First Steps in Growing Peppers
Starting your own hot and sweet peppers from seed gives you selection, growing options, and enjoyment.
Does it seem too early here in the middle of January to be thinking about starting pepper seeds? Not at all. Choosing which peppers to grow, and which seed to buy is an important part of the process. You not only want peppers that will do well under the conditions found in your summertime garden — especially the length of the season — you also want peppers suited to your taste. Finding just the right peppers for your growing conditions and palate takes some study and experience.
Lots of gardeners I know don’t bother growing their own pepper starts. Buying established nursery starts makes it easy to control the timing of putting the plants in your garden as well as eliminating the work of potting seeds yourself. But the problem is selection. Even though nurseries have begun offering more varieties of pepper starts — hot and sweet — they’re still just a trifle compared to the many varieties available to those willing to grow their own starts. The bigger the selection the more chance you’ll have matching seeds to your growing conditions and taste. And growing a variety of peppers, maybe one or two plants of each you’ve chosen, allows you to address the various tolerances to pepper heat that will exist among your friends and family members.
Starting your own seed indoors also assures that no chemicals were used to encourage quick germination and no growth regulators were used to manipulate the plants while waiting for sale. Then there’s those of us who actually enjoy and look forward to starting are own seeds — of all kinds.
So why the early start? Peppers are usually started indoors six to eight weeks ahead of the last frost. That means, in some areas, you’ll want to start seeds around Valentine’s day. In more northern, high-altitude places that might mean tax day. And pepper plants aren’t set out right after the first frost. Wait until night temperatures climb into the 50s and soil temperature at a depth of one or two inches approaches 70 degrees. Sure, you can put them in the ground earlier — people in some cooler areas may have to — but pepper plants will grow sluggishly until conditions improve.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first thing to do — if you haven’t already done it — is to choose the pepper varieties you want to grow, again, picked with your growing conditions and tastes in mind. We’ve always favored a selection of sweet peppers, milder peppers like Hungarians and banana peppers that need a relatively shorter (75 – 80 days) period to mature as well as cayennes (80 days) and even some of the more exotic habaneros and super hot peppers (as many as 110 days). Ornamental peppers are also a good choice, especially if you can eat them. But then, we think all peppers, with their varied shapes and colors, are ornamental.
Another thing to remember when you’re calculating when to start your plants. Peppers are slow to germinate. They’ll take three or four weeks — even as much as six weeks — to show themselves. You can aide the processs by supplying the right conditions. A heat mat that keeps your potting soil up near 80 degrees is ideal. But if you start them in a cool basement or some similar place, be prepared to wait.
You’ll see some growers recommending seed flats or divided seed trays to start pepper plants. But I recommend you plant seeds in individual cow or peat pots that you can later set right into the garden. Peppers don’t like having their roots disturbed and the less transplanting and messing with your little plants the better. We’ve seen recommendations to start seed in jiffy or other peat-type plugs because they help control moisture. We think a CowPot with a good potting soil or starting mixture will do the job controlling moisture and prevent us from having to transplant.
Once your seedlings emerge, give them light. A sunny window sill, especially in March, won’t do the trick. T5 fluorescent lights are a good choice but other, higher output bulbs will also work. If using fluorescents, bring the bulbs as close to your seedlings as possible. This will prevent them from getting leggy.
So it’s May Day and your seedling are looking good and ready but the weather is still too cool, and a danger of frost sill exists (that never happens in places like Montana, does it?). You can “hold” your plants by removing the heat mat and generally providing cooler temperatures. Yes, you can reduce the light, too; but not by much. Reducing the light your plants get by even a couple hours a day might send the wrong signal and encourage blossoming (you see this on nursery plants all the time).
Be sure to harden off plants before planting them in the garden. A little extra help, especially in cooler climates, from a cloche or other covering will encourage your plants to grow like its the dog days of summer even if its cool June. Have any tricks for starting peppers indoors? Have a favorite variety of pepper that just does great in your area? Let us know.