Growing peppers from seed requires a certain amount of patience. The willingness to dedicate time to nurture that seedling, and care for it as it matures, can reward you with amazing fruits.
As a first time grower a few years ago, I recall researching all over the web for info on how to get started. Everyone has different methods, some just too complicated for me. Peppers are easy to grow, and I keep it very simple. After several seasons of growing hot peppers, and testing many of the tips I found all over the web, I present the step by step of what has worked best for me.
I don’t have a greenhouse and I only grow a handful of different pepper plants each year, like 5 – 10. I also don’t have garden space, so all my plants grow in containers outdoors once they are ready. I do live in California, so I have the bonus of a good amount of warm weather and no frost. With that in mind, let’s get growing!
1) When to start your seeds
Generally you start your seeds in the winter indoors. Exactly which month you’d like to start is up to you, but November – February is a good starting point. I’ve always started my seeds in January. November and December have too much holiday travel, gift buying and work going on for me to focus on my peppers, so January works for me.
2) What are the easiest peppers to grow?
If you don’t want to wait too long for germination, Capsicum Annuum’s are probably the easiest to grow. These include jalapeños, serranos, cayennes, Thai peppers, Anaheim, Hatch, poblano, many ornamentals and more. They also do better in cooler climates and germinate readily even at lower temperatures (50oF -75oF).
Chinense species, which includes the superhots, habaneros, scotch bonnets, etc., tend to have slower germination times (often up to 6 weeks) and higher soil temperature requirements (75oF-90oF).
Just keep in mind that the germination process can be slow and irregular as the degree of dormancy (or in other words, how long it takes those seeds to wake up and grow) varies considerably between species.
4) I have my seeds, now what?
You are going to start your seeds indoors. Before you plant your seeds, soak them overnight in warm water. I’ve grown seeds with and without soaking, and I found the ones I soaked did a better job of sprouting. So I pop the seeds in shot glasses with warm water (shown below) overnight, and then plant in the morning. Keep track of what seeds are in what glass. You will be planting 3 seeds in each ‘pod’. Only one if these three seeds will become the producing plant, so don’t get attached. 😛
Also, just because your seeds sprout, this does not guarantee they will all survive to become healthy plants. To ensure you grow at least one strong producing plant of each variety, plant a minimum of 6 seeds or more.
Now we’re ready to get the seeds into some soil. I’ve had the best results using Jiffy peat pellets (this is the exact box I use, available from Amazon, but all of the Jiffy boxes are far cheaper from Home Depot or any other local garden shop in your area).
I’ve also tried starting my seeds in ‘seed starting’ soil in little dixie cups, but the jiffy peat pellets give me far better germination results, so I prefer them. And they come with the greenhouse dome, which is great for getting seeds to sprout quickly in a normal home environment in the winter.
So follow the instructions on the Jiffy box. You basically pour water onto the pellets and then give them some time to absorb the water. The pellets will fully expand after several minutes (shown below).
Once the pellets are ready, pull back the mesh on the top and dig about a 1/4″ deep hole. Place 3 of the same seeds into the soil and very loosely cover with soil. Don’t pat down the soil. You want to make it as easy as possible for the seedlings to break through.
Chile seeds require moisture and warmth to break their dormancy (meaning sprout). Dormancy is the seeds built-in survival mechanism which prevents seeds from germinating in cold conditions which would kill the young seedlings. Just be aware that the germination process can be slow and irregular as the degree of dormancy varies considerably between species.
As a general rule you should aim to keep the temperature between 75 degrees F- 90 degrees F (24oC-32oC) with the optimum believed to be around 85oF. Light is not critical to the germination process, but a heat source is. Keep the soil moist but not wet. I find the Jiffy Greenhouse dome keeps the environment plenty moist. I just spritz them with a water bottle once in a while.
Without the use of a heating mat, my germination times where quite long. This year I added a heating mat under my newly planted seeds. The first sprouts popped out in 7 days. I saw a considerable improvement with the use of a heating mat. This is the exact heating pad I have. It perfectly fits 2 Jiffy Greenhouse Starter Kits. My recommendation is to use a heating mat under your seeds.
Once the first seeds start to sprout remove the greenhouse dome and start to make sure the seedlings have enough sunlight. I keep my seedlings under a well-lit window all day, but since they sprouted in the winter months (less daylight hours) I added a very simple grow light which I turn on once the sun goes down or if it’s a cloudy day. The one I have is LED and doesn’t produce any heat, so you can put it pretty close. This year my light is about 6″-7″ above the seedlings. I turn off the grow light around 8-9pm. Spritz the seedlings with water if the soil starts to turn a light brown. Keep them moist, but not wet.
What next happens is the survival of the fittest! You planted 3 seeds in each pod. Only one of those sprouts will move one to the next round. Your seeds will start to sprout. In each pod, you may notice one sprout doing better then the others. After the seedlings get about 2 inches, you should see the strongest sprout. You must select the strongest sprout and trim the others to let the strongest seed grow.
Now sometimes it might not be super clear on which is the strongest. I’ve had that happen. Check out the image below. You can see the obvious winner in the right pod, but all look fairly equal in the left pod. For the left pod, go ahead and pick your favorite, because they are all strong, but only one can take up that space. Trim 2, leaving only one sprout to move on.
The first leaves that sprouted from the seed are the cotyledons (an embryonic leaf in seed-bearing plants, the first leaves to appear from a germinating seed.)
The next set of leaves the will develop are called their ‘true leaves’. I transplant each into larger cups once they are about 3″ with their first set of true leaves.
I use plastic cups at this point. Poke 3 drainage holes into the bottom of each cup with an awl or screwdriver. Fill each cup with potting mix. Dig a hole what will fit the root ball. If your seedlings are in peat pots (as shown above), remove the entire peat pot mesh lining, and then place the root ball into newly dug hole. Be careful not to disturb the roots or damage the seedling. Cover as much of the stem to promote more root growth. I plant mine lower in the cup, so the very top of the plant is about 1/2″ below the cup top so it is protected from the elements once I start hardening off.
What kind of potting soil (or potting mix) do I use?
It is important to know the difference between potting mix (also called potting soil) and garden soil. Potting mix is specially formulated for use in containers. It contains ingredients like bark and sphagnum peat moss that ensure good drainage and air flow for strong root growth in containers.
If your pepper plants are going into a container, use potting mix. If they are being planted in a garden, use garden soil. I typically use Kellogg Patio Plus found at Home Depot since my peppers are grown in containers.
Time to talk about fertilizing.
After the first set of true leaves appear, this is also the point you can start fertilizing. Start using a diluted amount of fish emulsion or fish and kelp fertilizer (this is what I grab from Home Depot) to promote growth. Read the instructions on the container and then use 1/4 strength when you water your plants. I know some people really don’t like the smell of a fish fertilizer (I don’t think it’s bad at all), so feel free to use whatever fertilizer you prefer.
*Note: if you have dogs that love the smell of dead things, as mine do, you may need to keep the plants out of their reach when fertilizing with fish fertilizer. If I spill even a drop, my dogs will try to lick it up because it’s fishy smelling. They’ve stopped trying to dig in the plants after fertilizing, but the first time they smelled it, they wouldn’t let go of trying to find the source of the smell in my pots.
After your plants have three or four sets of true leaves, you can apply magnesium sulfate (epsom salt) directly to the leaves and stem. Epsom salt keeps the plant foliage strong, and prevents light green to yellow leaves from developing.
Make sure that the epsom salt you use does not have any additions such as scents or bath crystals.
Add a 1 teaspoon epsom salt to a gallon of water and shake it up well. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle and then spritz the leaves and stems with the solution until thoroughly covered. Spray your plants every other week so that one week you water with fish emulsion, and the other week you give your plants the foliar feeding.
For the next month + you’ll watch your plants grow. Water, fertilize and keep them healthy. During this time I start to harden off my plants. This is a key step of the survival of your plants. Don’t skip it.
When’s a good time to transplant your plants?
Plants should be 6-10 weeks old with dark green color, thick stems, and no blooms. Pinch off any blooms so the plant will put energy into adjustment after transplant. Wait until the last frost date for your zone has passed and night time temperatures are above 50° F, and your seedlings are hardened. Peppers are warm season crops that grow best at temperatures of 70-80° F during the day and 60-70° during the night.
When to start hardening off.
Your plants have been in a controlled indoor climate, with no wind, extreme sunshine or cold nights to deal with. Hardening off is the process of gradually allowing your young plants to get used to outdoor conditions.
The process takes a couple weeks, so start a couple weeks before you plan to transplant them outdoors. And this is not a strict schedule. You just want to get the plants outdoors for longer and longer periods each day, but keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t start to wilt. Also don’t set them out on days that are very windy. Keep in mind the soil will dry faster outdoors due to sun and wind so water more frequently outdoors.
Here’s a basic schedule to start with: Set them outdoors the first day for 1/2 hour in just partial sunlight in an area protected from wind. After your plants are outdoors for 1/2 hour somewhat protected increase the time daily to 1 hour, 2, 3, 4, leading up to 8 hours per day. Then leave them out overnight for a full day (as long as there is no threat of frost).
Once your plants are adjusted to being outdoors, it’s time to move them to their permanent home. All of my peppers plants go into pots outdoors. I’ve used a few different containers; regular pots, home depot buckets, the EarthBox, and the City Pickers raised garden bed kits. If your local garden center has these in stock, they are typically much less expensive in store.
My personal preference is the EarthBox. The EarthBox is better made than the City Pickers box. They are similar, but the plastic part that holds the wheels broke on my City Picker Box, and my EarthBox, which I’ve had longer, is still going strong. Here’s more info on how the EarthBox works. My plants just do better in the EarthBox compared to any other pot. Plus it comes with organic fertilizer, dolomite, mulch covers and a detailed set of instructions explaining exactly how to plant your plants using their system. It’s just simple and I like simple.
I will typically plant 4 pepper plants (and not necessarily the same type of pepper) in one EarthBox. I use the EarthBox for plants that tend to grow larger. Also, if you have access to compost, certainly mix that in with your soil.
Note on reusing pots from year to year: If you are reusing pots, which is totally fine, your previously used pots need to be sterilized to kill any organisms that may spread disease to next year’s plants. Once emptied and washed out, pots should be soaked in a solution of 1 part household bleach and 9 parts water for about 10-20 minutes, and then rinsed and soaked in clean water to remove any bleach residue that remains.
I do use regular pots for smaller pepper plants. If I’m growing something that is small and compact, like ornamental Thai peppers, those do fine in small pots. Here’s some I grew in a small pot.
Once you’ve chosen what your plants are going into, it’s time to move them. I use the same type of potting mix as the first time I transplanted them, an organic potting mix (for containers) that says it’s good for peppers & tomatoes. These soils typically have a mix of peat moss, some sort of bark, perlite, & dolomitic limestone. Peppers like well draining soils.
Dig a hole for each plant that is a bit larger than the root ball of the plant. Hold the plant by the rootball (not the stem) and place in the hole. Take care not to disturb your plants roots during transplant. Set the plants slightly deeper (up to an inch) than they were grown in the container.
You will need to water plants more frequently than was necessary indoors.
In addition to shallow roots, peppers have fairly brittle branches that eventually grow heavy with peppers. Although not normally required for healthy plants, some taller plants may benefit from staking (insert a stake into the soil and tie your plant to the stake) or caging. I do stake some of my taller growing plants to give them added support.
And there you go. Fertilize and water on a regular schedule and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
Common problems you may have:
Tall ‘leggy’ seedlings:
‘Leggy’ seedlings typically have stretched skinny stems and look fragile. They may start bending forward rather than growing up straight with a strong stem. The most common issue here is not enough light. The young seedlings are struggling to access adequate light from any source they can. I would suggest using a grow light placed fairly close (6” – 8”) from the seedlings.
White ‘fuzz’ growing on the soil:
This is a result of too much moisture and is common white mold you find on top of potting soil. Let them dry a little. You can run a fan at the plants to slow the mold growth down and strengthen the stalks of the plants at the same time. If it’s still sticking around, You can also simply scrape it off. This happens to me a lot and it’s never harmed my seedlings.
Gnats around your indoor pepper plants:
Gnats love moisture and are attracted to fruits, so it’s no surprise that they often infest kitchens. I have several fruit trees in the backyard so gnats always find their way into the house and love to hang out on my pepper plants while they are growing indoors.
My simple solution to get rid of these little pests is to set up a vinegar trap. Gnats find the scent of apple cider vinegar very attractive (and wine… I’m always trying to keep them out of my wine glass). So I just set a small glass of apple cider vinegar in the middle of my plants and they wind up in the glass. Typically that’s enough for me, but if you have a good amount of gnats you can set up a larger trap in a Mason jar. Put apple cider vinegar into the jar, like the bottom 3 inches should be good. Pop several holes in the jar lid then cover the jar. You could also use plastic wrap with holes to cover the jar. The gnats will enter the jar via the holes on the lid and get trapped in the vinegar solution.