From sweet, crisp peppers in rainbow shades to habañeros hot enough to bring tears to your eyes, all peppers share a preference for a long, warm growing season. Set out plants a week or two after your last frost, when the weather is settled and warm. While cool weather reigns, keep seedlings indoors at night, and move them to a protected sunny spot outdoors during the day.
By growing an assortment of varieties of peppers, you can have mild, meaty peppers for salads or stir-fries, slightly spicy peppers for fresh salsas, and hot peppers for bold jolts of flavour. Under hot summer conditions, varieties that bear huge fruits may shed their blossoms, but small, thin-walled peppers often keep going strong. Small-fruited peppers also ripen faster, which is important in cool climates where summers are short. Get help picking which peppers to grow with our Pepper Chooser.
As peppers change from green to yellow, orange, or red, both their vitamin content and flavour improve dramatically. People who think they don’t like peppers often change their minds once they have tasted fully ripened, garden-grown peppers. For many hot peppers, the ripest fruits (the ones that have turned red) pack the most heat.
Quick Guide to Growing Peppers
- Set pepper plant seedlings out after the last spring frost. They grow well in raised beds, containers, and in-ground gardens.
- Plant them 18 to 24 inches apart in a sunny, well-drained spot. Pepper plants need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.
- Mix compost or other organic matter into the soil when planting.
- Water immediately after planting, then regularly throughout the season. Aim for a total of 1-2 inches per week (more when it’s hotter).
- Mix a continuous-release fertilizer into the soil at planting, then feed plants with liquid plant food every couple of weeks.
- Spread mulch (such as chopped leaves or straw) around the plants to help keep the soil cool and moist.
- Support each pepper plant with a stake or small tomato cage, to help bear the weight of the fruit once it begins to produce.
- Harvest peppers with shears or a knife, then store in the fridge. Be sure to pick all peppers before the first fall frost comes.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Growing peppers is easy in any sunny, well-drained spot, and they are good candidates for roomy containers, too. Peppers have a naturally upright growth habit, so they often benefit from staking, which keeps brittle branches from breaking when they become heavy with fruit. colourful peppers also make great additions to beds planted with flowers and other edible ornamentals, where they can easily serve as specimen plants. In beds or rows, the best spacing for most pepper plants is 18 to 24 inches apart (check the tag for exceptions). Peppers grow best in a soil with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0, although they can tolerate slightly alkaline conditions near 7.5. Mix a 3- to 5-inch layer of compost into each planting hole, as shown in the step-by-step planting directions. A generous amount of organic matter helps the soil retain moisture, and moist soil is crucial for good pepper production. After planting, mulch each plant to keep the soil cool and moist.
About 6 weeks after planting, soon after peppers begin flowering and setting fruit, it is often helpful to feed plants lightly with an organic or timed-release fertilizer to keep them going strong. Simply pull back the mulch, scatter fertilizer around the base of each plant, and replace the mulch before watering well. Try Miracle-Gro® Shake ‘N Feed® Tomato, Fruits & Vegetables Plant Food both at planting and every week or two afterward to keep plants well fed.
Gardeners in hot climates may need to be patient with big bells and sweet roasting peppers, which often wait until nights become longer and cooler in late summer to load up with fruit. The wait will go by faster if you have less flashy (yet phenomenally productive) banana peppers to combine with tomatoes and basil in cool summer salads while bigger varieties slowly load up with fruits.
Happily for pepper-loving gardeners, peppers have few serious pest problems. What’s more, most common pepper diseases can be prevented by growing resistant varieties. Be on the lookout, though: Plants that look frail and stringy may be infected with viruses, which are spread by aphids and other small insects. Chronically thirsty peppers may be troubled by root-knot nematodes.
One other potential problem is a late cold spell in spring; be sure to cover plants if a frost is predicted in your area. (Find out your last frost date here.) If planting is delayed while you await better planting conditions, place 2 inches of moist potting soil in a 6-inch-wide container, gently break open the bottom of the pepper’s biodegradable pot, and nestle the seedling into the soil about 1 inch deep. Repeat for each pepper plant still awaiting placement in the garden. A bit of extra downward growing room will ensure that the plant’s primary taproot has ample space for expansion. Later on, after summer heats up, this taproot will becomes the pepper plant’s lifeline.
One last note about colour: Many new gardeners begin to wonder at some point if their peppers will ever turn the colour shown on the plant tag. If the mature colour of the pepper variety you planted is red, orange, yellow, or purple, be patient. Fruit often takes a while to change from green to its final colour, but the flavour will be worth the wait!
Harvest and Storage
Use pruning shears or a sharp knife to cut peppers from the plants, leaving a short stub of stem attached. Pulling peppers by hand can cause entire branches to break off. Rinse harvested peppers with water, pat them dry, and then store them in your refrigerator. Too many fruits to eat fresh? Extras can be dried, frozen, or pickled.
When temperatures begin to fall toward frost, many pepper plants are still producing fruit. It’s not uncommon for them to still hold numerous green fruits when the first freeze kills the plants. When you know a frost is in the forecast, harvest all of the peppers. The largers ones will be good for eating, but very immature peppers often taste bitter. It is better to compost them than to serve them for dinner.
Harvested peppers that have just begun to change colour will often continue to ripen when kept in a warm room indoors for up to 3 days. If they haven’t yet begun to change colour, but are full size (or nearly so), you can eat them green. In any case, signs of softening or shriveling, and promptly refrigerate those fruits. Then, be sure to use them first.
Handling Hot Peppers
Capsaicin, the oily compound that produces the heat in a hot pepper, is primarily concentrated in the veins, ribs, and seeds. Sensitivity to it varies. Use caution until you know how you’ll react. If pepper juice gets in your eyes or nose, flush immediately with cold water. When the fire is in your mouth, drink milk or eat yogurt to counteract the burn. Burning hands means that capsaicin has penetrated skin or lodged under fingernails. Dipping hands into a 5-to-1 solution of water and bleach turns capsaicin into a salt that you can rinse away. Wash hands well after that with plenty of soap, rinse, dry, and apply moisturizer.
Do not re-use wash cloths or towels that may have capsaicin on them; launder them to avoid spreading the chemical. After working with hot peppers, wash cutting surfaces, prep tools, and knives carefully before using them to prepare other food.
What makes a chili pepper hot?
Capsaicin is the oil in peppers responsible for their heat. It is mostly found in pepper seeds and the membranes that hold the seeds. Heat is expressed Scoville units; the higher the number, the hotter the pepper. The hottest pepper we carry is Habanero, which has a rating of at least 300,000. Compare that to a Jalapeno, which has a rating of about 5,000.
Which peppers are best to stuff?
Our most popular stuffer is “The Big Early,” which is absolutely huge at 8 by 4 1/2 inches. For chile rellenos, the “New Mexico Big Jim” is a good choice. This 8-inch-long pepper has a wonderful flavor and mild heat. For poppers try one of the bigger jalapenos such as “Mammoth.”
I just purchased a young bell pepper plant and it has flowers on it. Should I pull the flowers off in order to get larger bell peppers?
Pinching blooms may help a little by redirecting growth to make branches instead of fruit. However, the tiny buds are often right at the growing tips, so be careful. A pair of tweezers will help. If you plant in fertile soil and plants are watered and fed properly, your plants will produce satisfactorily regardless.
Are tall, leggy pepper plants okay? Should I stake them to prevent breakage from the wind?
Tall plants are okay. Staking will help. Make sure to gently untangle a few roots if you’re just planting and the root ball is thickly matted.
Is it okay to plant hot peppers next to sweet peppers?
Yes. Normally they do not cross (and cannot within a single season), and you won’t have to worry about your sweet peppers turning hot. The plant tags will give a recommended spacing, but generally plant 18 to 24 inches apart.
Can I plant peppers in containers?
You can plant peppers in containers. Each pot should be at least a 5-gallon size, which is about twice the size of a standard mop bucket. A standard clay pot with a 16- to 18-inch diameter is a good choice.
How deep do I plant pepper plants in the ground?
Plant peppers at the same depth that they are growing in the container. Read our instructions on how to handle peat pots if your pepper plants are growing in these. Also see our step-by-step pepper planting instructions.
How often do I fertilize my bell pepper plants?
If you did not work in a timed-release or organic fertilizer at planting, you can fertilize now. Sprinkle a timed-release or organic fertilizer around the plant. Pull back the mulch, sprinkle the fertilizer on the ground, replace the mulch, and water. Or use Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food every week or two.
How often should I water my bell pepper plants?
Water enough so that the soil feels slightly moist when you poke your finger into the soil one inch deep. How often depends on how quickly the soil dries. Sandy soil drains faster than clay or well-amended garden soil. And it depends on rain, of course. Just be sure that the plants get enough water so that they are never drought-stressed, but avoid over watering, which leads to root problems. The answer will come from within your garden.
Why is my plant losing blooms?
You could also be losing blooms because of hot weather. Bell peppers will stop producing and even drop blooms when the weather is hot, in the 90s, but healthy plants will produce vigorously once the nights cool down in late summer. Keep your plants healthy and be patient.
How do I know when to pick my peppers?
It is important to use the estimated days to maturity and to judge by desired color. Red, green, and yellow bells will start out green but turn color as they mature. Do not pull peppers from the plant. Use hand shears to avoid inflicting damage. When harvesting hot peppers, use gloves to protect hands from capsaicin oil and a possible resulting burn.