Inula Royleana
Midwest Gardening
Growing Peppers

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The varieties of peppers available to grow is vast, from sweet to habanero and everything in between.  Italian saute peppers, sandwich peppers, stuffing peppers, pickling peppers, you will want to learn to grow peppers.

Pepper Garden by the Ordinary Gardener

I have heard plenty of times that peppers are easy to grow.  Well, only with the right prep work and the right site.  These two things can produce abundant peppers for you, or without the proper preparation and site your harvest will be a handful of poorly developed peppers with thin walls and lacking in color and flavor.  Once you just figure out the simple basics, then it IS easy to grow abundant crops of all shapes, colors and sizes of peppers.

It is imperative that peppers be grown in a sunny well drained spot.  A minimum of 8 hours of sun is essential and they certainly will not mind all sunshine all day long.  If your soil is poor, take the time to dig in a good compost to develop a rich loose, loam.  Do not use high nitrogen additives, just a well balanced compost.  A little magnesium can be added to the soil, just use a little Epsom salt.   

Wait to plant out your hardened off seedlings or nursery plants until it is good and warm over night.  Peppers do not like cool temperatures so they will root and develop best once overnight temperatures are consistently 60 degrees.  Planting too early will only stress the young plants which may never completely recover.  Don’t even consider planting out your pepper seedlings until at least 3 weeks after the last frost.  We wait patiently to put our tomatoes in the ground, we need to wait even just a little longer to plant the peppers.

Plant peppers about 12-18” apart depending on the mature size of the variety you have selected.   Dig deep holes for your peppers, you will want to plant them much deeper than they were in the seedling pot.  They should be buried nearly up to the first set of leaves to there is plenty of stem to take deep root.  Give the soil a slow but thorough and deep soaking immediately after planting.  Then continue to give them an inch of water per week, ideally using a soaking hose (drip irrigation) rather than overhead sprinkling.  Generally peppers are shallow rooted, so mulching will help the roots stay moist once the heat of summer sets in.

Properly feeding your peppers is very important.  Too much nitrogen can encourage very fast growth, producing weak inferior plants and fruit that are susceptible to insect and disease problems.  However, nitrogen is important to develop full foliage which will protect fruits from sunscald.  Top dress the soil around plants about four inches from the stem with compost or a granular fertilizer.  Use a well balanced fertilizer with nitrogen and phosphorous, just being careful not to over apply.   A ratio of 5-10-10 is great for peppers.  Reapply every four weeks until fruits are developing heavily, then apply every two weeks.  A slow release fertilizer is a nice alternative to repeated application as it will work all season.  Resist the temptation to constantly apply liquid fertilizer.

Staking pepper plants can help to keep the fruit clean and dry  by helping to hold the fruit above the soil.  Some varieties produce a tall plant which can be pushed over in strong winds, and even a strong stemmed plant may bend with the weight of heavy fruit.  Avoid using twist ties or garden twine, damage to the stems is caused when using materials that will not flex with the plant’s growth and swaying.  Use a stretchy material such as old hosiery and tie loosely to stakes or plant supports.

When the first few flower buds are produced, pinch them off.  These first few will only produce inferior fruits anyway, but if you pinch them off it will allow the plant to focus on developing more and larger fruits later.  

When harvesting peppers, use a sharp knife or small hand pruner to produce a clean cut and minimize damage to the plant.  Pulling or twisting them off the stem will cause damage and weaken the plant, making it more susceptible to disease.  Frequent harvest of most pepper varieties will increase the harvest, however the flavor may be diminished.  Bell peppers, for example, are often harvested green.  But allowing them to mature to its full color of red, orange or yellow will produce the best flavor.  You may want to consider planting enough to harvest early while allowing some plants to fully mature and harvest late in the season.

STORE and PRESERVE

Ideally you will want to store peppers simply on the kitchen counter to be eaten in the first few days.  Since peppers do not store very well in cold temperatures you may want to consider a variety of options to preserve them.  Realistically, we prefer to store them as long as possible and eat them as fresh as possible.  Storing them on the counter for several days and then transferring to the warmest “crisper” drawer in your fridge is satisfactory for most of us.  But when you have harvested far too many to reasonably eat before they go bad there are other options.

Freeze peppers whole or diced and dry for soups, stews and sautees.  They will thaw out soft but retain good flavor.

Pickle like cucumbers in simple brines of equal parts water and vinegar and pickling salt.  Add herbs and a garlic clove if you like.  Pickled peppers are wonderful on sandwiches and in salads.

Drying works best for thin walled peppers like the hot peppers.

GROWING PEPPERS FROM SEED

Peppers can be seeded indoors 8 to 10 weeks ahead of the proper planting time for your region.  Typically then we start our peppers in January or February.  Seeding direct into the garden in cool regions will not allow enough time for the fruit to mature.  The seed will not germinate until air temperatures reach at least 70 degrees or warmer.  And with a minimum of 60 to 90 days until harvest, the season will be over.  Many hot peppers even need as much as 150 days to mature.

Pepper seeds will need temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees F to sprout whether you plant indoors or out.  Pepper seeds are a finicky lot and not always easy to germinate.  For the best germination results be sure to use fresh, high quality seeds.  It can be helpful to keep seeds in a very moist, warm environment before planting into peat or seed pots.  Placing your seeds between slightly wet paper towels in a plastic zip bag is easiest, and then store in a warm spot.  A warm sunny south window or even on top of the fridge can keep the seeds nice and warm.  As soon as they sprout you can carefully plant them into peat pots.  

Allow your pepper sprouts to grow under grow lights or in a south facing window until true leaves develop and the outdoor temperatures are 70 to 80 degrees.  The overnight temperatures should be at least 55 degrees consistently so the soil is warm.  Be sure to harden off the seedlings by setting them outdoors for increasing lengths of time.  Wait for an overcast day to plant the seedlings into the garden to minimize stress to the young plants.  Then water the plants lightly but thoroughly.  Water daily if necessary to keep the soil moist in the first several days.  Then you can water less frequently as the roots develop.  Once the roots begin to develop and the plant begins to grow, it will not want to sit in soggy soil.  Water will only be necessary about once a week.  In the heat of summer you may want to mulch around the plants to help retain moisture.  If you have amended your soil with plenty of compost your soil will retain moisture but also allow excess moisture to drain away from the roots.

PESTS AND DISEASE

Peppers are not especially prone to problems, but of course they are susceptible to many of the same issues that can affect tomatoes.  Like tomatoes, you can help protect your peppers by keeping them clean and dry.  Avoid overhead watering, space the plants properly to allow good air circulation, and support the fruits up off the ground.  Also select varieties that are disease resistant and that perform well in your region.  Plants that struggle in their environment tend to be weak and unable to resist disease as well as strong healthy plants.

Watch for pests that can be destructive, such as caterpillars, cutworms and tomato hornworms.  Remove pests manually or use organic methods as much as possible.

As you experiment with new varieties of peppers, be aware that they may prefer slightly different conditions.  Things like pH can affect the sweetness of a bell pepper, withholding water can increase the heat of hot peppers, and some will grow very well in containers.  So take a minute to check preferences when you try a new variety.

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