Growing Pepper Plants in Pots

Many Potted Pepper Plants
Planting our pepper starts in pots – using green matting and pine straw for weed control

We grow many of our pepper plants in pots – and, many of the hobbyists we follow prefer to plant their peppers in pots. Pepper plants do quite well as potted plants, and there are several benefits to using pots when growing peppers…

  1. Pots provide flexibility when space is limited. Potted peppers can be placed in small open areas, on decks/patios, and mixed in with landscaping – making it easier to take advantage of smaller, and scattered, sunny spots.
  2. Easier to move. When saving seeds, it's helpful to isolate the pepper plant to prevent unintended hybridization from cross-pollenization. Or, if birds or other pests are an issue, being able to move the plants may help. Bringing peppers inside for brief cold spells can also extend their growing season.
  3. For display. A robust pepper plant makes for a stunning display and conversation starter on a patio or deck. Potted peppers are also great to bring to cook-offs and farmer's markets – as they're an effective way to attract people to your booth.
  4. Easier to overwinter. Already in pots, it's more convenient to bring a few favorites indoors for winter to be kept alive for next year (and possibly many years to come).
  5. More control over the soil. A conveniently purchased organic potting mix may be easier than amending a less-suitable native soil. Also, old potting soil can be easily emptied into raised beds or other planting areas – freeing the pots for a steady stream fresh soil.
  6. Weed management is easier. A potting mix should be mostly free of weed seeds, and weed barriers, mulches, pavers or a weed wacker can be used to more easily manage weeds between pots.

Though, growing peppers in pots does potentially have a few drawbacks…

  1. They dry out quicker without rain and usually require additional watering compared to peppers planted in a garden bed.
  2. Plants can become root-bound if put into too small of pot and may require either re-potting (ideal), frequent watering, or being moved to shadier location.
  3. For more than a few plants, buying pots and soil can be expensive. Though, mixing in straw, lawn-clippings and homemade compost can help to reduce those costs, see below.
  4. For many plants, it takes more effort. We're a small-scale grower, usually growing around 40-70 pepper plants in a given year. Filling, amending and watering 40+ pots is a decent bit of work. Planting in pots likely wouldn't scale well if growing a few hundred, or thousand, pepper plants.

Choosing the Proper Pot Size

When grown in a container, the container's size (and sunlight) will generally be the limiting factor that keeps a pepper plant from reaching its full potential. When planted in too small of a container, pepper plants become root-bound and require very frequent watering.

Typically, the garden store or seed seller will recommend a minimum planting distance. Based on the variety, that usually ranges from 12 inches to 4 feet. The table below is an approximate guide to convert plant spacing into a suitable pot size.

Large pot (20 inches)
4 foot spacing between plants
Medium pot (16 inches)
3 foot spacing
Small pot (12 inches)
2 foot spacing
Extra-small pot (4-8 inches)
1 foot spacing (usually for small ornamentals)

What We Usually Do

Half Way Prepped Pot
Halfway prepped pot – next comes the bone meal, then the rest of the soil

We typically add straw (or lawn clippings) and homemade compost to our potted pepper plants. The compost provides many nutrients near term as well as beneficial microbes, while the straw/grass will decompose to give the plants a slow release of nutrients for the longer term. It's also beneficial as straw is cheap and the compost is free – reducing the amount of potting soil we need to buy.

Using the above ingredients, we build our pot as follows…

  1. We add a few inches of soil to the bottom of the pot, and mix in a few shakes of bone meal.
  2. Then, a 4-inch layer of packed straw or lawn clippings (for a 20" pot, less for smaller pots).
  3. Followed by a small layer of compost with bone meal shaken on top.
  4. We then cover the straw, compost, bone meal layer with a few shovels of soil and pack it down to compress the straw as much as possible.
  5. The rest of the container is then topped off with soil.
  6. The pepper start is planted in a hole deep enough to accommodate its root ball, and gently packed down. For a stringy/leggy start, we'll bury half the stem (or more) to sturdy and straighten it.
  7. Gently, but thoroughly, water – making sure a good amount of water soaks into the pot.
  8. Place in a shady spot overnight, and gradually introduce to full-sun over the next week. Closely monitor for proper watering and to avoid sun scalding.

We like to put the straw and compost in the middle layer so the plant grows down to it and to reduce weeds, grasses and other volunteer plants that would inevitably sprout from the straw and homemade compost. We also bury the bone meal at the compost/straw layer and below. We've found that putting bone meal at the upper layer can attract animals that dig in the soil and potentially damage young plants.

As the straw decomposes, the soil level will drop. When completely consumed (in about 2-3 months), another batch of straw, bone meal, compost and soil can be added to top off the container, if desired. We'll consider topping off our pots mid-season, if we see signs of the plant becoming root-bound.

Buying Soil in Bulk

Bulk Soil Bag from Soil3
One cubic yard bag of bulk soil

We now buy our soil in bulk from Soil3. We mix the 27 cubic feet of organic soil they provide with 3 cubic feet of peat moss and 8 cubic feet of perlite, saving a total of $50 (in 2019), or 16%, compared with buying potting soil by the bag from the big box stores.

For potted plants, peat and perlite are helpful in their ability to improve the soil's substructure by resisting compaction – creating a loose, well-draining soil that traps oxygen and encourages root formation. Both of these additives also absorb some of the excess water and potentially leeched nutrients, allowing them to be released back to the plant's roots at a later time. Additionally, the peat moss helps to lower the soil's pH (making it more acidic). Most pepper plants prefer a slightly acidic soil.

Not only does building our own potting soil save us money, it's a higher quality soil. As an added bonus, it saves us multiple trips to the store for what would equate to a back-breaking 23 bags of potting soil!

Last Year's Soil Reuse Experiment

Soil Recycling

After a growing season, we typically emptied the soil from our pepper pots into our raised beds or other landscaping areas – allowing us to build fresh pots the following year. This annual flush-and-refill is a lot of work and a significant expense. The soil3 website claims their soil has enough nutrients to last up to four years in raised beds without fertilizer. Their soil does appear to be high quality, so we tried reusing it for second year.

After the growing season, settling and decomposition of the straw and compost left the top 1/3 of our pots empty. We chopped up and returned the old pepper plants back to their pots. A layer of grass clippings and compost was then added, followed by a sprinkling of bone meal and a pinch of rock dust. The pots were then topped off with a couple inches of fresh soil.

By doing this, we hoped to return many of the nutrients lost during the previous growing season. Other than replacing nutrients, a concern with soil reuse is it may allow the mosaic virus or other pathogens to remain in the soil and more easily affect the following year's plants.

After year one, we're happy with the results. These reused pots produced healthy and productive pepper plants. Using the same process, we're going to keep a few pots for third year to see how they work out.

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