Growing Pepper Plants: Common Issues

Hornworm Caterpillar on Pepper Plant
Hornworm caterpillar on pepper plant

Once planted, pepper plants are usually good to go. Keep them sunny and watered and they'll typically be vibrant, healthy plants. That said, like anything else, sometimes things go wrong. Here are some of the more common issues we've run into when growing pepper plants and what can be done.

Green, Droopy Leaves

Commonly seen on hot, sunny days. The plant needs more water. Pepper plants love full sun, but they can get large and do need a lot of water. Watering early morning and in the evening after sun has lowered are the best times. Avoid overhead watering when the sun is strong. If the plant is very dehydrated during mid-day, use a watering can to get water directly to the soil near the plant. Even a significantly dehydrated plant will make a quick recovery with water and the lowering of the sun.

If droopy leaves are common mid-day, either increase watering amount or frequency. If in a pot, transplanting into a larger pot, adding more soil to the existing pot, or moving the pot to a slightly shadier location can help. Common plant dehydration will likely result in reduced growth and lower yield.

Yellow, Droopy Leaves

This is a classic sign of over-watering – usually combined with insufficient drainage. Typically, we'll see this with potted plants that have either no, or insufficient, drainage holes combined with a few days of heavy rain. Step one is to remedy any drainage issue. Then, discontinue watering and let the soil dry out. You may lose a few leaves, but if addressed early, the plant should make a full recovery.

Yellow Spotted, Firm, Wrinkly Leaves

Likely this is a viral infection called Mosaic, or Cucumber Mosaic. These viruses are transmitted by aphids, cucumber beetles and other tiny insects that suck the sap from plants. Aphids are usually most active during temperatures of 70-85°F. Mosaic usually results in stunted growth as well as less and poor quality of fruit. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease. Furthermore, this disease can be transmitted via the above mentioned insects to nearby plants. As such, affected plants should be removed, then burned or thrown away. While we hate the thought of giving up on one of our plants, after pulling, we see the affected plant’s tiny, vastly undersized root system and know the plant didn't have any hope.

It’s said this virus can live within the soil for up to a year. As such, removed plants should not be composted and the affected soil should be not be used for another pepper or tomato plant for a year. Also, keep soil free from weeds during that time as weeds can give refuge to the virus. Adding it to garden bed or landscaping area with other types of plants is usually a good option.

We've yet to see this virus on plants that were raised and kept outdoors. For us, it's most common with overwintered plants – where aphids can be an issue. With a little preparation and diligence, we've been able to mitigate aphid issues. Our Keeping Pepper Plants for a 2nd Year guide has information on what we do.

Green, Wrinkly Leaves

Usually, this is due to the plant having a calcium deficiency. Work a generous amount of bone meal into the soil, then water. Normally, you'll notice an improvement within a week or two.

Leaves Getting Eaten

Slug Trap Near Affected Plant
Slug trap near affected pepper plant

Leaves with holes in them are a telltale sign that garden slugs are feeding on your pepper plants. In most cases, leaf damage is minor and not worth worry. Though, with damp and slightly shady conditions, garden slugs can be a nuisance. If the leaf damage gets significant (leaves start looking like Swiss cheese), it's time to take action. Left unchecked, slugs can kill a small plant.

Slugs thrive in damp and shady conditions. With part-shade or a bout of rainy/cloudy weather, garden slugs can establish themselves. If in pots, moving them to a sunnier location will help.

If you're unable to move your plants, we've found filling a small tray (a few inches across and an inch or two deep) with an inch or so of beer to be an effective solution. The slugs are attracted to the beer and end up drowning (don't know when to say when?). This tends to work quickly as we've seen trapped slugs within a few hours of setting a trap. The beer should be refreshed every couple of days. We'll typically refill a time or two until the traps are no longer catching slugs. We've seen these traps catch up to eight slugs on a medium-sized potted pepper plant.

If the plants leaves are being completely eaten, or being eating from the edge of the leaf inward, the likely culprit is the Hornworm caterpillar (pictured at the top of this page). These caterpillars grow large and can eat quite a bit. They do turn into a pretty cool moth (in our opinion), so if necessary, we'll relocate it/them to a grape vine which is also a food source for this caterpillar – though, some suggest more drastic measures (what happens in your garden stays in your garden).

Plants Being Dug Up

Small critters love to dig in fresh soil. For us, the chipmunks and squirrels are known offenders. They tend to dig in the same spots over and over again, getting more aggressive with their digging over time – sometimes uprooting our smaller plants. We'll refill their holes and re-seat plants many of times, usually to find their persistence is greater than ours. We recently started an experiment of putting high-octane pepper powder in the areas they're digging. So far, it appears to be working!

Small Peppers or Tips of Peppers Getting Eaten

Thai Pepper Eaten by Pest
Tip of Thai pepper eaten by unknown pest (bird?)

Occasionally, we'll see a rash of ripened peppers being partially, or completely eaten – with the small berry-like peppers being prone to complete removal, and peppers with a very small tip or tail being only partially eaten. With the affected varieties, it also appears that the more ripe the pepper, the more likely it is to have damage.

It’s interesting that only the small pepper tips, or the small more-manageable fruit, that are being consumed. Also, the peppers being eaten are all over the plant, even in the upper portions – places where bunnies, squirrels, chipmunks, etc., would have difficulty reaching.

Factoring in that we've seen a lot of birds loitering around the area, and that chile peppers had evolved to contain capsaicinoids which tend to deter mammals (except humans) while not affecting birds, we believe birds are responsible. To combat this, we've increased the spacing of our plants to give the birds less cover and are harvesting more frequently. For the smaller, berry-like peppers on our display plants, we're now bringing them inside once the fruit starts to ripen. Perhaps, a scarecrow is next.

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