Crop at a Glance
Growing season: Summer
Time of planting: Seed in spring after date of last killing frost or transplant when soil temperatures reach 65°F to 70°F
Spacing: 18 to 24 inches between plants; 12 to 24 inches between rows
Days to harvest: 60 to 90 days, up to 150 days for the hotter peppers
Average yield: Roughly 2 to 4 peppers per plant, per week to first autumn frost (~3 lbs/plant)
Common starting method: Indoor as seed, then outdoors as transplant
There are few vegetables easier to grow in the home garden and more colorful than peppers. Peppers usually cost more per pound in the store than most other vegetables. Botanically speaking, peppers are fruit of the plant species Capsicum annuum. This species includes bell, or sweet, peppers, as well as most cultivars that we recognize as hot peppers, including paprika, cayenne, and jalapeños. Typically peppers are used to add flavor and color to foods, but peppers may be dried, pickled, eaten fresh, or constitute a meal on their own.
Selecting Types to Plant
Pepper cultivars have been bred for and are categorized by fruit color, shape, flavor, and spiciness. While you want to plant peppers that appeal to your culinary and aesthetic tastes, be very cautious to choose peppers that match your tolerance to spiciness or hotness. Bell peppers are considered to be sweet with no significant heat. Pepperoncini, banana peppers, and Anaheim peppers are relatively mild-flavored peppers. Meanwhile, cayenne, Hungarian wax, jalapeño, Serrano, and chipotle peppers may pack significant heat. Habañero and pequin peppers can be insanely spicy hot.
Choosing a Planting Site
Peppers grow best in fertile, well-drained soils with high levels of organic matter and full sun exposure (i.e., at least six hours of direct sunlight each day). Since peppers thrive in a soil pH ranging from 6.0 to 7.5, it would be prudent to have your soil tested at the planting site prior to planting. Information on soil testing laboratories is available here. Knowing the fertility of your soil may prevent unnecessary and wasteful fertilizer applications.
Planting Guidelines. Peppers can be started in the garden from seed. We recommend that you purchase certified seed from seed catalogs and garden centers. Pepper seeds saved from last year’s harvest are unlikely to produce the same pepper as the parent plant. Beware: Peppers are frost-tender vegetables. Seeds may not germinate in cold soil and seedlings can be killed off by spring frosts. Peppers are seeded in rows that are spaced 12 to 24 inches apart. Sow seeds spaced roughly 10 to 12 inches apart to a depth of ¼ to ½ inch in mid- to late May, depending on the date of the last killing frost (see Home Vegetable Gardening in Washington, WSU Extension Publication EM057E. Later, as the plants develop 2 to 3 leaves, thin plants to a distance of 18 to 24 inches apart to avoid competition for water, nutrients, and daylight between adjacent pepper plants.
Most gardeners start plants in the home or greenhouse 6 to 8 weeks prior to transplanting seedlings into the garden. Consider hardening off the plants for 10 days before planting by taking the transplants outside and leaving them in the shade for a few hours each day. Alternatively, pepper transplants often are available at garden centers. When moving the transplants to the garden, keep 18 to 24 inches between each plant in a row. Pepper transplants will do best once outdoor soil temperatures reach 65°F to 70°F.
Plant Maintenance. The first couple of weeks after planting are critical to the survival and productivity of peppers. If seeds fail to germinate, or germinate unevenly, investigate why (planted too deep, cold soil, old seed, pest-damaged seed, etc).