By Erin Marissa Russell
Hot peppers are much more pungent, powerful, and exciting to grow and put to use in the kitchen than sweet peppers. Though sweet peppers are good for adding crunch and a small bit of subtle flavor to a variety of dishes, hot peppers can turn a boring dish into an adventure. Growing hot peppers in a container garden or directly in your garden beds can be a whole lot of fun. Hot peppers are easy to grow and relatively carefree.
Hot peppers come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors, and intensity levels. Hot peppers can provide just a slight kick of heat, or make a full grown adult cry like a baby. If you love spicy food, you probably enjoy the tears. If you hate spicy food, perhaps sweet peppers are a better plan, as growing hot peppers is probably not in your wheelhouse.
The Basics on Growing Hot Peppers
Botanical Name: Capsicum
Plant Type: Vegetable
Mature Plant Size: Varies based on variety
Days to Maturity: Varies based on variety
USDA Hardiness Zones: Varies based on variety
Temperature Tolerance: Soil temperature needs to be 65 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Outdoor temperature should be at least 75 degrees F.
Sun Requirements: Full Sun
Soil Requirements: Well-draining, rich in organic matter with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0
Soil Preparation: Till to a depth of 12 inches removing rocks, soil clumps, and plant debris and amend with lots of well-rotted compost or manure.
When to Plant: Start seedlings indoors and move them outside after the last spring frost.
Plant Spacing: 18 to 24 inches in rows spaced 24 to 36 inches apart
Planting Depth for Seeds: ¼ inch to ½ inch deep
Germination Temperature: Varies based on variety
Average Germination: Varies based on variety
Thinning Young Plants: Sow three seeds per spot, thin to best two seedlings
Watering Needs: Keep soil evenly watered and moist but never soggy. Do not allow soil to dry out completely. Water regularly early in the growing cycle. Once plants become established, waterings can become less frequent. Hot peppers that receive less water will be spicier and have a more robust flavor.
Fertilization: Use a continuous-release fertilizer at planting time and replenish as directed. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers.
When to Harvest: Most hot peppers are ready to harvest between 60 and 95 days from planting time.
Estimated Yield: Plant five to six hot pepper plants for every household member. Yield varies based on variety.
Propagation Methods: Hot pepper plants are usually propagated by seed or from cuttings.
Shelf Life of Seeds: Hot pepper seeds can store for up to 25 years, but it is better to plant them within two to five years for best results.
Companion Planting: Grow hot peppers with Beets, Basil, Carrots, Chives, Corn, Chamomile, Marigold, Lettuce, Nasturtiums, Okra, Other Peppers, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Parsnips, Radishes, Garlic, & Onions. Avoid planting next to Beans, Brassicas (especially kohlrabi), and Fennel.
Choosing Which Variety of Hot Peppers to Grow
There are a lot of peppers to choose from. The best way to select which peppers to grow is to study which peppers grow well in your region and select the ones you want to grow based on your region’s most prolific pepper choices. You may also want to limit your choices based on heat level, as some peppers may be too mild or too pungent for your particular tastes. If you think jalapenos are very hot, it might be a bad idea to grow hotter peppers, such as ghost peppers or habaneros. If you think jalapenos are weak, you might want to stay away from milder pepper plants, like anaheim peppers, or banana peppers.
Selecting a Location for Growing Hot Peppers
Hot peppers should be grown in a location where they will receive at least six hours of full sunlight per day. Hot peppers need a soil that has good moisture retention capabilities, but is also well-draining and high in organic content. Hot peppers will thrive in soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Raise pH levels by adding limestone and lower pH levels by adding peat moss. Amend the site you choose with aged garden compost before sowing seeds or moving transplants.
Hot pepper plants tend to be rather large and branches can get bogged down by carrying the weight of heavy fruits. It’s a good idea to provide each plant with a stake to help keep it vertical through harvesting. It’s also wise to select a growing site that is protected from wind. Don’t plant peppers in beds where other members of the Solanaceae family have recently been grown, like other peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes. Some peppers, like cayenne, jalapeno, and mirasol peppers, enjoy dry, arid climates. Other hot peppers, like ghost peppers and habaneros, prefer humid locations. Pick your site based on the type of peppers you decide to cultivate.
Preparing Soil for Hot Peppers
Amend the soil to make sure that it is rich in organic content, has a pH between 6.0 and 6.8, is well-draining, and is free of debris. The soil should be loamy, rich, and deep. If your soil doesn’t fit this criteria, amend it with about one inch of compost. Tilling the soil to 12 inches of depth will help to improve drainage. While tilling, remove any rocks, soil clumps, plant debris, and anything else that might be in your beds.
Choosing and preparing the perfect growing location can make all the difference in the world as to how your hot pepper plants will perform. Avoid adding excess amounts of nitrogen to the soil when preparing the site for growing hot peppers. Too much nitrogen can cause hot pepper plants to become too vigorous and grow too quickly, which will make them less productive when it comes to producing peppers, and more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Planting Instructions for Hot Peppers
Hot peppers love hot weather, and will grow best in daytime temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees F and night temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees F. Hot pepper plants are most easily grown from transplants, but can also be grown from seed with success.
Start your seeds indoors around seven to ten weeks before the day that you plan to move your hot peppers out into the garden. Either sow directly or transfer transplants two to three weeks after the last frost in your area and after soil temperatures rise to at least 65 degrees F.
Just because hot peppers like hot weather, doesn’t mean that they want to be exposed to extreme heat. In zones with temperatures over 85 degrees F, peppers may lose their blossoms, but the fruit should still be fine. In extreme heat regions, pepper plants may benefit from partial afternoon shade.
Plant hot pepper seeds one-fourth to one-half inch deep into the soil. Hot pepper plants are generally spaced 18 to 24 inches apart, though the proper spacing may vary based on the variety you are growing.
Plant in rows spaced 24 to 36 inches apart depending on the cultivar. Plant three seeds for every spot and thin down to the two healthiest-looking seedlings. Transplant hot pepper seedlings into the garden when they are between four and six inches tall.
Caring for Hot Pepper Plants
Hot pepper plants don’t like competition, so keep garden beds well weeded and add a layer of organic mulch to prevent weeds from growing up and to keep soil temperatures down and improve moisture retention. Pepper plants have shallow root systems, so be gentle when cultivating your hot pepper plants.
Avoid using high nitrogen fertilizers, as they will make large leafy pepper plants that produce little to no fruit. High temperatures and excessive winds can cause flowers to drop and keep plants from setting fruit.
Organic mulches will help to reduce weeding and watering, but plastic mulch may actually improve hot pepper yields. Sometimes hot pepper plants will produce shoots that become leggy. These shoots should be pruned back to keep the plant’s growing shape compact and bushy.
Hot pepper plants typically flower as soon as the plant starts to form branches. Most hot pepper plants have complete flowers, meaning that the pepper is self pollinating, as each flower has both male and female anatomy. However, natural wind gusts, gently shaking your flowering pepper plants, or getting visits from bees and other pollinators, can help aid in hot pepper flower pollination, which will lead to greater yields.
Harvesting Instructions for Hot Peppers
Hot peppers can be harvested at any point after the fruit has grown to full size. The color of the fruit, depending on the variety, should be a sign of where the fruit is in reference to maturity. The longer the peppers stay on the plant, the more pungent they become. Green fruits are generally milder than red fruits.
When harvesting hot peppers, it is always best to wear safety goggles and protective gloves, as the fruits can act as skin irritants when being handled. Always cut fruit from the plant instead of pulling them off by hand so as not to injure the plant or the fruit while harvesting.
Troubleshooting Peppers to Prevent and Treat Common Diseases and Pests
Pepper plants are a garden standard that are often recommended to beginning gardeners. That’s because they’re generally easy to grow and don’t suffer from too many problems with pests or disease. However, even the healthiest plants in the most carefully tended garden will occasionally deal with a problem or two. If your pepper plants do end up struggling with pests or diseases, you’re likely to face one of the issues listed here.
Aphids: Aphids are itsy bitsy insects that tend to hang out on the underside of the leaves of plants they infest. In addition to the insects themselves, you can spot an aphid infestation by recognizing the effects of the insects feeding on the juices they suck out of plant tissues. These effects include curled, withered, or deformed leaves. Because aphids are so small, you can physically knock them off of an infested plant by spraying the plant down with a jet of water from the garden hose. However, you’ll need to use this treatment several times for it to be effective. You can also make a homemade spray to keep aphids at bay out of a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap, and a teaspoon of neem oil.
Armyworms and Cutworms: Armyworms are striped caterpillars that come in a variety of color combinations: some types have yellow stripes, while others are pale green with lighter stripes. Cutworms are smooth caterpillars about two inches long that come in shades of gray, black, brown, tan, pink, and green. Both can cause substantial damage to many vegetable crops as they feed. Keep armyworms and cutworms off of vulnerable plants by sprinkling diatomaceous earth, also called DE, around them. Diatomaceous earth is sharp to the soft bodies of all kinds of caterpillars and will prevent them from crossing an area where it is placed. You can also deter armyworms with botanical Bt (bacillus thuringiensis).
Bacterial Leaf Spot: Bacterial leaf spot diseases cause yellow splotches to appear on the foliage of infected plants. As the disease progresses, the yellow areas can spread out or turn brown, and eventually foliage will drop off of plants with bacterial leaf spot. These infections spread via splashing water, so make sure to water plants from the base so their foliage isn’t splashed with moisture. Also avoid working with your pepper plants when they’re wet from rainfall or dew. You can control bacterial leaf spot by choosing to grow resistant varieties. Seeds can also be treated to prevent bacterial leaf spot by soaking them prior to planting for two minutes in a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water. If you use this method, be sure to rinse and dry seeds well before you plant them. Infected plants should be removed from the garden and discarded, and the garden should be cleaned well of plant debris.
Blossom End Rot: This disease is caused by a combination of an inconsistent watering routine and a shortage of calcium available to plants. The first sign of blossom end rot is a pale green or yellow sunken area on developing fruits that eventually turns black as fungi move in to colonize. Lack of sufficient fertilization or an excess of fertilizer can both contribute to blossom end rot, so make sure to use the prescribed amount of fertilizer when you feed your plants. Plant in loose soil that does not have compacted areas, as areas of compaction can prevent the plant’s root system from being able to access enough water and increase risk of the disease. Also work to minimize other risk factors, including nematodes, root diseases, and flooding of soil.
Flea beetles: Flea beetles come in a variety of species with a range of visual appearances, so it can be difficult to identify the insects themselves. Instead, look for flea beetle damage: pits or irregularly shaped holes that, when infestation is severe, can also cause wilting or stunted growth of plant foliage. You can avoid dealing with flea beetles altogether by opting for resistant varieties when you choose your seeds or young plants for the season. If you know your garden tends to have problems with flea beetles, adding floating row covers over susceptible crops can provide a line of defense. You can remove spots for flea beetles to hide or spend their winters by cleaning the garden well of plant debris on the surface of the soil and by carefully weeding the garden and the area around it.
Mosaic Virus: Mosaic viruses get their name because of the patchwork appearance the foliage of infected plants develops due to light and dark spots and streaks caused by the virus. Affected plants may also exhibit ring spots, specks, a leathery texture, pale foliage, stunted growth, curled or wrinkled foliage, and blisters or warts. The disease is spread by aphids, so vigilance against these insects early in the season can help prevent infection. You can make a homemade aphid repellent spray with a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap, and a teaspoon of neem oil. Keep hands and garden tools clean and sanitized as you work to prevent helping mosaic virus spread from plant to plant. Any plants that are infected should be pulled up and discarded as soon as you notice the symptoms.
Powdery Mildew: Powdery mildew is a quickly spreading fungal disease that causes small areas of powdery fungus that resembles talcum powder on affected plants. Almost any plant in the garden can host powdery mildew, which speeds the spread of the disease, so watch carefully for its symptoms and take any stems you can to reduce the risk of infection. Sulfur, neem oil, and potassium bicarbonate are all options for treating the disease if it takes hold.
Southern Blight: Southern blight is a fungal disease that is often first noticed when a gardener spots wilting foliage on infected plants. A canker is often present at the base of plants with Southern blight that can be as large as a sesame seed. The canker may also appear up to several feet high on the plant. To control Southern blight, rotate crops with small grains or corn and other grasses. While there are no fungicides that are effective, some gardeners have reported success using ammonium fertilizer or keeping a high level of calcium in the soil.
Sunscald: Sunscald occurs when plant cells are damaged by being burned in the sun. If seeds are started indoors, you can reduce the likelihood of sunscald by using hardening off to gradually introduce the seedlings to the outdoor climate over a period of days. Companion planting that provides peppers with shade, especially during the hottest part of the day, can also be effective. Foliage with sunscald develops blistered or burned areas that can be either pale or black. Peppers that have sunscald damage will lighten in color and develop a papery texture as they dry out in the sun.
Whiteflies: Whiteflies are similar to aphids in that they congregate on the underside of plant leaves. However, unlike aphids, if you disturb a group of whiteflies, they will take to the air. You can use several rounds of hosing down an infested plant to physically knock whiteflies off, but this treatment will require repetition to be effective. Yellow sticky traps or predatory insects such as ladybugs or lacewing larvae are other control options. A homemade neem oil spray made of a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap, and a teaspoon of neem oil can be applied to plants twice a week or so to deter whiteflies as well.
Companion Planting With Hot Peppers
By mindfully pairing up your hot peppers with other plants in the garden, you can save space and also take advantage of a slew of other benefits. Good companion plants can repel pest insects, decrease the risk of disease, provide shade to delicate seedlings, or even improve the flavor of your garden vegetables and herbs. Hot peppers offer their companions protection from root rot that lasts up to two years after the pepper plants are pulled up and gone. Keep reading to find out which plants do best as companions for hot peppers—and which companions to avoid.
Grow Hot Peppers Next to These Companion Plants:
Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Gardeners recommend basil as a companion plant for peppers because it is said to improve the flavor of hot or sweet peppers when it grows alongside them. It also has the effect of deterring aphids, mosquitoes, and thrips.
Beets (Beta vulgaris): Because beets do their growing underground, they won’t compete with peppers for space even when they’re planted in the same area. Beets will also help keep the pepper patch clear of weeds, and the greens will shade the soil and help it stay moist.
Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus): The tall, feathery green tops of carrot plants can provide baby peppers planted nearby with some welcome shade. Because they grow underground, they’re also a space-saving option for gardeners whose room to grow is limited.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): Aphids and other common garden pests that often plague hot pepper plants will be kept at bay when chives grow nearby. Gardeners also say that when chives are used as a companion plant, nearby crops have better flavor and higher yields.
Corn (Zea mays): As one can imagine, the tall pepper plants offer their companions protective shade and defense against the wind. Corn can also function as a trap crop or sacrificial crop to keep aphids off of pepper plants.
French Chamomile (Matricaria recutita, Matricaria chamomilla, or Chamomilla recutita): French chamomile has a natural antifungal and antifungal effect that can help keep pepper plant that grow in its vicinity healthier.
French Marigold (Tagetes patula): Marigolds as companion plants will work to keep all kinds of garden pests at bay. French marigolds will especially protect peppers that grow nearby from the nematodes and eel worms that can otherwise present problems for gardeners. They secrete a substance from their roots that keeps the nematodes and eel worms at a distance.
Garlic (Allium sativum): Garlic makes an excellent companion for most plants because of its natural ability to repel harmful insects, especially aphids and certain species of beetles. A Chinese study found that planting three rows of garlic with pepper plants around the outside edges had a beneficial effect on the soil. More than likely, the effect happens because the roots of garlic plants secrete a substance that feeds the microbes that live in the soil. Because garlic is a cool-weather plant while peppers love the sun, experts at the Sustainable Agriculture Project recommend planting the three rows of garlic in autumn, then harvesting green garlic from the center row in summer and replacing the harvested garlic with pepper plants.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa): When you tuck lettuce plants in between your peppers, it goes a long way toward choking out weeds in your pepper patch. Once pepper plants are tall, they’ll shade the tender developing lettuce leaves. Partnering up these two plants also makes the most of a small garden’s space.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum): Nasturtiums benefit the whole garden by attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects. At the same time, they defend nearby companions from Colorado potato beetles, cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles, squash beetles, and whiteflies. An added benefit is that nasturtiums attract aphids away from other crops, so gardeners use them as a trap plant or sacrificial plant near ones that are vulnerable to aphid infestation.
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus): Okra plants grow tall enough to offer peppers both some summertime shade and protection from wind damage.
Onions (Allium cepa): Like all vegetables that develop underground, onions are a space-saving choice as a companion for pepper plants. They also stave off some of the most common insects to cause problems for gardeners of peppers, including aphids, cabbage worms, and slugs.
Other Peppers, Hot or Sweet (Capsicum): This one’s a bit of a no-brainer for experienced gardeners. Because all pepper plants have similar care requirements and environmental preferences, it makes sense to grow all kinds of pepper plants together, whether they’re spicy or sweet.
Radishes (Raphanus sativus): Planting quick-growing radishes between your pepper plants allows you to get the most out of the space where you’re planting. Because they grow so quickly, you may have several radish harvests by the time peppers are ripe. (Note that radishes and peppers have different pH needs, so while some gardeners recommend this pairing, others say brassicas in general should not be planted with peppers.)
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea): Much like lettuce and Swiss chard, when you add spinach as a companion for pepper plants, you’re maximizing the garden space you have available. Unlike the hard, however, spinach won’t provide pepper plants with any shade because the plants simply aren’t tall enough.
Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris): Swiss chard plants grow so tall that, when you intersperse them with your peppers, they’ll not only shade the more delicate pepper plants but will also give them some shelter from the wind. Doubling up the plants in your plot by growing chard between your peppers also helps to choke out weeds.
Avoid These Plants as Companions For Hot Peppers:
Beans (Phaseolus): Beans do well with many other plants in the garden, but we don’t recommend you use them as companions for peppers. While bean plants need plenty of nitrogen to thrive, the peppers actually suffer from lots of nitrogen, leading to lower production of pepper pods.
Brassica Plants: While brassica plants flourish in neutral soil, peppers need a more acidic growing medium. For that reason, avoid planting brassicas with your peppers. Members of the brassica family include arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, honesty (Lunaria), horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, rutabaga, sweet alyssum, turnips, watercress, and wasabi.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Fennel attracts many pest insects, so it works well as a trap or sacrificial crop to draw the bugs away from other veggies. However, fennel doesn’t make a good neighbor for most vegetables, so it should be planted at a distance from your other crops if you choose to grow fennel.
Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group): In addition to requiring different soil acidity along with the rest of the brassicas, kohlrabi will attract cabbage butterflies, so for that reason it’s not recommended to grow alongside peppers.
It’s easy to see why pepper plants are some of the most popular in the home garden, for beginners and expert gardeners alike. They’re simple to care for, and they enjoy the tendency of being relatively free from trouble with diseases or garden pests. Best of all, there are so many different varieties of peppers to choose from that a gardener can grow a new type every season for the rest of their lives. So spice things up and add some pepper plants to your garden this year.