Hot peppers add flavor and heat to a variety of dishes and can be preserved for the pantry, too. Here’s how to grow hot peppers successfully in your garden!
Have success? Try making this fermented hot pepper relish!
Getting to know hot peppers
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.
Pepper plants are nice enough looking that they can be added to a front yard garden with nobody the wiser!
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How to grow hot peppers from seed
Hot peppers are propagated from seed. They’re commonly sold as seedlings ready for the garden at nurseries, but the selection is limited. If you’d like to try your hand at starting you’re own peppers from seed, start them in pots about 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date.
Peppers can be finicky to germinate. To assure success, presoak the seeds before planting.
Since peppers germinate best at warmer temperatures, try germinating pepper seeds in your Instant Pot!
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.
Moving peppers out to the garden
Transplant seedlings — whether homegrown or purchased — outdoors when all danger of frost has passed and nighttime temperatures remain above 50°F.
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.
Pinch the tips of the plant back to cause the plant to branch out and become more bushy. This protects the developing fruit from sunscald.
If you live in a warm, frost-free climate, peppers can be grown as short lived perennials once you get them started.
Requirements for growing peppers
Peppers are a crop that needs full sun. Plan for between 6-8 hours of sun each day during the prime growing season for your region.
soil and fertilizer requirements
Peppers prefer warm, well-drained soil. Add one cup of complete organic fertilizer to the planting hole. Transplant pepper seedlings, maintaining the depth of the original pot. Check with your area’s Cooperative Extension office to see about specific recommendations for your garden’s soil.
While plants are growing, you may need to fertilize periodically. Side dress with compost about a month after planting and then every few weeks.
To grow healthy pepper plants, water regularly to keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
A layer of mulch placed around the base of the plant helps to maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds.
Peppers often have the same insect pest and disease problems as tomatoes and eggplant. Maintain good watering practices, because plants will stop flowering and fruiting if they experience dry conditions.
Controlling insect vectors can minimize damage when growing hot peppers, as the spores travel between plants on the feet of insects.
Cutworms are a risk to young seedlings. These caterpillars live underground an emerge at night to chew through the base of young plants. Placing a protective ring around seedlings can help, as can diatomaceous earth. If you see cutworm damage, use a chopstick to gently disturb the soil and look for the curled “C” of the cutworm to remove them manually.
Leafhoppers and tree hoppers are attracted to peppers and can cause problems.
Prevent problems with soil diseases, like verticillium wilt, by rotating where you plant peppers and avoid planting where tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes have grown in the last 2 or 3 years.
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.
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.
How to harvest hot peppers
Peppers will continue to flower and produce fruit until the night time temperatures dip below 50°F. If you’re growing pepper plants in containers, you can extend the season by moving the plants to a sunny spot inside.
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.
When the peppers are ripe, use handheld pruners to clip each one from the plant.
Remember to wear gloves when picking hot peppers, and don’t touch your face. 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.
Good companions for peppers
Avoid growing hot peppers near beans, cabbage family plants, dill, or fennel.
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.
Cut fully ripe peppers open and scrape out the seeds. Allow them to dry completely and store in a cool, dry place.
Note: wear gloves to protect your skin and mucus membranes from the hot capsaicin oil on the seeds. For more on saving pepper seeds, go here.
Using hot peppers in recipes
The entire pepper is edible, but the seeds and membranes carry the most heat. You can tone the heat down by removing seeds and membranes before chopping. Spicy peppers can be used fresh in many recipes and they’re a critical ingredient in making salsa.
Originally published in March 2016; this post has been updated.