By Michael Jenkins | May 26, 2022
Fresh, home grown peppers are hard to beat. Whether it’s the clear, grassy taste of a green pepper, the fruitier flavors of a red, orange or yellow pepper, or the hot bite of a chili, peppers are a versatile family of plants that add so much to any garden space. In addition, they’re easy to can, pickle, or freeze so that you can continue to enjoy them through the winter months. The good news for home gardeners is that growing peppers at home is pretty easy, and with a little effort your garden peppers can be some of your most rewarding and productive plants.
Let’s start with a few definitions. While there are a bewildering variety of peppers out there, they essentially break down into two categories. Bell peppers—also known as sweet peppers—are the sweeter, fruitier type. They’re typically larger than their spicier counterparts, and may be used either cooked or raw. They can be a dish on their own, serving as a vegetable side. Chile peppers—also known as chilis, chilies, or hot peppers—are peppers grown for their heat and spicy pungency. They’re typically smaller than sweet peppers, come in a number of varieties, and are generally used as a seasoning rather than a main ingredient or side dish.
Both types of peppers enjoy similar growing conditions, although chilies are a bit more heat and drought tolerant than sweet peppers. Like many nightshades, peppers have a long growing process before they produce fruit. This means that in most climates, you’ll want to start them indoors early in the season, typically 8 to 10 weeks before your frost date. However, just because the risk of frost has passed doesn’t mean you can transplant your peppers right away. They need soil temps of at least 70F/21C in order to thrive, with air temperatures roughly in the same range.
Start your pepper seeds in good potting mix in a covered seed tray of some sort. This helps with moisture and temperature control, as the clear plastic cover of the tray prevents the soil from drying out too quickly. A good rule of thumb for peppers is that when condensation stops forming inside the try OR the soil starts to dry out, it’s time to add more water. Keep your seed trays warm, between 70F and 80F (21C-27C), and make sure they have plenty of direct, full-spectrum light when the seedlings start to emerge from the soil. You can remove the seed tray cover when the plants outgrow it, and transfer them to larger seedling containers if needed. Just go slowly, and be gentle with your young plants. Pepper seedlings will tolerate more root disturbance than many plants, but it’s still best to be kind to them!
When your seedlings are large enough, typically around 8 inches (20cm) tall, you can transfer them outside. Again, remember to wait until both soil and air temperatures are warm enough. Pepper seedlings benefit from some hardening off, which means you expose them to outside conditions for a few hours each day, gradually increasing the time until they’re staying out overnight. This helps your seedlings adjust from the protected conditions of your seed trays and to the more robust climate of the outdoors. You can plant your peppers in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers. In any event, you should leave them plenty of space—18 to 25 inches (45-60cm) apart in the ground or raised beds, and in 3 to 5 gallon (12-20 liter) containers. Peppers like the same conditions as tomatoes and eggplant—all three plants are relatives—and they’ll do well planted near each other.
Like tomatoes, peppers need to be well watered in order to be as productive as they can be. Bell peppers typically need more water than chilies, particularly chilies plants that produce smaller fruit. Any general purpose vegetable fertilizer or compost will do well with peppers, but when in doubt you can use one formulated for tomatoes and generally get good results.
So, that leads us to one last question: when should you pick your peppers? That depends on the varietal. Some peppers may be used green—jalapenos and bell peppers for instance. Some are allowed to mature. These include many chilies, banana peppers, and bell peppers if you prefer the flavor of the full colored ripe variety. The seed packet should have some information on it, and you can always ask us in the comments or on social media.
We hope this helps you get started growing and enjoying your own peppers at home. With the right planning and a little effort, growing peppers in your garden can be a wonderful way to add fun and flavor to your summer season. If you’re growing peppers this year, share some pics with us and let us know how things are going!