Growing Pepper Plants (Step by Step)

Fury Pepper, 2016
The Bolivian rainbow is just one example of the many amazing varieties of chile peppers available for hobbyists to grow

Growing pepper plants is usually easy and, following a few basic guidelines, most growers will see good results. While our Growing Overview provides a quick introduction, here we detail the step-by-step approach we use to maximize results and overcome potential issues.

Getting Started!

Deciding on the pepper varieties you'll be growing and where you're planting them is a good (and fun!) place to start. Chile pepper plants grow to a wide variety of sizes – ranging from six inch plants that'll do well in a small cup, to plants that can grow over four feet tall!

When properly cared for, they do well in gardens and as outdoor potted plants. For those with limited room, a couple of vibrant potted plants can yield a few hundred peppers – while also serving as an eye-catching patio feature. We've also found that simply scattering pepper seeds within landscaped areas can turn out nicely.

  • While buying seeds is cheaper than buying plants, providing ideal conditions indoors to maximize germination and grow robust pepper starts can involve additional equipment – including LED grow lights, heating mats, timers, temperature controllers, starter cups and plant trays – depending on the sophistication. Though, pepper plants can be successfully started from seed indoors without ideal conditions and fancy equipment.
  • This guide begins with starting pepper seeds indoors. Those who plan to purchase pepper plant starts, can skip directly ahead to Transplanting.
  • For those who'd like to share results, see what other growers are doing, or ask questions, visit us on YouTube and Facebook to join our communities dedicated to the enjoyment of chile peppers.

Acquiring Seeds

Local garden stores tend to have seeds for common 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 go online.

On the other hand, harvesting your own pepper seeds provides a free, and abundant, source of seeds for yourself and to share or trade. And, via cross-pollination to create hybrid seeds and through selective breeding, growers can take their hobby to whole 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!

Starting Seeds Indoors

Pepper Seeds Planted and Wrapped
Pepper seeds planted in 4" starter cups are then wrapped to retain moisture and heat for improved germination

When starting pepper seeds indoors, typical recommendations call for starting 6-8 weeks before transplanting outside. We prefer 8-10 weeks as that provides more time for varieties that take longer to sprout as well as the ability to replant non-sprouted seed cups.

We typically start our seeds in 4-inch pots with good drainage holes. Disposable plastic drinking cups with 3 1/4" holes drilled in the bottom also work. The key is to make sure there's good drainage as waterlogged soil is not good for pepper plants.

We like the 4" pots, because it gives seedlings a couple of months to grow indoors without getting too root-bound. As long as seedlings have good water and light, they should stay healthy and grow to a decent size indoors while waiting for outside temperatures to sufficiently warm.

Seeds should be taken out of refrigerator 24 hours before planting. Immediately prior, some suggest using a strainer to lower seeds into a hydrogen peroxide bath for a minute or two followed by a rinse with tap water to kill mold and fungus spores which could damage young seedlings. We've done it with and without the peroxide bath and haven't noticed any difference. However, if reusing starter cups from last year, we do recommend first washing them in a mild bleach water solution prior to planting – for the same reason.

We've seen our best germination rates using a variety of store-bought organic potting mixes. When adding soil to starter cups, we leave about an inch of clearance at the top so plastic wrap covering doesn't interfere with seedlings as they set their first starter leaves.

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.

The starter cups are then covered with plastic wrap to retain moisture and heat. While normal indoor temperatures will work, warmer temperatures are better as they result in quicker and more robust germination. Using heating mats or an incubator to maintain a soil temperature between 80-85°F during daytime hours and normal household temperatures at night is ideal. Though, simply placing the seed container(s) on top of the refrigerator, in a furnace closet, or on a high shelf – for an added couple of degrees – also works reasonably well.

Other Options for Germinating Peppers

We've heard from some who place seeds on a damp paper towel and then seal in a baggie. As the seeds germinate, seedlings are moved to a starter cup. We're intrigued; as doing this could help us fully germinate all our varieties. As it stands, each year we miss out on a variety, or two, due to failed germination. Next year, we plan to try this as our backup method.

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" pots, seedlings will need to be transplanted at a smaller size, or possibly require an intermediate indoor transplanting. If the peat pellets are used, be sure to remove the outer netting prior to transplanting. One year we didn't do this and found the outer netting didn't decompose during the growing season. It resulted in severely limited root systems and modest plant growth.

For sustainability purposes, we've also had decent results with used K-Cups (emptied coffee and removed filter). Using these, we'd recommend starting 4-6 weeks before moving outdoors. While seedlings become root-bound much sooner in the smaller container, we've found as long as they're kept watered, they'll stay alive and grow quickly once transplanted. Discarded egg cartons are another eco-friendly way to start pepper plants in a small space.

Caring for Seedlings

Pepper Seedlings 10 Days After Planting
Pepper seedlings 10 days after planting with non-germinated cups consolidated and covered

Once planted, 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. 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.

Once seedlings start to appear, remove plastic wrap or any moisture retaining cover and place in sunny location indoors or under a grow light. Also, 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. Water from an aquaponics system or aquarium is even better as long as those sources aren't being treated with chemicals. Some recommend using a diluted fish fertilizer, however, those can have a very distinct (and bad) smell. We tried this one year and our basement stunk. We've since forgone using it and have had good results.

Seedlings should partially dry out in-between watering – soil should still be moist, but not damp. Continuously overly damp conditions can deprive roots of oxygen as well as produce mold which can destroy the seedlings. Pepper plants will start to yellow if their roots aren't able to dry out periodically. If mold starts to grow in starter cup, or leaves start to yellow, stop watering and increase airflow (and possibly increase lighting if there's mold) until soil is mostly dry before re-watering.

Seedlings can be fragile when they first sprout and overhead watering may knock them around if not done gently. If seedlings get stuck to soil, gently use a pencil or toothpick to get under them and lift them off the wet soil a little. They'll usually straighten out again pretty quickly.

If seedlings are "leggy" or "stringy" (growing tall and weak with bending, twisting or leaning) that likely means the light source isn't strong enough. Increasing light intensity – a south-facing window, moving the grow light closer, or using a better light – should help. If some seedlings remain stringy, you can sturdy the plants by adding more soil to top-off containers. It's okay to clip or bury the bottom few sets of leaves. Gently pack soil down to bring plant(s) upright and toward the center of the container. Then, provide better lighting, if possible.

Using LED Grow Lights for Peppers

Grow Light We Use
The full-spectrum LED grow light we now use

A few years back, the red/blue LED grow lights were popular as they were said to contain only the light frequencies that plants needed – saving energy, while not drying out the plants. Our incubator used the red/blue lights, and over the years, we've noticed many of our pepper starts were stringy as they grew.

Suspecting a lighting issue, we found many sources that debunked the purported benefits of the red/blue narrow-band lighting as myth. While the red and blue frequencies are important to plant development, other frequencies, such as green and yellow, are also believed to play a role. Add in factors like intensity, lumens, PAR and PPDF, and there is a lot to consider when evaluating artificial light sources.

While full-spectrum LEDs may not be the fully-optimized or perfect solution, we did find a number of growers who've had good results with them. Last year, we switched to higher intensity full-spectrum LED grow lights (shown in picture, and on Amazon), and our seedling growth is now sturdy and robust. Although we're not sure if the improvement is due to the broader spectrum, the increased intensity, or a combination of both. In any case, we're happy with the results and find it more enjoyable viewing our pepper starts under the white lighting, versus the sci-fi looking pink.

Choosing the Strongest Seedling

Pepper Seedlings Starting to Mature
Pepper seedlings after selection and separation

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.

Or, Transplant Extras into Secondary Seedling Cups

Let soil dry out moderately and use a fork to gently loosen soil around the seedling(s) to be relocated. In most cases while the soil is being loosened, the seedlings should be able to be pulled gently to remove it from the container with the roots intact. They can then be transplanted into another container. If doing this, it’s best to wait until seedlings are around 2 inches tall. Younger seedlings are easily damaged and may not survive transplanting.

Or, Let Them All Mature in the Same Seedling Cup

Alternatively, if the starter cups have enough room, you can continue to keep the seedlings in the same cup. When time to transplant outside, using care, they should still be able to be separated. Or, the seedlings can be kept together and transplanted into the same pot or garden square. Many times, we prefer to double/triple plant our peppers in this way for the following reasons...

  1. To compensate for any plants that die after transplanting. The backup plant(s) are now already in place.
  2. As a backup plan for unwanted hybridization or less ideal plants. If one of the plants is an undesired hybrid or doesn't have the characteristics you were hoping for, simply cut it and be left with the better plant(s).
  3. To increase the odds of capturing desired traits when selective breeding. Seeds from crossed varieties – especially early generation descendants – tend to produce plants/peppers with a wide degree of variation. Many (in some cases, most) will not look like the desired parent. Keeping all the seedlings provides more plants to evaluate when selecting the best one(s) for saving seeds.
  4. Improved yield. Two or three plants placed in close quarters won't yield as much as they would have if given proper spacing, though for most varieties, a plant grouping will usually produce more than a single plant.

Hardening Pepper Starts

Pepper Starts Placed Outside to Harden
Pepper starts placed outside in semi-shaded location to harden

Once pepper starts are around 3-5" tall, it's a good time to start to harden them – weather permitting. Plants 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 spot to start getting them acclimated. Then, when moving outside, start with 15-20 minutes a day in a mostly shaded area with filtered light and avoiding 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 more vulnerable drying out and prolonged periods of cold. If plants start getting droopy, bring back 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.

Transplanting

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 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.

Transplanted Datil Peppers
Transplanted datil peppers in 20" pot

It's best to transplant in the evening – giving transplants a night to adjust before receiving full sun exposure and helping to minimize the chances of sun scalding. Even better, would be to transplant when the forecast calls for a day or two of cloudy weather.

Choose a spot where plants will receive full sun, as pepper plants love sun. You'll see a significant difference in size and fullness between pepper plants in a sunny spot versus a shady one. Also, shady locations tend to increase exposure to pests, particularly garden slugs.

Dig holes slightly deeper than the current starter cup to allow the plant stem to be buried up to the first or second set of leaves. If it's an especially stringy or bent plant, we'll bury most of the plant, only exposing the top few sets of leaves. Before planting, we add a few shakes of bone meal to the bottom of the hole and work it into the soil. Bone meal is a great source of the calcium that pepper plants need – especially those belonging to the Chinense species.

If transplanting into pots, our Planting Peppers in Pots Guide has more information on choosing pot sizes as well as ideas to reduce the amount of potting soil you need to buy.

Transplanted Peppers, 2018
Newly transplanted first and second year peppers, 2018

Pepper plants can be vulnerable to wilting and sun-scalding when first transplanted and should be monitored. A little wilting is fine, though if plants wilt significantly in the sun, provide shade and water the ground around them – taking care to avoid watering the wilted leaves. If caught early, plants should quickly bounce back, and can be reintroduced to full sun in the next day, or two, with monitoring.

Some plants may bend, or even suffer broken stems, early after transplanting. Don’t worry! Bent plants will usually straighten quickly and can be helped with staking, and damaged branches can be pruned. While looking like misfits at first, they’ll soon start regenerating branches. Most damaged plants will nearly catch up to their peers – sometimes with the added bonus of being bushier and producing more fruit.

Managing Cold Weather After Transplanting

Periodically, after transplanting, we'll be surprised with an unexpected bout of cold weather. For nighttime temperatures that briefly approach freezing, transplants of several inches (and overwintered plants) should be fine.

For nighttime temperatures a couple of degrees below freezing, we'll bring plants inside or cover. Covering small plants with doubled-up transparent plastic cups (to trap a layer of air) and dug into the soil slightly can add about 2°F to the nighttime temperature. Insulated tumblers and buckets can be used for larger plants – if temperature drops aren't too extreme.

Additionally, a prolonged period of day and night temperatures around 40°F, and below, can kill young pepper plants. Moving plants back inside or covering may be needed in those cases.

It's important to note that previously hardened 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.

Growing, Flowering, and Fruiting

Transplanted Peppers, 2018
Mature pepper plants, 2018

Once transplanted, pepper plants should be primarily focused on growing. During this time, the plants need mostly nitrogen. Now outside, liquid fish fertilizer can be used without having to deal with bad smells being trapped indoors. That, or another nitrogen-based fertilizer, can be used every 2-3 weeks until the plant(s) begin to flower. Once flowering has started, plants need a more balanced combination of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen to promote overall plant health.

Additionally, a small monthly sprinkling of bone meal also helps by providing calcium to the plants as they grow. We've found this is especially helpful for peppers from the Chinense species. If new growth consists of mostly wrinkly green leaves, it's usually a sign they're calcium deficient. Leaves from healthy pepper plants should be mostly flat. When supplemented with bone meal, the next generation of leaves will usually flatten out.

Other than bone meal, we've had very good results without using any store bought fertilizers. Instead, we focus on building a nutrient-rich soil via organic matter and microbes, Specifically, we've found using bone meal, compost, and straw as soil additives to our pots (see what we do) tends to produce strong growth and healthy plants on its own.

Pinching Buds

Sometimes plants get too big for their starter cups and start to become root bound. This may encourage the plant to start forming flower buds prior to, or shortly after, transplanting. Basically, the plant ran out of room and decided it needed to flower and fruit as a survival strategy. These buds should be gently pinched off to encourage the plant to resume a normal growth mode.

Once 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 – which is usually 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.

Additional Resources