You like it hot. Really hot. But how do you successfully grow super hot peppers in your garden or home?
There are a number of differences between growing hot peppers and other vegetables, and what works for cabbage or carrots won’t necessarily work for hot peppers.
As a member of the nightshade family, hot peppers have some specific requirements that seem counter-intuitive when you’ve grown other vegetables in the past.
Here’s our guide to helping you successfully grow super hot peppers from seed to harvest.
Germinating Hot Pepper Seeds
To start with, you’ll want to plant in plastic or glass containers with good drainage, not peat pots, pellets or media, as these type of containers retain too much moisture for some hot pepper varieties.
Although you can start with smaller pots, you’ll want to use at least a 4″ pot to avoid excess transplanting as the seedlings grow. If the planting media you’re using has peat in it, you’ll want to mix two parts of the media with one part of perlite.
We use a lightweight seed starting mix, because it has the right blend of slow-release fertilizer for germinating seeds.
Potting soil is intended for plants that have finished the delicate seedling stage and is typically used for ornamentals rather than vegetables.
If you’re reusing your pots, make sure to soak them for about ten minutes in a 10% bleach solution to kill off any mold, spores or diseased matter that may be on the pots.
If your seeds are from a pepper you picked up from the market or a friend, you may want to rinse the seeds with hydrogen peroxide prior to planting to prevent any mold or fungus spores from carrying over onto your plants.
Plant the seeds twice as deep as the seed’s size, so a 1/8″ seed would be planted 1/4″ deep. Planting deeper than this can prevent germination and the seed will rot instead of sprouting.
If you’re planting seeds in a tray rather than a pot, you’ll want to plant the seeds at least 1″ apart to prevent the roots from growing together and causing problems when they need to be transplanted. If you’re planting multiple varieties, make sure to label each one to prevent confusion later on.
Once the seeds are planted, water them with warm water to start the germination process. Be careful not to overwater – the soil should feel damp to the touch, not waterlogged.
Hot Pepper Environment for Germination and Early Growth
Hot peppers take some time to germinate, so it’s important to follow these steps and give them plenty of time to germinate.
The world’s hottest peppers can take up to 100 days to germinate. During this time, they’ll need a warm environment with the soil temperature around 80-85ºF during the day, which you can easily reach on a high shelf in an enclosed porch or utility room, or you can use heat mats that are essentially specially-designed electric heating pads to warm the soil from below.
Bear in mind that germination can be irregular in some varieties, so be patient. Once your seeds have sprouted, you can reduce the temperature to 70ºF.
Don’t over water the pepper seeds, as this can cause them to rot or cause damping off. The soil surface should dry out slightly between waterings.
You’ll want to avoid using plastic covers, as this can retain too much moisture in the soil and plant environment for many hot pepper varieties.
You’ll also want to add a fan or other source of ventilation to provide oxygen to the germinating plants and prevent damping off fungus.
Once the seeds germinate and you see leaves poking up, make sure the seedlings are getting between 10-16 hours of light every day.
Growing and Transplanting Hot Pepper Seedlings
Once your seedlings have reached a height of 2″, it’s time to start fertilizing. Start with a half-strength solution of a liquid plant fertilizer when you water once a week until the plants reach 4″ in height, at which time you can switch to full-strength liquid fertilizer.
Some gardeners have had issues with seedlings being burned by some strong mixes, so we typically use a fish fertilizer to avoid this issue. As your seedlings grow, keep an eye out for downy mildew, insects and other pests that can be problematic for your plants.
Once your plants reach 8-12″ in height, it’s time to put them in the garden or permanent containers. If you’re planting outside, be sure to wait at least two weeks after the last frost date in your area to prevent losses to sudden cold weather.
Gradually introduce the seedlings to more direct sunlight over a few days. Move the pots closer to the actual planting location. This will give the plants time to adapt to their new environment and harden their stems.
Plant the seedlings 2-3′ apart to ensure plenty of space later in the season. If you’re planting in a container, you’ll want to use one that has at least five gallons of capacity to ensure there is plenty of room for the roots to grow.
Make sure to add lime or bone-meal to the soil when transplanting, as nightshades tend to go through a lot of calcium during the growing season.
Fertilize with an organic fertilizer at the time of transplanting. You may want to consider adding a root-promoting fertilizer to encourage rapid root growth, or you can mix one aspirin tablet in a gallon of water to reach a similar effect.
Add mulch to prevent weeds from shooting up and stealing the nutrients your pepper plants need to grow.
Handling Flowering and Fruiting
Pepper plants tend to go through a lot of calcium and phosphorus in the growing season, so remember to add a sprinkle of bone meal to the surface of the soil every four weeks, going to every two weeks once the plants start to really put on flowers and through the fruiting cycle.
If you’d rather use material that is not animal based, you can add a sprinkle of mixed lime powder and wood ash to achieve the same results, but be sure to use ash from actual wood, not artificial logs.
Peppers that have insufficient calcium tend to develop blossom end rot at the ends of the fruit.
If you’re having issues with fruit not setting, you may have insufficient insect populations to pollinate the flowers. You can hand pollinate by using a damp brush and picking up pollen from one flower, then brushing it on surrounding flowers.
Make sure to provide sufficient support for the plants through the growing season by providing stakes or cages for support. Though there are some exceptions, most hot peppers take 90-150 days to produce ripe fruit after planting.
By following the steps and tips outlined in this guide, you can enjoy wonderful hot peppers straight from your garden or container without making all of the common mistakes. Take the time to start your plants correctly and enjoy the fruits of your labors for months to come.