Growing Peppers to Pick a Peck (Pickling Optional)
Whether you like sweet bell peppers or prefer a spicy type such as jalapeno, pepper plants are easy to grow from seed or in a pot. Learn the secrets to growing peppers that are bursting with summer flavor.
Because they're tropical plants, all pepper plants share the same needs. Growing peppers requires full sun, warm weather, and well-drained soil. The ideal temperatures for pepper plants are 70 to 80 degrees F during the day and 60 to 70 degrees F at night. In temperatures above 90 or below 60, flowers may fall off. High temps also may cause misshapen fruits.
Starting Peppers from Seed
Because it takes approximately 100 days for pepper plants to mature from seed, in most climates you need to start seeds indoors about two months before your outdoor temperatures stay consistently above 55 degrees F. Sow pepper seeds 1/4 inch deep in a seed-starting potting mix. Keep the seeds moist and warm (about 80 degrees F). Use a grow lamp or sunny window to keep seedlings growing until you can transplant them outdoors.
Move the plants outdoors, keeping them in shade and gradually exposing them to increasing amounts of time outdoors starting with a half-hour the first day, an hour the second day, etc. If you move them to their permanent garden location without going through this process, called "hardening off," they can be zapped by too much sun, wind, or cold temperatures and take a long time to recover.
Peppers like rich, well-drained soil. Add compost to your garden soil at planting time to increase nutrients and loosen compaction. Place the pepper plant in the ground in a hole that's about 1 inch deeper than the root ball and replace the soil. New roots grow from the inch of buried stem, helping anchor a normally shallow-rooted plant.
Space peppers about 2 to 3 feet apart, depending on their mature size. If you grow bell peppers or other types, stake or cage your plants to support the heavy fruits. Add the cage at planting time so you don't disrupt it later.
If you grow peppers every year, rotate the location so they're not in the same spot more than once every four years to ward off soil-borne diseases. Peppers also need consistently moist soil to set fruits. Keeping the soil moist also helps ward off blossom end rot, a calcium deficiency, because peppers bring in calcium with water uptake. However, waterlogged soil contributes to diseases. Mulching plants with 1 to 2 inches of organic mulch conserves water and suppresses weeds.
Growing Peppers in Pots
Peppers are ideal for growing in pots. One pepper plant per 14- to 20-inch pot is recommended. Choose compact varieties that reach less than 3 feet tall, but you can grow bigger plants with bigger pots and supports.
Choose a pot with drainage holes. Fill it with a soilless potting mix; garden soil is too dense to use in a container. Fertilize with a balanced water-soluble fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 blend, every two weeks. When the plants begin to flower, switch to a high-potassium fertilizer (with a higher third number).
Growing Bell Peppers
Bell peppers, the best known of the sweet pepper varieties, are often harvested when they're green. If you leave them on the plant, they ripen to a red, orange, or yellow color.
You can also plant varieties bred to turn a specific color. For example, 'Northstar' turns red, 'Gourmet Orange' is orange, and 'Admiral' is yellow. All begin as green fruits before they ripen.
Growing Jalapeno Peppers and Other Hot, Spicy Types
Hot pepper types include ancho, chile, habanero, jalapeno, and serrano. There are many choices among these types. All spicy peppers need the same growing conditions as other peppers but come in a wide range of heat levels, with colors including green, red, orange, purple, and brown.
Chile pepper types include spicy hatch chiles as well as mild yellow-green banana peppers. Not all chile peppers are hot. A variety called 'Chilly Chili', for example, resembles a hot chile pepper but lacks the heat.
One of the hottest peppers in the world, bhut jolokia, better known as the ghost pepper, can be deadly if consumed in a large enough quantity.