There are many hundreds of different peppers you can grow, from sweet, bell-shaped peppers to chili peppers of every conceivable shape, size – and heat level! But how to get the most from them?
If you want to pick a perfect pepper stick around, because I’m going to share some top tips that’ll help you do just that…
Get Your Peppers Off to the Best Start
The journey to perfect peppers begins with sowing. Start them off early in spring to give them more time to crop throughout the summer. Germination is quickest at 77-90ºF (25-32ºC), and to achieve these sorts of temperatures you’ll need a heated propagator or heat mat. You can start seeds off at lower room temperatures but expect germination to be slower and potentially erratic. Ideal conditions should see seedlings appear within about two weeks, but some varieties take as long as five, so don’t give up on them too soon!
If you don’t have the means to sow peppers or have simply run out of time, remember you can find a fantastic range of ready-to-go seedlings and young plants online, while some garden centers and nurseries stock plants on the cusp of fruiting.
Grow Strong, Healthy Plants
Encouraging strong, well-balanced plants is important, and this starts early. Separate seedlings out and move them into their own pots before they become drawn and leggy. If seedlings do get a bit too tall, replant them up to their lowest leaves, just like tomatoes, to help support them. Keep seedlings warm until you’re ready to plant.
Peppers need plenty of light to encourage healthy, stocky plants that will be less prone to growing top-heavy and flopping over, so grow them on somewhere that is both warm and bright – a greenhouse or sunroom, or the sunniest windowsill you can muster until it’s time to move them outside.
Pot young plants on as the roots fill their pots. Transplanted seedlings begin at a pot size of around 3in (7cm), but it won’t take long for them to outgrow this. Once plants have around five to eight leaves and you can see roots at the drainage holes, it’s time to move them up a pot size to about a 5in (12cm) pot. Then once they’ve filled this, pot them on again, this time into a pot of about 8in (20cm) diameter. The final container size for most pepper plants should be around 9-12in (23-30cm) wide, depending on variety.
Potting on in stages like this ensures plants aren’t ‘lost’ in containers significantly larger than their root balls. It also means less wasted potting mix should plants fail at a stage of growth.
Feeding & Watering
Peppers should never be allowed to struggle, and soil moisture is especially important in this regard. Peppers like a good dousing but should be left to almost dry out between waterings – they need that period of relative dryness.
How often you need to water varies with things like the weather, your soil or potting mix, and the plants’ stage of growth. If the leaves have gone a bit limp, you’ve probably left it a little too long, but a thorough watering should sort things out.
If you’re growing in pots you can gauge whether the potting mix is dry enough by lifting the container to check its weight – it should be noticeably lighter – or by pushing a finger into the soil to feel for moisture about an inch (3cm) down. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.
Choose a potting mix that easily drains through after each watering. A quality, free-draining potting mix can be opened up a bit more by mixing in some perlite. If your peppers are destined to live outside in summer consider using a soil-based potting mix, which will add extra weight so that containers don’t topple over in the wind.
Peppers need regular feeding using a liquid feed that’s high in potassium to promote flower production and fruit set – a tomato fertilizer works well. I like to use one that includes liquid seaweed, which also contains a good range of trace minerals. A lack of these minerals, together with over watering, is a common cause of yellowing leaves.
Encourage Peppers to Fruit
Cold, windy weather can play havoc with flowering. For this reason, in cooler, temperate climates it’s best to grow your peppers under some form of protection. Peppers love this extra warmth, but very hot weather can cause flowers to abort and drop, so move plants outside if temperatures soar.
Another cause of flower drop is very low humidity, which is often experienced indoors. If the air is very dry, thoroughly mist plants or stand pots in trays or saucers filled with water, raised up above the water level on pebbles. Alternatively, douse any paving in your greenhouse with water. Humidity around the plant will rise as the water evaporates.
Once the plants begin producing fruits, pick them promptly, the moment they have reached their full size and color. Regular picking encourages plants to produce more flowers and, of course, more fruits.
Avoiding Pepper Pests
Spider mites and aphids are two common pests of peppers, especially plants grown under cover. Spider mites – identified by fine webbing on the undersides of leaves – thrive in hot, dry weather. Mist-spray these areas regularly at the first sign of an attack to make conditions as hostile as possible for the mites.
Aphids also prefer the undersides of leaves but are found on other parts of the plant too. Squish isolated clusters, or for more serious infestations, take plants out into the open, away from other peppers, then carefully turn the plants upside down so you can blast the aphids off with a hose.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have more peppers than you’ll know what to do with! Gluts can be dried whole in a dehydrator or any warm place with good airflow to then store in airtight jars. Or chop chili peppers up for packing into ice-cube trays. Freeze them then pop them out into freezer bags ready for dropping into recipes as needed.
Peppers are a joy to grow and so long as you keep them well-fed and properly watered, they should do you proud. Are you growing peppers this year and, if you are, what are you growing? Join in the conversation below!