Why grow peppers?
Peppers are good in so many meals (omelettes, pizza, raw veggie platters, etc.) and are nutritious (lots of Vitamin C!) plus they don’t need too much care in the garden.
The main challenges with growing peppers may be starting the seeds at home (depending on your seed-starting set-up) and maturing the fruit in our climate.
There are so many neat pepper varieties out there! Bell peppers that mature to red, orange, or yellow. Peppers that start out green, white, and even purple. Frying peppers (one of my favourite summer snacks are pan-fried Shishito peppers!), roasting peppers, and hundreds of different types of hot peppers from quite mild to possibly stomach-lining damaging.
You should consider Days to Maturity (DTM). Here in Atlantic Canada, the varieties with the shortest Days to Maturity will be the easiest to start with. Days to Maturity for peppers in most seed catalogues means the date from transplanting to harvest.
How many to grow?
Four or five pepper plants per person works well. If you’re starting from seed, you may want to sow double that number and only pot up the ones that grow the fastest and strongest.
Starting from seed:
You want to start the seeds about 2 months before you’ll plant them outside. I know that urge to start seeds as early as possible in the spring, especially if your neighbour mentions they’ve already started their pepper seeds. But you really don’t want your plants to become too leggy or spindly from not enough light or stressed from cold temperatures.
For our peppers, we start the seeds in a greenhouse so they get plenty of sun during the day. The bench is heated and on a thermostat so their potting soil stays nice and warm the way they like it (25C). Our seeds tend to germinate within a week but pepper seeds are notorious for germinating very slowly in cooler soil temperatures (the soil temperature is more important than the air temperature for germinating seeds).
We first start the seeds in an open flat and then prick them out and pot them up to 50-cell trays after the true leaves appear. If we will be selling them as a seedling for other gardeners, we pot them up into individual 3.5”pots.
If you’ve tried growing peppers from seed in previous years and they haven’t done so well, you might want to consider: 1) starting them earlier, 2) starting them later, 3) giving them more light, 4) giving them more heat, especially root heat, 5) starting the seeds in a smaller container and then potting them up.
Alternatively, you might want to buy pepper seedlings ready to be planted. Check out your local farmers’ market or see if there’s a plant sale in your area with farmers selling pepper plants. We grow and sell pepper seedlings for backyard gardeners along with other seedlings (like tomatoes, ground cherries, kale, chard, eggplant, etc.) so, if you live in our region, keep your eye out for our plant sales.
Peppers do best in well-drained soil. They like warmth so give them plenty of sun. Growing them in raised beds, where the soil warms up quickly or next to the sunny side of a wall also helps ripen fruit faster.
Peppers are a warm-weather vegetable and get a bit stressed by night-time temperatures below 10C. But you can’t wait forever to plant them out – they also need a pretty long season to mature.
Peppers should be transplanted out after likelihood of frost. This has been difficult to predict in the past few years. On our farm, we’ve had frosty nights until the end of June which, if we waited that long, would make it much harder to get any mature fruit. So, if we are planting our peppers out in the field, we wait until the first week of June and then we transplant them out, put hoops over the plants and cover with row cover.
But remember, the soil temperature is super important. You know how, in the spring, we can get really warm days but the perennials are still dormant? That’s because the soil temperatures take longer to warm up. And heavier soils take longer to warm up in the spring than sandier soils (on the flip side, heavier soils stay warmer longer in the fall). You could try using some clear or black plastic (like old greenhouse plastic or silage tarp) to warm up the soil surface for a few weeks before planting out your pepper seedlings.
There are a lot of possible spacing options but, for the sake of simplicity, space pepper plants 18” apart.
Peppers are moderate in their fertility needs. Phosphorus is helpful for a heavier fruit set. Many gardens have plenty of Phosphorus, especially ones that have had compost or manure added to them. Fish hydrolysate and bone meal are both sources of Phosphorus.
Have you ever ended up with a huge beautiful pepper plant that wasn’t growing any fruit?
That’s a classic sign of too much nitrogen. I’ve known gardeners who had this issue after starting a new raised bed garden and filling it with fresh compost.
When to harvest:
You can harvest your peppers at any stage. Picking a red pepper variety when it’s green is perfectly fine, that’s where green peppers come from (they’re not different varieties).
When the frost comes there are usually still green or partially ripe fruit on pepper plants. We usually ensure the row cover is on the plants at chance of frost and may even double it up. With the row cover and still-warm soil temperatures, the plants will survive through the first light frosts with just some leaf damage. Any fruit that has even a tiny bit of colour on it will ripen indoors in a warm setting.
For any peppers, freezing is a great and simple method of preservation. Just cut them up in the ideal size for later use and stick them in the freezer, no blanching required. Then enjoy peppers in winter stir fries, soups, etc.
They also dehydrate well. You can use these after rehydrating or you can powder them for a homemade chili powder (with either all sweet peppers or a mix of sweet and hot depending on your taste). Paprika powder is made this way, using specific Paprika types of peppers though any sweet peppers will make something similar.
As your gardening dreams develop, we hope these tips will help you plan for a successful pepper-harvesting season.
You can find more gardening tips on our Grow Your Own page.
I originally wrote this article for Rural Delivery magazine – one of our favourite local magazines.