Hot peppers come in a large range of shapes, colors, and spiciness. Here’s how to grow hot peppers successfully in your garden!
Every September I take my family to a local u-pick organic farm and pick boxes of tomatoes and bags of hot and sweet peppers for our annual salsa and tomato sauce canning binge. Last year, after picking 35 pounds of jalapeño and Anaheim hot peppers, I brushed a stay hair away from my eyes. I was in the car, about 30 minutes from home. As my eyes started to water, I brushed my lips as I was wiping the tears. Water does not quench that kind of burning.
Hot peppers, from the Capsicum family, were the International Herb of the year for 2016.
Hot peppers come in a large range of shapes, colors, and spiciness. From mild to the hottest ghost pepper, there are peppers for every purpose. Peppers can be preserved by fermenting, pickling, drying, and freezing, and they can be eaten fresh. You can stir fry them, stuff them, sauce them, and bake them.
The hotter peppers are ideal for infusing in oil, vinegar, or vodka for spicy condiments, to use in Mexican, Thai, or Indian cooking. Milder peppers are good served raw on vegetable trays and in salads.
How to grow hot peppers
Hot peppers are grown from seed. Ideally, start peppers indoors in pots about 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date. Transplant them outdoors when all danger of frost has passed and nighttime temperatures remain above 50°F. If you live in a warm climate that doesn’t see frost, peppers can be grown as short lived perennials once you get them started.
Peppers grow best between 65° and 85°F. If the blossoms are dropping off your plant, the daytime temperatures are too hot for pollination. If your peppers are in containers, try moving them to a shady spot until the day time temperatures moderate. Keep the soil moist but not dripping.
If you are growing hot peppers inside a greenhouse, providing a shade cloth over the pepper plants can moderate the temperature somewhat.
How to germinate hot pepper seeds
Peppers can be finicky to germinate. To assure success, presoak the seeds before planting. I put my pepper seeds in a damp paper towel and put the folded paper towel in a glass jar on top of the fridge. If you are planning to grow several varieties of peppers, label the paper towel with the variety and the date, before you dampen it. Be sure to use a waterproof pen. After 24 to 48 hours you should see the seeds plump. Plant the soaked seed in a prepared divided cell planting tray, ¼ inch deep. Keep the soil moist but not dripping. Sprinkle cinnamon on the soil surface to inhibit fungus. It can take 7 to 21 days before you’ll see life.
Once the seedlings emerge, give the pepper seedlings supplemental full spectrum lighting if you are growing them indoors. This will ensure that the plants don’t become spindly and weak. Once the plants have two true leaves, transplant them into individual 2″ pots. Use an enriched, organic potting mix in your seedling pot. Keep the pots watered well. If the potting soil dries out the plants will be stunted.
When all danger of frost has passed and night time temperatures remain above 50°F, you are ready to transplant your peppers outdoors. Harden off peppers before transplanting outdoors. Peppers grow well in containers or when planted directly into the ground, provided you can supply warmth to the root.
How to plant peppers into the ground
Peppers prefer warm, well-drained soil. If you live where the soil temperatures struggle to warm up in spring, mulch the rows with black plastic to retain soil temperatures. Add one cup of complete organic fertilizer to the planting hole. Transplant pepper plants, maintaining the depth of the original pot. Keep well watered during the growing season.
How to grow hot peppers in a pot
Peppers don’t need a lot of space to grow. Use a pot or window box that is at least 10 inches deep. If you live in a warm climate that tends to be dry in summer, a larger pot will need watering less often. Fill your containers with an enriched potting mix. Add ½ to 1 cup of complete organic fertilizer to each pot. Water peppers well after transplanting. Keep pepper plants evenly moist during the growing season. Peppers don’t like to dry out.
When to harvest hot peppers
Peppers will continue to flower and produce fruit until the night time temperatures dip below 50°F. Move potted peppers indoors to a warm, bright spot and you can extend the season. You can keep them producing by harvesting the fruit as it begins to turn color. Peppers continue to ripen after picking.
Remember to wear gloves when picking hot peppers, and don’t touch your face. This is the mistake I made after our visit to the u-pick farm. Just picking the fruit can get capsaicin on your hands and cause a burning sensation if you touch your eyes, your lips, or any other delicate spot.
The growing tips should be pinched back to make the plant more bushy. This protects the developing fruit from sunscald. Just take the tip and pinch off the terminal leaf. It will cause the plant to branch.
Enemies of the plant
Peppers are susceptible to aphids, flea beetles, leaf miners, leaf rollers, pepper weevils, spider mites, thrips, tomato hornworm, and white fly. Use diatomaceous earth (DE) on the soil surface to control them. Spray with a strong spray of water to dislodge pests from the leaves. Reapply DE as necessary to control pests. In a heavy infestation, insecticidal soap will smother them and interrupt their lifecycle. I recommend handpicking larger pests to control the damage early.
Peppers are also susceptible to bacterium, viruses, and fungus. Controlling insect vectors can minimize damage when growing hot peppers, as the spores travel between plants on the feet of insects.
Place peppers where sunlight and wind can dry the leaves naturally and inhibit the spread of fungal spores. If you see signs of mildew on the leaves, spraying the plant with diluted, full fat yogurt, kefir, or whey can arrest the progression of mildew.
Good companions for peppers
Herbs to plant near hot peppers include: basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, and rosemary. Hot peppers like to be planted near cucumbers, eggplant, escarole, okra, Swiss chard, and tomato. Avoid growing hot peppers near beans, cabbage family plants, dill, or fennel.
How and when to harvest hot peppers
Harvest when the peppers are plump and just beginning to color. If you wait for the fruit to color completely there will be more sugar in the fruit, but the plant will produce fewer peppers. Hot peppers continue to ripen after picking. Try making your own chile pepper flakes to preserve some of the spicy flavor.
How to save seed from peppers
If you’re growing hot peppers that are heirloom varieties, you can save seeds to plant again the following season. Pepper blossoms are self-pollinating, although there can occasionally be cross-pollination. The majority of non-hybrid peppers will have seed that will reproduce the parent plant. Only save seed from ripe peppers. Cut the stem off of a ripe pepper. Slit the pepper down the side and scoop out the seed.
If you are saving seed from hot peppers, wear gloves to protect your skin and mucus membranes from the hot capsaicin oil on the seeds. Put the seeds in a paper envelope or a paper bag to finish drying fully. Label the container so you don’t forget what kind of pepper they are. Wear gloves when planting. The capsaicin is strongest in the seeds of the pepper. For more on saving pepper seeds, go here.
Try easy to grow hot peppers this season
Peppers are easy to grow if you can provide them with temperatures between 65°F and 85°F and you can count on nighttime temperatures above 50°F. For those who live at the extremes of pepper’s comfort zone, growing peppers in containers or mediating the temperatures with the use of mulch or shelter can ensure that you have success.