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Growing Peppers
January 3, 2020

Earliest Red Sweet peppersHungarian Spice Paprika PeppersPeppers are a favorite crop of many home gardeners. Sweet, hot, red, green, yellow, orange and brown, they all have their advocates. Unlike some garden crops, one can actually save a bit of money growing their own peppers over the high prices peppers command in groceries and at vegetable stands. And of course, growing your own allows one to select from an incredible number of pepper varieties offered by reputable seed vendors.

Like most garden crops, peppers grow best in fertile, well drained soil in an area that receives at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. While some sources suggest peppers will grow in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0, I find they do best in soil testing at around neutral (pH 6.8 to 7.0). Peppers will also gladly grow and produce in containers, given enough space, sunlight, and soil fertility. And as with almost all vegetables, one should avoid growing their peppers in the same spot two years in a row.

We grow our peppers in two different areas with very different soil types. Our best peppers come from our raised garden beds that have been lavished with compost, peat moss, and turn down crops over the years. We grow so-so peppers in our East Garden's mostly clay soil. We do so there by providing a deluxe planting hole for each pepper plant there.

Starting Peppers

When starting peppers, direct seeding in all but the deep south isn't recommended. Starting plants indoors six to eight weeks before intended transplanting should produce plants about the right size for transplanting. Of course, one can purchase pepper plants at garden centers and other outlets, but that really limits ones choices of pepper varieties.

Peppers seeded to deep sixpack insertsWe seed our pepper starts in sterilized potting mix in either fourpack or deep sixpack inserts. Once the inserts are filled with sterile potting mix, I water the soil with hot water and let it cool a bit. Then I make a shallow depression in the soil in the center of each insert cell with a finger or thumb and drop in a seed. Since peppers don't need light to germinate, I cover the seed with about an eighth inch of soil and firm it over the seed to ensure good soil to seed contact.

We germinate our peppers in trays over thermostatically controlled soil heating mats. Optimal temperature for germinating pepper seed is around 85° F. Since our soil heating mats strain a bit to reach that temperature, I often set our soil heating mat thermostat to around 80° F. While pepper seed doesn't need light for germination, I cover our trays with a clear humidity dome to hold in heat and soil moisture and also allow some light to reach early germinating plants. Pepper seed generally germinates in five to ten days.

Those lacking a soil heating mat might try germinating peppers on top of their refrigerator!

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Pepper and tomato transplantsOnce the peppers have germinated, we remove the humidomes and move the plants off their soil heating mat. We keep them under plant lights with the lights several inches above the tallest plants. If the plants appear to be becoming spindly, I lower the lights a bit. If the leaves of the plants start to bleach out, I raise the lights. Note that our plant lights are simply florescent shop lights with 6500° K bulbs. The plants remain under the plant lights for several weeks.

About two weeks before transplanting, our pepper plants get moved outside under a cold frame to harden off. I gradually expose them to increasing levels of sunlight, wind, and UV radiation by opening the cold frame for longer periods of time each day. A shaded area of a porch can easily substitute for a cold frame, gradually moving young plants into fuller sunlight each day.

It takes plants about 7-10 days to adapt to outdoor conditions. Failure to harden off transplants is an invitation to failure.

Transplanting Peppers into the Garden

Cutworm damage
Cutworm damage

Lime, solid fertilizer, and ground egg shell added to planting holeWait until the soil is warm (65-70° F) before transplanting peppers. In our area, that's late April or early May.

After our raised beds are rototilled, I dig a hole about eight inches deep. I sprinkle a bit of balanced fertilizer, lime and/or ground egg shell to help prevent blossom end rot, and some Maxicrop Soluble Seaweed Powder. I should note here that for years our pepper plants would thrive and put on blooms and small peppers...and then die! On a lark, I began adding the seaweed powder to our planting and our pepper problems were solved. Apparently, the seaweed powder has a necessary trace element our soil was missing.

I use the trowel to work the fertilizer, lime, and seaweed powder into the base of the hole and then partially refill the hole with some of the soil dug out of it. I then water the hole with a starter solution made up of half strength Quick Start, some seaweed powder, and a bit of Serenade biofungicide. The pepper transplant goes into the hole with soil firmed around it. Sometimes I refill the planting hole with soil first, water it, and squish the transplant into the mud. I add a bit of lime and fertilizer on the soil surface around then plant before adding grass clipping mulch around it.

Transplanted pepper with cutworm collar, mulch, and pepper cageIf my transplants are a bit on the young and tender side, the transplanting is more involved to provide protection from cutworms. In those cases, I dig the hole, add soil amendments, backfill it completely, and then insert a cut down paper coffee cup as a cutworm collar. I water the hole and squish the pepper transplant into the cup and soil. I have to be careful to keep the rim of the cup at least an inch above the surrounding soil level to prevent the cutworms from crossing the cup to the plant stem. And if I'm going to immediately mulch the plants with grass clippings, I move the paper cup cutworm collar a bit higher. The grass clippings can easily form a ramp for the cutworms to climb. One can also use cutworm mats or sprinkle crushed egg shells around plantings to discourage cutworms.

The cutworm collars come out after a week or so when the plant stems have toughened. Left in place, the cutworm collars restrict lateral root growth.

We use cages around our pepper plants to support the branches that often become a bit brittle and can break off when laden with peppers. Our pepper cages are made of remesh and are usually old cut down tomato cages whose bottoms have rusted off. Our peppers always get mulched with grass clippings to hold in soil moisture and hold back weeds. Sometimes the mulch goes on at planting, and other times, a week or so later.

Transplanted and caged pepper plant Row of peppers transplanted Finished pepper and tomato transplanting

When I put peppers in our East Garden or an isolation plot, each one gets a deluxe hole. I dig a hole about a foot deep and wide and work compost and peat moss into the heavy clay soil. While our pepper plants in the East Garden never outperform those in the rich soil of our raised beds, they do produce some nice peppers for us.


Other than watering when necessary, pepper plants don't require a lot of care. Occasional fertilizing can help, but like tomatoes, too much nitrogen can spur excessive foliage at the expense of fruit. A fertilizer along the lines of 5-10-10 would be appropriate.

Possibly more important than fertilizer is training branches that begin to grow out of the pepper cages back inside the cage. Some branches always get away from us, and those are the ones most likely to break off when set with lots of peppers.

Insect and Disease Concerns

Beyond cutworms at transplanting, we don't have a lot of insect problems with our peppers. An occasional hornworm will sometimes stray onto our peppers. And of course, they're easily picked off and crushed.

Commercial growers seem to face a lot of possible insects. Several university publications cover them.

The primary "disease" we face with our peppers is blossom end rot early in the season. It's actually a condition caused by a lack of calcium uptake, so it's not a true disease. Cindy Fake's article linked below is the best I've seen on blossom end rot. As mentioned earlier, we use lime and ground egg shells to provide calcium to control the condition, but since moisture levels are part of the problem, we still see some blossom end rot early each summer.

There are lots of other diseases that can attack ones pepper plants. Since we've experienced only a few of them, I'll have to just provide some links from experts who know about them. In the past, we've had anthracnose and some leaf diseases in our peppers. Using clean seed, sometimes hot water treated, and effective cleanup of garden trash from our garden beds helps prevent such issues. Generally, organic pest controls have worked well for us when occasionally needed.


While I enjoy most aspects of gardening, the harvest is what it's all about. When to harvest is a matter of personal taste with green to red/yellow/orange/brown bell peppers. If you want green peppers, pick them when they reach full size with a deep green color. Days-to-maturity figures can be helpful. For mature peppers of color, wait until the peppers are fully colored, although that's often when rot can set in with some pepper varieties.

I use a really old pair of pruning shears to cut the stem of the peppers a half to an inch and a half above the pepper. While peppers will snap off the vine, that sometimes injures the top of the pepper, inviting early spoilage. I think trimmed peppers store a bit better than ones snapped off.

Peppers - 2008 Peppers - 2009 Peppers - 2011
Kettle of 2011 peppers 2013 peppers with chocolate peppers Bucket of 2018 Earliest Red Sweet peppers
2019 -Hungarian Spice Paprika Peppers

For paprika and hot peppers, one needs to watch their days-to-maturity figures as a guide for harvesting. Some hot peppers can require a very long growing season. One should wear gloves when picking hot peppers as the white powder on some of them will seriously irritate ones skin. And apparently, latex gloves aren't recommended.


Like everything else in ones garden, pepper varieties should be selected for what one likes and grows well on your ground. For hybrid red bell peppers, it's hard to beat Ace and Red Knight. We've messed around growing Sweet Chocolate and Kevin's Early Orange some years. I'm still searching for a good yellow pepper to replace the discontinued hybrid Sunray variety. I have five, very old Sunray seeds left in a packet along with a bunch of others from seed saved in 2019. Of course saving seed from hybrids is pretty much a no-no, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

For making ground paprika, we've settled on the Boldog Hungarian Spice and Hungarian Spice Paprika Pepper varieties. In the past, we've grown Alma and Feher Ozon paprika peppers, but prefer the red of Hungarian Spice for Spanish paprika.

Leaving the best till last, the endangered Earliest Red Sweet variety is our all time favorite for producing red peppers. It's peppers are about half to two-thirds the size of hybrid reds like Ace and Red Knight. But the ERS variety starts producing peppers early in the season (65 days-to-maturity) and continues to do so well into the fall. In terms of total pepper flesh produced in a season, it stomps the big red hybrids.

Freezing Peppers

I've experimented over the years and found that blanching peppers before freezing really isn't necessary. So we wash our peppers for freezing before cutting them and removing their seeds. The interiors of the peppers get washed before slicing them and letting them dry. We freeze our peppers on cookie sheets so they don't stick together too much when moved to Ziplock freezer bags. One can also freeze whole or half peppers by cleaning out the seeds and washing the peppers before freezing. Whole or half peppers take up a lot of freezer space, though.

Seeded, cored, and washed peppers drying Frozen peppers bagged

Making Ground Paprika

Snapping dried paprika peppers into coffee grinderPaprika saved in 2019We use a good bit of ground paprika in cooking, so we grind lots of dried paprika peppers every few years. I'm also not above throwing in a few red bell peppers into our food dehydrator. Our food dehydrator was a gift, and we've used it a lot over the years. (Thanks again, Samantha Rose!)Those lacking such a device can dry peppers in the oven or even outdoors. (See CayenneDiane: How to Dry Peppers)

After de-seeding the peppers and removing tops and any bad spots, our paprika peppers get washed and dried on a clean towel on our kitchen counter. Then they go into our food dehydrator set at about 125° F. Towards the end of the dehydration process, I often cut the temperature back to around 100° F. The drying process in a food dehydrator can take 8-12 hours.

The shriveled paprika pieces go into an extra coffee grinder we use only for grinding things such as dried paprika, garlic, and other spices. It grinds the pieces to a fine powder that goes into a jar with a tight fitting lid.

Saving Pepper Seed (from our Earliest Red Sweet Pepper feature story)

Pepper cut to reveal seedsDried ERS pepper seedSaving open pollinated pepper seed is really easy. Once your peppers are fully ripe (red, yellow, etc.), pick only the very best peppers for seed saving. Cut the sides off the pepper, revealing the center seed cavity. (You can still use the pepper flesh for fresh use or freezing.) Rub the seed with your thumbnail to release it from the pepper core. I use a paper plate with identifying information written on it in permanent marker to hold the seed. Spread the seed across the paper plate and let it dry for a week or so. Then place it in an envelope, aluminum foil, or however you wish to hold your saved seed and store it in a cool, dark place. We actually freeze our seed for long term storage, but we also work really hard at getting our seed very dry before doing so.

For more information on seed saving, the Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook has a nice page, Why Save Seeds, and offers basic seed saving information for a lot of vegetables. For just three bucks (plus shipping), Growing Garden Seeds: A Manual for Gardeners and Small Farmers by Johnny's Selected Seeds founder, Rob Johnston, Jr., is an excellent reference to have on ones shelf.

Odds 'n' Ends

Results of Google searchWhen I began writing this how-to column, I wondered if I had enough images to properly illustrate it. So I Googled "peppers" and was blown away with all the images I'd published of peppers over the years. So this page may run a little heavy on images.

There are also an awful lot of links to external articles in this how-to. That's a result of my lack of knowledge (or insecurity) about growing peppers. We grow lots of bell and paprika peppers, but I haven't grown hot peppers since my farming years...for good reason.

I sort of danced around the subject above when writing about harvesting hot peppers. When I was farming, we had a great customer who re-sold our sweet corn in town. He asked one day about other things we had and showed a real interest in our hot peppers. So I picked, bagged, and gave the gentleman the hot peppers for free as a thank you for his repeated business.

Then I went into the house and went to the bathroom...without washing my hands!

One last goodie: When proofreading an early part of this article, I came upon "pampers oil" in the text. At first, I was perplexed at what I was trying to convey. Then I realized that I had wanted to write "pampered soil!" Eventually, that phrase got edited into something else.

Having grown up in an age before the Internet, I'm amazed at the knowledge readily available online today. So I'm going to add a few more good links on peppers here.

I'm a retired, old guy with absolutely no degrees in agriculture, horticulture, or any other special training. At 71 years old, I've grown very good peppers for many years, but am still happily learning, so there could be tragic errors in the information above. It's just what has worked for us, on our ground...when we're lucky. I hope this piece adds to your joy in growing and consuming peppers.

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From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
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