How to Grow Peppers and Chilis: Seed to Harvest
I’ll admit: I’m not an exuberant fan of spicy foods. Also, we don’t live in the most ideal climate for growing peppers (our summers are cool and foggy). However, that doesn’t stop us from successfully growing plentiful peppers every summer! Little ones, big ones, sweet ones, hot ones… There are dozens of different pepper and chili varieties – something for every taste bud, and every zone! Peppers also happen to be very low-maintenance and easy to grow; part of the reason I can’t resist growing gobs of them.
Read along to learn all about how to grow peppers (capsicum), including chili peppers or bell peppers. We’ll talk about their ideal growing conditions, our favorite pepper varieties, tips on starting from seed, planting, pruning, pinching, harvest time, seed-saving, and more. Last but not least, I’ll share a few of our favorite tasty ways to use fresh peppers – or preserve them!
Quick Tips & Ideal Conditions to Grow Peppers
- Pepper plants are warm weather loving crops, perfect for the summer garden. Peppers grow best when the soil is regularly over 70°F. Temperatures below 55°F will slow the growth of mature pepper plants and stunt seedlings. On the flip side, extreme heat can slow down large, sweet bell pepper development. They’ll start to produce more later in the season, once the nights become cooler and longer once again.
- Pepper plants are self-pollinating or ‘self-fruitful’. That means you do not need more than one plant to successfully grow peppers!
- Plant peppers in a sunny location that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of full direct sunlight per day. Unfortunately, they will not produce well in the shade.
- Peppers grow well in raised garden beds, containers, or in-ground gardens – as long as the soil is well-draining.
- Peppers prefer consistent water but only moderately damp conditions. Once established, pepper plants are fairly drought-tolerant. Meaning, you can allow the soil to dry out slightly between watering. Peppers need less water than most people think!
- If you’re growing peppers from seed, be sure to start early! They tend to lollygag as seedlings. See more tips on growing peppers from seed below.
- Peppers take about two to four months to bear mature fruit, depending on the variety and climate. For example, it takes bell peppers significantly longer to ripen and turn colors here (cool, foggy coastal climate) than places with warmer summer weather. Small hot chiles develop far faster than large thick peppers.
Growing Peppers from Seed
Most gardeners need to start their pepper seeds in protected conditions (e.g. indoors or in a climate-controlled greenhouse) in order to have decent-sized seedlings by the time the weather warms in late spring. Peppers are notoriously slow to start. Even under ideal conditions, pepper seeds may take a couple weeks to germinate. Then as seedlings, peppers grow fairly slow – especially compared to other summer crops like tomatoes or squash, which can sprout and get large in a matter of weeks! So, start pepper seeds nice and early – about 7 to 10 weeks before the last spring frost date in your area.
- To grow peppers from seed, follow common seed-starting best practices: use a fluffy soil medium made for seedlings, plant pepper seeds approximately ¼ inch deep (follow instructions on the seed package), maintain the soil consistently moist but not soggy, and use a humidity dome or other cover to prevent the soil from drying out before they sprout.
- Provide plenty of bright light as soon as the seeds sprout! A grow light will provide better, stronger light than a sunny window.
- Because peppers love heat, I highly recommend the use of a seedling heat mat. It will help speed up germination and also promote steady seedling growth.
- Last but not least, be sure to harden off indoor-raised seedlings before planting them outside. Without it, the sudden change in conditions may harm them!
Not sure about frost dates or when to start seeds? Grab a Homestead and Chill planting calendar here. It will guide you on when to start seeds inside, transplant seedlings out, or direct sow seeds outside – for dozens of vegetables, and every USDA hardiness zone!
- Whether you grow from seed or purchase nursery seedlings (nothing wrong with that!), transplant peppers outside in spring after the last risk of frost has passed. Again, they’ll be happiest when the soil warms to around 70°F during the day, and overnight air temperatures are over 50°F. Peppers are not frost-tolerant, so be prepared to protect seedlings from unexpected late frost if needed. Learn several ways to protect plants from frost in this article.
- Most sources say to space pepper plants about 18 to 24 inches apart, though sometimes I squeeze them in a tad tighter (but no less than 12” apart).
- Before planting, amend the soil with aged compost and a well-balanced, slow-release fertilizer like this one. We also like to add worm castings and mycorrhizae directly in the planting hole. Both can reduce transplant shock, promote strong root growth, and overall healthy plants! Check out all our top transplanting tips and soil amending routine here.
- Water well after planting, and then apply one to two inches of mulch to the soil surface around the plant. Mulch helps the soil retain even moisture and buffers against temperature swings. We use a combination of compost and a fine barky material as mulch.
- Support pepper plants with either a small tomato cage, a single stake, or special pepper plant supports – like these! The plants and branches can become heavy with fruit as the season goes on.
Our Favorite Pepper Varieties
Below is a list of our favorite types of peppers and chilis. We choose our pepper varieties based on flavor, size, and what does well in our climate. Again, we have pretty foggy and cool summers here on the Central Coast of California, and therefore find that smaller peppers that ripen more quickly do best for us. I especially love mini-bell peppers for that reason! Aaron has more of an affinity for heat, while I love the savory and sweet types – so we grow a little of both. Yet there are dozens of interesting and unique peppers beyond this list. Get out there, seed shop around, and try whatever sounds exciting to you!
- Shishitos: unique thin-walled peppers. They’re slightly crinkled in appearance, savory to mildly spicy, and absolutely delicious blistered in a pan on the stovetop and enjoyed whole!
- Cayenne: When it comes to cayenne peppers, Aaron loves this ‘Red Ember‘ variety. It has quite a bit of heat (but less than a jalapeno), and is incredibly flavorful with sweet notes too. They’re great for hot sauce, salsa, cooking, or evenly thinly sliced raw on top of a meal.
- Banana peppers: long slender yellow-green peppers, mild earthy and slightly sweet flavor, medium-thick walls, perfect for pickling like pepperoncinis, cooking, used on top of pizza, in salad and more.
- Sweet bell peppers: a few of my favorite bells include ‘Glow‘ (orange, medium-size, very sweet, early-ripening), ‘Cupid’ (small red bells that grow on large, branching plants), and ‘Lunchbox’ (a mix of red, yellow and orange mini sweet bell peppers).
- Jalapeños: the summer garden wouldn’t be complete without quintessential jalapeno peppers! Ideal medium-heat for salsa, sauces, and other dishes. Black Magic is a tried and true variety that we enjoy growing most.
- Other hot chilis: Aji Amarillo (Peruvian yellow chile pepper), Buena Mulata (super-hot small purple chili peppers), Serrano chiles (similar to jalapeños, but smaller and more spicy), Thai Chilis (there are many different varieties, all quite small but with a range of heat indexes).
Topping Pepper Plants (optional)
Once pepper seedlings are about a month old (or at least 5 to 6 inches tall), you could consider topping some of them. Pruning or topping pepper seedlings will encourage the plant to grow more side branches, becoming more bushy rather than tall and lanky. For many types of peppers, more branches equals more fruit! To top pepper plants, simply trim off the tip of the main stem. Cut near the top, leaving behind several leaves and branch nodes below. See the photos below.
The practice of topping peppers is totally optional, and only recommended for pepper varieties that naturally produce dozens of small chili peppers such as jalapeños, cayenne, Thai chilis, shishitos, or similar. Topping bell pepper plants (or similar larger, thick-walled pepper varieties) may stunt their growth and/or limit fruit production. You could go either way with something in-between, like a banana pepper.
Sometimes we top pepper plants, other times we don’t. This year I am doing a side-by-side experiment with several plants of the same variety to compare the results of topping or not. I will be sure to report back!
Pinching Pepper Flowers
Here is another optional trick to help your pepper plants live their best life: pinch off their flowers! While it may sound counterintuitive, pinching off pepper flowers that form early on will encourage the plant to grow larger – which also means it has the potential to produce more fruit later! When pepper plants start to develop fruit when they’re still very small, the majority of the plant’s resources will go into growing that fruit. By pinching off the early flowers, the plant instead focuses its energy on getting larger first.
Potential Pepper Plant Pests
Say that 5 times fast! Thankfully, peppers typically experience little pest pressure or disease. The most common pepper plant pests are all small sap-sucking insects including aphids, whitefly, thrips and spider mites. If you check your plants often and catch pest activity early, minor aphid infestations are easily mitigated by spraying them off with a hard stream of water from the hose (but not so hard it damages your plant). Otherwise, learn how to create and use homemade soap spray here. It works on all small soft-bodied insects including aphids, mites, and whitefly. Neem oil is another organic solution to kill or deter pests, but needs to be applied carefully. Incorrect mixing, application and use of neem oil may burn plant leaves. Read more about using neem oil in the garden here.
Growing Peppers in Pots
You can absolutely grow peppers in pots! In fact, their compact size makes peppers one of the best-suited summer crops for a container garden. Even though we have several large raised garden beds, we usually end up planting a few extra pepper plants in containers too. Plus, it’s even easier to overwinter your pepper plants if they’re already in a pot! I personally love to grow peppers in 5 to 7 gallon fabric grow bags like these Smart Pots. Unlike some solid pots, fabric grow bags will never get water-logged on the bottom. The ample drainage and “air pruning” provided by grow bags are perfect for peppers!
When to Harvest Peppers
All peppers start out green, and depending on the variety, change various colors as they ripen and mature. Most types of peppers will eventually turn red, even those you are accustomed to eating while they’re still green – such as jalapeño, poblano, or shishito peppers. You can technically harvest and use peppers at any stage or color! This makes peppers a terrific “use them when you need them” type of crop, perfect for perpetual harvests all summer long.
However, the flavor of peppers become increasingly complex (and sometimes more desirable) with time. For instance, a yellow bell pepper picked early can be enjoyed as a green bell instead, though it will taste much sweeter if you wait. Similarly, young green chili peppers are plenty spicy, but may develop smoky, fruity, or other more interesting notes later in the summer. Experiment and harvest your peppers at different stages to see what you like best.
Towards the end of the season, reducing the amount of water the plant receives will encourage peppers to change color and ripen more quickly – just like tomatoes!
How to Harvest Peppers
To harvest peppers, it is best to use scissors or garden snips to cut the stem just above the fruit. Or, you can try to gently pluck the pepper off the plant by hand by lifting it up and away (yet there is a risk of breaking off entire branches that way). Once they’re close to peak ripeness, peppers will usually snap off the plant with more ease. After harvesting, it is best to store your peppers in the refrigerator to maintain maximum freshness. Although, if you harvest a pepper that is just starting to change color, most will continue to ripen if left out at room temperature for a few days.
What are those lines on my peppers?
As peppers grow, they sometimes develop light brown, rough, raised lines on them. This is known as “corking”, though some gardeners refer to it as scarring. Corking on peppers is totally natural – and unlike corked wine, is nothing to snub your nose at! In fact, many other countries consider corking a desirable characteristic (while US markets are too picky about ‘perfect’ produce, unfortunately).
Corking is most common on hot chili pepper varieties like jalapeños. Excess amounts of water, nutrients, sun, or rapid growth during development are some of the suspected causes of corking. Some folks swear that corked or scarred peppers are hotter and sweeter in flavor, though others think that’s simply a myth.
How to Save Seeds from Peppers
It’s easy to save seeds from peppers! All you have to do is let a pepper fully ripen on the plant, until it turns colors and even begins to wrinkle. This may take several months, but ensures that the seeds inside are also fully mature and viable. Choose a prime-looking fruit from a healthy, vigorous plant. Those are the genetics you want to capture and reproduce! It is best to save seeds from open-pollinated pepper varieties. Pepper seeds saved from hybrid varieties may not “breed true” to the parent plant. If you aren’t sure what type you have, check the seed package or nursery plant tag.
When the time is right, cut the pepper open, gently pluck out the seeds, and lay them out in a paper towel or newspaper to dry. Keep the seeds out of direct sunlight, and allow them to fully dry for several days (until they’re brittle, not bendy) before packaging them into a paper envelope or plastic baggie for storage. Pop over to this article for more tips about seed storage best practices and FAQ.
Ways to Use Fresh Peppers
Now, the moment we’ve all been patiently waiting for… let’s eat some peppers! I love eating sweet, savory, and mild peppers fresh. Raw bell peppers make a fantastic snack, are delicious on tacos or salad, or can be added to stir fry, grilled, roasted, or sautéed. Of course you can do this with hot chilis too, but go easy! Larger peppers like poblanos, pasilla, or bell peppers are perfect to hollow out and stuff with goodies like cheese, seasoned rice, quinoa, beans, or even other veggies. And last but not least, if you’ve never had pan-roasted blistered shishito peppers, you’re in for a treat! They’re one of my favorite summer snacks. I can easily eat a whole plate.
IMPORTANT: Remember to always use caution when handling hot chili peppers! The hottest parts include the ribs, veins, and seeds within the pepper. Therefore, remove those extra-spicy parts when cooking with peppers to reduce overall heat. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or other sensitive areas after working with chili peppers – even after thoroughly washing your hands. Some folks may experience irritation on their fingers or other skin too, so you may want to wear gloves.
How to Preserve Peppers & Chilis
Excess peppers can be frozen, dried, fermented, or pickled. Small hot chilis are perfect for freezing. Simply toss them whole into the freezer in an air-tight container, and cut off the stems later when you want to use them. On this homestead, our favorite ways to preserve peppers include making homemade dried chili powder seasoning, fermented hot sauce, and tangy pickled peppers.
Check out the list of pepper-inspired recipes below!
- Quick and Easy Refrigerator Pickled Peppers
- Sweet and Spicy Pepper Fermented Hot Sauce Recipe
- How to Make Homemade Dried Chili Powder
- Pan-Roasted (Blistered) Shishito Peppers
- Baked Jalapeno Poppers w/ BBQ Chips
- Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde Recipe (freezer-friendly)
Party on, pepper people!
In closing, I hope this article gave you a few new and insightful tips on how to grow peppers and chilis – plus tasty ways to prepare or preserve them. As always, feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments below, or just say hello! If you found this information to be valuable, please spread the love by pinning or sharing this post. Thank you for stopping by, and cheers to your poppin’ peppers this summer!
Lovin’ this grow guide? Check these out too:
- How to Grow Zucchini (Summer Squash): Planting, Pollination, Pests & More
- Growing Organic Tomatoes: How to Plant, Feed, Prune & Grow Tomato Plants
- How to Grow Bushels of Beans (Bush Beans and Pole Beans)
- Bushy Basil: Growing Basil to Harvest All Summer Long
- All About Calendula: How to Grow, Harvest, Dry and Use Calendula Flowers
Did you know that pepper plants are perennials?
In the fall cut them back to expose the “Y” in the plant stem.
Remove all the leaves.
Keep them in a greenhouse or in a warm room over the winter and
replant in the spring.
My peppers are already sprouting back again. Can hardly wait to see
how they grow and how big the peppers will be.
I find in cutting off the tops of the peppers I get smaller peppers.
I favor to leave the plants.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Alanna, yes we are aware that pepper plants can keep coming back each season. One of our friends has a habanero plant he keeps in a container that is probably 3 or 4 years old. We are usually interested in trying a variety of peppers so we prefer to start fresh from seed each year unless we have a particular variety that is hard to come by in seed form. Enjoy your peppers this year and hopefully you have bountiful harvests!
Again with the valuable insights and tips! I need to remember to always check your blog before I take others’ quick advice! Living and learning all the time, and with a bit of help from you!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Thanks for reading Kathy, we appreciate your support!
Hello! If you harvest all the peppers off your plant will it eventually grow more or is it done? Harvested my last two today. Plant still looks good!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hello Lorraine, as long as they have flowers they will potentially grow more peppers. Once the season is coming to an end is mostly when you may end up picking the remainder of the fruit without much possibility of more fruit forming. Good luck and enjoy your harvest!
Thanks for the tip, I will try the neem oil. These worms get inside the peppers and bore around. Hopefully this works and keeps them out ! 😉
My peppers, especially any variety of hot pepper, get worms if I leave them on the plant too long. What kind of bug/worm do think it is and how can I stop them?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hello Jess, there are a few different types of caterpillars that will munch on pepper plants and the fruit themselves. The easiest thing for you to do would be to spray BT on your pepper plants once every week or two as they start to flower and set fruit. Check out this article on how to control caterpillars in your garden. Another option is to use a weekly spray of neem oil as a preventative throughout the growing season. Check out our How to Properly Emulsify Neem Oil & Make a Safe Garden Pest Spray. Hope that is enough to get you going and let us know if you have any other questions and good luck!
Oh my gosh, THANK YOU for this article! I can grow everything under the sun in my garden, with the sad exception of peppers. I’m going to the local nursery now to pick up shishitos!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Good luck Lauren!