Growing pepper plants is easy and – following a few basic guidelines – most growers will see good results. While our Growing Overview provides the basics, here we detail the step-by-step approach we use to maximize results and avoid potential issues.
Choosing the desired varieties and where to plant them is a good (and fun!) place to start. Mature chile varieties range from six inches to over four feet tall. They do well in gardens and as outdoor potted plants – where a couple of vibrant plants can yield a few hundred peppers. Or, simply scattering pepper seeds into a small patch of bare soil can also turn out nicely.
Local garden stores tend to have seeds for common pepper varieties, such as jalapeno, habanero, cayenne, etc. To find the more unique chile varieties – lemon drop, black pearl, datil, white ghost – you'll likely need to shop online.
You can also harvest your own pepper seeds as a free, and abundant, source of seeds – for yourself, and to share or trade. Going further, growers can use hybridization and selective breeding to take their hobby to another level. It's even possible to create brand new pepper varieties and contribute to an ever-growing list that some estimate to be over 50,000 strong!
While it's typically recommended to start seeds 6-8 weeks before transplanting outside, we prefer 8-12 weeks of lead time. This provides more time for varieties that take longer to sprout and the ability to replant failed seed cups.
We use 4-inch pots with good drainage holes. Disposable plastic drinking cups with three 1/4" holes drilled in the bottom also work. Good drainage is important, as waterlogged soil is not good for pepper plants. Either of these should provide enough room for a couple of months of growth.
We've seen our best germination rates using organic potting mixes. We leave about an inch of clearance at the top of the starter cup, so the plastic wrap covering doesn't interfere with seedlings as they sprout.
To assist germination, we make a seed starter solution with one tablespoon of Miracle-Gro® mixed in a gallon of distilled, or non-chlorinated, water. Using this solution, we water each starter cup prior to planting the seeds as overhead watering can be disruptive – potentially pushing the seeds deeper than intended. Each starter cup is then planted with 3-4 seeds about 1/8 inch deep. Sowing multiple seeds improves the odds of each cup having at least one seedling.
Once planted, we cover the starter cups with plastic wrap to retain moisture and heat. While normal indoor temperatures will work, warmer temperatures are better in achieving quick and robust germination. Using heating mats or an incubator to maintain a soil temperature between 80-85°F during the day and normal household temperatures at night is ideal. Alternatively, placing the seed containers on top of the refrigerator, in a furnace closet, or on a high shelf – for an added couple of degrees – also works reasonably well.
If soil dries before seeds sprout, briefly remove plastic wrap and water with starter solution. A disposable coffee cup with sippy lid, or a cocktail shaker with strainer top, can help to water gently with minimal soil disruption.
Some place seeds on a damp paper towel, sealed inside a baggie. As seeds germinate, seedlings are moved to a starter cup. We tried this, and while it did work, we prefer direct sowing into soil. Keeping the baggies inflated, the towel moist, moving the paper towel in and out of the baggie and watching for mold were somewhat of a hassle.
We've tried the peat pellet discs found in seed starter kits, with lesser results. Some sources say never use them for peppers, while others say they've had good results using them. If used – compared with 4" cups – seedlings will need an intermediate transplanting before planting outside. Also, the outer netting should be removed when transplanting as it can severely limit root system growth.
We've had decent results with used K-Cups (emptied coffee and removed filter). Discarded egg cartons are another eco-friendly way to start pepper plants in a small space. Here again, seedlings will need an intermediate transplanting before moving outside.
Most of the viable seeds should sprout in 6-14 days – though, sometimes it can take upwards of 30 days, depending on the variety and conditions. Once seedlings appear, remove plastic wrap or any moisture retaining cover on sprouted cups and place in sunny location indoors or under a grow light.
Discontinue use of seed starter solution and use regular tap water that has sat out for at least 24 hours to remove the chlorine. Spring water, distilled, and rain water will also work.
Seedlings should partially dry out in-between watering – soil should still be moist, but not damp. Young seedlings can be knocked around by overhead watering, if not done gently. If seedlings get stuck to soil, use a pencil or toothpick to gently lift them off the wet soil a little. They'll usually straighten out again pretty quickly.
Overly damp conditions can deprive roots of oxygen, and possibly produce seedling destroying mold. Seedlings will start to yellow if their roots aren't able to dry out periodically. For yellowing leaves, stop watering until soil is mostly dry. For mold, pause watering, increase airflow and consider switching to a better light source.
As pepper seedlings mature, another cause of yellowing leaves could be insufficient nutrients. If additional nutrients are needed, we use an equal parts mix of alfalfa meal, bone meal, blood meal and epsom salt. This provides a natural and balanced soil amendment. We use 1/2 of a teaspoon of this, per seedling cup every 3-4 weeks, as needed.
Leggy or stringy seedlings (growing tall and weak with bending or leaning) is likely a result of insufficient light. Increasing light intensity, or quality, should help. A while ago, we switched to higher intensity, full-spectrum LED grow lights (shown in picture), and our seedling growth is now sturdy and robust.
If seedlings remain stringy, you can sturdy the plants by adding more soil to top-off containers. It's OK to clip and bury the bottom few sets of leaves. Gently pack soil down to bring plant upright and toward the center of the container.
When seedlings are couple of inches high – if you like – choose the strongest seedling in each container and cut the rest to free up room for the chosen seedlings to grow.
Let soil dry out moderately and use a fork to gently loosen soil around the seedling(s) to be relocated. In most cases, extra seedlings should be able to be gently pulled and removed with roots intact and transplanted into another container. It’s best to wait until seedlings are around 2" inches" tall. Younger seedlings are easily damaged and may not survive transplanting.
If there is enough room, seedlings can continue to be kept in the same cup. When transplanting outside – using care – they still should be able to be separated. Or, the seedlings can be kept together and transplanted as a group into the same pot or garden square. Two or three peppers placed in close proximity won't yield as much as they would if given proper spacing, though, a pepper plant grouping will usually produce more than a single plant.
Once pepper starts are around 3-5" tall, it's a good time to start to harden them – weather permitting. Peppers transplanted directly outdoors without a transition period can experience significant shock from wind, changing temperatures and direct sunlight – so this should be done gradually.
A screenroom/sunroom is a great place to start the process. When transitioning outside, start with 15-20 minutes a day in a shaded area with filtered light, and avoid overly windy/rainy conditions. Gradually increase outside time and the intensity of sun they receive.
Soon, they can be left outside for long periods – even overnight – with continued monitoring. Small starter cups offer little protection for young pepper plants, making them vulnerable drying out and prolonged periods of cold. If plants get droopy, bring inside or to a sheltered spot – and if dry, water immediately.
Brief nighttime temperatures down to 40°F should be fine for mostly hardened plants – ours have handled brief dips to 35-37°F on occasion – though, a prolonged period in that range can kill them. We keep our starter cups in a shallow tray for easy transport during the hardening period.
If the pepper starts are destined for pots that are easily moved, they can be transplanted and hardened in those pots.
Once hardened and about 4-6" tall, pepper starts are ready for transplanting outside. It's best to wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50°F – though, they can deal with lower temperatures, if not prolonged. As a general guideline, we'll wait at least until the vast majority of the predicted nightly lows in the 15 day forecast are above 50°F with nothing below 45°F.
Peppers can be transplanted at a smaller size with consistently favorable weather. In years with good weather, we've planted ours as small as 2", with good results. However, we've transplanted 3" plants during years where the weather turned unexpectedly cold and they were significantly stunted for the next month or so.
Choose a spot where plants will receive full sun, have enough room to grow, and have good drainage. Pepper plants love sun and like to dry out a little between watering. You'll see a significant difference in size and fullness between pepper plants in a sunny spot versus shade. Shady locations also tend to increase exposure garden slugs and disease. If transplanting into pots, our Peppers in Pots Guide offers help on choosing pot sizes.
To inoculate our peppers with beneficial microbes, we like to dispense a little compost tea into the starter cups about an hour before transplanting. When transplanting, we add a 1/2 tablespoon of our soil amendment into the hole and work it into the soil.
Pepper plants are vulnerable to wilting and sun-scalding after transplanting. A little wilting is fine, though if significant, provide shade and water the ground around them – taking care to avoid directly watering wilted leaves. Caught early, plants should bounce back and can be reintroduced to full sun in a few days.
For nighttime temperatures briefly approaching freezing, transplants of several inches (and overwintered peppers) should be fine. For anything smaller or for colder temperatures, peppers should be brought inside or covered. Similarly, a prolonged period of temperatures near 40°F, or below, can kill young pepper plants. Plants should be moved back inside or covered. Also, transplants coming out of a prolonged cold snap and quickly exposed to warm and sunny weather can be shocked by the sun, and may need temporary shading.
Some plants may bend – or suffer broken stems – early after transplanting. Don’t worry, pepper plants are very resilient! Young plants will usually straighten quickly. Older plants can be helped with staking. Damaged branches can be pruned, and they’ll soon be replaced with new ones. Most damaged pepper plants nearly catch up to their peers – sometimes with the added bonus of being bushier and producing more fruit.
In our experience, while tomato cages aren't great for tomatoes (generally, too small and flimsy), they work really well for pepper plants. Especially for ones that grow three feet or taller. Setting in place when peppers are first transplanted, allows the plant to grow into the cage, rather than trying to fit the cage around the plant later.
Depending on the soil, a nitrogen based fertilizer can now be used. Weak growth or pale leaves, at an early stage, could be a sign that more nitrogen is needed. We use mostly compost and organic-based soils, so our our peppers tend to have sufficient nitrogen. That, combined with the soil amendment we use is usually enough.
Newly transplanted pepper plants should be focused on growing. Sometimes peppers overgrow their starter cups and become root bound. This may encourage the plant to start forming flower buds prior to, or shortly after, transplanting. Being constrained, the plant entered the flowering and fruiting stage early as a survival strategy. While pepper plants are small, flower buds should be pinched off to encourage more plant growth.
As fruit ripens, it's best to pick soon afterward to encourage further growth and to increase the yield. Plants regularly maintained and harvested should continue to produce peppers through the end of the growing season – usually until the first hard frost.
Speaking of which… pepper plants are, in fact, perennials – provided they don't experience a hard freeze. It's fairly easy to overwinter them inside. They can be brought outside again the following spring and, in many cases, can be even more enjoyable in their second year.
Selection of our favorite accessories for growing, storing, serving, and celebrating peppers