How to Grow Peppers, Sweet and Hot

Learn how to grow amazing hot and sweet peppers.

| May/June 2012

If you’ve ever stood in the produce aisle and gasped at the price of peppers, you’re not alone. Tasty peppers—especially those beyond basic green bells—can be expensive. Couple that with the fact that peppers are one of the easiest plants to grow, and you’ve got an easy choice for this summer’s garden. In their glorious array of bright hues, peppers are worth growing for beauty alone. They’re also nutrient powerhouses, chock-full of disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants and among the richest natural sources of vitamins A and C. Keep reading to learn about how to grow peppers successfully.

Planting Peppers

If you hope to grow rare varieties, which include some of the tastiest peppers, you’ll want to start plants from seed two to three months before your last spring frost date. (Find your date and learn about starting seeds in "Garden Planting Guide: When to Plant Seeds and Seedling for Your Region.") Start seeds indoors in a warm (about 85-degree), sunny location with lightly moist soil. Pepper seedlings benefit from being transplanted into a larger container before going into the ground. Harden seedlings off by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions for about a week before planting.

You can also buy pepper transplants from a garden center or mail-order supplier. Either way, you want to plant seedlings outdoors a couple of weeks after any danger of frost has passed; peppers planted too soon will be stunted. If your growing season is short, don’t delay planting. Peppers like a long season and plenty of sunshine. You can grow peppers in every state, even Alaska, but in cooler areas, use row covers to heat up plantings and choose fast-maturing varieties (check “days to maturity” on labels—most sweet peppers mature more quickly than hot peppers, often in 60 to 90 days). All peppers are perennials, so you can pot them up and move them to a sunny spot indoors in fall, where they will survive winter and leaf out again in spring.

Dig planting holes so buried plants will sit about an inch deeper than they were in their starter pots. Set plants about 1 1/2 feet apart with 1 1/2 to 3 feet between rows. Peppers also grow well in containers, provided they receive plenty of sun. All varieties benefit from regularly moist soil enriched with finished compost. High Mowing Organic Seeds recommends using a high-phosphorus organic fertilizer when transplanting (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium content are labeled on fertilizers). Don’t use high-nitrogen fertilizer on pepper plants, as it can reduce yields. Professional pepper grower Susan Welsand recommends dissolving a tablespoon of Epsom salts in a gallon of water to spray on leaves every couple of weeks, which will help with fruit setting—especially once temperatures are high. Pepper grower Joe Arditi recommends fertilizing with an organic fish emulsion spray every other week (on weeks you don’t use Epsom salts). Karyn Bischoff and Nick Nickens of Stargazer Perennials say the secret to great hot peppers is calcium, which they supply in the form of bone meal worked into the soil every couple of weeks through the growing season.

Harvesting Peppers

Nearly all peppers start out green (a few varieties start light purple or yellow) then graduate to white, yellow, orange, red and sometimes dark purple or black. As they mature, many flavor and nutritional compounds increase. So eat them green (or at any other stage) if you like, but you’ll get more bang for your buck if you wait. If you want bright red peppers earlier in the season, grow varieties with fewer days to maturity such as Lipstick and Gypsy bell peppers. Be quick about harvesting the first few fruits; it will encourage increased production.

To save seeds from open-pollinated peppers (the type that will replicate parent plants), simply select the largest seeds and let them air-dry completely. Always store saved seeds in a cool, dark, dry place such as in opaque seed packets inside a lidded jar in the basement.

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