Section 1: The history of peppers (Capsicum annuum)
An Introduction to peppers
Peppers are native to South America, where archaeologists believe they’ve been cultivated for at least 5,000 years. The word “chile” is derived from the Nahuatl word “xilli” (same pronunciation). Of the 27 species of pepper known to exist, only five varieties are domesticated.
As with many useful plants native to the Americas (tomatoes, beans, squash, maize), peppers were brought back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors where they received much fanfare. While in Europe, they also received their new name, “pepper,” due to the fact that the spicy heat they produce on the tongue was similar to the commonly used table spice, black pepper (derived from an unrelated plant).
After their arrival in Spain, peppers quickly spread throughout Europe and around the world.
What causes some peppers to be hot?
The characteristic “heat” of peppers is due to the lipophilic chemical capsaicin, the relative amount of which is measured using the Scoville scale. The hottest pepper in the world was grown a few hours up the road from us in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Measuring in at a jaw-dropping (literally) 2,200,000 Skoville Heat Units (SHU), the aptly named ‘Carolina Reaper’ is dangerously hot!
Mild and sweet peppers also exist for those who don’t care for capsaicin heat (or the risk of hospitalization). In fact, various varieties of bell peppers measure a zero on the Scoville scale.
Ready to grow peppers?
We hope you’ll reflect on the remarkable global voyage your pepper seeds have been on before arriving at your garden. By growing and saving your own pepper seeds, you’ll be part of their grow journey. Read this pepper growing guide to learn how.
Section 2: Seed Germination
You can germinate your pepper seeds one of two ways:
- Germinate indoors: A more time-consuming approach since you have to to keep track of watering your seedlings and making sure they are getting enough light. However, most experienced gardeners start their pepper seeds indoors since this approach provides earlier harvests and greater yields over the warm weather growing season.
- Germinate outdoors via direct seeding into your soil. This is an easier, less time-consuming approach, but you don’t get yields until later in the season since you get a late start. Also, you have a greater risk of plant loss during the seedling stage due to outdoor garden pests. For cooler climates with a short summer growing season, this method is not advised.
Use whichever seed starting method (starting indoors or outdoors) is ideal for you given the amount of time you have to commit, your level of gardening experience, and the resources available to you.
Option 1: Starting your pepper seeds indoors
Part 1. WHEN TO START YOUR SEEDS
6-8 weeks before your last frost date is the ideal time to start your pepper seedlings indoors if you want to get an early jump on the growing season and get the largest possible yields. (You can find your last frost date here.)
If your last frost-date has already passed, no problem! You can easily direct sow your pepper seeds into your garden as long as you have plenty of warm weather ahead of you. The number of days required to go from pepper seed to mature fruit varies by pepper variety. Some peppers can take 150+ days, so choose wisely and only direct sow your pepper seeds if you live in a warm climate zone.
Part 2. SOWING YOUR INDOOR PEPPER SEEDS
Sowing depth: Sow your pepper seeds 1/4″ deep in your choice of organic seed starting mix or potting soil (see recommended products below).
Don’t fill your seed cells with soil from your garden, since this tends to harden into an impenetrable brick. Instead, we recommend that you buy a ready-made organic seed starting mix or a light potting mix like Fox Farm potting soil.
Experienced gardeners or gardeners starting large numbers of plants often prefer to mix their own seed starting mix. If you want to make you own DIY seed starting mix, here’s our recipe.
We recommend starting your pepper seeds in one of the following:
No matter which of these three options you use for your pepper seedlings, be sure to put a solid plastic seed tray or an old cookie sheet underneath them to keep water from dripping onto your floor or furniture.
And don’t forget to label your cells with plant markers so you can keep track of which variety is which!
Part 3. GERMINATING CONDITIONS
The ideal temperature range for pepper seed germination is 78° – 85°F.
Place your seed trays in a warm spot in your home (such as a sunny window). For best results, use a seedling heat mat (which is also very helpful for starting other summer seeds like eggplants, ground cherries, tomatoes, etc.). We have significantly better germination time and rates with our summer seeds when using a heat mat.
Pepper seed germination time: If the soil mix is kept damp and temps are maintained between 78° – 85°F, your pepper seedlings will germinate within 7 days.
If the temperatures are cooler than this, your seeds may take an additional 1 – 2 weeks to germinate. Too cold (below 65°F) and your pepper seeds will not germinate at all.
To help with germination, make sure your seed containers stay moist, but not wet. The moisture level should feel like a well wrung-out sponge.
Be sure to also use a gentle watering method such as a misting bottle or a watering can with a very soft pour to prevent the pepper seeds and soil from dislodging. It’s important that your soil mix be thoroughly moistened BEFORE your seeds are added, or you’ll have difficulty getting the soil moist without dislodging the seeds.
The frequency you’ll need to water your pepper seedlings on an ongoing basis varies. Start by watering your seed containers every 24 hours unless they stay really damp. If that happens, hold off and check on them again in a few hours.
Note: Your soil will dry out faster on seedling heat mats or under hotter temperatures.
Again, go for the happy medium of soil with a similar dampness as a wrung-out sponge. Seeds allowed to sit in puddles quickly rot whereas tiny seedlings in crusty, dry soil will soon die due to lack of moisture.
Part 4. ONCE YOUR PEPPER SEEDS HAVE SPROUTED
As soon as your pepper seeds have germinated/sprouted above the soil surface, place them in front of a sunny, south-facing window in your home (e.g. the window that gets the most sunlight throughout the day).
Do note that newer, modern windows block a lot of the light spectrum that plants need to grow. So if you have energy-efficient windows or don’t have a sunny south-facing window, you might want to consider getting grow lights for your seedlings. Here’s how to build your own DIY grow light system like we use.
It’s crucial that your pepper seedlings get adequate light—an absolute minimum of six hours of direct light each day—otherwise they’ll quickly become weak and “leggy” (tall and spindly).
Tip: If growing in front of a window, periodically turn your seed trays so that the same side is not always facing towards the sunny window—this will prevent the side furthest away from the window/sun from getting leggy or stretching sideways towards the light.
When the daytime temperatures begin to get into the 60s, you can start putting your pepper seedlings outside in direct sun. However, if you don’t “harden off” your seedlings before exposing them to direct, unfiltered sun, you risk them becoming sunburned.
You can read more about how to harden off your pepper seedlings in the Transplanting Outdoors section below.
Part 5. FEEDING YOUR PEPPER SEEDLINGS
The first two leaves on your pepper seedlings are called “cotyledon” leaves. The next leaves that develop are the first set of “true leaves.”
About 10-14 days after germination, your pepper seedlings will get their first true leaves. At this point, you’ll need to consider nutrition, depending on whether your seed starting mix did or did not contain nutrition.
When/if your pepper seedlings need nutrition (yellowing leaves or stunted growth are sure signs), you have two options:
- Use Organic Liquid Fertilizer – Start applying a water-diluted organic liquid fertilizer 1-2 times per week. (We like liquid kelp fertilizer.) Dilution ratios vary from product to product, but watering at half-strength (half of what the bottle recommends for feeding mature plants) is a good rule of thumb for seedlings. Be aware that over-fertilizing your plants can make them extra attractive to pest insects like aphids which can proliferate rapidly indoors since no predatory insects are around.
- Transplant Seedlings Into Larger Pots/Cells: This is also called “potting up” in gardening lingo. If your pepper seedlings need nutrition or are running out of space in their smaller cells, you can transplant them into larger, 3-4 inch diameter pots or cells using a seed starting mix that contains worm castings, compost, or slow release organic fertilizer.
Next, keep a close eye on your pepper seedlings to make sure they stay healthy: well-sunned, well-fed and well-watered until your last frost date has arrived. You’re almost ready for transplanting!
Option 2: Starting your pepper seeds outdoors
After your last frost date has passed, directly sow your pepper seeds ¼ inch deep in your garden. As mentioned previously, direct sowing pepper seeds should only be done by gardeners living in warm climate regions with a long growing season due to the length of time required for peppers to grow from seed to producing mature fruit.
Make sure the soil is moist, but not wet, until seed germination/sprouting.
Other than weather, the greatest danger to your young outdoor pepper seedlings is cut worms, which will chew through the stem of your young seedlings, killing them. To stop cutworms from eating our young seedlings, we use the “stick trick.”
The “Stick Trick”: Once your outdoor pepper seeds have sprouted, find a stick roughly the diameter of a toothpick and gently insert it into the ground directly next to each seedling’s stem. The cutworms are tricked into thinking the hard stick is the pepper seedling’s stem and move on.
Jump to Sun, Soil, Water section >
Section 3. Transplanting Outdoors
If you started your pepper seeds indoors, follow the instructions below. If you germinated your seeds outside in your garden, you can skip this section and head on over to the Sun, Soil & Water section.
Part 1: “HARDENING OFF” YOUR PEPPER SEEDLINGS
Outdoor direct sunlight is always more intense than either indoor grow lights or light filtered through a window.
Many new gardeners make the mistake of immediately transplanting their pepper seedlings outdoors into direct sunlight before hardening them off. This mistake can cause extreme sunburn that severely damages or kills your pepper plants.
To be safe, plan to harden off your pepper seedlings outdoors over the course of a week as follows:
- Days 1-3: Place your pepper seedlings outdoors in a shady spot that will only get 3-5 hours of direct sunlight throughout the day.
- Days 4-5: Place your seedlings in a slightly sunnier spot that will get about 5-6 hours of direct sunlight.
- Days 6-7: Place your seedlings in a full sun spot (6+ hours of direct sunlight).
During this transitional period, be sure to pay attention to these factors:
- Water – If your pepper seedlings’ leaves appear limp, this is likely due to lack of water. Try to keep their soil moist, but not wet.
- Sunburn – If you notice your pepper seedling leaves beginning to look white and papery, they’ve gotten sunburned. Put them in a part-full shade spot for a few days and allow them to recover. Again, if you don’t properly harden off your seedlings, they can get severely sunburned, which will either slow their growth to a crawl while they recover or possibly kill them (if they’re small or weak).
- Cold – Be sure that you bring your pepper seedlings inside any time the temperatures drop into the 40sºF.
Part 2: TRANSPLANTING PEPPER SEEDLINGS OUTDOORS
A. Last Frost Date
Once the last frost date for your area has arrived and your pepper seedlings have hardened off, it’s time to transplant them outdoors.
Before you start planting, make sure to look at your local 10 day weather forecast on www.weather.com. If you see any day or night temperatures below 45°F, hold off on transplanting. This tip has saved us quite a bit of heartache over the past few years as extreme weather and temperature fluctuations have becomes the “new normal.”
B. Pepper spacing and placement
Plant spacing (distance between plants) and row spacing (distance between rows) is important to consider when planting your peppers. There is some spacing variability depending on the growth habit of the specific pepper variety you choose, but a general rule for pepper spacing is:
- 18″ between plants, and
- 3′ between rows.
C. Soil Amending
- Castings/compost – Dig a 1′ x 1′ hole and fill it with 50% castings and 50% garden soil before transplanting your pepper seedlings.
- Organic fertilizer – Loosen the soil in a spot about 3-4x larger than the pepper seedling root ball. Mix in slow release fertilizer at the application rate described on the product package, then transplant your seedling into the spot.
When filling the hole back in around the pepper seedling, the soil used should be actual soil. You should not fill the hole with recognizable chunks of mulch, kitchen scraps, leaves, lawn clippings, or other undecomposed organic matter.
D. Top-Dressing Your Beds With Mulch
We can’t overemphasize how important top-dressing your beds with wood chips or mulch is for:
- building and maintaining healthy soil,
- regulating soil moisture & temperature, and
- blocking unwanted plants – aka “weeds.”
After you plant your pepper seedlings, make sure to put at least a few inches of mulch on top of the soil surface around your plants, if it’s not already there.
Again, mulches should always remain on the surface of the soil (aka “top-dressing”), not be incorporated or tilled into the soil.
If you have ever heard of mulches or compost “stealing” nutrients from garden plants (especially nitrogen), mixing carbon-rich mulches into the soil instead of letting it sit on top of the soil is what causes this problem. You can read more about your plant’s long term soil requirements in the Sun, Soil, and Water section below.
Immediately after planting, give each newly transplanted pepper seedlings a deep watering around the base of the plant. This does the following:
- helps the surrounding garden soil fill in around the root ball;
- allows your pepper seedlings’ roots to fully come into contact with the garden soil;
- expedites plant growth and minimizes transplant shock.
F. The Stick Trick
Newly transplanted seedlings are often chopped down by cutworms, which come by their name because they chew through the base of young seedlings, killing the plant.
We’ve had 100% success stopping these pests. We simply find a stick roughly the same thickness as a toothpick and stick it in the ground right next to the stem of our seedlings. When the cutworms come along and feel around the seedling, it is tricked into thinking that the plant is too tough to cut down, so it moves along to its next victim.
Part 3: PEPPER STAKING OR CAGING
Most pepper varieties top out at about 3′ tall. Nevertheless, the plants can get a bit unwieldy as they mature, especially when they’re loaded with fruit and a strong summer thunderstorm comes along.
There are lots of different options for caging or staking pepper plants. The two methods we prefer are:
- Stake & Tape – Drive a 4′ tall stake about 1′ into the ground directly next to each pepper plant. As your pepper plants grow, use plant tape to secure the main stem to the stake. By the end of the growing season, this might mean your peppers are taped at 2-3 points to the stake – maybe more for large-fruited peppers like bell peppers that need extra support.
- Small cages – You can buy wire cages from gardening centers, but these tend to be flimsy and don’t last long. We prefer to make homemade 2.5′ diameter x 4′ tall cages for our peppers using concrete reinforcing wire. Our cages have lasted for 10+ years. Here’s an article showing you exactly how to make your own. Put these cages over your pepper plants as soon as you transplant them and let your peppers grow up into the cage.
Part 4: FLOWER PINCHING
Your young pepper plants will produce their first flower in the top middle branching section of the plant. It might seem counterintuitive to a new gardener, but you’ll want to pinch these flowers off your pepper plants rather than let them form a pepper.
Why? Removing this first flower tells the plant to put its energy into more vegetative growth — and more fruit. In short, your aim is to get healthier, larger pepper plants that produce MORE peppers over the growing season, NOT to get the earliest possible peppers.
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Section 4: Sun, Soil, and Water
Pepper plants thrive in full-sun spots (6+ hours direct sunlight per day). However, pepper varieties that produce smaller fruit (such as Shishito peppers) can produce decent yields in lower light environments.
Planting peppers against a light-colored wall or fence can also increase yields since they reflect light and heat.
Pepper plants perform best in rich soil with lots of organic matter.
Five techniques that you can use to drastically improve your soil health & biological fertility are:
- “hugelkultur” (click here to read about this technique);
- polyculture plant guilds (see “Guild Plants,” the next section in this guide);
- top-dressing your soil with 3-6 inches of wood chips/mulch twice per year in the fall and spring;
- using living cover crop mixes rather than leaving your soil fallow;
- using compost from hot composting methods (Berkeley method) or worm castings. Either: a) Apply the compost/castings on top of your beds, or b) Make actively aerated compost tea (AACT) to use as a soil drench or foliar spray. (Option b gives you the most bang for your buck.) Both methods of application drastically increase the quantity and diversity of beneficial microbes in your soil and on your plants.
All five of these soil building techniques can improve your soil fertility to the point that your pepper plants may not require any additional fertilizer and virtually no additional water throughout the growing season once their root systems get established.
If you have poor soil or you do decide to use fertilizer, we recommend that you NOT use non-organic/synthetic fertilizers as these will have a compounding harmful effect on your soil over time. Instead, use a slow-release organic OMRI-listed fertilizer.
Pepper plants need approximately 1″ of water per week in normal summer conditions.
As your pepper plants mature, their root systems will develop and will be able to get more water from the surrounding soil and mycelial web (the symbiotic fungi in the soil). If your soil is healthy, your plants have established their root systems, and rain is regular, you may not need to provide any additional water to your pepper plants.
If you do need to water, be sure to:
- Water the base of the plants (not the leaves) in the morning, not in the evening. Wet leaves, especially overnight, can increase the risk of fungal diseases.
- Water deeply. Shallow watering can lead to shallower root systems.
Section 5. Helpful Guild Plants/Companion Plants for Peppers
Definition: A plant “guild” is a polyculture plant system (multiple plant species planted together) purposefully designed to create symbiotic relationships between species, increase plant productivity, and generate higher survival rates amongst the individual plants in the guild system.
If you’ve ever visited a “wild” ecosystem (mature forest or prairie), you’ve unknowingly seen plant guilds. Like people, plants tend to perform better in companion communities than they do as isolated individuals.
Some Common Plants to Consider in Your Pepper Guild:
- crimson clover
Section 6. Edible Landscape & Containers
Planting peppers in your edible landscape.
Peppers are one of our favorite edible landscaping plants. The plant size, fruit size, and in some cases even leaf color options allow for absolute show-stoppers. If you have any garden walls, terraced slopes, or raised beds in your landscape, consider peppers planted in groups at the front edge of the elevated bed so that the fruits dangle in plain view, close to eye level.
Even if you don’t have the added drama of a ledge for your peppers to lean off of (best if they are staked to keep the plants upright, though), they still look stunning in regular level garden beds.
For extra “oomph,” you can choose some contrasting floral or foliage plants to intermingle or use as a backdrop for your peppers. You might also want to use some 8-18” tall “shoes and socks” plants like calendula, globe basil, nasturtiums, purslane, moth beans, dwarf cosmos, or marigolds since peppers occasionally drop their lowest leaves and look a bit naked at the bottom.
Plants shorter than 30” can be planted in groups on either side of your pepper crop, while taller ones are best planted to the northwest of them to prevent shading and crowding. One attractive option includes daisies like dwarf shastas, knee-high cosmos, or Zinnia angustifolia. (These flowers look best in simple white-colored flowers when paired with peppers, though there are also lots of great colors available that would liven things up.)
Taller cleome, sunflowers, or tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), are some good backdrop flowers to use. If you’d prefer edible options, you can try pairing peppers with basil, sesame, garland chrysanthemum, nasturtium, or strawberry spinach (especially pretty when it has been allowed to bolt and make berries). Edible backdrop veggies include okra, corn, or trellised vining crops like pole beans or cucumbers.
Planting Peppers in a Container
- Container Spacing for maximum harvest: Minimum container size – 5 gallons (per pepper plant), approx. 12-14 in. diameter, 8-14 in. deep.
Peppers are excellent performers in pots. Given the rainbow of fruit colors available, they can be paired with any container design you choose.
Perhaps you’d enjoy the simplicity of a green-fruited pepper with emerald green leaves in a sophisticated white textured pattern, matte glaze, or DIY chalk paint finish. (Note that you can inexpensively turn any latex paint into chalk paint instead of buying the high-dollar boutique versions.) If that’s too quiet for you, turn up the volume with a real or faux glazed Maiolica style pot or any other container with a festive or jewel-toned finish.
If you’re growing spicier pepper varieties and feel concerned with making sure they don’t get overly hot (or if you just prefer a lower-maintenance container garden), consider making or purchasing a SIP (Sub-Irrigated Planter) to make it easier to keep their irrigation levels consistent. SIPs can look utilitarian or extremely ornamental depending on your budget or crafting skills. We like them made from galvanized tubs or upcycled found objects when we need to pinch pennies.
You can also turn just about any container you have into a SIP, or hide a SIP inside a more attractive pot.
Section 7. Common Pests & Diseases
A. During (Indoor) Seedling Stage
Indoor plants and seedlings (including peppers) are more susceptible to certain pests and diseases than outdoor plants, since there aren’t predators around to manage their populations.
Common problems you might encounter during the germination and seedling stage of your pepper plants:
- Description: Small sap-sucking insects that proliferate on young plant stems and the underside of young leaves.
- Symptoms: Sticky leaves; curled leaves; weakened, limp or dying plants despite adequate water and nutrition.
- Organic Treatment: insecticidal soaps, horticultural oil sprays, organic insecticides (neem oil works great). The more time you can get your seedlings outdoors, the less problems you’ll have from aphids. Aphids are a favorite snack for ladybugs, parasitoid wasps, and other predatory insects that you probably don’t have in abundance inside your home.
- Whiteflies (Trialeurodes vaporariorum)
- Description: Small, white flies that proliferate underneath leaves.
- Symptoms and Organic Treatment: Same as aphids (above).
- Fungus Gnats
- Description: Small dark-colored gnats; the small, white-colored larvae live in soil and eat the roots of young seedlings.
- Symptoms: Seedling growth rate slows and seedlings eventually die if untreated.
- Organic Treatment: For prevention or treatment of fungus gnats, add beneficial/predatory nematodes to your soil.
- Damping Off
- Description: Death of young seedlings caused by fungal disease.
- Symptoms: Young seedlings wither and die, sometimes suddenly.
- Organic Treatment: Prevention is the best cure for damping off. Two most important methods of prevention: 1) don’t overwater, and 2) try to keep your seedlings in an area with good air flow. Additional prevention methods: Use a sterile potting mix. Sterilize your reused seed trays before using them. If a seedling or seedling tray gets damping off, immediately remove it from your seedling area.
B. After Transplanting Outdoors: Identifying & Treating Pepper Pests & Diseases
Listing the full range of possible outdoor pests and diseases that can affect pepper plants would require a full book to cover!
Do you have a pepper disease that you’re trying to identify and treat? University of Maryland extension has an excellent Pepper Disease Guide with an integrated pest management (IPM) approach to treating and preventing common pepper diseases.
Organic Pest & Disease Management Products
If you need to buy trustworthy, organic pest and disease control products that work, be sure to check out the curated Pest & Disease Management products in our online store.
Please take a holistic approach to pest and disease management
A healthy garden needs pest insects. Pest species provide food for beneficial species. A garden ecosystem that’s teeming with life will tend to hold the population of any one species in check.
We’ve found that by focusing on improving our soil health and using polyculture plant systems that attract and nurture a wide variety of insects, we’ve virtually eliminated all pest and disease problems from our garden.
We’d like to encourage you to be thoughtful in your approach to these potential problems. Is your soil healthy and teeming with microbial life? Have you planted other beneficial plants throughout your garden system that might help with the problem? If you wait a few days, will the “pest” become the food of a predator?
Observe your garden system and think holistically before taking any action that could disrupt the web of life. Pesticides kill beneficial insects too, not just pest insects; fungicides kill beneficial funguses too, not just “bad” funguses; etc.
Personally, we’d rather lose a plant than accidentally harm or kill wildlife.
Section 8: Harvesting
The flavor-packed juicy crunch of a fresh picked pepper isn’t something you’re going to find in their grocery store peers, which can be many weeks old by the time you buy them.
Some people prefer sweet peppers. Some people prefer peppers so hot they need to be handled with gloves and come with their own warning labels. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
Our favorite way to eat peppers is in big, Asian-style garden veggie stir-fries or made into smoked pepper preserves. Experiment with different pepper varieties and recipes as you enjoy these versatile vegetables (ok, technically they’re a fruit).
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Section 9: Saving Seeds
1. Select the best pepper plants and fruit.
Select the healthiest pepper plants and fruit for seed-saving (never from diseased plants or fruit).
Let the pepper(s) fully mature and turn to their full final color while on the plant. If in doubt, wait a week or two to ensure that the pepper is mature enough to produce viable seeds. If you pick a young pepper, the seeds will not be viable.
2. Save non-hybrid seeds.
Peppers can self-pollinate. However, different varieties of pepper plants can also cross-pollinate with each other, which leads to hybrid peppers that don’t share the same traits as their parents.
To ensure that your saved seeds are genetically identical to their parents, either: a) don’t plant more than one variety of pepper within at least 30 feet of each other (USDA’s recommended distance), or b) use a breathable bag (aka “blossom bag”) to cover flowers on certain plants you want to save seeds from.
3. Remove & dry seeds.
Remove the pepper seeds from the pepper pods. Place them on a drying surface like a plate or a paper towel (since they don’t have any gooey substance on their surface they won’t stick like a tomato seed).
To ensure even drying, try to spread the seeds out so that they’re not piled on top of each other; also dry them indoors out of any sun. Let the seeds dry for a minimum of 14 days, turning them every few days to ensure even drying. Make sure to label the drying surface with the variety of seed you’re saving.
4. Store your seeds.
Once your pepper seeds are fully dry, store them in an airtight container. You can add rice or silica packages to hold any moisture.
You can also store the seeds in paper envelopes, although this will make them more susceptible to moisture damage over the course of several years.
How long will your pepper seeds last?
Your new pepper seeds can remain viable (e.g. able to be grown) for at least 2-4 years.