Fire Away™ Hot and Heavy pepper. Photo by Proven Winners.

In most American vegetable gardens, peppers are second only to tomatoes in popularity, and it’s easy to see why. Few vegetables offer as much versatility in size, shape, color, and flavor. Beyond the familiar bell pepper, you’ll find a vast selection of cultivars—some sweet, some hot, and a few that are a bit of both.

If you don’t care for the taste of peppers, you can still grow them for their ornamental attributes. With their white flowers, colorful fruit, and upright growth habit, pepper plants are just as welcome in flower beds and borders as they are in the vegetable garden. In fact, many newer cultivars have been bred just for the purpose of showing them off. (See: A Guide to Growing Ornamental Peppers)

On this page: Basics | Planting | Care | Pepper Plant Varieties

BASICS

Botanical names:


  • Capsicum annuum (the largest variety of plants)
  • Capsicum chinense (the hottest peppers, including habañeros and ghost chiles)
  • Capsicum frutescens (best known for the Tabasco pepper)

Zones:

Perennial in Zones 9-11, grown as an annual elsewhere.

Height:

Typically 18 to 36 inches, with the exception of dwarf varieties, which range in height from 6 to 12 inches.

Exposure:

Full sun (6-8 hours per day)

Days to maturity:

Most sweet peppers mature 60 to 90 days after transplanting in the garden. Hot peppers can take up to 150 days to mature..

How hot is it?

Heat value is often expressed in Scoville heat units (SHU), ranging from mild (0 to 700) to volcanic (above 800,000!). Most peppers fall in the moderate to hot range. Ratings can fluctuate depending on the climate and growing conditions. They can even vary on the same plant, with one pepper tasting fiery hot and another mild.

PLANTING PEPPER PLANTS

Photo by: Proven Winners.

When to plant:

Transplant peppers after all danger of frost has passed, the weather is consistently warm, and the soil has reached a temperature of at least 65° F. Before transplanting, harden off your pepper plants outdoors at increasing time intervals.

Cold climate planting tip: Jumpstart soil warming by covering it with black plastic for at least a week before planting time.

Where to plant:

In full sun (at least 8 hours per day), in nutrient-rich, well-draining soil that contains plenty of organic matter.

How to plant:

Before planting, work some organic matter into the soil. Dig holes deep enough to set your plants in the ground at the same level they were in their pots. Immediately after transplanting, water thoroughly. To help retain moisture and control weeds, cover the soil around your plants with a layer of finely shredded, organic mulch.

Pepper plant spacing:

Space plants about 18 to 24 inches apart, depending on their size at maturity.

Planting pepper seeds:

Start pepper seeds indoors 8 to 12 weeks before transplanting. Pepper seedlings need warm soil temperature (about 80° F) for germination, daytime temperatures averaging 70° to 80° F, and nighttime temperatures no lower than 60° F. Keeping the soil evenly moist and providing adequate light exposure (see: Starting Seeds Under Fluorescent Lights) are also essential to getting your seedlings off to a strong start.

Growing peppers in pots:

Because of their upright, bushy growth habit, pepper plants are well suited for growing in containers—a great option if you have limited garden space. Choose a container that allows ample space for root development and has holes for good drainage. Most plants, with the exception of dwarf varieties, will need a minimum pot size of 5 gallons. Typically, the larger the fruit, the larger the pot required.

Pepper companion planting:


  • Some mutually beneficial plants are: carrots, basil, parsley, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, beets, and Swiss chard.
  • Keep your plants away from kohlrabi and fennel, traditional pepper enemies because of the pests they attract.
  • Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant are all members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and should not be planted together in the same bed every year. This could encourage the spread of soil-borne diseases and deplete the soil of important nutrients. Rotate these crops to another bed the next season.

PEPPER PLANT CARE & HARVESTING

Pruning pepper plants:

As a general rule, pruning pepper plants isn’t necessary. Peppers can be sensitive to sun scald, so removing foliage can expose them to the sun too much.

Water:

The key to watering peppers is moderation. Too little will cause the leaves to wilt and the flowers to drop; too much will result in waterlogged roots. Keep your plants evenly moist by giving them the equivalent of an inch of water per week. They may need more water when the weather is hot and sunny.

Fertilizer for pepper plants:

Fertilize your peppers with a well-balanced vegetable fertilizer when you plant them and again later in the summer when the first blossoms appear. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, which will stimulate foliage growth but result in less fruit production.

If you find that your plants are producing a lot of flowers but little fruit, this is often caused by a lack of magnesium. To give your plants a boost, spray the leaves with a solution of Epsom salts (using about 2 teaspoons per quart of warm water) or side dress your plants with 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts per foot of plant height.

Staking pepper plants:

Most pepper plants, with the exception of dwarf types, should be staked or caged for support to prevent their brittle branches from breaking and to keep the plants from toppling over under the weight of the fruit as it matures. When tying plants to stakes use a stretchy material, such as strips of nylon hose, that can expand as the stems enlarge. Don’t use wire or twine, which can choke off the plant as it grows.

Harvesting:

Peppers can be harvested at any time, but they will not reach their full color or flavor until fully ripe. Picking some of your peppers early, while they are still green, will encourage the plant to develop more fruit. Seek a balance by leaving some peppers on each plant to fully ripen and harvesting others as soon as they reach the desired size. Cut your peppers off cleanly with a garden pruner, rather than pulling them off, to avoid breaking the fragile branches.

Harvesting tip: When harvesting and preparing super-hot peppers such as habañeros and ghost chiles, always protect your skin by wearing gloves.

Disesases and pests:

The same pests and diseases that afflict other members of the nightshade family will occasionally attack peppers. Common diseases include bacterial leaf spot, blossom-end rot, tobacco mosaic virus, and anthracnose. Pests to watch out for include cutworms, tomato hornworms, aphids, spider mites, and thrips. You can avoid many of these problems by planting disease-resistant pepper varieties and practicing crop rotation.

POPULAR VARIETIES—HOT & SWEET PEPPERS

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Photo by: Proven Winners.

Fire Away™ Hot and Heavy PepperBuy plants & seeds from Proven Winners
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 1 to 2 inches

Plant height: 16 to 24 inches

Days to maturity: 65 to 72

Heat level: Moderate

This pepper packs a punch, similar to a jalapeño. Plants are compact, heavy producers, giving you a steady supply that can be harvested at any stage of ripeness. Fruits transition from green to orange and finally to red. Glossy green foliage minimizes water loss through the leaves; a great choice for hot, dry climates.

Photo by: Peter Acker / Shutterstock

Cayenne pepper
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 3 to 7 inches long, up to 1 inch across

Plant height: 18 to 30 inches

Days to maturity: 70 to 80

Heat level: Hot (30,000 to 50,000 SHU)

Most often dried and ground, used as the main ingredient in chili powder and hot sauces. Can also be used fresh from the garden in its green stage to make salsas. Heat levels run from mild to scorching. Most ripen to red, but there are also some yellow and purple varieties.

Photo by: Gatis Grinbergs / Shutterstock

Jalapeno pepper
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 3 to 5 inches long, up to 2 inches across

Plant height: 18 to 24 inches

Days to maturity: 70 to 80

Heat level: Moderate

Typically harvested while still green to add a spicy kick to salsas or picante sauces. Can also be allowed to ripen to red, when it’s often smoked and dried to make chipotles. Choose from a variety of cultivars, including some with larger pods perfect for stuffing and others with dialed-down heat levels for flavor without the potency.

Photo by: Eric Krouse / Shutterstock

Ghost pepper
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 2 to 3 inches long, up to 1 inch across

Plant height: 24 to 48 inches

Days to maturity: 100 to 120

Heat level: Volcanic (more than 1 million SHU)

For those who like it hot—REALLY hot. The hottest edible chile you can grow (200x hotter than a jalapeno), its explosive heat sneaks up on you like a ghost. Use sparingly and handle with care. Plants need a long growing season, typically more than 100 days. They also love heat and humidity and grow best in hot climates and warm soils.

Photo by: Aleksandr Rybalko / Shutterstock

Habañero pepper
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 2 to 4 inches long, up to 1-1/2 inch across

Plant height: 24 to 36 inches

Days to maturity: 80 to 100

Heat level: Blistering (150,000 to 400,000 SHU)

A key ingredient in Jamaican jerk sauces, with smoky, fruity flavor along with intense heat. Small boxy to bell-shaped fruits mature to bright orange, yellow, red, or brown, depending on the cultivar. Plants typically need a long, hot growing season to reach full flavor potential. New “no-heat” habañeros (such as ‘Roulette’) have all of the flavor without the flame.

Photo courtesy: Larry Korb / Shutterstock

Serrano pepper
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 2 to 3 inches long, 1/2 to 1 inch across

Plant height: 18 to 36 inches

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

Heat level: Hot (10,000 to 23,000 SHU)

Similar to a jalapeño, only smaller and noticeably hotter (up to 5 times as much). Usually picked when green; also good when allowed to ripen to red, purple, orange, or yellow, depending on the cultivar. Stake when planting,as this plant can be weighed down by high yields, with as many as 50 pods at one time.

Photo by: Michaela Warthen / Shutterstock

Poblano (Ancho) pepper
Hot pepper

Fruit size: 3 to 6 inches long, 2 to 3 inches across

Plant height: 24 to 36 inches

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

Heat level: Mild to moderate

Called a “poblano” when fresh and an “ancho” when dried, this mildly spicy chili pepper is ideal for stuffing or roasting while still green. It can also be dried when it turns dark red to make ancho chili powders and mole sauces. Dozens of cultivars are available, with a wide choice of sizes, colors, and heat levels.

Photo by: Art789 / Shutterstock

Bell pepper
Sweet pepper

Fruit size: 1 to 8 inches long, 2 to 4 inches across

Plant height: 18 to 24 inches

Days to maturity: 50 to 80

The ubiquitous bell-shaped red and green peppers that you find at your local supermarket barely scratch the surface of varieties you can grow in your own garden. A wide range in sizes and colors that include yellow, orange, creamy white, purple, brown, and blush. You can also find cultivars bred for better disease resistance and earliness, with some varieties maturing in only 50 days.

Photo by: D and D Photo Sudbury / Shutterstock

Sweet banana pepper
Sweet pepper

Fruit size: 6 to 9 inches long, 1-1/2 to 2 inches across

Plant height: 18 to 24 inches

Days to maturity: 65 to 75

Named for the banana-like shape and color, this variety bears an abundance of fruits that mature from green to yellow and then red, but can be harvested at any stage. With a mild, slightly tangy taste, these peppers are great for frying, pickling, or using raw in salads and sandwiches.

Photo by: Zigzag Mountain Art / Shutterstock

Sweet cherry pepper
Sweet pepper

Fruit size: 2 to 3 inches long & wide

Plant height: 18 to 24 inches

Days to maturity: 70 to 80

Also called pimentos, often used to flavor pimento cheese or fill green olives. Can also be roasted or enjoyed raw. Plants produce heavy yields of rounded to heart-shaped fruits that mature from green to bright red. Most have smooth skin, but some are deeply ribbed. Many varieties are hot (not sweet), so be sure to read the seed packet or plant label.

Photo by: Funtay / Shutterstock

Anaheim pepper (Cubanelle pepper)
Sweet pepper

Fruit size: 6 to 10 inches long, up to 2-1/2 inches across

Plant height: 24 to 30 inches

Days to maturity: 65 to 80

Long, tapered fruits, similar in flavor to a bell pepper. Best harvested at the yellow-green stage for frying. When allowed to ripen to red, they develop a sweet, fruity flavor that adds pizzazz to salads and sandwiches.

Photo by: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

Gypsy pepper
Sweet pepper

Fruit size: 4 to 5 inches long, up 2 to 3 inches across

Plant height: 18 to 20 inches

Days to maturity: 55 to 65

Early-maturing peppers that can tolerate cooler weather. Despite its short growing season, plants are prolific producers, yielding a dozen or more peppers. Fruit ripens from light green to pale yellow, acquiring an orange-red blush when fully ripe. Crisp, sweet flesh is suitable for frying or eating raw.

Photo by: Madonna Giorgadze / Shutterstock

Shishito pepper
Sweet pepper

Fruit size: 3 to 4 inches long, up 1 inch across

Plant height: 18 to 24 inches

Days to maturity: 60 to 80

A sweet pepper can sometimes be hot. If you don’t mind playing pepper roulette, you may find that about 1 out of 10 can surprise you with a bit of heat (up to 200 Scoville units). Otherwise, peppers have a mild, slightly smoky flavor. Typically harvested while still green for stir frying or roasting.

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