Growing hot peppers is not difficult. Most hot peppers are easy to grow. In fact, they require less effort than the large sweet bell peppers. By following the basic and simple instructions listed here will insure you have a bountiful crop of your favorite chile peppers.
Starting the Seeds:
Start at least 10 and preferably 12-14 weeks (if you live in a northern climat with a shorter growing season) before the last frost date for your area. Pepper seeds need a fairly warm temperature, moisture, air, and light for best germination. Plant roots need air as much as they need water, choose a light well drained starting "soil" (not potting soil) to be sure they get both. We use a commercial peat-lite type seed starting soil directly from a newly opened bag to be sure that the soil is weed free. Mold spores are the most threatening to young plants. Peat-based soils contain a live bacteria that helps to prevent mold growth. If you must use garden soil, it can be sterilized by pouring boiling water through it, be sure to allow soil to drain well and add some peat or compost before use. The soil also should be free of salts or excessive fertilizer, as these can burn the tender root that emerges from the seed. Chile seeds germinate at soil temperatures of 75° - 90° F, 20° - 35° C with 85° F or 30° C ideal. If you need more heat because of a cold location, the use of a drug store heating pad or an old electric blanket combined with an inexpensive dial pocket thermometer works just as well as those expensive plant propagation mats advertised in catalogs. Use a "test" tray or flat to adjust the temperature before setting your seeded flats on the mat or blanket and make sure to use a plastic sheet over an electric blanket.
Before planting, we recommend soaking the seeds in a mixed solution of 3 Teaspoon of 5% Chlorine Bleach and 1 Tablespoon of TSP (Trisodium Phosphate) into one quart of warm water for 15-25 minutes and then rinse for 5-10 minutes under cold running water. This does two things, kills most seed born disease and helps soften the seed hull. An easy way to soak the seed is done by placing the seeds in a small sieve and dipping into a cup or bowl of the mixed solution. Dab the floaters with a finger to brake the surface tension. Any seed that will not sink remove. We have found that floaters generally do not germinate as well and/or produce stunted plants. After rinsing place seeds on several layers of paper towels to absorb the extra moisture (Seeds will not clump together and are easier to handle). We use the Styrofoam 9" X 15" inch, 40-cell trays from A. P. Systems, covered by a clear plastic dome. It has a water reservoir and wicking mat that makes watering much easier. You should be able to purchase the kit for about $9.00. Plant the seeds in a moist, not wet sterile potting medium. The seeds are set on the surface of the soil, one per cell and sprinkled with another light coat of potting medium, then given a light mist of water from a hand pump sprayer. Cover tray with the clear plastic dome and set on heating mat/blanket or other warm place like on top of your refrigerator.
Do not set a domed flat in direct sun! It can cook the seeds. Remove the dome once to every other day to let fresh air get to the seeds and mist spray soil if needed. Some chile seeds take a long time to germinate, but they should do so using these instructions. So don't give up! Once the seedlings are up, remove the plastic dome cover, but do not let the soil dry out. If the seedlings are allowed to wilt, they may not die, but their growth will be set back.
A day or two after the seeds germinate, a "hook" emerges from the soil, and soon afterwards the seed leaves unfold. If your seedlings are hull bound (seed leaves can not emerge from the seed hull) it helps to leave the dome on, thereby keeping everything moist. Do not pry or pick the seed hull off until the leaves have fully developed and have extended, otherwise you will damage or kill the seedling. At this point seedlings should have as much light as possible to produce strong stocky plants.
We set the trays on shelves and suspend two, four foot, two bulb fluorescent shop lights, per shelf, just an inch above the dome. The lights stay on 24 hours a day. After germination, plants may be left under the fluorescent lights or moved to a greenhouse. To keep seedlings from growing long, skinny and week stemmed, they need 10-12 hours of good direct light each day. Windowsill growing has a few problems, generally not enough light in most settings and unless you have triple glazed windows the area near a window is the coldest area of the room, especially at night. The lack of light makes the seedlings grow long (climbing to the light) and bend towards the source (closer to the cold window), not an ideal environment for producing sturdy plants. We set the trays under the lights on 12 hour shifts. This allows you to double the number of trays and lengthen the life span of the bulbs by not turning them off and on. Often we set trays on top of the light fixtures to warm the soil instead of using a heat pad for germination. We have used the "grow light" bulbs and found there is no major difference in performance over using regular fluorescent bulbs. A better use of your money is to buy more light fixtures to get more light instead of the expensive "grow lights" bulbs.
The first true leaves will develop several days later. Seedlings may be given their first feeding of half strength Miracle Gro® , Peters® or Schultz® brand fertilizer (15-30-15, 20-20-20, 20-30-20 at 1/4 teaspoon to a gallon of water) as soon as the true leaves first show. Not too much, just enough to wet the leaves and soil. Newly emerged seedlings should have a gentle air flow. The best prevention for damping off and strength stalks is to have gentle air flowing around your plants. But you don't want too much air drying them out, either.
Seedlings should be transplanted to a 3 or 4 inch pot as soon as the first true leaves are fully unfolded, and the second pair of true leaves is just beginning to develop. It is also safe to leave the babies in the starting cells longer, but growth will slow when the roots run out of room. Transplant to Jiffy peat pots, plastic pots or even to waxed milk cartons, taking care not to disturb the root ball. Soil temperatures should be kept to a minimum of 70° F for fastest growth. Most good potting soils contain some nutrients, but a good non-burning liquid high phosphorous fertilizer can improve root growth which is most important at this stage. Apply according to package directions about once a week. Phosphorous is the middle number between Nitrogen and Potassium. A 15-30-15 fertilizer has twice as much Phosphorous as the other two elements. We use Peters 15-30-15 soluble plant food which is widely available in the United States
Hardening Off and Setting
About two weeks prior to planting in the garden, (a week before your last expected frost), begin hardening the plants by gradually increasing the amount of sunlight and wind which they are exposed to. Any good gardening book will explain more about this procedure. After the root ball has filled the container, the only real timing requirement for transplanting to the garden is soil temperature. Peppers hate cold feet, and will just sit and sulk if the soil is not warm. Before transplanting, be sure that the soil temperature is at least 65° F.
One trick to heat your soil for peppers is to thoroughly prepare the soil for planting, then cover the soil with clear plastic. This will allow sunlight to reach the soil, and trap the heat. You can start this very early in the spring. A bonus to this is that the warmth will cause weed seeds to germinate, and then the intense heat will kill the weeds. One or two weeks after the last frost, remove the plastic, and set in your pepper plants without disturbing the soil any more than necessary to avoid turning up new weed seeds.
You may like this alternative to hardening-off the plants. Cut the bottoms off round, white translucent, 1 gallon plastic jugs (milk containers will work but are flimsy and difficult to work with). Set the plants in a row. Then center the jug around the plant and push into the soil about 2 inches, remove cap and mound up the soil around the outside of jug a few inches. They act like miniature green houses and protect from wind damage, sun burn, and conserve water by reducing evaporation. When transplanting from containers, there will be some root damage which will slow the plants, so try to be as careful as possible. If you use jiffy pots, cut off enough of the top of the pot without disturbing the roots so that it can't act as a wick to dry the soil and plant out. If cutworms are a problem in your area, a paper cup with the bottom cut out, placed around the stem about 1/2" into the ground should protect the stem. Fertilize sparingly (1 teaspoon per plant), 4-6 inches away from the plant with high quality balanced fertilizer like 15-15-15. Cover the fertilizer with a small amount of soil so rain water will not splash it onto the tender leaves and kill them. Do not mulch the plants in early spring. It will insulate the ground so that the sun can not warm it. Once the warm/hot days arrive mulch to conserve water, prevent weeds and keep the soil cooler.
Now that your chile plants are in the garden, keep them watered, fertilized, protected from the wind, and getting lots of sunshine. Keep a lookout for pests. The major pests we've encountered are aphids, and they can build up rapidly. Using organic insecticidal soap not only controls aphids but also kills white flies and thrips too, plus it does not "drive away" the good insects like bees, wasps, and lady bugs like sprays with a Diazanon and Seven solutions do. Follow label directions for best results. You can harvest your Chiles when they are green, but they're so much prettier if you wait until they turn to orange or red or yellow or brown. As the growing season comes to a close, cover the plants at night with plastic or cloth sheets if frost is predicted or the temperature is to go below 32° F or 0° C. Don't use this method if strong wind is in the forecast, as the sheeting can catch the wind and destroy the plants. You will be surprised at how much long you can extend a growing season. This is not practical for large crops, but if you only have a few plants or a "pet" plant, it is worth the effort. Just remember to uncover the plants before the sun gets too high the next morning.
All of our Chiles are open pollinated and they should grow true to form unlike hybrids. Chiles planted close to each other can and do cross pollinate. This will not have any effect on the current fruit crop but can alter the seeds. If you are buying new seed each year it does not mater if you plant sweet bells next to cayenne. However, you may create your own cross and get a different plant than excepted from the seeds. To keep your seeds true they must be from plants that have not crossed pollinated. Commercial seed growers keep different varieties planted at least 2 miles from each other. That is the far range of honey bees. If you want to save seed from a particular plant you should keep it as far from other as possible to insure true seed. Hang a couple of ripe Chiles up in a dry place and then save the dry seeds in a cool dry place. You may not get as high a germination rate as the commercial treated seeds, but you should have no shortage of seeds. The seeds should remain viable for 2 -5 years.
Chiles are actually perennials, many live over 10 years, but are usually grown as annuals in colder climates. Take your favorite plants out of the garden in the fall, planting them in a pots and move indoors under a fluorescent lights for 10-12 hours per day. The transplanting sets them back due to root disturbance (transplant shock). It is a good time to trim them back a little also so that the reduced root mass does not have to work overtime to sustain all the foliage. If you planing on moving them indoors for the winter in pots, you can put them in 5 gallon buckets to start with. Use heavy duty plastic buckets and drill a few dozen 3/8 to 1/2 inch holes in the bottom and all around the sides near the bottom. Plant your bucket level with the garden surface (it will retain moisture better). When moving indoors you won't have to transplant them, just dig up the bucket and clean off the outside. This eliminates almost all root damage. Chiles which are moved indoors often lose their leaves. Based on information from other gardeners, some believe that Chiles may be deciduous. They will grow as big as trees and maybe they just lose their leaves like oak trees. For container growing, use a five gallon pot for large crop, a three gallon for smaller or ornamental plants. Peppers will grow attractively in a pot as small as 6 inch. The size of the soil mass directly affects the size of the plant and the crop.
When you water, water thoroughly and deeply. Part of the watering process is to wash away salt in the soil; frequent shallow watering will cause salt to build up in the soil as the water evaporates, and the salt buildup can stunt or kill your plants. Allow the surface of the soil to become dry before watering again. Some say that allowing the plants to dry to almost wilting will increase the heat of the fruit, do not try this until there is fruit on the plants (the part you want to make hotter) and you must track the condition of your plants very carefully, peppers will not survive bone dry soil for very long. Choose a spot that gets as much sun as possible, the more sun, the hotter the chilies will be. All peppers are perennials, but most are tropical and must be protected from frost. Most pepper plants seem to like a little dormant period after fruiting, and respond well to cutting back at this time. During dormancy, be very careful to avoid keeping the soil too wet. To break dormancy, increase the length of time they get light and soil temperature also.
Phytophthora Blight, also called Crown Rot, is caused by Phytophthora capsici (PC). The pathogen is soil-borne and also spread by rain splashes or running water. Warm wet weather and damp soil promotes this disease. The disease may appear as damping-off of young seedlings, a root and crown rot of plants, or blight on leaves, stems and fruits. This disease occurs worldwide. Resistant varieties, coupled with raised beds and crop rotation, are the best approach to disease control. Fungicides such as RidomilMZ (metalaxyl + mancozeb) and fixed copper (Cu2SO4, CuOH, or CuCl) are helpful in controlling this disease. This pathogen is not internally transmitted in seeds.
Anthracnose, also called Ripe Fruit Rot, is caused by three species of Colletotrichum (capsici, acutatum, and gloeosporioides). The pathogen is spread by rain splashes. Warm wet weather promotes this disease. The disease affects mainly the fruits, but may also cause some stem infection. In the beginning it produces water soaked spots on the fruit. Later spots expand, become darker and depressed often having concentric ring-markings. This disease occurs primarily in the humid tropics. Resistant varieties, coupled with the use of fungicides such as Daconil/Bravo 500 (chlorothalonil), Maneb (mancozeb), and Zineb, are the best approach to disease control. This pathogen is not internally transmitted in seeds.
Bacterial Wilt is caused by Ralstonia solanacearum (formerly called Pseudomonas Solanacearum). Warm weather and poor drainage promotes this disease. The lower leaves may turn yellow, wilt and drop, and plants may die if disease advances. Vascular bundles in the lower stem turn brown when stems are pressed. When stems are cut and placed in water, milky streams of bacteria ooze from the plant. This disease occurs primarily in the humid tropics. Resistant varieties, coupled with good drainage, liming, and crop rotation, are the best approach to disease control. This pathogen is not internally transmitted in seeds.
Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) is transmitted by aphids. The symptoms of CMV infection are extremely variable. Plants are generally stunted, with dull light green foliage and a leathery appearance. This virus is worldwide in distribution and has an extremely wide host range. although control of aphids is the key factor to minimize CMV infection, the use of insecticides is considered ineffective because insecticides do not act quickly enough to prevent transmission of the virus. Resistant varieties, coupled with good weed control, healthy plant growth, protected seedling culture, and integrated pest management of aphids, are the best approach to disease control. This pathogen is not internally transmitted in seeds.
Chile Veinal Mottle Virus (CVMV) is transmitted by aphids. The symptoms of CVMV infection are variable. Leaf mottle and dark-green vein banding are the most characteristic symptoms. This virus has not been reported outside of Asia. Resistant varieties, coupled with protecting young seedlings from infection and integrated pest management of aphids, are the best approach to disease control. This pathogen is not internally transmitted in seeds.
Tobamoviruses such as Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV), and Pepper Mild Mottle Virus (PMMV) are transmitted mechanically (by touch). The symptoms of Tobamoviruses include leaf mosaic, plant stunting, and systemic chlorosis. This virus family is worldwide in distribution. Resistant varieties are the best approach to disease control. If no resistant variety is available, use of Tobamovirus-free seed, coupled with dipping tools and hands in milk when handling pepper plants, provides the best approach to disease control. This pathogen is internally transmitted in seeds.
Potato Virus Y (PVY) is transmitted by aphids. The symptoms of PVY are leaf mosaic and dark green vein banding, although leaf crinkling, leaf distortion, and plant stunting may also be observed. This virus occurs worldwide. Resistant varieties, coupled with protecting young seedlings from infection and integrated pest management of aphids, are the best approach to disease control. This pathogen is not internally transmitted in seeds.
Aphids that attack peppers include the cotton aphid (Aphis gossypii) and the green peach aphid (Myzus persicae). The symptoms of aphid feeding injury are leaf distortion and cupping, often followed by the growth of gray-black sooty mold. However, the main damage caused by aphids is due to the viruses they carry, not their feeding injury. Aphids occur worldwide. Resistant varieties, coupled with good weed control, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, are the best approach to disease control. Piramor (pirimicarb 50DP) is probably the best chemical available to control aphids; it is also relatively safe to natural predators/parasites.
Thrips that attack peppers include Scirtothrips dorsalis and Thrips palmi. The symptoms of thrip feeding injury are leaves that curl upwards and fruits that are netted with streaks. Thrips occur worldwide. Resistant varieties, coupled with good weed control, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, are the best approach to disease control. Decis (deltamethrin 2.8EC), Admire/Confidor (imidacloprid 2GR or 10SL), or Karate (lambdacyhalothrin 2.8EC) may control thrips. You should rotate insecticides each time you spray. Use of Decis or Karate may cause increased infestation of mites.
Mites that attack Chile peppers are usually broad mites (latus). The symptoms of mite feeding injury are leaves that curl downwards and fruits that develop a corky, distorted surface. Mites occur worldwide. Resistant varieties, coupled with good weed control, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, are the best approach to disease control. Miticides such as Avid (abamectin 2EC), Plictran (cyhexatrin 50WP), Kelthane (dicofol 30EC) or Omite (propargite 57EC) may control mites. For more information on diseases and insects that attack Chile peppers, see 'Pepper Diseases: A Field Guide', published by the AVRDC.
For fresh use, chile peppers may be harvested either at the green or red mature stage. It takes approximately 50-55 days after flowering for fruits to fully ripen, depending on temperature, soil fertility, and variety. Warmer temperatures will hasten ripening, and cooler temperatures will delay it. If conditions are favorable, chile production can continue for several months. Harvests can be obtained from plants on a weekly basis as fruits ripen. For fresh chile, fruits should not be washed unless they will be kept cool (10° C) until sold. Fruits should be stored in a cool, shaded, dry place until they are sold or used. At typical tropical ambient temperature and humidity (28° C and 60% RH), fruits will last approximately 1-2 weeks before they spoil. Anthracnose is the major cause of fresh fruit spoilage.
For dry chile, the most important consideration is to preserve the red color of the mature fruits. Drying them in the sun is commonly done; however, this tends to bleach the fruits and rainfall or dew can rot the fruits. Solar dryers have been developed for drying Chiles, but they require fairly constant sunshine. Cloudy weather increases the drying time and the risk of mold infestations. If ovens are available, fruits may be dried for eight hours at 60° C, then reduce the temperature to 50° C, until fruits are completely dry (10 more hours). Most large department stores sell food dehydrators with stacking trays for small scale drying operations. Look for one with an adjustable temperature control and fan. Blanching the fruits in hot water (65° C) for three minutes and removing the pedicel and calyx can decrease drying time, increase color retention, and reduce mold infestation. Another method that aides in reducing drying time is to freeze the fruit for a few days. This causes the cell membranes to brake thereby allowing the moisture to escape more readily. There is one more method worth mentioning, smoke-drying. This process works well with thin and thick walled Chiles and adds a lot of flavor when done correctly. Uncle Steve produces several hickory smoked-dried Chiles and Chile powers every year. In general, varieties with low % dry matter (DM) and/or thick flesh are difficult to dry and varieties with low % DM are generally sold as fresh Chiles.
In temperate regions, chile pepper production is usually halted by frost at the end of the season. In tropical and subtropical regions, biotic and/or abiotic stresses (or rotation to a different crop) usually halts chile pepper production.