early flowers or fruit so the plant can focus more on root development. 

Continue to prune the lowest leaves off of the bottom 6-8 inches of the plant to prevent low pests from gaining access to your plants, If you are growing a larger variety of pepper such as Bell or Anaheim, prune off any "suckers" (extra branches growing out of nodes where leaves meet the stem). Leaving the suckers grow makes a very top-heavy plant that puts a lot of energy into growing leaves and stems, instead of focusing on growing fruits. However, you should NOT remove suckers and side shoots from smaller-fruited peppers that have a bushier growth habit. For these varieties, the more shoots you have, the more fruits you’ll be able to harvest.

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Cayenne plants a month and a half post transplant; July 2020

Harvest

Harvest

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By now you will already have a couple peppers maturing on your plants, and you're anxious to have more. I know because that's how I feel every year. You'll be shocked to see just how far your plants have come, from tiny little seedlings to full grown pepper plants and amazed at just how quickly they explode with peppers. You're almost there, to the big payoff, harvest time!

Before we get there though, there's still some work to be done. First, you'll want to switch over to a Potassium heavy fertilizer to really juice your plant's production up. Use it just as you used your Nitrogen and Phosphorous heavy fertilizers, alternating with epsom salt baths every other week. 

Prune off extra leaves to let sunlight reach the developing fruits

Pruning pepper plants to remove any leaves or branches directly overhanging the fruits late in the season exposes the peppers to maximum sunlight and hastens the arrival of their mature color. After harvesting your delicious peppers for awhile, about 3-4 weeks before the first expected frost, prune off the top 3-4" of your plant, giving them more sunlight and forcing the plant to focus on them. Giving your plants a dose of Nitrogen heavy fertilizer will also assist in pepper maturing, and help you squeeze every last pepper from your plants before the season ends. 

By now you're probably wondering what to do with all of these delicious peppers you just harvested (I generally get 150-200 peppers per plant), and it might be a little overwhelming. Fear not, I have a solution for you! Head on over to our Recipes page! We've got a bunch of ideas for you to try, tested out in our own kitchen at home! 

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Our favorite time of year around here, harvest time! 

Troubleshoot

Troubleshooting

Hey, we all make mistakes and we all have problems develop with our plants. Its nothing new, so don't beat yourself up. Most issues are easy enough to fix, so we'll walk you through them. 

Pests

Most common insect pests can be cleaned off with warm, soapy water. Ensure to let your plants dry thoroughly, keep inner leaves pruned to promote airflow, and to regularly check for infestations. Some of the most common insect pests are: 

 

  • Cutworms are usually the most damaging to peppers and they especially like the young seedlings.

  • Aphids will cluster beneath pepper plant leaves, excreting honeydew, which attracts other insects. Aphids create spots, distort the plants’ leaves and will make them wilt.

  • Both armyworms and fruitworms love to feed on new, tender pepper pods, and will also occasionally munch on the foliage.

  • Flea beetles attack young plants. If they’re present, you’ll see distinct holes in the foliage.

  • Corn borers find their way to the inside of the pepper pods and destroy them.

  • Hornworms can decimate a pepper plant, but they’re so large you can pluck them off by hand.

  • Whiteflies can be extremely destructive to pepper plants. They can transmit harmful viruses, and cause leaves to shrivel, yellow and drop.

Chickens can be another rather annoying pest if you have any at home (like we do) as they love to take dirt baths in garden beds and love to pick off leaves and peppers. Fun fact: birds cannot register capsaicin, so they feel no heat from peppers, and will wreck your garden. Keep them at bay by spraying the ground around your bed with strong scented herbs such as peppermint and spearmint, or give them their own garden to take a dirt bath in. If possible, consider constructing a fence between the peppers and them, or a protective cage around the plants to isolate them from the chickens. 

Diseases

The most common diseases in pepper plants are fungus related. Plants may get discolored, grow poorly and develop spots. You may see leaves turning yellow and dropping. Don’t forget that healthy pepper plants require loose, well-drained soil. Destructive strains of fungus can flourish in an environment where there’s too much water. Here are six of the most common pepper plant diseases:

  • Bacterial leaf spot is one of the more common infections in pepper plants. It causes yellowish spots on the leaves which may turn brown or enlarge, and will cause leaf drop.

  • Mosaic virus is also a common viral infection that attracts insects. There’s not much that can be done to alleviate this one because once it’s invaded the plant, it’s already too late to treat it. It causes limited production and stunting of the plant and its leaves.

  • Southern blight is a fungal disease that’s prevalent in warm climates. Stems rot and the plant wilts, eventually dying.

  • Powdery mildew can appear mostly on the undersides of leaves. It’s associated with warm, humid conditions.

  • Blossom end rot is due to calcium deficiency and sporadic watering.

  • Ripe rot occurs on ripening peppers growing in warm, humid conditions. Harvest peppers prior to use and store any unused peppers in a cool area away from direct light.

  • Sunscald is a result of too much exposure to direct sunlight. The fruit may become light colored and feel dry and papery.

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Aphid infestations are incredibly common with store-bought, mass produced transplants. This Habanero plant had a particularly nasty infestation; July 2019

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