Why you should start hot peppers from seed

I will just say it. Peppers, especially hot peppers, are the new tomatoes and will, before long, grow in most home gardens.

This statement is a very unscientific prediction. 

But I have my reasons. 

I get more questions about my pepper plants than any other plants in my garden. Garlic and eggplants come in second place but generate far less interest.

My Scotch Bonnet hot sauce and salsa
My Scotch Bonnet hot sauce and salsa

But the interest does wear off slightly when I mention the need to start seeds early.

And this is a shame.

This also explains part of the popularity of tomatoes. Easy to start, more forgiving in case of leggy seedlings, and so versatile to use. 

The next question is almost a given. Why not just buy pepper plants and support the local nursery?

Here, I will give three reasons for starting my peppers from seed. I will also provide a blueprint for choosing your first pepper variety to start from seed.

3 reasons to start peppers from seed

For me, all gardening is fun, and the enjoyment I get from gardening is a reason in itself. But given that this is a website about gardening, I will assume this is a shared, if not passion, then at least interest.

Tabasco pepper plant towards the end of the season
Tabasco pepper plant at the end of the season

So why does it make more sense to start peppers from seed?

1. Pepper varieties to grow

My local nursery is excellent, but the selection of pepper varieties could be better. Jalapeno, cayenne, and varieties of tabasco or piri-piri peppers seem to be all people want? 

And if you do buy a pepper plant, read the label carefully; not all peppers are edible, and you may come home with an ornamental plant.

But when you start peppers from seed, you can choose from a world of pepper varieties.

Jamaican bell peppers are a fun variety with a bit of a punch
Jamaican bell peppers are fun and pack a punch

And I take full advantage of this and add a couple of new varieties every season.

Sweet peppers add a crunchy texture and taste like no other vegetables. Or are peppers a fruit? Favorites include Italian sweet peppers, but there are several more to choose from.

My Padron peppers are a delicacy and are always cooked fresh off the plant. Salt and olive oil are all you need for a quick Spanish-influenced tapas delight!

I grow Jamaican bell peppers as they hold that spot between mild and hot for me at a respectable 14,000 SHU.

The cayenne, tabasco, and jalapeno peppers are staples in our household. I add them to hot sauces and salsas – and tomato sauces needing a bit of attitude – and use them more or less every time I cook a stew, casserole, or soup. They also make a great addition to marinades and dry and wet rubs when BBQ season arrives.

Cayenne peppers are staples in our house
Cayenne peppers are staples in our house

Then we have the hot peppers, where the attitude and heat reach new heights. Pressed for an answer, my favorites are:

  • Bhut Jolokia and Naga Jolokia ghost peppers: Scorching hot at 750 000 – 1 500 000 SHU
  • Habaneros: Very hot at 100 000 – 350 000 SHU
  • Scotch Bonnet peppers: Very hot at 100 000 – 350 000 SHU
  • Piri-piri peppers: Hot to very hot at50 000 – 175 000 SHU
Here, you need to know that the heat level is substantial. Mild peppers usually score from 100 - 2500 SHU. Never serve hot peppers as a surprise; always handle them carefully. Gloves on people and mind your eyes and soft tissue.

I have a very close relationship with my hot peppers. They are, in many ways, my darlings. 

Bhut Jolokia ghost pepper ripening on the plant
Bhut Jolokia ghost pepper

I use hot peppers for hot sauces, marinades, and rubs and to add a kick to most any dish. I love spicy food, but hot peppers bring heat, sweetness, and a tapestry of other flavor tones. 

For me, it is not just about the heat.

To summarize, starting peppers from seed opens up a world of possibilities and flavors unavailable at my local nursery.

And for me, this is all the reason I need to be an avid seed starter.

2. Starting peppers from seed saves me money

Sure, you need a few things to get started. 

Seeds and a growing medium are relatively inexpensive. 

A grow light and a heat mat to control temperature will cost a bit more – unless you live in a tropical climate.

I skipped the heat mat for years and started all my seeds on our heat pump. The pump generated some heat, and my seeds germinated just fine.

But with these simple tools, I grow peppers to last us a whole year. 

Harvested Padron peppers
Harvested Padron peppers

And you guessed it. I start over with my old favorites and add a few newcomers the following season.

I use peppers to make tomato sauces with attitude, dry and wet rubs, marinades, and hot sauces. It stores well, and I simply freeze what I do not need now for later use.

I also dry and freeze peppers whole. Perfect to use for cooking all year round. But please note that frozen peppers lose their texture and are best chopped or ground with salt frozen.

Dried and frozen peppers from our garden
Dried and frozen peppers from our garden

Every household is different. But we use a lot of peppers; for us, it is a definite saving, and I should add a more sustainable alternative to shopping.

3. Easier than buying driven plants 

Here in zone 7, peppers are an exotic plant. Peppers do not grow naturally in my climate zone.

From my experience, exotic plants available at nurseries are often started in optimized growing environments that are impossible to replicate at home. Looking after these plants can be a challenge.

Healthy habanero pepper plant
Healthy habanero pepper plant

Have you ever bought a fruiting plant only to realize a few months later that it never looked as good as it did in the shop when you purchased it? I thought so.

When you start peppers from seed at home, the plant gradually becomes used to your unique growing environment.

For me, this makes starting peppers from seed the obvious choice.

How to choose your first pepper variety to start from seed

Whether you agree with me or not, I hope you will start at least one pepper variety from seed this next growing season.

I have written several how-to guides that are easy to follow.

And like most things in life, a large part of your success comes from proper planning.

Ask yourself the following questions, and then just go for it!

1. Do you have access to light? 

Peppers need time to mature and develop. Seeds need to be started in early spring if you garden in a four-season climate.

I start my pepper plants in February, giving me about 6-10 weeks before the last expected frost. 

I start the scorching hot ghost-type peppers first. Two weeks later, I move on to the rest of the hot peppers, and then in mid March, I start my milder pepper varieties.

But here in zone 7, the level of natural sunlight is low in early spring. 

Jalapenos ripening on plant
Jalapenos ripening on plant

Consequently, my seedlings must live under grow lights for several weeks.

If you do not have a grow light, choose a sweet pepper variety, as it needs less time to mature and develop.

For hot peppers, there is no way around using a grow light in a four-season climate.

2. Why are you growing peppers?

Are you leaning towards hot peppers for the novelty factor or even bragging rights?

Sure, go for it, but it is not the best of reasons.

Grow peppers you will use. If you love hot food, hot peppers are a good option. If not, choose a fun sweet pepper variety.

3. How will you use the peppers?

A healthy hot pepper plant like a Bhut Jolokia, Scotch bonnet, or habanero can generate more than a hundred fruits. 

Make sure you grow a pepper variety you know you will use. 

Making hot sauce and pepper salsa
Making hot sauce and pepper salsa

Many sweet pepper varieties yield fewer but larger fruits. Still expect to harvest at least 20-40 fruits per plant.

4. Is your growing season long enough?

Hot peppers need months to develop and mature.

Choose a sweet pepper variety if your growing season is short and you do not have a grow light.

5. What is your level of interest in the process?

Everyone loves harvest time. But when you start peppers from seeds, it is like adopting a small plant that needs care.

Aphids love peppers
Pests like aphids love peppers

It is not a lot of work. But some steps need to be taken.

  • Seeds are started indoors in a dark room on a warm surface
  • When you see the first leaves, place seedlings under a grow light
  • When seedlings are about 3 cm / 1 inch tall, it is time to transplant them into larger pots and fertilize lightly (half the recommended dosage)
  • As the seedling grows, pot up when you see roots through the drainage holes
  • You can move your plants outdoors when there is no longer any risk of frost. Peppers are sun-loving but avoid windy spots and direct sunlight during the hottest times of the day.
  • Water regularly, but let the plant dry out slightly in between waterings
  • Fertilize regularly
  • Watch for changes in temperature, leaf color, flower drop, pests, and diseases.
  • Stake and support your plants properly
Scotch bonnet pepper fruits ripening on plant
Scotch bonnet pepper fruits

The list above is a summary but still gives you an idea of what is required to grow peppers from seed.

I include this section at the end of the article as I want you to be successful.

I can promise you that it is not difficult. 

Most people I talk to want to grow a high-yielding pepper plant with some heat. 

If that is you, I recommend cayenne pepper plants. The long slim cayenne variety is actually one of my favorites. 

You will have a rich harvest, and the plant is relatively easy-going and forgiving. Also, the seeds have a good germination rate. 

So what are you waiting for?

Just go for it!

Mattias Magnusson: Hello, I'm Mattias, a passionate and experienced gardening enthusiast. I am the creator of MattMagnusson.com, your guide to year-round herb and veggie growing. Let's simplify green living, no matter your space or location.