Are you feeling a little daunted by the prospect of growing chilli peppers for the first time? Don’t be. I’m here to provide all the information you need to get started. Through years of experience, countless hours of research, and many experiments later I can confidently tell you that it is a very rewarding process!
This guide to growing chilli peppers for beginners will give you great growing tips from selecting the optimal soil to identifying common diseases – essentially transforming any first-time chilli pepper grower into a solid pepper farmer.
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Your Simple Guide to Growing Peppers
If you’ve seen any of my Seed to Sauce series you’ll know that when I’m growing chilli peppers at home I always try to replicate what happens in nature. The UK does not provide the best chilli-growing environment but there are things you can do to optimize processes, grow your own chillies, and get great harvests.
Stage 1: Grow Chillies From Seed – Seed Starting
There’s nothing more satisfying than growing chilli peppers from seed and watching the progress of your work as they transform into chilli plants. If you’re looking to grow from seed keep reading, if you’ve purchased seedlings, feel free to skip to Stage 2.
Choosing Your Chilli Varieties
When it comes to choosing which chilli seed varieties and chilli plants to grow, there are a few factors to consider. If you enjoy a fiery heat, opt for hot peppers or super hot chillies such as 7Pot Primo or Ghost Peppers (Bhut Jolokia). These varieties are known for their intense spice levels and can add a kick to any dish. However, if you prefer a milder flavor with just a hint of heat, choose milder chilli peppers like Jalapenos or Anaheim peppers. These options will provide a more subtle heat that won’t overwhelm your taste buds. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference and how much heat you can handle.
Remember, the heat of a chilli is measured using the Scoville Scale. The higher the number on the scale the hotter the chillies. And be sure to purchase your seeds from a reputable vendor, check out their reviews. I sell a range of chilli pepper seeds and have some great reviews.
“As a beginner grower, try to avoid rushing out and buying a bunch of super hot chillies. They are not easy to grow as they need a very long growing season, so be sure to read my tips on growing chilli peppers before getting started for the best results, including ‘When To Plant Peppers – The Best Time‘.”— Shaun
Chilli seeds are naturally dispersed by birds in the wild – birds, unlike mammals can’t feel the burn of the capsaicin in chilli peppers. Many believe this is an evolutionary trait to encourage the spreading of the seeds. Birds eat chillies and the seeds are spread through bird poo. Once deposited, the seeds propagate in the soil and grow into wild chilli plants.
Whilst in the bird’s stomach, the seeds go through a process called scarification. Scarification softens the chilli seed shell, allowing oxygen to get inside and helping the seed to germinate. The scarification process can help older seeds to germinate – it’s not as important with fresh seeds but in my experience it does help with germination rates, so I recreate the scarification process for all my seeds at the start of the season. To replicate this process we use tannins, commonly found in tea. English breakfast tea or chamomile tea are a great source of tannins.
Let your tea steep for around 30 minutes and allow it to cool to room temperature. Now you’re ready to soak your seeds. You don’t need a lot of liquid, you just need to cover the seeds. Don’t forget to label your seeds – you don’t want any surprises later.
Something else you can use for chemical scarification is hydrogen peroxide (3% strength) which you can get from a chemist or Amazon. For more information on this process – watch Chilli Pepper Seed Starting. I have experimented with many different methods, but simple tea has performed best for me.
Best soil for starting chilli peppers
Chillies need good-quality compost for successful germination. Chilli peppers grow best in loose soil. Loose soil lets the roots spread out and reach nutrients easily. If your soil has any debris in it, you may want to put it through a riddle or compost sieve to ensure your soil is fine and fluffy.
Using seed starting trays or small pots, fill them with compost and place your seeds on top. They do not need to be buried too far down in the soil, you just need to cover the seeds with a thin layer of your compost.
Optimal growing temperature for chilli peppers
The optimal growing temperature for growing chilli peppers is between 70-90°F (21-32°C). It’s important to keep the plants indoors until the risk of frost has passed. An ideal place for seed starting indoors can be on top of the fridge as it gets quite warm. Alternatively, you can use heated propagation trays to control the temperature and your growing conditions.
Chillies require months of growing time, so, here in the UK, I grow them in a greenhouse rather than outside. This gives me full control over their environment and I can grow wider varieties of peppers, such as super hots that need a very long season.
Watering Seeds & Seedlings
Once your seeds are in the seed trays and covered with soil, you want to water them for the first time. For best results, use a spray bottle to mist the seed trays – this ensures you don’t disturb your seeds too much.
Make sure the water is at room temperature and if possible, don’t use tap water. If you have to use tap water, let it sit for an hour in an open container – this will allow chlorine and chloramine to evaporate. Where possible I try to use rainwater.
Once you’ve sprayed your soil with water, make sure you cover up any seeds that may have been exposed with a little more soil.
You need to saturate the soil so you can also bottom water the seeds by adding water directly to the tray. Cover the base of the tray with water and place a dome over the seeds to get the humidity back up. You can then leave the soil to begin to dry out over the course of 2-3 days.
Until your seeds germinate you need to ensure they are in a moist environment. It is a balancing act. You want to see condensation on the inside of the dome. Check the water levels every couple of days to ensure your seeds do not dry out.
Now we wait – over the next couple of weeks you will get to experience the miracle of germination. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the first shoots appear when growing chilli peppers from seed.
Continue to bottom water throughout the growing season until you pot up your chillies.
Once your seeds begin to germinate, lighting becomes your first priority. If you’re lucky to have a windowsill that catches over eight hours of daylight, your seedlings will be happy there. If not, you’ll need to consider artificial light, which we’ll delve into shortly.
For the best seed germination rates – check out Germinate Chilli Pepper Seeds Like a Pro!
The Importance of Good Air Circulation
At this stage, you can open the vents on your propagation tray lid to improve air circulation and minimize the risk of damping off (a disease that causes seedlings to collapse). Turn off any heat source as well, as long as you can maintain a temperature around 20 degrees Celsius.
The first set of leaves you’ll see are called cotyledons, followed by the “true leaves.” Once the true leaves appear, remove the propagation tray lid and consider adding a small fan to circulate air, which will ensure you have strong and healthy plants. If some seeds haven’t yet germinated, you can maintain their humidity with shot glasses placed over them.
Top-Watering vs Bottom Watering Chilli Plants
Your plant’s roots serve multiple roles; they absorb nutrients and moisture, but they also need to breathe. If your soil is consistently wet, you’re essentially drowning the roots and compromising plant health. A practical way to assess your plant’s moisture needs is by weight. You can usually tell by lifting the pot if it needs water. For a more precise method, you could use a soil moisture and pH meter.
If your plants are in the ground, top-watering is your go-to. However, if you’re using pots, you have more flexibility. Bottom-watering is often more effective in helping the roots absorb just what they need. Top-watering is also an option; just make sure to saturate the soil until water drains out the bottom.
Remember, when you water your growing chilli pepper plants, it’s better to under-water than over-water. Your plants will communicate their needs to you, often by drooping leaves when they’re thirsty. Generally, you’ll want to wait for the soil to slightly dry out between waterings. This gives the roots an opportunity to stretch and search for moisture, enhancing root system health. As your plants grow and their pots increase in size, you’ll find that watering becomes more of a scheduled routine. For example, during summertime with larger pots, a thorough watering every two days usually does the trick.
Artificial Lighting for Growing Chilli Pepper Plants
If you’re in a region like the UK, where the growing season is relatively short or you have limited space, using artificial lights can provide your chillies with a boost. While placing plants near a sunny window might work for some, it often fails to offer the needed light intensity, especially during winter months. A modern full-spectrum LED grow light on a 16-hour on, 8-hour off cycle should suffice for most beginner growers.
Understanding the light spectrum and how plants perceive light can be a game-changer when you’re growing chilli peppers. Unlike humans, who are most sensitive to yellow and green light, plants utilize the full light spectrum, focusing especially on the blue and red ranges. Grow light manufacturers often produce full-spectrum LEDs that are enriched in these ranges to optimize plant growth.
Overall, understanding your lighting options and how plants respond to different light spectra can dramatically improve your chilli-growing experience. For a comprehensive overview of artificial grow lights and some recommendations read my article Best Artificial Lights for Plants: Boost Your Plants Growth.
Fertilizer for Your Chilli Plants
Once your plants are around six weeks old, and they have their first or second set of true leaves we can focus on feeding your chilli plants.
At this stage, the nutrients in the compost you’ve been using are depleting, so supplemental feeding is essential for optimal growth. The key elements for plant growth are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, commonly referred to as NPK.
- Nitrogen promotes green leafy growth
- Phosphorus supports root and fruit development
- Potassium aids in photosynthesis and nutrient absorption
For young plants, I recommend a seaweed fertilizer, which is mild and eco-friendly. It’s important to dilute this more than the bottle suggests because chillies don’t require as much as other plants like tomatoes. These types of fertilizers promote healthy growth and improve soil fertility.
As your plants grow, you can switch to other fertilizers like organic tomato fertilizer or even specialized products like Chilli Focus. However, be mindful of overfeeding, as too many nutrients can be detrimental.
Feeding your chilli plants is a balancing act. Always remember, less is more when it comes to feeding, especially if you’re aiming for spicier peppers. My general rule is to feed every other watering and to keep an eye out for signs of any nutrient deficiencies (leaf curl or yellowing leaves).
Stage 3: Soil Mix and Transplanting Seedlings
Your pepper plant seedlings need eight to ten weeks of growing indoors to begin with. This gives the root systems time to grow and fill the pots they’re in, giving you a head start before you move them outside or into larger containers.
Whether you’re growing chilli peppers in pots in a greenhouse or outdoors, transplanting your pepper plants is a crucial step for growth and productivity.
Before transplanting your chillies, choose a suitable location with plenty of morning sun and slightly acidic soil; peppers love these conditions. If you’re using pots, ensure they are at least 5 gallons for adequate root development. And, of course, wait until the last frost has passed. For more information read my article on ‘The Best Soil pH for Growing Chili Peppers‘.
Introducing Perlite and Vermiculite
To enhance the soil structure, I’ve been using a mix of compost, perlite, and vermiculite for the past decade. These additions promote better aeration and moisture retention.
- Vermiculite: A naturally occurring substance, it looks a bit like wood and serves two main purposes: aeration and moisture retention. Plus, it slowly releases absorbed nutrients over time.
- Perlite: This is essentially a type of volcanic glass. When heated, it expands and becomes incredibly light, promoting better aeration for the plant roots.
Over the years, I’ve found a mix ratio that works wonders: 10 parts compost, 1 part perlite, and 1 part vermiculite. Just combine these in a large bucket; no need for exact measurements.
More recently, I’ve added fish blood and bone meal to my mix. It’s a dry powder that provides excellent nutrients. If using the ratio above, add half a part of this meal to your soil mix.
This soil mix is perfect for the next stage of your chilli plant’s life, which is transplanting them into a bigger pot and prepping them for outdoor life. This mix should ensure your plants get enough nutrients for at least the first month or month and a half.
I provide more detail on ‘Transplanting Pepper Seedlings Successfully‘ in a separate article.
Stage 4: Hardening off Chilli Plants
Hardening off your chilli plants is an essential step in transitioning them from a controlled indoor environment to the great outdoors.
The idea behind hardening off is to gradually introduce your plants to outdoor conditions. You don’t want to suddenly move them from a cozy, temperature-controlled setting to the harsh realities of direct sunlight, fluctuating temperatures, and other elements. As mentioned previously, wait until the risk of frost has passed before beginning this process.
I usually kick off this process by potting the plants into bigger containers—especially if they are starting to get rootbound—and relocating them to a sheltered, small greenhouse that doesn’t receive all-day sunlight.
The Big Move to the Greenhouse
Now, when your plants are happy and growing well in their temporary shelter—like mine are after two weeks—it’s time for the big move to the main greenhouse. The idea is to get them accustomed to receiving sunlight for most of the day gradually. You can monitor their progress and adjust the sun exposure as needed. For example, my smaller greenhouse only allows about 20% of the day’s sun to reach the plants, which has been a good middle ground for hardening off.
Alternative Hardening Off Methods
If you have only a few plants, you could manually move them in and out of the sun each day, although this can be labor-intensive with larger quantities of plants. Some other strategies include using shade netting or hanging a shade cloth from the greenhouse ceiling to limit direct sunlight during the first week or two.
By following these steps, your chilli plants will be better prepared to thrive in their final outdoor home.
Stage 5: Pollination
In the middle of the growing season, around July if you’re in the UK, your chilli plants should be about 60 centimeters high and you’ll start to see flowers appear. Pollination can be a challenge, especially if you’re growing plants indoors or in a greenhouse with limited access to pollinators like insects. Chilli peppers can self-pollinate, meaning the same flower can pollinate itself. A simple shake of the plant regularly throughout the growing season can sometimes do the trick. However, some chilli varieties are more challenging to pollinate than others. For indoor or problematic plants, using a cotton bud or soft paintbrush to manually pollinate can be highly effective. You’ll need to gently brush the cotton bud against the stamen (the male part of the flower that produces pollen) and then brush it onto the stigma (the female part) to facilitate pollination.
Proper pollination is vital for turning flowers into chilli peppers. If you have access to natural pollinators like bees, that’s the best case. However, manual methods like using a cotton bud or giving the plant a good shake can be just as effective if done carefully. Watch how I pollinate my chillies in this short video.
Common Diseases and Pests That Affect Chilli Pepper Plants
Pepper plants can be affected by various diseases and pests that can hinder their growth and productivity. Some common diseases that affect pepper plants include bacterial spot, mildew, rotting, and fungal diseases.
These diseases can cause browning or spotting of leaves, wilting, stunted growth, and yield loss. It is important for beginners to be vigilant in identifying these diseases early on and take necessary measures to control them.
In addition to diseases, pepper plants are also susceptible to pest infestations. Common pests that attack pepper plants include aphids, slugs, worms, and flea beetles.
These pests feed on the leaves or fruits of the plants and can cause significant damage if not controlled. Aphids suck sap from the plant’s leaves while slugs and worms like cutworms and hornworms chew through foliage.
It is crucial for beginners to properly identify these pests so appropriate control measures can be taken promptly.
My go-to and more natural alternative is neem oil, which acts as an effective insect deterrent without compromising plant safety. It interferes with the hormones of the aphids and disrupts their feeding and reproductive cycles. Neem oil is mixed with dishwashing liquid and water to create a safe and cost-effective bug spray. The mixture is applied to the plants with a sprayer, focusing especially on the undersides of the leaves where pests are likely to be hiding. It’s generally recommended to apply this natural bug spray twice a week, but the frequency can be adjusted according to your specific needs.
You might also want to think about adding some companion plants to help attract beneficial insects and wildlife to your growing space. These insects can help to manage pests, promoting a more sustainable approach and minimizing the need for any pesticides or headaches!
You want to avoid using chemicals as these are edibles.
Overall, being proactive about pest control can save your plants and yield a fruitful growing season.
Stage 6: Harvesting Your Chilli Peppers
Harvesting your chilli peppers involves waiting for the right time to pick them. Generally, chillies are ready to harvest when they have turned their full color and are firm to the touch. So wait until your peppers are ripe, then gently twist or cut the stem of the chilli pepper to detach it from the plant. Be careful not to damage the plant or other peppers nearby. Remember to wear gloves when handling chilli peppers, as their oils can cause skin irritation. Once harvested, store your picked peppers in a cool, well-ventilated area to ensure they stay fresh longer.
If you want to save seeds from your pepper harvest to plant next season – read ‘Save Pepper Seeds – How to Harvest Chilli Seeds‘.
Growing chilli peppers can be a fun and rewarding experience for beginners. With the right knowledge and techniques, you can successfully grow your own colorful and flavorful peppers at home.
You can find more detailed articles on chilli pepper growing in the article section on the website. So grab some seeds, get your hands dirty, and enjoy the spicy rewards of growing your own chilli peppers!
How Can I Grow Chillies at Home?
Start by buying seeds from online seed suppliers or your local garden shop. Then you plant these seeds in seed trays, nurturing them using the information above until they become young plants. At this point, you will need to pot up or transplant the seedlings to their permanent home for the season. You may need to consider using a grow light if you have limited space or sunlight.
How Long is the Growing Season for Chillies?
The time taken by plants to reach full size and then turn into colorful pepper varies depending upon varieties of chilli selected but generally, it extends throughout your area’s hot weather period. Many pepper plants need months to grow and ripen so give your plants plenty of time in the right heat and humidity to ensure your plants reach maturity.
When Are Peppers Ripe and Ready to Harvest?
The color of the pepper changes when ripe! Peppers turning yellow, orange, red, purple, or brown depending on the variety, are an indication that they’re getting ripe – hot peppers usually ripen to red or yellow, and sweet peppers can ripen to many different colors. The peppers should also be firm – at this stage, you can look to harvest chillies.
Is there any Special Care Required While Growing Chilli Peppers in Pots or Greenhouse?
Yes! It’s important to keep your plant healthy during its growth period; young plants also need regular watering around them as chillies are tender plants that look out for warmth inside a greenhouse setting!
Are All Types of Chilli Hard to Grow?
Nope! There are many easy-to-grow varieties available including extremely hot ones or milder flavors like sweet peppers, making it a fun activity where you get a chance to learn about different types of chilli even if just starting out as a first-time gardener!