All About Growing Peppers

Visually striking and flavorful, growing peppers will spice up your cuisine AND your garden.
By Barbara Pleasant
February/March 2010
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Growing peppers will color your garden with dazzling, eye-catching fruit. Shown here, from left, are ‘Sante Fe’ (yellow), pimento (dark red), ‘Marconi’ (bright green with a blush of red), ‘Apple’ (mid-range red), poblano (deep green), ‘Jimmy Nardello’ (bright red) and cayenne (orange red).
ILLUSTRATION: KEITH WARD
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(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page or check out our Food Gardening Guide app.)

Peppers present some of the summer garden’s biggest flavors and brightest hues, and these striking fruits are simple to store and have a wealth of delicious uses in the kitchen. Plus, sweet and specialty peppers are among the most expensive produce at the grocery store, so growing peppers of your own can be a money-saving move.

Pepper Types to Try

Sweet bell peppers come in various sizes and colors, and the fruits’ colors change as they mature. They grow best where summers are long and warm.

Specialty sweet peppers include pimentos, frying peppers, and other sizes, shapes and flavors. Small-fruited varieties are among the easiest peppers to grow.

Southwestern chile peppers have complex flavors with varying degrees of heat. Many varieties bear late and all at once, so they can be a challenge to grow in climates with short summers.

Specialty hot peppers range from moderately spicy jalapeños to hotter cayennes to hottest-of-all habaneros. Most are easy to grow.

Ornamental peppers may feature spicy, brightly colored fruits, purple or variegated foliage, or both.

See our chart of pepper types for more information to help you find the perfect pepper for your garden. 

When to Plant Peppers

Start seeds indoors under bright fluorescent lights in early spring, eight to 10 weeks before your last spring frost date. If possible, provide bottom heat to keep the plants’ containers near 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure the seeds stay slightly moist. Seeds should sprout within three weeks. Transfer seedlings to larger containers when they are about six weeks old. Don’t set peppers outside until at least two weeks after your average last frost date, during a period of warm weather. (To find your last spring frost date, see Know When to Plant What: Find Your Average Last Spring Frost Date.) Always harden off seedlings by gradually exposing them to outdoor weather a few hours each day for at least a week before transplanting them outdoors.

How to Plant Peppers

All peppers grow best under warm conditions, but gardeners in cool climates can keep peppers happy by using row covers. Choose a sunny site that has fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Loosen the planting bed to 12 inches deep, and thoroughly mix in a 1-inch layer of mature compost. Dig planting holes 12 inches deep and at least 18 inches apart, and enrich each with a spadeful of additional compost. Partially refill the holes, and situate plants so they are planted slightly deeper than they were in their containers. Water well.

Harvesting and Storing Peppers

You can eat peppers when they are mature yet still green (green peppers), although the flavor and the vitamin content of peppers improve as they ripen to red, yellow or orange. Use pruning shears to snip ripe peppers from the plant, leaving a small stub of stem attached. Bumper crops can be briefly steam-blanched or roasted and then frozen, either whole (for stuffing) or chopped. Peppers are also easy to dry. Dried peppers quickly plump if soaked in hot water, or you can grind them into powders for your spice shelf.

Saving Pepper Seeds

Harvesting seeds from open-pollinated pepper varieties couldn’t be easier. Allow a perfect fruit to ripen until it begins to soften. Cut around the top of the pepper, and use the stem as a handle to twist out the core. Use the tip of a knife to flick out the largest, most mature seeds. Allow them to air-dry until a test seed breaks if folded in half. Store seeds in a cool, dry place for up to three years.

When growing peppers for seed saving, keep in mind that insects can transfer pollen, creating crosses between varieties. Genes that create a pungent flavor are dominant in peppers, so it is best to ban insects from plants being grown for seed. The easiest way to do this is to use “cages” made of row covers or lightweight cloth, such as tulle. The cages can be removed after the plants have set several perfect fruits.

Pepper Pest and Disease Prevention Tips

Tobacco etch virus (TEV), cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) and potato virus Y (PVY) can infect peppers grown in warm climates. Transmitted by thrips and aphids, these viruses cause leaves to become thick and crinkled or narrow and stringy. The best defense is to grow resistant varieties, such as ‘Tam Jalapeño.’

Margined blister beetles may suddenly appear in large numbers in midsummer, especially in warm climates. These large beetles are black with gray stripes, and they devour pepper foliage. Handpick beetles, making sure to wear gloves to prevent skin irritation. Use a spinosad-based insecticide to control severe outbreaks.

Pepper weevils can also be a serious problem in warm climates. Clean up fallen fruit daily to interrupt the life cycle of this pest, and trap adult pepper weevils with sticky traps.

Pepper Growing Tips

Be careful with nitrogen when preparing your planting holes, as overfed peppers produce lush foliage but few fruits. Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer only if you’re growing peppers in poor soil.

In cool climates, use black plastic mulch in addition to row covers to create warm conditions for peppers. In warm climates, use shade covers during summer to reduce sunscald damage to ripening peppers.

Provide stakes or other supports to keep plants upright as they become heavy with fruits. Cover surrounding soil with a mulch of clean straw or grass clippings so ripening peppers don’t come in contact with soil, which can cause them to rot.

Always wear gloves if handling hot peppers, and avoid touching your eyes or nose. If you do handle hot peppers bare-handed, immediately scrub hands with soap and warm water, rub them vigorously with vegetable oil, then wash them again.


Cooking With Peppers

Pasta, pizza, salads, sandwiches, chili, salsa — shall we continue? Bring refrigerated, ripe peppers to room temperature to enhance their flavors before eating them. Peppers’ flavors become richer and more succulent when they are grilled, roasted, or smoked. If you bite into a pepper that sets your mouth ablaze, reach for milk or sour cream to quell the heat.


Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on .


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Post a comment below.

 

JudyH
6/28/2014 11:10:57 AM
I am new to gardening. I have a small space 3'x 12' and some large pots. I am growing Bell peppers, tomatoes, spaghetti squash, cucumbers. I don't know how much to water them. I live in So. Cali. and it get very hot here 90-100s. They are planted in south facing garden so they get a lot of sun and heat. I water every other day with a hose by hand. I added some pellet vegie food but the leaves are falling off on one pepper, one plant is not growing and is still small and I was getting a wrinkled soft spot on peppers where the sun hits and peppers are small. Tomatoes are getting dark spot on bottom of the tomatoe. Cherry tomatoes are fine, squash is fine it is just flowering now, cucumber is fine. I water them all the same. What do I need to do to know how to water and what do I need to do to keep them healthy?

bphs1959
6/30/2013 1:45:12 PM

I work with a community garden here in Salt Lake City, UT and we just recieved a donation of 34 tomato plants and 28 pepper plants. These came from an organic seed trader who trades for seeds and plants from all over the world. These plants have names that I have never heard of here in Utah. He said there are all colors of tomatoes and all colors and ranges of hotness in the peppers. I planted them in local soil to see how they fair against each other in our heat (105 F today) in soil with very little added to it. These are being watered 3 times a week on a drip line without added mulch. I am going to be, not only interested to see what they produce, but how well they do in our local sandy, rocky soil.


Logansprings
6/29/2013 8:32:21 AM

Our 19 pepper plants did very well last year here in Kansas even in the extreme heat and drought.  We had all we could eat, freeze, and dry, and we gave away the excess to gratefull family and friends.  We till with an older, Troy-Bilt tiller and plant each plant in deep furrow made with a furrowing attachment.  After the plants are established and the average temps are above 80, we mulch the entire pepper growing area after laying down soaker hoses.  Each plant is supported with a 42" tomato cage to protect it from the wind.  Plenty of cattle manure for fertilizer is a must.  This year, we are hoping to have another bumper crop!  


NANCY SMITH
2/7/2012 12:34:08 AM
I had great luck with my peppers last year, especially after I mulched them with untreated grass clippings. The clippings provided nitrogen, weed control, moisture retention, and protected the roots from the blazing sun. I plan to expand both in variety and quantity this year! The details are available on Savory Jardin http://savoryjardin.blogspot.com/2011/10/this-garden-is-hot.html.

Barbara Pleasant_3
7/29/2011 8:52:24 AM
The most productive pepper plants have a high leaf/fruit ratio, so don't prune unless you need to remove damaged leaves or broken stems. Lots of leaves also helps protect fruits from sunscald. In late summer, you can prune off bloom clusters that won't have time to produce mature fruits before frost. In Zone 6 this is mid to late August. Good luck!

GrizzMontana
7/28/2011 9:13:55 AM
Should I prune the big "sucker leaves" off my peppers?

William_53
3/28/2010 12:11:39 AM
Nice!! good info.

ken_4
3/10/2010 8:27:02 PM
Here in SW Arkansas, Serrano hot peppers did great last years. Put in 3 plants (from local farm store), had more peppers than needed. Give away 2/3 of the crops. Ripened over a period of 6 weeks. California Wonder produced small fruit, but several peppers per plant.

Dean Fisher_2
2/20/2010 8:42:56 AM
when growing sweet bell in northern climates variety is important,I have great luck with Fat'N'Sassy hyb. here in northern michigan. Dont bother with califonia wonders up here.








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