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Growing Peppers

growing peppersMove aside tomatoes! Growing peppers is quickly becoming a favorite for Americans to grow from home, and it’s easy to see why. The gorgeous colors and robust flavors of pepper plants mean that they are as beautiful in your garden as they are tantalizing on your plate. The wide variety of hues and tastes means that there are dozens of homegrown varieties you can try, and because peppers are some of the most expensive produce in the grocery store you’ll be saving yourself plenty of money by growing peppers of your own.

Whether you sneak some pepper plants into your flower beds or fill an entire garden bed with a blend of varieties, growing your own pepper plants is both easy and rewarding for the novice gardener.

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Start Growing Peppers

Peppers are annual plants, meaning that they only grow for one season at a time. Whether you choose to start your peppers from seed or buy transplants from a local nursery depends on the length of your summer season and the amount of time you are willing to commit to growing pepper seeds.

When and Where Should You Grow Peppers?

You can grow peppers anywhere with a hot summer season, but be careful not to start them too early in the year. Peppers are heat-loving vegetables that croak on contact with frosts. Nighttime temperatures below 55 degrees F will cause their growth to slow to a crawl, so wait to plant your seedlings until the temperature has warmed up.

For best success, choose a sunny, well-fertilized garden bed for your peppers that hasn’t grown peppers, tomatoes or eggplants in recent years (to stop the spread of nightshade diseases). If you lack the space for a large garden, pepper plants are great candidates for growing in containers.

Understanding Seed Germination for Peppers

Peppers tend to be finicky germinators that need warm soil and plenty of light to sprout. Most seeds will sprout within two to three weeks of being planted, though in hot temperatures it might take them less than a week.

Starting Seeds Indoors

If you want to have complete creative control over the pepper varieties that you grow, starting your pepper seeds indoors is a good idea. Start your seeds indoors between eight and ten weeks before the last frost date and use a fluorescent light and a seedling heat mat for extra warmth. Plant two seeds per container about a quarter inch down and keep them moist until they sprout.

Once the seedlings are six weeks old, you can transplant them to larger containers (splitting up the two seedlings per container if they both sprouted). Continue to keep them warm and well watered until they are ready to go outside two weeks after the last frost date.

Preparing a Pepper Bed

Choose a sunny garden bed with good drainage for planting your peppers. If the soil isn’t as rich and loamy as it could be, amend it with an inch of organic compost, though try to have a light hand on the nitrogen, as too much can cause the plants to grow too fast, making them spindly and prone to disease.

The optimal pH level for peppers is between 6.0-6.5, and peppers grow great in raised beds because the soil tends to heat up quicker.

Moving Outdoors

Whether you have grown your peppers from seed or buy transplants from a local nursery, once the last frost date has passed, you are ready to plant them into your garden. The best time for planting peppers is when they are four to six inches tall, but make sure to pull off any blossoms or baby peppers that have already formed.

Before planting your seeds outside, be sure to harden them off for a week to avoid shocking them by the change in temperature. Take your plants outside for a few hours every day, lengthening the time until they have adjusted and are ready to be planted. To make the transition even easier, you can cover the pepper bed with black plastic to warm up the soil.

If possible, plant your peppers on a cloudy day. Space each plant twelve to twenty inches apart, depending on the size of the plants at maturity. In cool, moist regions, it’s smart to increase the spacing to prevent the peppers from spreading diseases to each other. Bury the root masses at least an inch in the ground and lay an inch of organic mulch around each plant. As the plants grow, taller varieties benefit from being staked or caged as they get older for an extra level of support.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

Peppers do best when they receive an inch of water a week and more during periods of drought and intense heat. Drip irrigation tends to be the best method to prevent the spread of disease. Adding a thick layer of mulch to the base of the plants can help to retain soil moisture and keep the soil at a consistent temperature.

Because peppers are heavy feeders, you should plan on adding organic compost (filled with phosphorous and calcium) to the base of the plants throughout the season.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

While peppers are growing, they get along with all other garden plants, though planting peppers in places that have had other nightshade plants in recent years (potatoestomatoes or eggplant) often spread disease and should be avoided. The best companion plants for peppers tend to be carrots, beans, marjoram, onions, and tomatoes.

Common Pests and Diseases for Peppers

Peppers are resilient plants that aren’t affected by many garden pests. Seedlings are the most vulnerable to predators like cutworms and snails, but after the plants reach maturity they tend to do well on their own. However, there are a few pests and disease that can still cause trouble. If your peppers flower but never produce fruit, they might be victims of the tarnished plant bug, which loves to suck on pepper flower sap. The best defense is to grow your peppers under row cover so that the insect can’t reach the blossoms. Margined blister beetles can also cause big problems when they arrive in mid-summer. These large black beetles enjoy destroying pepper leaves, so hand-pick them off your plants whenever you see them.

The mosaic virus (transmitted by aphids) can also cause problems for pepper plants by leaving their leaves thick and crinkled on the plant. Your best defense is to grow varieties that are naturally resistant like ‘Tam Jalapeno‘. If you see infected leaves, pull them off and toss them in the compost pile so that the virus doesn’t spread to the other peppers in your garden.growing tequila sunrise

Harvesting and Storing Peppers

Once they have fruited, your peppers are able to be harvested at any growing stage, though the fruits will be sweeter the longer you let them ripen on the plant. Once your peppers are ripened to your preference, you can cut them off the plant with pruning shears, leaving a small amount of stem on the fruit. Peppers will last for several weeks in the fridge, and they can be processed for long-term storage through drying, blanching and freezing or even pickling.

Saving Peppers Seeds

The process of harvesting seeds from pepper plants is fairly straightforward. Be sure to isolate the plants that you want to collect seeds from so that insect pollinators won’t contaminate the variety. An easy way to do this is to create pepper “cages” around your best plants when they have produced flowers. These cages can be removed as soon as the fruits have been set. Simply allow the perfect fruits to fully ripen to the point of getting soft. Cut off the fruit and harvest the largest seeds, allowing them to air dry for several weeks. When stored in a cool, dry place these seeds will last for about three years.

Choosing the Best Peppers Seeds for Your Conditions

There are a large number of pepper varieties that can be grown, all with different character traits. Below are some of the main categories that pepper varieties are commonly split into.

  • Sweet bell peppers: These large oblong fruits come in a wide variety of colors and sizes, though they usually turn orange, red or yellow when ripe. Common varieties of sweet bells include ‘Canary Bell‘, and ‘Etuida’.
  • Specialty sweet peppers: These form long tapering fruits that are full of flavor, making them great for frying or eating fresh. Common varieties include pimentos and banana peppers.
  • Specialty hot peppers: There is a huge range of hot peppers that extend from spicy jalapenos to hotter cayennes to the mouth-scorching habaneros. To learn more about growing hot peppers you can check out this article.
  • Ornamental peppers: Grown less for flavor than for coloring, these peppers come in a wide variety of hues and shapes and are stunning planted in flower gardens. For a plucky pot pepper, try growing Pretty in Purple.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Peppers

Below are some extra suggestions for helping you grow your best pepper crop.

  • Pinch off the earliest flowers that form on your plants. This will direct the plant’s energy towards growing stronger, allowing you to get larger fruits later in the season.
  • If your peppers are suffering from sun-scald (brown spots from being sunburned), find a way to produce temporary shade for them during the heat of the day and plant your peppers closer together the next year so that their leaves can protect each other’s fruits.
  • Go light on nitrogen fertilizers to prevent your peppers from growing incredible foliage at the cost of producing fruit.