Peppers are one of the most rewarding plants you can have in your garden. A single plant can give you an abundance of fruits that you can enjoy for months. But maximizing your harvest and heat depends on knowing exactly what to do to give your peppers everything they need.
Before you even begin growing hot peppers, the first thing you need to do is select the type of chili pepper you want to grow. There are countless types of chili peppers, coming in all shapes and sizes and ranging from completely mild to lava-gargling, surface-of-the-sun hot. The heat of hot peppers is measured on a scale, called the Scoville Heat Scale. The way this scale works is that it measures how much a hot pepper must be diluted before the mixture is no longer spicy. Since the test is based on human involvement, it is not an exact science, and this is why there tends to be arguments over which peppers are hotter than others. But it gives a general idea of what to expect from a given variety of chili. With that said, it should be noted that the heat of a pepper relies very heavily on the growing conditions. A normally excruciating pepper can end up being nearly mild if the right conditions are not met.
For those extreme tasters, we at World Seed Supply offer some of the world’s hottest, including the Naga Jalokia, The Red Savina Habanero and the Desert Tepin. We also offer visually appealing types like the Chocolate habanero, which is anything but sweet, and classic types, like jalapeno and cayenne.
Now let’s get into the garden. The first mistake many pepper growers make is in the soil selection. In World Seed Supply’s experience, we have NOT found average potting soil or seed starting soil to be a good choice for peppers. Never use topsoil for chili peppers either. You want a soil that is well-draining and very fertile with plenty of organic matter. There seems to be debate over whether to use or avoid peat for hot peppers, so we figured we would just clarify. A little peat will not hurt your hot peppers, but you should never choose a soil in which peat is a major component. Peat is added to many soil mixtures to help with water retention and to provide a light medium that roots can easily penetrate. But it does not provide adequate nutrition and tends to dry out in strong sun, and once that happens it can be difficult to re-hydrate. But a small amount of peat (or used coffee grounds) can be useful just to increase the acidity of a mix.
Germinating your chili peppers indoors in advance and sowing directly outdoors are choices that each offer benefits and drawbacks. This is why we at World Seed Supply usually do a little of both and then choose the best plants to work with. The germination rate of pepper seeds seems to be higher when started indoors because you have more control over moisture. The advantage of pepper seed started outdoors is that it does not need to be hardened off. Hardening off is the process of adjusting a plant to the intense sunlight of the outdoors. Even though you may think your house is very bright, it rarely compares to the sun’s power outdoors. So, just like some individuals will use a few days in the tanning booth at the beginning of the summer before they can safely sit outside without burning, indoor plants will need some type of gradual exposure. At World Seed Supply, we usually begin exposure in an extremely shady spot such as under a deck or in the shade under a lawn chair. Hardening off can result in an adjustment period where growth slows down. So if you do not have a good amount of light indoors you might find that pepper seeds started outdoors will outpace seed started indoors at an earlier date. So if you have the extra seed to spare, it is a good idea to try both methods.
When germinating pepper seeds indoors, we recommend a 50/50 mix of cactus soil and perlite. Perlite is a very light, very porous type of volcanic rock that is similar to pumice. It comes in bags of tiny round particles that resemble foam balls. This 50/50 mix is actually a common mixture that works well with most plants. You should be able to get a bag of each for under $10 total. We have found that Hoffman brand or Shultz’s cactus soil seems to have a good consistency and a nice black color. An ideal Ph for hot peppers is about 5-6. The only consideration with a cactus soil base is that cacti prefer alkaline soils, so this is where you may want to lower the ph by adding in something like a small amount of peat or coffee grounds. If you have an adequate light source, you can start peppers at any time of year. Just be sure to harden them off slowly when you eventually put them outside.
We at World Seed Supply also like to grow our peppers in compost, which we order by the truckload. Just to be clear, growing hot peppers does not require two types of soil. The 50/50 mix is suitable for your entire growing project if you want to leave it in that. We just prefer compost for all growing that takes place outdoors, especially if we’re putting pepper plants in the ground. But since compost tends to carry insects, we don’t use this to start pepper seeds indoors. We do start some pepper seeds outdoors directly in compost. But seeds started indoors will be started in the mix mentioned above and transplanted to compost once they are ready to go outside. Good compost is well-draining and does not compact. Yet, it holds moisture well. Younger compost may be more beneficial for growing peppers since it tends to be more acidic. If you do your own composting, you can also increase the acidity by composting more things like fruit or pine needles. Otherwise, if you find that your compost is a little on the alkaline side, you might then go ahead and add in just a little peat or some spent coffee grounds to lower the ph.
Another traditional soil amendment for hot peppers is epsom salt (magnesium sulphate), which adds magnesium and sulphur to the soil. While most soils do not lack in these minerals, many growers use this to help the fruits set. Epsom salt is also useful in clearing out soils that have other salt buildups. These buildups tend to occur in potted plants, especially if tap water is used. Some pepper growers will mix a small amount of epsom salt in with the soil in the beginning of the season, while others use it in the water or as a foliar spray (1 Tbs per gallon). Others will scratch the granules into the surface of the soil. Epsom salt treatment will help prevent yellowing leaves that many growers see later in the season as the result of magnesium deficiency. This can have an effect on growth and flavor.
When planting, it is a good idea to sow your pepper seeds with the point facing down. The seed’s point is where the root will emerge from, so having the root positioned in advance will ensure that it drives down into the soil where it belongs. The seed should be sown at a depth just deeper than the diameter of the seed, so that the upper rim of the seed lies just below the soil line. Take measures to avoid the soil being too compact around the seed. Compact soil can actually choke seeds that would have otherwise grown. Compact soil inhibits airflow and holds the seed down. By planting loosely with the pepper seed point down and the rim at the soil line, the seed is ready to start rising out of the soil as soon as it begins to sprout.
Once the pepper seeds have been planted, keep the soil lightly and evenly moist until germination. During and before germination, bottom heat is extremely beneficial, particularly for the more exotic peppers like the naga jalokia, which come from tropical climates. For these, you want a soil temperature that is no less than 65 degrees F. For more exotic varieties, you may not see results in temperatures below 80 degrees. You may get away with cooler temperatures for other pepper seeds. But you will find that a few degrees can make a difference for these varieties. Also keep in mind that the soil temperature is not always the same as the air temperature.
Indoor seeds need only be watered by misting the soil with a spray bottle. At no point should it get wet though. Too much moisture can cause the pepper seed embryo to rot. It can also cause the stems of new chili seedlings to do the same. The soil can be allowed to dry out slightly between watering. But it is also important not to let the soil dry out completely. This may be a particularly sensitive issue if bottom heat is applied, since the heat can dry things out pretty quickly. But it is important to keep on top of this because if the soil happens to get too dry just as the embryo is waking up it could kill the seedling before you even realize anything was going on. The result is that you will unwittingly be tending dead seeds, waiting for them to pop up.
You may be accustomed to seeing pepper seedlings after two weeks or so, but be prepared to wait a month or more with some varieties, especially if temperatures are not ideal throughout. It is also common to see new sprouts weeks after others have first emerged. After the seeds have sprouted, be sure to keep the seed coats moist so that they can easily fall off. Occasionally, seed coats of pepper seeds will have trouble falling off. Keeping the seed coats moist will keep them pliable so that the plants can break free. It is usually best to allow the seed coat to fall off the pepper seedling naturally due to the risk of snapping the stem during handling. But in some cases you may have to remove the seed coat manually. A utility knife, scissors and a pair of needle nose pliers may be useful in this case to help slice the seed coat and pull it apart without causing damage to the leaves.
Your seeds can be transplanted once they’ve grown about two sets of true leaves and are about 3-4”. We at World Seed Supply do not recommend transplanting seeds from indoors to the outdoors instantaneously. Going back to the subject of hardening off, you should take your entire tray or pot of pepper seedlings and give them a week or so to get used to the sun. If you are transplanting to pots, you will want to use a pot that is at least 12” in diameter and about 12” in height for each pepper seedling. If you are planting chili seedlings in the ground, you can plant most varieties about a foot apart in rows 24 inches apart. A foot is a close spacing, but it allows the pepper plants to lean together and support each other. You may also opt to space pepper plants up to 2 feet apart if you want to maximize sun exposure on all sized. It is also recommended to plant your pepper plants along with flowers such as California poppy, Joe Pye weed or monarda citriodora (bee balm) that will attract bees and other pollinators. These companion plants and the helpers they bring are likely to increase the yields of peppers and other fruiting plants as well.
As the plants grow, you will need to fertilizer them about every four weeks. To remain organic, you can use bonemeal and seaweed fertilizer. Bonemeal is a natural source of phosphorous that is known for boosting blooms and does well for peppers too. Bonemeal is essentially crushed bone, which slowly releases nutrients into the soil as the bones are digested by microbes in the soil. Bonemeal may not work with sterile soils, since it requires microbes to activate the nutrients in the bonemeal. If using compost, this is certainly not an issue. Most cactus soils should also be fine, but you can always sprinkle a bit of ground soil at the bottom or top of your pot just to be certain. Kelp fertilizers tend to be good sources of potassium. If you’re using a chemical fertilizer, just look for something that is geared toward increasing blooms. A tomato fertilizer should also suffice. A ratio of about 5-10-10 is good. Please note that compost already has a good supply of nutrients that will be released slowly and over a long period of time. Since chemical fertilizers can be quicker acting, it is important not to overdo them. Too much nitrogen can actually kill the heat of your peppers.
Aside from fertilization, watering is an obvious part of growing peppers. Your pepper plants should be kept well-watered, especially if they are in pots. Peppers, especially many of the hottest ones, are known for growing in hot climates. But you are likely to still see them wilt on a hot summer day. You can water your plants every day or two to keep them growing nicely. This is especially important while the plant is growing in size (before fruiting) because more branches will eventually mean more peppers. However, many growers find that stressing pepper plants during fruiting will help increase the heat of the peppers. Many people wonder how to make hot peppers hotter. If you are looking for the hottest pepper possible, and especially if you’re looking to impress people, this may be a good idea. But in that case, you may want to grow a few extra pepper plants because stressing can decrease the number of fruits you will get from each plant. It is also worth noting that watering the ground without wetting the leaves has been said to have a positive effect on potency. We at world Seed Supply do not typically practice this.
Along with decreasing water, you may be able to make your hot peppers hotter by giving them more sun during fruiting. If you have your chili pepper plants in pots, you can always look for an area with more sun. But if your plants are already in the ground, you might wonder how you can possibly give them more sun. Well, you can’t give the plants more sun. But you can give the peppers more sun. Cut off any of the larger leaves that seem to be shading your peppers. This will not only reduce the amount of diverted energy, it will allow more sun to reach the peppers directly.
Harvesting is the most rewarding part of growing peppers. It is important to harvest peppers regularly to keep the plant productive. It is widely believed that peppers that are left on the plant longer will be hotter and will have a better taste. If you have ten plants or so, you may find yourself with peppers to pick everyday once they start coming. This will last until the cold weather puts a damper on your season. We at World Seed Supply usually harvest peppers once they have turned from orange to red, but before they turn a deep red. A simple snip with a pair of scissors at the tip of the pepper stem is all that is needed. If you will be drying your peppers, you can string them up with a thread ran through the stem tips. A hot sun will work well to dry peppers. But a boiler room is usually preferable because rain is not a factor, and it can be used even going into the late fall when sun strength decreases. It is important that the area used for drying be very arid. You want the peppers to dry quickly because the moist chamber of a pepper is a great place for mold to develop. Cutting the tips off peppers may help the cause, but it is not a guarantee that mold will not form. In circumstances where an ideal drying environment is not available, it may be best to cut peppers into small pieces and lay them out to dry.
ALWAYS wear gloves when handling or cutting peppers. There should be no chemicals outside the skin, so picking can be done without gloves. But pepper oil can stay on the skin for days despite showers, intense washing, rubbing alcohol or whatever other attempts you make. In fact, a hot shower will only spread the capsaicin to all your most favorite areas, and while you may have a tolerance built up in your mouth that does not always extend to other areas.
When the season is about to draw close, it is beneficial to cut the growing tips off all branches unless there is a pepper there. By cutting the tips, the plant’s energy will divert from leaf growth into maturing the existing peppers. Many people also do not realize that peppers are perennial plants and can be saved for the following season. It is important to realize that bringing plants indoors can mean bringing pests indoors. Often an infestation will not expose itself for weeks or even months. We recommend quarantining the plant from any other indoor plant during this time. If window space is limited, this can be accomplished by covering the plant with a clear plastic bag and securing the bottom with a large rubber band or something of the sort. For more information on removing pests, please refer to our article, “Treating Pests on Houseplants: A Complete Regimen.”
Though you should easily be able to keep a pepper plant alive indoors over the winter, most indoor conditions do not offer enough light for fruiting. Flowers will usually form but will fall off before maturing. This is normal and should not be cause for concern. Some varieties can actually fruit indoors as well, especially if additional light is supplied. By keeping your plant alive for another year, it gives you a great head start on the season and is a very good way to increase your pepper yield the following season. You might even expect the peppers to be a little hotter than the previous year.
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