One of many great things about growing peppers – and I guess gardening in general – is that anyone can have success.
Gardening and learning how to grow peppers can be made to be complicated or simple.
I firmly believe that you want to start out in the middle of that range. Because when you keep it simple – it will remove hurdles to getting started. And getting started is the first and very important step.
So here are my top 9 tips that you should keep in mind when you start growing peppers as a complete beginner or novice.
And yes, these tips apply to the hottest Bhut Jolokia ghost peppers as well as milder varieties like Padron peppers and Jamaican bells.
1. Start your pepper seeds early – but not too early
To learn when to plant your pepper seeds, find out the date of the last expected frost in your area. You can find the information online or ask at your local garden center.
Now count 6-8 weeks before this date. This is when you want to plant your seeds.
Whether you are planning to grow peppers in pots or grow bags or prefer to transplant them directly into the ground, remember that peppers do not like cold weather.
Peppers need 90-180 days to grow from seed to mature plant with fruits to harvest.
As a rule of thumb, hotter peppers like ghost peppers and habaneros take longer to grow, develop, and mature. Sweeter, milder, and less hot peppers like the Italian sweet peppers mature in less time.
But avoid planting pepper seeds too early. One year I planted many pots of beefsteak and cherry tomatoes as well as peppers in the month of December. The plan was to get a head start. And I did. But I also had large seedlings growing indoors for more than 2 months. I had 9 pot trays that each held 12 pots (10cm x 10 cm). Trust me, it was a lot of watering and carrying and in retrospect I am not sure that I actually benefited from the early start.
2. Do not move pepper plants outdoors too early
Chilies and peppers are not cold or frost-hardy. And if you expose your plant to frost or freezing temperatures you are very likely to make irreparable damage.
You want temperatures to be above 10 degrees Celsius (50 F) including the coldest time of the night.
If you are unsure, wait another week and keep your pepper plants indoors.
There is really no reason to rush. Where we live, March temperatures can reach 15 degrees Celsius (60 F) by day to be followed by frost and freezing temperatures at night.
Focus on the lowest temperature of the day, not the highest.
3. Prepare peppers for outdoors gradually
You need to prepare your plants for cooler temperatures and exposure to natural sunlight gradually.
As the young plant matures you can place it in a slightly cooler environment (15C /60F) for a couple of hours every day. One way can be to leave a nearby window slightly open for cooler air to circulate. But do not expose your plant to draft.
You also need to prepare your pepper plants for exposure to natural sunlight.
Because it does not matter what kind of grow light you may be using indoors, it comes nowhere close to the strength and intensity of natural sunlight.
The process of gradually exposing your plants to sunlight is called hardening off. Start by exposing your plant to indirect sunlight for a couple of hours. Then gradually increase exposure over 1-2 weeks.
If the leaves look limp, wilted or even sunburnt, take a step back and go slower. Again, there is no reason to rush the process.
4. Choose outdoor location wisely
If you are growing peppers in grow bags, pots, or containers you can of course move your plants if necessary.
But peppers planted directly in the ground are, however, less mobile. Peppers do want full sun, but from my experience, half shade is better during the hotter afternoon hours of the scorching hot sun.
Regularly check your plants for signs of too much exposure to the sun such as scorched or limp and lifeless leaves.
5. Do not overwater your pepper plants
An occasional mild dry-out is better than soaking wet soil. You do not want the roots to be sat in constant wet as they will “drown”.
Use a moisture meter or your finger to decide if it is time to water again. If the soil is dry two knuckles deep, it is time to water again.
And when you do water, water thoroughly. If possible, bottom water your plants and then allow pots or grow bags to drain off any excess water.
Discolored or curling leaves can be a sign of overwatering.
6. Bottom pruning and mulch
Mature plants should be bottom pruned to protect against leaves touching the soil. When leaves touch the soil the plant is exposed to soil-based bacteria and pathogens that can infect the plant.
Bottom pruning will also improve airflow and circulation around the plant creating a healthier growing environment.
Mulching will also protect against contact with soil and have the added benefit of helping the soil retain moisture. I primarily use straw or hay to mulch our pepper plants.
7. One grow bag does not fit all peppers
Or more accurately one size of the pot is not ideal for all varieties of peppers.
As a rule, hotter pepper varieties need larger pots as they grow larger. And giving your pepper plant space to grow will help create a healthy high yielding plant.
And this is what is so great about making your own DIY grow bags at home. It saves a lot of money and you can make the exact size grow bag that you need for any given plant.
Habaneros and ghost pepper Bhut Jolokia are both types of Capsium chinense and will grow to 1,5 m / 5 feet and beyond given the right conditions. For these hot peppers, we use 5-10 gallon grow bags.
8. Check for pests and diseases
Early detection is key to being successful against pests and diseases. And daily inspections of plants and leaves are a great way to prevent massive outbreaks.
We use a magnifying glass to help inspect the leaves as many pests start small and are difficult to detect with the naked eye.
Check new growth and leaves extra carefully as they tend to be the favorite food of pests like aphids. Inspect both the top and bottom of the leaf. Spend 5-10 seconds per leaf and maybe check a handful of leaves per plant. Over time, the process becomes almost second nature.
9. Use the right fertilizer at the right time
For best results, you should start with a nitrogen-based fertilizer when the plant is growing and maturing. Nitrogen helps the plant grow leaves and foliage, which is instrumental for photosynthesis and plant development.
But when the plant starts setting flowers you should switch to a fertilizer with higher levels of Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K).
Whereas Nitrogen (N) helps plants grow green, Phosphorus (P) strengthens root development and helps produce blooms while Potassium (K) promotes the all-around well-being of the plant.
If you stick to a high nitrogen fertilizer you may have plants that focus on new leaf production over blooms and fruit development.
Bonus tip: Always harvest when pepper fruits are ripe
Always harvest your pepper fruits when they are ripe or even just before.
Harvesting peppers frees up your plant to produce more peppers.
Dry your harvested peppers or place them in the freezer if you do not know what to do with the peppers at the time of harvest.
You can dry peppers in a regular oven at a low temperature with the door ajar.
Or use my preferred method of simply cutting the peppers into pieces and placing them in a dark room with good air circulation. Depending on pepper variety and room temperature peppers will be dry for days to weeks.
Summary: tips for growing peppers outdoors for the novice
If you like hot food, you should definitely try growing your own peppers at home.
Hotter peppers are not necessarily more difficult to grow but everything does take more time.
For the pepper heads that want some heat, I recommend growing cayenne peppers that have a bit of heat but are relatively fast to germinate, grow and develop.