If you have a few favorite pepper plants that you'll be sad to see go once winter arrives, overwintering them can provide a way to enjoy your plants for another year. Sometimes, several years. Peppers are perennials, so it's not difficult to do, even with limited room.
Second year pepper plants are usually highly productive. In Spring when moved back outside, they'll usually send off many new branches turning the plants into more of a bush, creating higher fruit density for many varieties. Additionally, since they have a head start over seedlings, they'll flower and produce fruit earlier in the year.
Most pepper plants are usually productive until the first freeze. A hard freeze will kill the plants. During Fall, keep a close eye on the forecast, watching the evening low temperatures. Prior to the first freeze, you'll want to start the process of winterizing your peppers.
When wintering, we cut the plants back considerably to help them become more dormant so they can save their energy for the next year. Also, the plants will tend to loose their leaves anyway over the winter which can make a mess of your house. When cutting them back, we'll take away 95% or more of their leaves, usually only leaving a few on the plant. We trim the plant's branches quite significantly, usually reducing it to less than one-third of its original size.
To save space and make it easier to store more plants inside, we'll also take many of the plants out of their original pot (or out of the garden) and move them to a much smaller 4" pot (8" for large plant). We'll cut the roots back to make it fit and will also cut the plant size down significantly, usually to around 6-8 inches of the main stem(s) and some may not have any leaves. It looks pretty extreme to remove that much, however, typically we'll only lose 10-30% of our winterized plants. Water after transplanting to help them recover.
When wintering, keep the plants in a sunny window and water when dry. Within a couple of weeks, you'll see new leaves appearing on the stems.
Avoid wintering plants infected by the Mosaic virus. This virus can be transmitted to nearby plants via pests such as aphids and can infect a significant number of your plants. If you suspect a winterized plant has the virus, it's best to remove and dispose of it for the sake of the other plants.
Aphids have frequently been an issue for us. We've tried homemade aphid control solutions, but they haven't appeared to help much. Luckily, here in Georgia we'll get a number of 60 degree plus days in winter. We store our 4" inch second year plants together in Tupperware bins so we can easily bring them outside on nicer days. As long as the temperature stays near, or above, 40 degrees at night and 50-plus during the day, we'll continue to leave them outside. Doing this helps reduce the aphid population as it exposes them to cooler temperatures and their natural predators. Even when plants have been hit hard by aphids, they usually have a decent chance of recovery, producing new leaves within a couple of weeks.
To minimize sun scalding when first bringing plants outside for the spring, it's best to keep them out of direct sunlight for the first week, then gradually moving them to increasingly more direct and longer sun exposure. If they do end up with scalding (leaves will turn whitish and wilty, then drop off after a couple of days), don't worry -- they usually will start growing another set within a week or two. Just make sure to keep them watered.
Many times we'll find the first set or two of flowers are unproductive with second year plants (dropping off without producing peppers), but afterward, they quickly become productive at fruiting. Sometimes this lack of productivity can last upwards of a month.
As was done while the plants were indoors for the winter, you'll want to continue watching for the Mosaic virus. Quickly discard any plants that start showing yellow spotted leaves that aren't the result of over-watering.
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