We've talked about the health benefits of peppers; now let's talk about How to Grow and Harvest Peppers. From sweet, crisp peppers in rainbow shades to habañeros hot enough to bring tears to your eyes, all peppers prefer a long, warm growing season. Set out plants a week or two after your last frost when the weather is settled and warm. While it is still out, keep seedlings indoors at night and move them to a protected sunny spot outdoors during the day.
How to choose what peppers to grow
By growing an assortment of peppers, you can have mild, meaty peppers for salads or stir-fries, slightly spicy peppers for fresh salsas, and hot peppers for bold jolts of flavor. Under hot summer conditions, varieties with huge fruits may shed their blossoms, but small, thin-walled peppers often keep going strong. Small-fruited peppers also ripen faster, this is essential in cool climates where summers are short.
As peppers change from green to yellow, orange, or red, their vitamin content and flavor improve dramatically. People who think they don't like peppers often change their minds once they have tasted fully ripened, garden-grown peppers. For many hot peppers, the ripest fruits (the ones that have turned red) pack the most heat.
Quick Guide to Growing Peppers
- Set pepper plant seedlings out after the last spring frost. They grow well in raised beds, containers, and in-ground gardens.
- Plant them 18 to 24 inches apart in a sunny, well-drained spot. Pepper plants need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.
- Mix compost or other organic matter into the soil when planting.
- Water immediately after planting, then regularly throughout the season. Aim for a total of 1-2 inches per week (more when it's hotter).
- Mix a continuous-release fertilizer into the soil at planting and replenish as directed during the growing season.
- Spread mulch (such as chopped leaves or straw) around the plants to help keep the soil cool and moist.
- Support each pepper plant with a stake or small tomato cage (we build our own) to help bear the weight of the fruit once it begins to produce.
- Harvest peppers with shears or a knife, then store in the fridge. Be sure to pick all peppers before the first fall frost comes.
Planting and Care
Growing peppers is easy in any sunny, well-drained spot, and they are also good candidates for roomy containers or raised beds. Colorful peppers also make great additions to beds planted with flowers and other edible ornamentals. The best spacing for most pepper plants in beds or rows is 18 to 24 inches apart (check the tag for exceptions).
Planting in a container or raised bed requires different, lighter soil. When planting in pots, fill them with a fluffy, premium-quality potting mix that provides drainage and an ideal environment for root growth. Wherever you plant, put a few inches of mulch down around each pepper plant to help keep the soil cool and moist.
For bigger harvests, planting in great soil is a good start, but you'll also want to feed plants with a continuous-release organic fertilizer regularly throughout the growing season (see label directions for timing). Simply pull back the mulch, scatter fertilizer around the base of each plant, and replace the mulch before watering well. Or, use an organic water-soluble fertilizer every week or two during the season to keep plants well-fed.
Gardeners in hot climates may need to be patient with big bells and sweet roasting peppers, which often wait until nights become longer and cooler in late summer to load up with fruit. The wait will go by faster if you have less flashy (yet phenomenally productive) banana peppers to combine with tomatoes and basil in cool summer salads while bigger varieties slowly load up with fruits.
Soil for Pepper Plants
Peppers grow best in soil with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0, although they can tolerate slightly alkaline conditions near 7.5. For in-ground gardens, mix several inches of compost with the existing soil's top layer. A generous amount of organic matter helps the soil retain moisture; moist soil is crucial for good pepper production.
How to Support Pepper Plants
Peppers have a naturally upright growth habit, so they often benefit from staking, which keeps brittle branches from breaking when they become heavy with fruit.
Happily for pepper-loving gardeners, peppers have few serious pest problems. Moreover, most common pepper diseases can be prevented by growing resistant varieties. Be on the lookout: Plants that look frail and stringy may be infected with viruses spread by aphids and other small insects. Chronically thirsty peppers may be troubled by root-knot nematodes.
Another potential problem is a late cold spell in spring; cover plants if a frost is predicted in your area.
One last note about color: Many new gardeners wonder at some point if their peppers will ever turn the color shown on the plant tag. Be patient if the mature color of the pepper variety you planted is red, orange, yellow, or purple. Fruit often takes a while to change from green to its final color, but the flavor will be worth the wait!
Harvest and Storage
Use pruning shears or a sharp knife to cut peppers from the plants, leaving a short stub of stem attached. Pulling peppers by hand can cause entire branches to break off. Rinse harvested peppers with water, pat them dry, and then store them in your refrigerator. Too many fruits to eat fresh? Extras can be dried, frozen, or pickled.
Many pepper plants still produce fruit when temperatures begin to fall toward frost. It's not uncommon for them to still hold numerous green fruits when the first freeze kills the plants. When you know a frost is in the forecast, harvest all the peppers. The larger ones will be good for eating, but very immature peppers often taste bitter. It is better to compost them than to serve them for dinner.
Harvested peppers that have just begun to change color will often continue to ripen when kept in a warm room indoors for up to 3 days. If they haven't yet begun to change color but are full size (or nearly so), you can eat them green. In any case, if you see signs of softening or shriveling, and promptly refrigerate those fruits. Then, be sure to use them first.
Handling Hot Peppers
Capsaicin, the oily compound that produces heat in hot peppers, is primarily concentrated in the veins, ribs, and seeds. Sensitivity to it varies. Use caution until you know how you'll react. If pepper juice gets in your eyes or nose, flush immediately with cold water. When the fire is in your mouth, drink milk or eat yogurt to counteract the burn. Burning hands means that capsaicin has penetrated skin or lodged under fingernails. Dipping hands into a 5-to-1 solution of water and bleach turns capsaicin into a salt that you can rinse away. Wash hands well after that with plenty of soap, rinse, dry, and apply moisturizer.
Do not reuse washcloths or towels with capsaicin; launder them to avoid spreading the chemical. After working with hot peppers, wash cutting surfaces and prep tools and knives carefully before using them to prepare other food.
What makes a chili pepper hot?
Capsaicin is the oil in peppers responsible for their heat. It is primarily found in pepper seeds and the membranes that hold the seeds. Heat is expressed in Scoville units; the higher the number, the hotter the pepper. The hottest pepper we carry is Habanero, which has a rating of at least 300,000. Compare that to a Jalapeno, which has a rating of about 5,000.
Which peppers are best to stuff?
One of our favorites is the "Ancho Grande Pepper," which is massive at 8 by 4 ½ inches. The "New Mexico Big Jim" hatch is a good choice also. This 8-inch-long pepper has a wonderful flavor and medium heat. For poppers, try one of the bigger jalapenos, such as "Mammoth or Grande."
Should I pull the flowers off to get larger bell peppers?
Pinching blooms may help by redirecting growth to make branches instead of fruit. However, the tiny buds are often right at the growing tips, so be careful. A pair of tweezers will help. If you plant in fertile soil and plants are watered and fed correctly, your plants will produce satisfactorily regardless.
Are tall, leggy pepper plants okay? Should I stake them to prevent breakage from the wind?
Tall plants are okay. Staking will help. Make sure to gently untangle a few roots if you're planting and the root ball is thickly matted.
Is it okay to plant hot peppers next to sweet peppers?
Yes. They usually do not cross (and cannot within a single season), and you won't have to worry about your sweet peppers turning hot. The plant tags will give a recommended spacing, but generally, plant 18 to 24 inches apart.
Can I grow peppers in containers?
You can plant peppers in containers. Each pot should be at least a 5-gallon size, about twice the size of a standard mop bucket. A standard clay pot with a 16- to 18-inch diameter is a good choice. We grow many of ours in 5-gallon center pots that we buy used for around $1.00 at a local nursery.
How deep do I plant pepper plants in the ground?
Plant peppers at the same depth that they are growing in the container.
How often do I fertilize my bell pepper plants?
If you did not work in a timed-release or organic fertilizer at planting, you could fertilize now. Sprinkle a timed-release or organic fertilizer around the plant. Pull back the mulch, sprinkle the fertilizer on the ground, and replace the mulch and water.
How often should I water my bell pepper plants?
Water enough, so the soil feels slightly moist when you poke your finger into the soil one inch deep. How often depends on how quickly the soil dries. Sandy soil drains faster than clay or well-amended garden soil. And it depends on the rain, of course. Just be sure that the plants get enough water, so they are never drought-stressed, but avoid over-watering, leading to root problems. The answer will come from within your garden.
Why is my plant losing blooms?
You could also be losing blooms because of hot weather. Bell peppers will stop producing and even drop blooms when the weather is hot, in the 90s, but healthy plants will produce vigorously once the nights cool down in late summer. Keep your plants healthy, and be patient.
How to Harvest Peppers?
It is important to use the estimated maturity days and judge by the desired color. Red, green, and yellow bells will start green but turn color as they mature. Do not pull peppers from the plant. Use hand shears to avoid inflicting damage. When harvesting hot peppers, use gloves to protect your hands from capsaicin oil and a possible burn.