Growing Pepper Plants (Step by Step)

Fury Pepper, 2016
Fury Pepper (2G), 2016

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our Basic Growing Tips. It provides a compact overview and is enough for most growers to get started. Below is our latest and greatest step-by-step guide for growing awesome pepper plants (big, robust plants with lots of fruit).

We'll continue to update this guide based on new information and experiences, so be sure to come back for the latest. Also, we post frequently to our Facebook page with updates on new things we are seeing/trying.

Acquiring Seeds

Allow peppers to fully ripen before picking to ensure their seeds are fully formed. A pepper is completely ripe when it changes to its final color. Most peppers will start out green, but then change to a red, orange, yellow or ivory color when fully ripened. Some peppers will change to an intermediate color, or colors, before arriving at their fully ripened color. If unsure, check the Internet to research the ripened color for a desired pepper.

It's best to select healthy peppers from healthy plants. Avoid diseased plants or fruit that's rotted or insect eaten. It's possible for diseases to be passed from seeds to the next generation of plants. When selecting peppers from the same plant,the choice of pepper (as long as it's healthy) doesn't matter when it comes to seed harvesting. The peppers from the same plant will usually have the same base genetics (unless the flower was pollinated with pollen from a different plant; more on this soon).

If you're trying to establish varieties with different sizes, shapes, hotness or early versus late fruit, then select fruit from plants that as a whole demonstrate those characteristics. Doing this is referred to as selective breeding. By selecting seeds from plants with desirable characteristics, you are improving the odds that the next generation of plants will also have those (or even better) characteristics. Repeating this process over several successive generations can magnify this effect.

Dried Pepper Seeds
Dried Datil pepper seeds ready for storage

When your goal is to have offspring plants with the traits of the plant you're selecting seeds from (which is usually the case), you'll want to isolate this plant from other pepper plants to maximize the likelihood that seeds taken will produce similar plants. Having other pepper plants nearby can result in insects taking pollen from those plants and using it to pollinate your target plant. This could result in seeds with the less desirable characteristics. This can even happen when nearby pepper plants are a different variety and could result in seeds that are a hybridization of the two varieties -- seeds that have genetic material from each of the parent plants. Offspring from hybrid seeds will produce a hybrid plant, likely with a blending of characteristics between the two plants (see our Hybrid Peppers page for more info).

Once selected, remove as much pulp and fruit from the seeds as possible. Wear gloves! Touching hot peppers while cutting can be very painful when hands touch other parts of body. Resulting pain can last for 30 minutes or more. Also consider wearing safety glasses. While extracting seeds, it’s possible for a seed to fling up and get stuck in an eye (We've actually had this happen. Pain was extreme and it took a bit to flush the seed out!).

After extraction, put seeds on a paper towel or into a small cup to let them dry out. When dry, usually in 24-72 hours, you can package the seeds for storage. Again, gloves are recommended; even seeds several years old can have residue that will irritate skin. We place our seeds in small paper or plastic sampling cups, using one cup per seed variety (baggies and envelopes also work fine). We stack the cups adding an empty cup to the top. Masking tape then can be used to keep the stack intact so it can be laid on its side. It's best to store seeds in the refrigerator to keep them in a dormant state.

Planting Seeds

Here in Georgia, we're sometimes able to transplant our peppers outside by mid-to-late March. To have decent sized plants by then, we usually start our plants indoors early to mid January.

Take seeds out of refrigerator 24 hours before planting. Some suggest using a strainer to lower seeds into hydrogen peroxide bath for a minute or two followed by a rinse with tap water to help kill mold or fungus spores which could damage young seedlings. We've done it with and without the peroxide bath and haven't noticed any problems.

Planted Seeds
Pepper seeds planted in 4" pots

We use Miracle Gro® Orchid Mix, Miracle Gro® Organic Choice, or another store-bought organic blend as our starting potting soil. Other sites have done tests on a variety of starting soils for pepper plants and had the best results with those. Using these, our germination rates have been solid.

We avoid the peat pellet discs found in seed starter kits. Some sources say never use them, others say they've had good results with them. We've used them and had lower germination rates. Also seedlings need to be transplanted at a smaller size. If used, be sure to remove the outer netting prior to transplanting. When we've tried them, the outer netting didn't decompose after transplanting and severely limited the root system.

We typically start seeds 4 inch pots with good drainage holes. Disposable, plastic drinking cups also work with 3 1/4" holes drilled in the bottom. The 4" pots give seedlings a couple of months to grow indoors without getting too root-bound. We've also experimented with using old K-Cups with good success (empty coffee and remove filter). We'll plant K-Cups about 1-1.5 months before transferring outdoors. While the seedlings become root-bound much sooner in the smaller container, we've found as long as they're kept watered, the seedlings will stay alive and grow quickly once transplanted into a bigger container. Discarded egg cartons are another eco-friendly way to start seedlings.

Plant one variety of 3-4 seeds about 1/8 inch deep per pot. We only fill the container 2/3rds full of soil when planting (unless using K-Cups or egg cartons). Doing this keeps room in the cups to add more soil later as indoor grown seedlings can sometimes grow long and stringy.

We use a Seed Starter Solution with one tablespoon of Miracle-Gro® mixed in a gallon of distilled water. Immediately after planting water pots with Seed Starter Solution. We like to use a spray bottle for watering the pots before they sprout to avoid disturbing the seeds.

Growing Seedlings

Once planted, seeds should start sprouting in 7-30 days depending on the variety. While normal indoor temperatures will work, warmer temperatures are better as they result in quicker and more robust germination. Using an incubator, heating pad or grow lights to maintain 80-85F during daytime hours and normal household temperatures at night is ideal. Though, simply placing your seed container(s) on top of the refrigerator or a high shelf for an added couple of degrees will also work reasonably well.

Pepper Seedlings 10 Days After Planting
Pepper seedlings 10 days after planting

Once seedlings start to appear, place in sunny location indoors or under a grow light. Also, discontinue use of Seed Starter Solution and use regular tap water that has sat out for at least 24 hours to remove the chlorine.

Seedlings are rather fragile during this time and overhead watering can knock them around if not done gently. If seedlings get stuck to soil, gently use a pencil or small stick to get under them and lift them off the wet soil a little. They'll usually straighten out again pretty quickly. If overhead water is creating too much havoc for the young plants, use a smaller watering spout and water more gently.

Be sure to let the seedlings partially dry out in between watering -- soil should still be moist, but not damp. Continuously damp conditions can produce mold which will destroy the seedlings. Also, pepper plants will start to yellow if their roots aren't able to dry out periodically. If you see mold or yellowing leaves, stop watering and increase light and airflow until soil is mostly dry before re-watering.

Some recommend watering with diluted fish fertilizer, like Alaska brand liquid Fish fertilizer, with new seedlings. Though, fish fertilizer has a very distinct, and bad, smell. We tried this one year and our basement stunk. We've since forgone using it and have had good results.

To help harden the plants, we use an oscillating fan at a speed/distance that provides the seedlings with gentle air circulation.

Choosing the Strongest Seedling

When the seedlings grow an inch or so above the top container, choose the strongest seedling in each container and cut the rest to free up room for the chosen seedlings to grow. At this point, some seedlings may look a little stringy. To combat this and to help produce sturdier plants, we add soil to the containers to fill them up to the top. It's okay to bury the first few sets of leaves. Gently pack soil down for a higher soil density to help retain more water. Try to do so in a way that brings the plant upright and toward the center of the container. When complete, the seedlings should now poke out of the ground around 1-2 inches.

Or, Live and Let Live

If you'd like to try to save the other seedlings (rather than cutting and killing them) you can let the soil dry out slightly and use a fork to gently loosen soil around the seedlings to be removed. In most cases while the soil is being loosened, the seedlings should be able to be pulled gently to remove from the container with the roots intact. They can then be transplanted into another container. If doing this, it’s best to let the seedlings grow a little longer to 2+ inches tall. Younger seedlings are easily damaged and may not survive transplanting.

Alternatively, you can continue to keep the seedlings in the same pot they were started. When time to transplant, we'll usually transplant all of the seedlings into the same pot or garden square. We like doubling-up/tripling-up some of our plants for the following reasons...

  1. To compensate for any plants that die during the transplanting process. The other plant(s) are now there as backups.
  2. As a backup plan for any unwanted hybridization or less ideal plants. If one of the plants is an undesired hybrid, gets knocked over by wind/animal, or doesn't have the desired shape/fruit density, simply cut it and be left with the better plant(s).
  3. To increase the odds of propagating a desired hybrid another generation. Seeds from hybrids, especially early generation hybrids, tend to produce plants/peppers with a wide degree of variation. Many (in some cases, most) will not look like the desired parent. Keeping all our hybrid seedlings gives us more plants to evaluate when selecting the best one for harvesting seeds.
  4. Improved yield. Two or three of the same plant placed in close quarters won't yield as much as they would have if given proper spacing, though for most varieties the plant grouping will usually produce better than a single plant.

Maturation of Seedlings

Pepper Seedlings Starting to Mature
Pepper seedlings 52 days after planting and selection

Once the seedlings get to be about 2-3 inches tall, you'll want to harden your plants by getting them used to the sun and wind. Plants taken directly from inside to outdoors can experience a significant shock from the wind and sun scalding, so it's a good idea to do this gradually. If you have a screenroom/sunroom, that's a great spot to start getting them acclimated. Or if taking them directly outside, start with 15 minutes a day in a mostly shaded area with filtered light and avoiding overly windy conditions. Gradually increase the time in the sun and intensity of sun they receive.

When bringing the plants outside early on, be sure to keep a close eye on them as they can dry out easily. If plants start getting droopy, bring back inside or to a shady spot and water immediately.

With little protection for their roots, they can be more vulnerable to prolonged periods of cold. Brief night time temperatures down to 40F should be fine (our seedlings have successfully dealt with 35-37F on occasion). Though a prolonged period in that range can kill them. We like to keep our seedling pots in a shallow tray for easier transport during the hardening period.

Transplanting

When plants reach 3-5 inches, they’re ready for transplanting outside. Though, you’ll want to wait until your nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50F. They can deal with lower temperatures, if not prolonged. We’ll look at the 15 day forecast, if the vast majority of the predicted nightly lows are above 50F, with nothing below 45F, we’ll start transplanting.

Transplanted Datil Peppers
Transplanted Datil peppers in 20" pot

If planting in a garden, choose a spot where the plants can experience full sun. Pepper plants love full sun. You'll see a significant difference in size and fullness between a plant exposed to full sun versus one put into shade or partial shade. Also, shady locations tend to increase exposure to pests, particularly garden slugs.

To plant the seedlings into the garden or a pot, dig a hole for each seedling and add a few shakes of bone meal to the bottom of the hole. Bone meal is a great source of the calcium that pepper plants need -- especially those in the Habanero family. Now that they've reached a decent size, they’re ready to start receiving regular doses.

Make each hole deeper than the current container to allow the plant stem to be buried up to the first or second set of leaves. If an especially stringy seedling, we'll bury the entire plant only exposing the top-most set of leaves.

If you're planning on transplanting into pots, check out our Planting Peppers in Pots Guide for more details and for information choosing proper pot sizes and for ideas on reducing the amount of potting soil you need to buy.

Transplanted Peppers, 2018
Newly ransplanted first and second year peppers, 2018

If planting into a garden bed, try to transplant in the evening, so the plants have the night to get adjusted before they experience full sun. If planting in pots, we usually start the pots in a semi-shaded area for the first few days before gradually moving them into full sun. Plants can be vulnerable to sun-scalding and wilting when first transplanted. Keep a close eye on them. If plants wilt during the day, give them extra water (and possibly shade for extreme cases) until they stop wilting.

Inevitably some plants will get bent or broken early after transplanting. Don’t worry! While looking like misfits at first, they’ll soon start growing upright by regenerating branches from the lower part of the plant. Quickly, these damaged plants nearly catch up to their peers -- sometimes with the added bonus of being bushier and producing more fruit.

Periodically, after transplanting we'll be surprised with an unexpected bout of cold weather. Brief nighttime cold, if not extreme, is usually manageable provided the daytime temperatures get back over 50F. A prolonged period of day/night at 40F and below can kill pepper plants. Moving plants back inside or robust covering/insulating techniques will be needed in those cases.

For nighttime temperatures that briefly approach freezing, a plant of several inches and second year plants should be fine. For nighttime temperatures a couple of degrees below freezing (if not prolonged), we'll use transparent plastic cups and double them up to trap a layer of air. Turned upside down to cover the plants and dug slightly into the soil generally will provide enough insulation to add about 2 degrees to the outside temperature. Insulated tumblers and buckets will work for larger plants.

Fertilization

Transplanted Peppers, 2018
Mature pepper plants, 2018

Now that the plants are outside, liquid fish fertilizer can be used without having to deal with that smell trapped indoors. If used, feed plants every 3 weeks until they start to flower. We typically don't use this as we've found using compost/straw as a soil additive (see Planting in Pots: What We Usually Do) tends to produce strong growth on its own.

A small monthly sprinkling of bone meal is also helpful in providing calcium to the plants as they grow. This is especially helpful for peppers from the Habanero family. If your plants start to get wrinkly leaves, it's a sign they're calcium deficient. Leaves from healthy plants should be mostly flat. When fertilized with bone meal, the next generation of leaves will usually flatten out.

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