Peppers: How to Grow and Harvest

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Some people like ’em hot, some like ’em sweet. Some plant a variety or two, some plant a plethora of colors, shapes, and tastes. Regardless of where your preferences fall – unless you absolutely despise all types – peppers should be a staple in your garden.

Smaller in size than tomato plants, yet known for a plentiful bounty, peppers easily tuck into a garden regardless of the plot size. With many, many available varieties to choose from, it’s easy to find at least one or two (if not more!) that agree with your tastebuds.

With relatively low-maintenance needs and few pest problems, they’re a great addition to your growing repertoire.

General Information

A close relative tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and tobacco, peppers are short-lived perennials that are typically grown as annual garden vegetables. They come in a myriad of types producing fruits ranging in color, shape, and size and taste anywhere from sweet to spicy or even astonishingly hot. These plants are easy to grow and prefer warm temperatures.

It is estimated over 50,000 different varieties of peppers exist worldwide! All of those different varieties are classified based upon their capsaicin content, the compound giving peppers their spice, or what humans feel as “heat.” Sweet peppers need to score near zero Scoville heat units (SHU), while hot or chili peppers can range upwards into the millions.

The most common cultivars – and their SHU – include:

  • Bell pepper 0
  • Banana pepper 100 – 500
  • Anaheim pepper 500 – 2500
  • Poblano 1000 – 2000
  • Jalapeno 2500 – 5000
  • Serrano 6000 – 23,000
  • Cayenne 30,000 – 50,000
  • Tabasco 30,000 – 50,000
  • Thai Chili 50,000 – 250,000
  • Habanero 100,000 – 350,000
  • Scotch Bonnet 80,000 – 400,000
  • Ghost pepper 850,000 – 1,050,000
  • Carolina Reaper 1,500,000 – 2,200,000
Many colorful varieties of peppers include some that are very spicy

Timing

Just like tomatoes, peppers are a warm-season crop, preferring lots of sun and high temperatures. Their disdain for cooler temperatures coupled with a relatively long growing season —  sweet peppers take 60 to 90 days, and hot varieties can take 150 — means many gardeners choose to start seeds indoors. Then, they transplant them outside when temperatures are right.

  • In cool-weather regions, start seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before your last spring frost date. A good rule of thumb is to plant about Valentine’s Day.
  • In warm climates, direct sow seeds in early spring once nighttime temperatures stay above 55℉. 

Starting Seeds Indoors

With a longer growing season than most other garden veggies, peppers aren’t directly seeded in cold climates. Gardeners in USDA growing zones 10 or colder can either start seeds indoors, moving them outside after the threat of frost passes, or buy young plants from a local garden center once conditions allow them to plant outside.

  1. Fill a shallow container or planting tray with a premoistened potting mix.
  2. Create ¼” deep furrows in the potting soil, spacing seeds ½” apart.
  3. Cover the seeds with a light layer of the potting mix.
  4. Keep the containers at room temperature or slightly above, and the potting soil consistently moist.
  5. Once the first true leaves form (about six weeks after germination), transplant seedlings into individual 3″ pots with drainage holes.
Start seedlings indoors

Garden Bed Preparation

About a week before transplanting seedlings (or sowing seeds), take time to work the garden bed. Peppers aren’t overly fussy about the soil they grow in, but they prefer a slightly acidic pH. Remove all rocks from the garden bed, working the ground to a depth of 12-inches. Incorporate organic matter to improve drainage and soil fertility.

Hardening Seedlings

Shortly after the last frost-free date, start hardening your seedlings. This acclimates them to the outdoor climate, reducing transplant shock. Set containers or planting trays outside in a spot protected from wind for a few hours, bringing them in at night. Over the course of 10 days, continually increase their exposure to the sun and wind.

Planting

Once nighttime temperatures stay above 55°F, it’s time to transplant seedlings outside into the garden bed. Space them 18 to 24-inches apart within rows, leaving about 3-feet between the rows. This allows good air circulation between the plants and prevents competition for resources. Plant the transplants at the same depth they were growing to prevent stem rot.

Care Guide

Caring for peppers is reasonably straightforward and doesn’t change depending upon the type you choose to grow in the garden. All cultivars need plenty of heat and sun to set fruits; they like regular watering and an occasional dose of plant food and grow best with competing for weeds. For the most part, pests aren’t a problem.

Sunlight

Like other veggies growing in the garden, pick a spot that receives a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of bright, direct sun each day. Plants use energy from the sun to create glucose they use for food. Observe the location before planting to ensure it doesn’t get shaded out by trees, buildings, or neighboring plants.

Photo credit to mwms1916

Water Requirements

Plan on giving plants one to two inches of water weekly, ensuring the soil stays consistently moist without waterlogging the roots. Too much water damages the roots, but water stress causes flower drop. In hot, dry climates, it may be necessary to water daily or every other day to keep the soil moist.

Fertilizer

Pepper plants need moderate fertilizer during the growing season. Apply a balanced fertilizer dose (such as Osmocotes 14-14-14 fertilizer) at transplanting and then again after plants first set fruit. Once fruits form, fertilizer every three to four weeks until harvest. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers that promote vegetative growth; phosphorus and potassium encourage blossoms and fruit growth.

Weeding

Plants regularly compete with neighboring veggies, flowers, and weeds for resources they need to grow: nutrients, sunlight, water, etc. To minimize competition and keep your peppers growing well, frequently scout for and remove weeds when they sprout up close to your plants. Pulling them by hand is best to avoid disrupting the pepper’s root system.

Insect & Disease Management

One of the great things about these veggies is they typically have very few insect problems, especially hot varieties. Still, scout for aphids regularly, as they increase the chance of disease problems from their honeydew excretions. If you have blight problems in your tomatoes, treat your peppers preemptively with an appropriate fungicide and watch them closely.

Growing Tips

One of the great things about growing peppers is they are pretty forgiving. Give them what they need and they’ll produce well. Ignore them a little and you’ll still get a decent harvest. However, if you’re looking for an outstanding bounty, incorporate the following growing tips to harvest more peppers than you’ll know what to do with.

  • Add two inches of mulch to the soil surface, around the base of plants, keeping it at least 1 inch from the stems. The mulch regulates soil moisture, cuts down on weeds, and prevents soil and water from splashing onto the leaves during watering.
  • To minimize blossom end rot, keep the soil evenly moist and fertilizer on a schedule to prevent a burst of vegetative growth. Remove and discard any fruit showing signs.
  • Plant spring-flowering perennials in your yard, bringing in pollinators like bees.
  • Support using cone-shaped tomato cages to keep fruit off of the ground and prevent loaded plants from bending.
  • Rotate planting areas, keeping peppers out of spots where other plants in the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes) have grown recently.
  • Harvest fruits as soon as they reach the desired size and shape, using clean scissors or a sharp knife to cut them cleanly off the plant.

Companion Plants

Pepper plants make great neighbors for a range of typical garden plants, herbs, and some ornamental flowers. Sometimes they pair well as they offer or reap benefits to/from the neighbors (i.e., shading shorter plants or acting as a natural pest repellent). Other times they pair well because they have different growing habits.

Useful companion plants include:

  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Cucumbers
  • Dill
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • French marigolds
  • Garlic
  • Geraniums
  • Lettuce
  • Nasturtium
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Petunias
  • Radishes
  • Rosemary
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Swiss chard
  • Tomatoes

Avoid planting them next to beans, Brassicas, or fennel. Sometimes it’s recommended to avoid growing them close to tomatoes, but I always plant them near each other (if not directly next to one another) and haven’t ever had a problem.

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About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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