Peppers are one of the world’s favorite veggies and with good reason. The specific aroma of sweet peppers is like nothing else, and the hot varieties add a unique tang to many meals. Many cuisines, such as Mexican, are unimaginable without the great influence of peppers of all tastes, shapes, and sizes.
Fortunately for all pepper lovers, they are easy to grow in a garden if you provide the proper care.
What are the best conditions for pepper plants? Here is a set of tips, tricks, and facts on growing peppers so you can have your own harvest your own delicious or dangerously spicy pepper fruit this season.
What are Peppers?
Peppers (genus Capsicum) are shrubby herbaceous plants of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae) – making them the cousins of tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. All of these crops – peppers included – originate from Latin America. Peppers, in particular, have been cultivated at least since 3000 BC, as the remains found in ancient pottery from Mexico suggest.
Of course, peppers are primarily grown for their unusual fruit, but some also for their ornamental value.
Caution: when going through the literature, be careful not to confuse and mix the information related to Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) – an Asian vine cultivated for spice production. Despite also providing pungency to meals, it has no relation whatsoever to peppers we know as vegetables.
Pepper Appearance and Characteristics
What is pepper fruit? From a botanical standpoint, the pepper fruits are, believe it or not – berries. The base for their Latin name, Capsa, actually means “box,” which presumably describes the hollow nature of the berry fruit.
From a culinary point of view, peppers are vegetables or spices. A broad classification can be made according to the taste – there are “sweet pepper” varieties, such as bell peppers, and smaller, spicy ones, commonly known as “chili peppers.”
The defining fruit features, such as the size, shape, texture, and taste, depend firstly on the pepper species (more on that in a bit) and secondly on the cultivar.
As plants, peppers are sturdy herbaceous plants. They can be annual or perennial, but the perennials are not frost-hardy. Hence, they are grown and treated as annuals in temperate parts of the world.
Pepper Classification and Common Peppers Types
The genus Capsicum contains 20-something species (to be precise, 20-27, depending on who you ask). However, only five are commonly cultivated. These are:
Here are a few words about each.
Out of the five domesticated pepper species, Capsicum annuum is the most cultivated, influential, diverse, and economically important of all. The species features both sweet and chili pepper types and cultivars.
All the sweet bell peppers, the pimiento, and many chili peppers, like cayenne peppers and jalapeños, are descendants of C. annuum. Consequently, its culinary legacy includes cayenne, chili, and paprika powders.
Some cultivars – notably ‘Black Pearl’ and ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ are grown as ornamental plants for their strangely colored fruit and leaves. They are also edible – but nearly always pungent.
Capsicum chinense, also known as Habanero-type peppers, are the most (in)famous chili peppers due to their astounding pungency and unique flavors. The hottest peppers in the world, including Carolina Reaper,Trinidad Scorpion, and 7 Pot varieties, are all descendants of C. chinense species.
Interestingly, the seeds of C. chinense have been found in cave dwellings in Central America that indicate the natives have been consuming peppers since 7,000 B.C.
Capsicum baccatum varieties can have unusually shaped and very hot fruits. Some have a citrus-like aroma and constitute key ingredients of some South American cuisines like Peruvian, primarily the Ají Amarillo or Amarillo chili. Other famous Bacctatum cultivars include Bishop’s crown and Lemon drop (ají limón).
Capsicum frutescens is actually a wild-type chili pepper, distinct for the small fruits that grow erect, are very spicy, and change color from pale yellow to bright red as they mature (though cultivars have added more colors). Because of the numerous small upright fruits that show a colorful ripening, it is the most common ornamental chili pepper with that primary use. Still, the Tabasco pepper, the main ingredient of the famous Tabasco sauce, belongs to the Frutescens species.
Capsicum pubescens are the rarest in cultivation and the only ones with hairy foliage – hence the specific epithet ‘pubescens.’ The fruits are rounded, yellow, orange, red, green, or brown in color and pungent. It is primarily grown in Central and South America and is used fresh, dried, ground, or as a paste. Interestingly, C. pubescens is unknown in the wild – it exists only in cultivation.
Check out our full guide on different characteristics and identification of peppers.
How to Care For Pepper Plants?
Pepper Plant Requirements (Quick Summary)
Sunlight: Full sun, 6-12 hours
Watering: Generous; allow to drain.
Temperature (ideal): 70-85°F (21-29°C)
Humidity (Ideal): 40-50%
Soil type: Rich, loamy, well-drained
Soil pH: 6.5 – 7
Fertilizing required: Yes
Fertilizer type: NPK 5-10-10; organic compost
Container size: 3 to 5 gallons
Pruning: Not Required / Seasonal, light
Usage: Culinary, ornamental
Pepper Sunlight Requirements
Peppers love the sun – and need it for rich and tasty fruits. Also, full sun exposure is a prevention against problematic critters since many pepper-loving pests avoid too much sunlight.
The only exception to this is bell peppers. While plenty of sunlight and hot weather are highly beneficial for pepper plant development, the fruits may become sun-scorched and dehydrated if they are exposed to the full sun at all times. That is why bell peppers will benefit from partial shade or – even better – sun shades that can be put up and removed as needed.
Pepper Watering Requirements
Besides sunlight, peppers prefer general watering but don’t like to become water-logged. Thus, proper drainage is essential. The solution is to let the plants drain well between the waterings. In general, overwatering is a bigger issue with peppers than underwatering!
As for the watering frequency, once per week is considered enough as a supplementary measure. However, during droughts and heat waves, you may need water daily. Watch out for signs of overwatering and underwatering (see below).
Humidity & Temperature
Peppers originate from subtropics, so they require warm and moderately humid conditions. The best options are as follows.
The ideal pepper growing temperature is 70-85°F (21-29°C).
The ideal relative ambient humidity for growing peppers is 40-50%.
Of course, peppers can tolerate temperatures that are lower than the ideal ones – otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to grow them in temperate regions, which is not the case. However, they are not frost-hardy and will die when exposed to frost. That is why perennial pepper species like (ironically named) C. annuum are commonly grown as annuals, even though they can form sturdy perennial bushes in suitable climates.
Fertilizer & Soil
Peppers thrive in rich, loamy, and well-drained soils. The easiest way to amend the soil to suit peppers is to incorporate and till in at least one inch of quality organic compost. The ideal soil pH is between 6.5 and 7.
Like many other vegetables, peppers require nitrogen for vegetative growth and potassium for flowering and fruit development. However, peppers are sensitive to nitrogen – too much of it, and the plant will grow too large, tall, and lanky, making it more susceptible to pests and diseases, plus it will produce fewer fruits.
Therefore, the best NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) fertilizer formula for peppers is 5-10-10.
Other micronutrients, such as calcium and iron, are also essential, and their deficiency may cause issues.
Professional growers provide different fertilizers in different pepper growth stages.
How and When to Prune Peppers
Pruning pepper plants is optional – a matter of preference and/or experience.
For example, by topping young peppers, you can get sturdier and lower-growing plants. However, since peppers will regularly fruit even when not pruned, some growers don’t think the effort is worth the result. On the other hand, the second school of thought is that pruning is a good way to create healthier, more resilient plants and increase yields.
However, there are several instances when pruning should definitely be done:
Yellowing, damaged, diseased, and dead leaves and branches should be promptly removed to avoid spreading diseases.
When you re-pot the young plants outdoors, any early flower buds should be removed until the plant is fully established since flower and fruit maturation hinders root development.
If you want to venture out into pruning peppers for increased yields and resilience, here are the possibilities.
Early season pepper pruning
Pinching young plants (removing the central growing point) – to improve branching,
Removing early flowers – to encourage root development, which will increase resilience to drought and future yields
Pruning side shoots, leaving only a few main growing stems – for good air circulation
Mid-season pepper pruning
Removing the lowest leaves, especially those that touch the ground – to cut down pests and diseases.
Pruning off any damaged leaves or yellowing leaves – to prevent the spread of diseases.
Removing the suckers from bell peppers to promote sturdy plant form.
Late-season pepper pruning
Pruning to remove any leaves or branches directly overhanging the fruits – will catalyze ripening, but don’t do it if the sun is too harsh with large-fruited varieties.
Top the plants – remove growing points – 3 to 4 weeks before the first frost, thus forcing the remaining pepper fruits to mature fully.
Problems with Pepper Plants
Like other crops, pepper plants can suffer from various diseases, pests, and other troubles, especially if the weather conditions are not ideal for a prolonged period of time.
Here are some of the most common problems and their symptoms.
Common Pepper Care Issues
Symptoms: Droopy, pale, wrinkly leaves.
This issue is common on hot summer days in full sun and in potted plants when watering is skipped.
How to fix it: Water the plants immediately in the late afternoon or early evening, as soon as the sun starts going down and stops emitting heat. To prevent drying out, when you know that a hot day is ahead, water your pepper plants generously in the early morning before the sun hits.
Overwatering or bad drainage
Symptoms: Yellowing, drooping leaves.
Over-watering and insufficient drainage are two faces of the same problem – the root is oversaturated with water. Overwatering is most common in potted plants with heavily loamy soils or too few or no drainage holes. In garden conditions, it can occur after prolonged rain spells.
How to fix it: First of all, ensure good drainage. Check if the soil in pepper pots drains poorly and if the drainage holes exist and function. After fixing any drainage issues, let the soil dry out and let the plant come on the verge of being underwatered (see above). If a fungal or another infection hasn’t occurred, the plant should be able to recover, even if it loses some leaves.
If you get waterlogged soil in your garden, amend it with sand, hummus, and compost before planting out the young pepper plants. Also – this one is a no-brainer – be careful not to water the pepper plants too much.
Symptoms: White, wilted leaves; dry whitish-brown patches on bell pepper fruits.
Yes, pepper plants love the full sun, but there are instances when the sun’s precious rays can do damage. Freshly out-planted peppers of all kinds that haven’t been hardened – gradually introduced to full sun conditions – can get scorched leaves.
Another issue occurs with bell peppers. While chili pepper fruits tolerate full sun, large bell pepper fruits can get sunburned. Thus, they are the only type of peppers that benefits from the partial shade, especially in areas where the summer sun is harsh.
How to fix it. Harden off the young plants before planting them out by gradually exposing them to the sun, first by putting them in partial shade and then increasing direct sun exposure hour by hour each day. Plant sensitive varieties in partial shade or provide them with garden sun shades.
Common Pepper Diseases and Pests
Blossom end rot
Dark blotches appear on the ends of the fruits – the blossom end. It is most commonly caused by calcium deficiency, but other reasons may include too much salt in the ground, nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, improper soil pH, and irregular watering.
How to fix it: Amend the soil with calcium, and water your peppers at regular intervals. If the problems persist, consider changing the fertilizer and testing the soil pH.
Symptoms: Yellow, Spotted, Hardened, Wrinkly Foliage
The tobacco mosaic virus is transmitted by aphids. Like other plant viral infections, it cannot be cured.
How to fix it: The only solution is to remove diseased plants (it is best to get rid of them by burning – do not compost) and treat others for aphids. The virus can live in the soil for up to a year, so don’t plant peppers, tomatoes, or other related crops in the same spot for that period.
Aphids live in colonies and suck the sap from plants. They can cause wrinkly, curled, stunted leaf growth and generally slow plant development and usually target the growing tips and young foliage. Also, they are transmitters of viral diseases, and their excretions promote the growth of sooty molds.
How to fix it: The first thing you can do is to squash the visible aphid colonies with your fingers, which will work wonders if you have a few plants. If you’re a serious gardener with numerous plants, this will be too time-consuming. Opt for biological control or insecticide (organic is better) products that target aphids.
Spider mites are tiny, live in colonies, and suck on soft plant parts. They thrive in hot and dry conditions. The plant’s leaves first become pale and spotted, and the fine spider mite webbing soon appears. Looking closely, you can see the tiny mites on the web. The leaves drop prematurely, and their growth gets stunted. The infestation may kill young plants.
How to fix it: Ensure that your plants are misted regularly, especially when the weather gets hot. If the mites have already taken hold, use biological control or organic products that target spider mites specifically – insecticides won’t work.
How to Propagate Pepper Plants
Peppers are propagated from seed – it is pretty easy if you watch for temperature and moisture.
The pepper plants are usually started indoors about eight weeks before the weather allows planting outside.
Plant the seeds in a sterile, soilless germination substrate at one-fourth-inch deep.
The ideal soil temperature for seedlings is 70°F.
In indoor conditions, use overhead plant light for seedlings; without this, the stems will become too elongated and curl downward.
You should do thinning and/or transplanting after the true leaves appear so that the seedlings are 2-3 inches apart.
Transplant outdoors after the nighttime lowest temperature is above 50°F.
Make sure to harden off the seedlings and young plants by exposing them to sunlight gradually while they’re still potted.
Usage for Peppers
Pepper fruits – peppers – are used in cuisines worldwide, and many dishes are unimaginable without them. Sweet bell peppers can be used fresh, cooked, and roasted.
Chilis are usually used in small amounts, fresh or dried, in meal prep. Powders from sweet peppers (paprika) and chili peppers are common spices and ingredients for many sauces such as Tabasco. Also, they can be used dried, pickled, and in all imaginable meal prep versions.
In recent years, there has been great hype around extremely hot chili peppers and the hot sauces made from them. The hotness or pungency is measured by the Scoville scale and Scoville heat units (SHUs). The bell pepper has a Scoville rating of zero, while currently, the hottest Habanero pepper variety, Carolina Reaper, measures 2,200,000 SHU.
Common Pepper Facts and FAQs
What is special about Pepper plants?
The unique pungency of peppers comes from the compound capsaicin, a chemical that produces a burning sensation we call spiciness, hotness, or pungency.
The highest concentration of capsaicin is in the white pith around the seeds and in the membranes and soft tissue that holds them. Other fleshy parts also contain it but in smaller concentrations.
It is thought that capsaicin exists to deter insects that would feed on the seeds and the fruits. Mammals, including humans, can get their mouths “burned” by the chemical, as most of us know from experience. However, birds are unaffected by it and will sometimes eat the bright chilies and disperse the seeds.
As said priorly, the pungency of peppers has its own measurement scale, expressed in Scoville heat units (SHUs).
How much light do Pepper plants need?
Pepper plants are sun-loving plants originating from an environment with lots of sunlight. Thus, they require a spot where they will receive 6-12 hours of full sun, indoors or outdoors.
Are Pepper plants good indoor plants?
If you provide them with lots of light, small pepper varieties can make fine and attractive indoor plants.
Can Pepper plants survive in low light?
In the long run – no. At first, the plant will get ugly – it will grow unnaturally tall and leggy. In time, it will produce fewer leaves and fruits and might lose them. While they will be able to survive in low light conditions for a while, their lifespan and quality will surely be short.
Why don’t Pepper plants grow?
If there is a delay in pepper plant growth with no visible signs of disease or pests, it is probably due to environmental factors. The growth will be slow if the weather is too cold and if there is not enough sunlight, which can happen during cold springs. While you can’t control these factors if the plants are outside, ensure popper watering and fertilizing. If your pepper plants are in pots, consider moving them to a sunnier area.
Are peppers toxic to pets?
Peppers are not toxic to pets, but mammalian pets will definitely get their mouth burned by chilis if they consume them. Unlike humans, they’re not particularly fond of it and will avoid nibbling on peppers in general.
Bell pepper fruits are considered healthy and nutrient snacks for dogs if your pooch has a taste for them.
On the other hand, a related plant commonly sold as “Ornamental pepper” (Solanum pseudocapsicum), but is not a true pepper, is toxic to dogs and horses, so beware.
To Sum it Up
Peppers are vegetables that can be grown in gardens as crops, and some varieties also as ornamentals.
There are five cultivated species and numerous cultivars that can be sweet or pungent (hot);
Pepper plants are started from seeds and can be grown in pots (smaller varieties) or in in the ground.
For proper development, they require a full sun position, well-draining, rich and loamy soil, and generous watering as needed.
Peppers benefit from organic compost and fertilizers; the best fertilizer NPK ratio for peppers is 5-10-10.
Like most vegetables, they are susceptible to various diseases and common pests that you should watch.
If you have a garden or suitable balcony space, by all means, try to grow some pepper varieties. Be careful, though – peppers are so astounding in terms of their looks, taste, aroma, and sheer variety that you risk becoming a “pepperhead” – a total pepper geek!