Spicy and full of flavor, hot peppers are a delicious addition to a variety of dishes! Their heat comes from capsaicin, a chemical compound found in the veins and ribs of these peppers. Here's what you'll need to know to help your Hot peppers thrive!
We'll be walking you through:
Glossary of Hot peppers terms
Varieties of Hot peppers available
Starting your Hot peppers seeds
Caring for Hot peppers at all stages
Fertilizer and/or Mulching
Transplanting best practices
Companion Plants do’s and don’ts
Common Problems and Their Solutions
Pests, Diseases and what to do about them
Harvesting and storing your Hot peppers
GLOSSARY OF HOT PEPPER TERMS
Before we get started, let’s learn a little bit about hot peppers!
HARDENING-OFF: The process of gradually getting plants used to outdoor conditions like sun exposure, temperatures, and wind. This starts by putting pepper seedlings outside for a few hours each day, then gradually reducing their water intake and temperature until they’re ready for transplant.
OPEN-POLLINATED: The ability of a pepper plant to either pollinate itself or get pollinated by wind, insects or by human hand in order to form flowers.
THINNING: A process that reduces competition for light, water and nutrients between seedlings. You leave the strongest plants behind, taking out the others. Those that are left have more room to develop, plus a healthy air flow – which is important since crowded plants are harder to treat for diseases and pests.
SHU’S: Scoville Heat Units that are used as a (subjective) rating system for the heat of hot peppers.
VARIETIES OF HOT PEPPERS
Depending on the level of heat you’d like in your peppers, you have some options!
Thick-walled, juicy, and green, these peppers are between 2,000-5,000 SHU’s.
Small lime-green fruits that ripen to red and need lots of heat to mature. They’re typically between 100,000- 350,000 SHU’s.
This variety matures quickly from green to red, dries fast on the plant, and is mildly hot at 100-500 SHU’s.
A variety producing strong, upright plants. Their dark green bodies turn scarlet when ripe, and they’re between 30,000-40,000 SHU’s.
PLANTING HOT PEPPERS
Hot peppers can either be sown directly outside or started inside as transplants. Hot Peppers can handle it all!
The ideal temperature for hot peppers to germinate is between 75-90°F (24-32°C). As well, they typically won’t germinate when soil temperatures are below 55°F (12.7°C).
Start your seeds inside about 8-10 weeks before transplanting, and you can sow them a quarter-inch (0.6cm) deep in starter pods, trays or cell-packs.
Your pepper seedlings will need a warm and sunny spot to start growing, so it’s best to keep them on your windowsill.
Their air temperature shouldn’t go below 70°F (21°C) during the day or below 65°F (18°C) overnight.
You also won’t want to rush to transplant your hot peppers outside. They prefer warm climates, so cold temperatures can really weaken them.
Once they’re ready, set your transplants 12-24 inches (30-60 cm) apart, in rows that are 24-36 inches (60-91 cm) apart. If you’re growing your hot peppers in raised beds, set them about 14- 16 inches (35-40 cm) apart.
You can also start by directly sowing your pepper seeds outside. Just keep in mind that in order to do so successfully, their soil has to be warmed to at least 60°F (15°C). Ideally, 65°F (18°C) would be even better.
Plant them a half inch (1.2 cm) deep and keep them spaced about 18 inches (45 cm) apart.
Once your pepper plants have two leaves, thin them to the strongest plant.
TRANSPLANTING BEST PRACTICES
Your plants will need about 8-10 weeks before they can be transplanted.
Once they have 6-9 mature leaves and a well-developed root system, that typically means they’re ready.
Before you plant them in your garden though, harden-off your seedlings by exposing them to temperatures between 60-65°F (15-18°C) and reduce their water intake as well.
Place your plants outdoors in the sun for a few hours per day, increasing their outside hours gradually over the span of 1-2 weeks.
CARING FOR HOT PEPPERS
In this section, we’ll cover everything you need to know about pinching, watering and thinning your plants, plus fertilizer and mulch best practices. We’ll also talk about transplanting, companion planting, and your growing structure options. But first, some basics:
Hot peppers can be grown USDA zones 4 though 12. They grow best in slightly acidic soils with a pH of 6.0-6.8, they need full sun to thrive, and they won’t survive in cold temperatures.
Nighttime temperatures below 65°F (18°C) or above 75°F (23°C) can also reduce their fruit production, so keep that in mind. Their ideal air temperature is between 70-80°F (21-26°C) during the day and between 60-70°F (15-21°C) during the night.
Plants can drop their blossoms when air temperatures are above 95°F (35°C) and also when they’re watered too infrequently. Make sure to water early on in the day to allow the leaves time to dry. This helps minimize the risk of disease infection.
You’ll also want to pinch back the growing tips, which will encourage leaf growth in your pepper plants. Leaves provide shade for the peppers during hot summers, and can help prevent them from getting sun-scale.
Be sure to hand-pull any weeds around your peppers, since they compete for nutrients and water. Just take care not to damage your plants in the process!
Prepare your soil before planting with 4-6 cups of an all-purpose fertilizer per 100 square feet (9m2).
You can also use well-composted organic matter – about 2-4 inches (5-10cm) per 100 square feet.
Side-dress your peppers with nitrogen both 4 and 8 weeks after transplanting by applying a quarter tablespoon to each plant, spreading it 6 inches (15.2cm) next to the plants. Then, water it into the soil.
Keep in mind that over-fertilizing your plants will encourage excessive leaf growth but it will delay the growth of the actual peppers.
Add straw, newspapers or wood chips after your plants are well-established and once your soil has warmed up.
It’s important to note that if you mulch too early, it can actually keep the cold in the soil for longer, which is not good for your hot peppers.
GROWING STRUCTURE OPTIONS
STAKING FOR TALL VARIETIES: When lightly twined to stakes or wire cages, pepper plants can grow along those supporting stakes. This helps prevent them from snapping in harsh winds later in their growing season, but also saves you some garden space! It also promotes air circulation around your plants and decreases the risks for disease infections.
CONTAINERS: They’ll work well, as long as they’re large enough to accommodate the whole plant (about 14 inches in diameter per plant). When stakes have to be installed, spacing is even more important, so keep that in mind. As well, make sure your containers have holes in the bottom to promote good soil drainage.
RAISED BEDS: These are the ideal option for improving your soil’s water drainage. They also have a higher soil temperature than the actual ground, which helps prevent the spread of diseases that favor cool and/or moist conditions. In addition, they allow you to start planting earlier in the springtime! They also help minimize damage to your plants, since you don’t have to step on their soil to work on them.
OPEN FIELD: If you have enough space, directly planting into an open field is a great option. With peppers, it’s especially important that your soil is well warmed before you plant. You can also install support structures wooden stakes or wire cages into your open field area.
COMPANION PLANTS DO’S AND DON’TS
Asparagus, carrots, cucumbers, oregano, parsley, squash, and Swiss chard are all great companion plants.
Basil has shown to help deter aphids while garlic naturally repels insects and fungi.
Eggplants need similar maintenance as peppers, so they’re yet another great companion plant.
Beans add nitrogen into the soil, which can stunt the growth of your peppers.
Brassicas have different soil and fertilizer needs, so don’t make a good garden companion.
Fennel plants attract pests and insects that are harmful to your peppers, so they shouldn’t be planted with your peppers either.
COMMON HOT PEPPER CHALLENGES…AND THEIR SOLUTIONS
There are a number of pests and diseases that can potentially harm your hot peppers. Not to worry – we’ve outlined them below, as well as how to either avoid or fix the problem.
APHIDS: These insects feed on the undersides of leaves and stems, causing the leaves to curl and crinkle. As well, they’re known to spread diseases.
Solution: A hard stream of water (like from a garden hose) can wash them off your plants. As well, you can check for natural enemies like the larvae of lady beetles and lacewings (which look a bit like alligators).
EUROPEAN CORN BORERS: When these larvae enter your peppers, they leave brown masses on the surface. This damage can also become a gateway for bacterial soft rot, which will typically infect peppers 2-3 weeks later.
Solution: If you spot an infestation, be sure to remove and destroy the affected plants. You can also hand-pick single borers if you find them on your plants.
PEPPER MAGGOT: Its flies lay their eggs inside the peppers, which usually means damage goes unseen until it’s too late. They’ll feed on the inside and leave tunnels behind, which are only really noticed once the pepper either ripens prematurely or dies off.
Solution: Use yellow sticky cards to attract and trap the adult flies.
CUCUMBER MOSAIC VIRUS: It causes ringspots and weird patterns to appear, while peppers will become smaller and have a much lower quality to them. As well, leaves typically become dull green and leathery.
Solution: Remove and destroy any infected plants. You’ll also want to control aphid populations, since they’re the pests that spread this virus.
BLOSSOM END ROT: Dark, leathery spots appear at the bottom of the fruit, which often get invaded by another black mold. Symptoms can look the same as those from sunscald, but typically sunscald only happens in areas where the fruit has been exposed to the sun.
Solution: Keep your plants’ moisture level constant by watering them during a drought. As well, fertilize them properly and make sure you keep high levels of organic matter in your soil.
TOBACCO MOSAIC VIRUS: This disease causes the uneven ripening of peppers as well as light and dark green spots that will appear on the leaves. Those leaves will also be smaller and more curled in appearance.
Solution: Plant disease-resistant varieties when possible. If you have an infection, make sure to get rid of any affected plants while also practicing proper garden sanitation. Smokers should wash their hands as well as any clothes that have been covered in smoke to prevent spreading it to the pepper plants.
BACTERIAL LEAF SPOT: It causes sunken and scab-like lesions on ripe peppers. It thrives in temperatures between 80-90°F (26-32°C) and can appear after a heavy rainfall. The disease is then spread by splashing rain, workers, tools and machinery.
Solution: Practice garden sanitation and keep your growing areas free of weeds. Rotating your crops is also important in managing this disease – and when possible, plant certified, disease-resistant seeds.
ANTHRACNOSE: Small water-soaked spots will appear on your plant’s leaves, which enlarge and turn tan or brown in color with a papery texture. This disease thrives in extremely wet weather, and its spores are usually spread by splashing water.
Solution: Plant disease-resistant seeds when possible. As well, avoid using sprinklers or overhead irrigation, and water your plants from their base to keep leaves as dry as possible. As well, you can treat seeds with hot water prior to planting (122°F or 50°C for 25 minutes).
VERTICILLIUM WILT: A disease causing the yellowing and wilting of lower leaves. V-shaped, brown lesions will appear, and the disease can cause wilting, stunting, or even the death of your plants.
Solution: Practice crop rotation with non-vulnerable plants. If you have any affected plants, be sure to remove and destroy them while also controlling weeds around your crops.
TOMATO SPOTTED WILT VIRUS: Your peppers will have small, black lesions, while the stems and roots might have black streaks. Severely infected plants can wilt, and their growth becomes stunted.
Solution: Remove and destroy any infected plants. As well, remove weeds that might be hosts for the virus to spread over to your pepper plants.
SOFT ROT: Water-soaked lesions will spread rapidly and cause the peppers to deteriorate into a slimy, foul smelling mass. Soft rot typically thrives in warm and moist weather, invading peppers through other injuries caused by insect stings, sunscald or wounding. It’s usually spread by human activity and the
Solution: Avoid excess irrigation, and take care not to wound your plants. As well, try not to harvest during rainy periods, avoid working in the field when your plants are wet, and practice proper tool and hand sanitation. Be sure to remove any decayed peppers, because they can infect healthy ones as well.
PHYTOPHTHORA BLIGHT: Causes the roots, stems, and fruits of your pepper plants to rot. Distinctive black lesions will form on the stem, and the fruit and stems will then wilt. This disease is spread by water, and it typically starts in areas that don’t drain well. It can also be spread through infected soil that’s stuck to humans or machinery.
Solution: Rotate your peppers with non-hosts like corn, small grains, brassicas and alliums. As well, practice good field sanitation, avoid overwatering, and keep your soil from compacting. You’ll also want to improve your soil’s drainage while avoiding working in your garden when your plants are wet.
IMPORTANT NOTES TO HELP AVOID HOT PEPPER DISEASES
Do not plant peppers in the same spot more than once every 4 years.
Plant in well-draining soil to avoid rot and wilting.
Practice good sanitation by cleaning your hands, gloves, and tools that might have been in contact with infected plants or soil.
HARVESTING HOT PEPPERS
Once peppers are firm, you can start harvesting them. You’ll want to cut the fruits rather than pulling them off, to avoid damaging your plant. Also, make sure to use rubber gloves to handle your hot peppers - it protects your skin from potential burning and other irritations.
NOTE: The same types of chili peppers, grown under different conditions, can vary greatly in their heat levels.
Pull out the entire bush at the end of the growing season and hang it upside down to ripen the hot varieties. They can also be dried for longer storage in an airy place. Also, you can hang single peppers from a string to dry them.