Planting Pepper Plants in Pots

Second Year Plant in Pot, 2018
Second year transplanted pepper plant, 2018

Over the years, we've gravitated to planting the majority of our peppers in pots. We're a small-scale grower, usually growing around 40-70 plants in a given year. Below are the main reasons why we like to grow peppers in pots...

  1. It frees up room. Without taking down trees, we have limited room for raised beds. Potted peppers can be placed in small open areas, on decks/patios, and mixed in with landscaping and trees.
  2. Easier to isolate plants. When you want to extract non-hybridized seeds, it's helpful to move the plant away from others to reduce the likelihood of cross-pollenization. Or, if birds or other pests are an issue, being able to move the plants may help.
  3. For display. A robust pepper plant makes a stunning visual and conversation starter on a patio or deck. Keeping them in pots, also makes it possible to bring to a cook-off or farmer's market – we've found having a few pepper plants on display are very effective as a booth magnet.
  4. Easier to overwinter. It's less effort to bring a few indoors for fall/winter to save as year 2 (or older) plants.
  5. Plants get fresh soil every year. Soil from previous year is added to top-off our raised beds, which also provides our beds with a steady stream of nearly fresh soil.

Though, growing peppers in pots does come with a few drawbacks...

  1. They dry out quicker without rain and usually require additional watering.
  2. Plants can become root-bound if put into too small of pot and will require either re-potting (ideal), frequent watering, or being moved to shadier location.
  3. Buying pots and soil can be expensive. Though, mixing in straw, lawn-clippings and homemade compost can help to reduce those costs to some degree, see below.

Choosing the Proper Pot Size

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

Typically, your garden store or seed seller will recommend a minimum planting distance. Based on the variety, that'll usually range from 2-4 feet. Use the table below as a guide for converting plant spacing to a proper 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 (4-6 inches)
small ornamentals

What We Usually Do

Half Way Prepped Pot
Half-way prepped pot – next comes the bone meal, then rest of 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 over time to give the plants an extra kick in 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.

As the straw decomposes, the soil level will drop. When completely consumed (in about 1-2 months), you can add another batch of straw, bone meal, compost and soil to top off the container, if desired. We'll usually do this if we see signs of the plant becoming root-bound.

Buying Our Soil in Bulk

The past couple of years, we switched to buying our soil in bulk from Soil3. We mixed 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, or 16%, compared with buying potting soil by the bag.

The peat moss helps to lower the soil's pH, making it more acidic, which is good for pepper plants, and additionally, helps to balance the soil's water retention and drainage. The perlite also helps to balance drainage and water retention as well as capturing oxygen and keeping the soil from compacting too much.

Not only does this save us money, it's a higher quality of the soil. As an added bonus, it saved us multiple trips to our local home improvement store for what would have been a back-breaking 23 bags of potting soil!

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

  1. We'll first add a sheet, to a few sheets, of newspaper to line the bottom of the pot. This serves to keep the soil (and it's nutrients) from leaking out of the bottom drainage holes. For extra-small pots, we'll use a coffee filter.
  2. To hold the newspaper or coffee filter in place, we'll add a few inches of soil to the pot, and mix in a few shakes of bone meal.
  3. Then, a 4 inch layer of packed straw or lawn clippings (for a 20 inch pot, less for smaller pots).
  4. Followed by a small layer of compost with bone meal shaken on top.
  5. Next, we'll cover the straw, compost, bone meal layer with a few shovels of soil and pack down the soil to compress the straw as much as possible.
  6. We then fill the rest of the container with soil.
  7. Dig a small hole deep enough to bury half the seedling (or more).
  8. After placing the seedling, gently pack the soil down and around the plant to sturdy it.
  9. Gently water and place in a shady spot overnight.

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 the bone meal at the upper layer tends to attract animals that will dig up the soil and potentially (usually) damage young plants.

Next Year's Experiment

Previously after a growing season, we'd empty our pots into our raised beds and use new potting soil the following year for our potted peppers. This annual flush-and-refill is a decent amount of work and a significant expense.

The soil3 website claims its soil has enough nutrients to last up to 4 years in raised beds without fertilizer. In using their soil, it does appear to be high quality, and we'd like to see if we can reuse the same soil for another year.

Though, we're going to give it some help in an attempt to replenish lost nutrients. With the initial straw and compost layer, our pot's soil level does compress significantly through the growing season – typically leaving the top 1/3 of the pot empty. After pulling the plants in fall, we're going to fill that top layer with compressed straw, compost, bone meal and rock dust. After which, we'll top off with a couple of inches of soil as a weed barrier.

By spring, we're hoping this will return many of the nutrients lost during the previous growing season. Our main concern with soil reuse is it may allow the mosaic virus or other pathogens to remain in the soil and more easily affect next year's plants. We plan to plant control pots to test.

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