Put a Pep in that Step: Falling for Peppers

By Skip Richter, Contributing Editor

Peppers have been enjoying the garden spotlight in recent years.

In 2015, the National Garden Bureau chose the sweet pepper as its pepper of the year. But it isn’t just sweet peppers that are popular. Hot peppers have their own rabid fan base.

Peppers range in heat from cool bells to spicy jalapeños and serranos, and the blazing hot habanero. Not content to leave things habanero hot, pepper aficionados have continued the search - and the breeding of peppers - coming up with the ghost pepper, and others with names like scorpion and viper.

These infernal torpedoes from hell aren’t the world’s hottest, though. In 2013, that honor was awarded to the ‘Carolina Reaper’ pepper. To give you an idea how hot it is, on a scale of Scoville units (how we measure pepper heat), a hot-type of jalapeño is rated around 8,000, a serrano around 23,000 and the blistering hot habanero at 350,000.

Carolina Reaper blows the top off of the scale at 2.2 million Scoville units! Now that is just plain ridiculous. That’s so hot you have to run your sprinklers around the plants day and night to keep the mulch from catching fire!

Types of peppers

Whether you like them hot or mild, there are some great pepper options for every garden.

I remember when choosing a pepper basically involved bells, banana, jalapeño, serrano, ancho, pimento and a handful of others. Now, seed companies boast hundreds of pepper varieties from sweet to hot, in colors including white, yellow, orange, red, green, chocolate brown and purple.

Hybrid crosses are blurring the lines between types of peppers, offering more variety than a gardener can imagine. Some of my current favorites are the jalapeño-shaped, colorful sweet peppers called ‘Lipstick’ or ‘Lunchbox’ (which lack heat but are very sweet, tasty and easy to grow) and the meaty jalapeño called ‘Mucho Nacho.’

Summer and fall peppers

Most gardeners plant peppers in the spring garden and carry them on into the summer season.

If you have peppers in your garden, don’t stop with summer. Depending on the type of peppers you have, your plants may not set a lot of fruit in the spring (when they are still small) or in the summer (when it gets really hot). But with fertilizer and adequate watering, the plants will continue to grow so that in the fall you will get a bountiful harvest! I get a lot more peppers from my late-summer to fall garden than from my spring plants.

If you don’t have peppers in your garden now, there is plenty of time to get some going for late-summer and fall production. I like starting my own transplants from seed because it allows me to grow many great new varieties not commonly available in garden centers.

Starting transplants

It is easy to grow your own pepper transplants. Late May to early June is a good time to start transplants for setting out in the garden in late June or early July.

Choose a quality growing medium, such as one designed for seed starting, and pre-moisten the medium prior to planting. Set seeds about 1/4 to 1/3 inch deep and press them in gently to firm the medium around the seed. Then water again with a mist nozzle to avoid dislodging the seeds.

Place the seeded containers in a warm spot and in plenty of light. Indoors or outdoors is fine initially, but when the seeds start to sprout, move the containers outdoors where the temperature is warmer and the light much brighter.

Keep the medium evenly moist by misting the plants or by bottom watering (placing in a shallow tray of water to allow moisture to wick up into the growing medium). When the first true leaves appear, start to fertilize with a diluted nutrient solution at label rates every time you water. About four to six weeks after the seeds sprout, your seedlings should be ready to transplant into the garden.

Site, prep and planting

Select a location with at least six hours of direct sunlight. Good drainage is important, so in areas prone to heavy rains, raised beds may be advised. Prepare the soil by mixing in a couple inches of compost 4-6 inches deep.

Peppers also do very well in containers. They will do best if you can provide them at least 5 gallons of soil, but I’ve had them perform okay in a 3-gallon container, although productivity was less.

Use a good potting soil in the containers rather than garden soil, and place the plants where they can receive plenty of sunshine and where you can easily water them. In the heat of summer, containers will need to be watered once or twice a day, depending on the size of the plant and the size of the container, as well as the amount of direct sunlight.

Plant transplants at the same depth as they were growing in the container. Unlike tomatoes, peppers won’t root along the stems if buried. If your plants have been growing in partial shade, it will be helpful to provide them some type of shade structure to help them adjust to the bright sun out in the garden. A doubled section of row cover or some shade cloth suspended over the row will provide a little break from the brunt of the summer sun to get them off to a good start.

Build a circular berm of soil around the plants about 12 inches in diameter and 3-inches high to facilitate providing them with a deep, thorough soaking when you water. Water the newly set transplants in with a diluted solution of soluble fertilizer, or a fish emulsion and seaweed mixture.

Repeat this feeding every time you water the plants for a couple of weeks, or use a solution mixed at the stronger label rate at the time of planting and again at seven and 14 days after planting. The goal is to get them off to a strong, vigorous start and then to keep them growing to build a large plant for peak production later in the season.

Peppers produce fairly sturdy plants, although plant structure varies significantly between the different species.

Nevertheless, staking or using a cage is a good way to ensure the plants have a strong, upright structure as they grow. I like to use the small cages with two or three rings and three vertical wires that you push into the ground. These provide adequate initial support for the growing plants. You can use these around plants growing in containers too.

Caring for your pepper plants

Peppers can take the summer heat if provided with adequate water. The key is to keep their soil moist without keeping it soggy wet.

There is no watering schedule that applies to all situations. In clay soil and full-sun locations, you’ll water less often than in sandy soil or semi-shaded spots. Containers will need watering daily, if not twice daily, as the plants get larger, especially if the containers are small.

Don’t count on just watering until runoff starts. This seldom wets the soil very deeply. When you water, provide a good deep soaking and then allow the soil to dry out a bit before watering again. In most soil conditions, once the plants are well established, you should be able to water twice a week if you soak the soil well. Filling the circular berm you constructed at planting will help ensure the soil is soaked to a depth of at least 6 inches.

Mulch the plants with about 3 inches of leaves or pine needles. The goal of a mulch covering is to deter weed seeds from germinating, to help moderate soil temperature and to slow evaporative drying of the soil.

About two to three weeks after planting, side dress plants with a complete fertilizer in roughly a 3-1-2 ration of nutrients. Apply one cup of organic or 1/3 cup of synthetic fertilizer per 25 square feet of bed area or, if you just have a few plants, sprinkle 1/3 cup of organic or two tablespoons of synthetic fertilizer evenly throughout a 2-foot diameter circular area around each plant.

Scratch the fertilizer into the surface inch of soil. Then water the area well to start to release nutrients to the roots, or in the case of organic products, to initiate microbial decomposition of the ingredients.

Pests and diseases

Peppers are not typically plagued by pests or diseases, but there are a few things to be on the lookout for.

Leaf-footed bugs and their stink bug cousins love tomatoes but will also feed on peppers, causing young fruit to become malformed and older fruit to develop small white spots. Learn what they look like as eggs and nymphs, when they are easier to control with sprays or by knocking them into a can of soapy water.

Aphids are fond of succulent new growth but are easily brought under control with a spray of insecticidal soap if beneficial insects are not around to do the job. Occasionally, caterpillars will attack foliage or fruit but can be handpicked or sprayed with a product containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

There are some fungal and bacterial diseases of pepper fruits and foliage. These are more of a problem when the plants are kept wet. Therefore, drip irrigation, which applies water to the soil, is better than sprinklers, which wet the plants. Watering more thoroughly but less often also helps reduce the incidence of disease problems.

When spraying is needed there are several disease-fighting products containing copper that are fairly effective, especially against the bacterial diseases. Remember that these products prevent infections but don’t cure infections. So they should be used early on when the first signs of a problem appear.

Virus diseases can also infect peppers. There is no cure for viruses, so the plants should be promptly removed from the garden to avoid having the virus spread to other plants.


Pepper fruit can be harvested at pretty much any stage of their development, although with certain peppers there is a traditional stage for harvesting them.

Bell peppers can be picked when green or start to turn red. Some varieties are more prone to develop a red color earlier and more fully than others. Then there are the varieties that are white, yellow, orange and purple! Thankfully you can’t really go wrong when harvesting.

When a pepper turns from green to red as it matures, the beta carotene content increases dramatically and they tend to get sweeter. However, letting peppers mature more fully may have a slight negative effect on overall productivity. So there is a little tradeoff. I personally prefer letting my jalapeños turn red, or at least some of them.

When winter arrives

Peppers are considered an annual plant in our gardens although they are perennial in warmer climates.

I have overwintered peppers in my gardens in South and Southeast Texas, especially during mild winters. Mound up loose soil or mulch around the base of each plant stem to protect it during a freeze. Prune plants back to remove freeze-damaged branches at the end of winter and they’ll take off growing with the arrival of warm weather.

Another option is to prune, dig and pot a plant to carry it through the winter in a greenhouse. Either way you can get a head start on spring.

Although it is hot outside, this is the time to start your late-summer to fall pepper garden. Grab some catalogues and find some new or new-to-you varieties to try this year!







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