Brightly colored and satisfyingly crunchy, sweet bell peppers are a key ingredient in a great variety of delicious dishes – fluffy omelets, crisp salads, paellas, quesadillas, spicy harissa sauce, the list goes on!
Bell pepper plants will thrive in a sheltered, sunny spot in a veggie patch, or undercover in a greenhouse. They can even grow successfully in large containers.
Bell pepper gardening tips
Growing bell peppers in your own garden can be incredibly rewarding, especially when you have a supply of fresh peppers in the summer, ready to be picked at your leisure.
If you’re thinking of growing your own bell peppers at home, these useful and simple gardening tips will help you achieve your bell pepper plant growing goals.
Types of peppers
Peppers, also known as capsicums, are flowering plants that are part of the nightshade family Solanaceae, which also includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.
It might be strange to think of edible plants belonging to the nightshade family, but the highly toxic plant deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is only one member of this large family of plants.
Originating in the Americas, peppers thrive in a warm climate and require stable warm temperatures and regular watering to produce fruit successfully.
Peppers are actually berries!
Although the peppers we eat are often referred to as vegetables, they are actually fruits – berries, in fact! – because they bear seeds.
(The botanical classification of a berry is a fruit without a pit that is produced from a single flower containing one ovary, whereas the culinary classification of berries refers to any small, fleshy fruit).
Perhaps not a fact that has any practical use with gardening, but it’s fascinating nonetheless!
Sweet or spicy?
Pepper plants produce fruits with flavors that range from sweet to spicy, depending on the variety. Both hot peppers and sweet peppers belong to the same species – Capsicum annuum – but hot peppers have the chemical capsaicin, which gives them their spicy heat.
Bell peppers don’t have capsaicin, and this is why they are called “sweet peppers” as opposed to their relatives the hot peppers.
Bell pepper varieties
“Traffic light” colored bell peppers, or green, yellow, and red peppers, aren’t actually different kinds of peppers. They are all the same kind but they are harvested at different degrees of ripeness.
As the pepper ripens from green to red, the vitamin c content increases, so red bell peppers are packed full of vitamin c once they are fully ripe. Incredibly, bell peppers contain more vitamin c than oranges!
Ripe peppers and flavor changes
The flavor of bell peppers changes as they ripen, too. Green peppers have a slightly bitter, grassy, herby flavor that not everyone will appreciate. Green bell peppers are unripe fruits and therefore they haven’t yet started to become sweet.
As the peppers ripen from green to yellow, orange, and red, their sugar content rises as the starch inside them breaks down during the ripening process. The riper they are, the sweeter they are!
So many choices!
One of the joys of growing bell peppers is the great variety to choose from. There are many different colors, sizes, and flavors to choose from.
Best bell pepper varieties to grow at home:
- California Wonder – a popular large bell pepper plant that produces 4-inch fruits that can be harvested as green peppers or left to ripen to sweet red peppers.
- Marconi – long, slender sweet red pepper that is great for stuffing and roasting.
- Canary Bell – beautiful sweet yellow peppers that take a bit longer to mature (about 100 days to maturity from seed to harvest).
- Big Red – thick-skinned, fleshy pepper that ripens from green to blood red.
- Coral Bell – bright orange sweet bell peppers that have 4 lobes.
- Purple Beauty – strikingly beautiful deep purple-colored sweet peppers that ripen to red.
Best bell pepper varieties for growing in containers:
- Snackbite mixed – compact bell pepper plant that produces small, pretty peppers that contain very few seeds hence their popularity for snacking!
- Redskin – a mini bell pepper plant with full-sized fruit, perfect for growing in a pot.
- Gourmet – bright orange, blocky fruit with a crunchy texture.
Are bell peppers easy to grow?
Bell pepper plants can be considered moderately difficult to grow, as they can be high maintenance in colder climates.
Bell peppers have a long growing season, and they require consistent care to ensure successful fruit production.
Rewards that equal the effort
However, all your care and attention will be worth it when you have your very first bell pepper harvest, and you get to taste the delicious sweet bell peppers you have grown yourself!
You don’t need a garden with a veggie patch or a greenhouse in order to grow bell peppers at home – you can grow peppers in containers quite successfully.
What month do you plant bell peppers?
In general, it’s recommended to sow seeds 6-8 weeks before the projected last spring frost date for your climate zone.
In the Northern hemisphere, you can plant bell peppers indoors as early as the first week of March if you have a heated propagator or a heated mat that you can set your seedling trays on.
Peppers are tender plants that are very sensitive to cold, and so they need consistent warmth and shelter throughout germination.
How long do bell peppers take to grow?
The time from seed to harvest is 20-26 weeks, with proper care and the right environment.
If you’d rather start later in the season, or you’ve run out of time and missed the ideal sowing timeframe, you can buy young pepper plants from a nursery or local grower instead.
Fill seed module trays 3/4 of the way with potting mix or well-draining compost, and water them thoroughly. Sow one or two pepper seeds per module, and then cover the seeds with a thin layer of compost.
Pepper seeds need consistent heat to germinate, and a soil temperature of around 80 F is ideal.
Place the trays in a heated propagator or on a heated mat – it should take around 8-14 days for the seeds to germinate. Remove the seed trays from the heat source once the seeds have germinated, and place them somewhere well-ventilated and exposed to 360 degrees natural light.
Where do bell peppers grow best?
A sunny corner of the garden sheltered from the wind, or a well-ventilated and warm greenhouse is perfect for growing peppers. The most important factor is a stable, temperate environment without extremes in access to water or temperature.
Do bell peppers need full sun to grow?
Bell pepper plants need 6-8 hours of sunlight per day, although this doesn’t need to be direct sunlight on every leaf.
Full sun is beneficial but not essential, as long as it isn’t intense enough to burn your fruits and damage them with sun-scald.
What kind of garden soil do peppers need?
Peppers grow best in soil that has been prepared with the addition of well-rotted organic matter, and with a slightly acidic soil pH of between 6.5 and 7.
Test your soil with a soil pH kit (available online and at most garden centers). You can alter the pH of your soil by adding pulverized lime to lower acidity, and aluminum sulfate to raise the acidity.
If you’re growing peppers in containers, you can purchase bagged compost specially formulated for fruiting plants, or you can use compost made from some well-rotted organic matter.
What you use depends on your access to compost – whether you have pots on a patio or a garden with a compost heap – and your budget.
As with most fruiting plants, bell pepper plants require fertile soil to supply them with the nutrients they need to produce flowers and fruit.
Pepper plants also prefer loamy or sandy soil that is free-draining and quick to warm up on sunny days.
Soils that are high in clay can be problematic as these kinds of soils retain water and can become waterlogged, damaging the roots of your peppers.
You can improve dense clay soil by increasing the pH (making the soil more alkaline) with lime. This is supposed to make the clay particles stick together in small clumps, making it more workable.
The addition of organic matter will also improve the drainage of clay soils.
Growing sweet bell peppers in containers
Growing bell peppers in containers is a great choice for those of us without garden space, and for cooler climates because the soil will stay warmer in containers than in your garden.
Pots are also easier to move to shelter or indoors during extreme weather, such as during a cold spell or a heatwave.
What kind of containers are best to grow peppers in?
Firstly, you need a container that is big enough for your pepper plant to grow comfortably. A pot that is at least 12 inches in diameter, and at least 10-12 inches deep is perfect.
Plastic and synthetic material containers retain moisture better than terracotta containers, so plastic is a better choice for warmer climates as they can keep the soil moist for longer in between watering.
Make sure that the container you choose has lots of drainage holes so that the soil doesn’t end up waterlogged. Wet soil will suffocate the roots of your plants and encourage mold growth, so make sure the drainage of your containers is good.
Black and other dark-colored containers retain heat much more than lighter-colored containers, so bear this in mind when selecting pots. Dark-colored pots will overheat more easily in warm climates.
Bell pepper care when growing in containers
Keep the soil moist by covering the top layer with mulch. Straw or bark make good mulching materials as they reduce the evaporation of water.
However, if you live in a cooler, damper climate, mulch will encourage pests such as slugs so be mindful of this risk.
Place your containers in a sunny spot that is sheltered from the wind, and water your peppers regularly.
Bell pepper plant care
Pepper plants are fairly high maintenance, as they require a constant warm temperature, support to cope with the weight of maturing fruit, weekly feeding to ensure healthy plants, and keeping an eye out for aphids and other pests and diseases.
Regular care of your pepper plants and taking preventative steps to stop problems from arising will give your plants the best chance at staying healthy and producing great, tasty peppers.
Caring for seedlings
Keep your seedlings in a controlled environment, away from draughts and extreme temperature changes. Water them regularly, but take care not to overwater.
Seedlings are susceptible to two main problems once they start growing rapidly:
- Leggy, uneven growth – inadequate light exposure can cause your seedlings to grow unevenly, resulting in a long, thin stem that grows to bend towards the source of light. You can prevent this by avoiding unidirectional light exposure, and rotating your seed trays every day.
- Damping-off – poorly draining soil and/or overwatering causes the soil to become waterlogged, suffocating the roots of your seedlings because they cannot get enough oxygen. Be sure to choose well-drained seed modules and water only when needed.
Potting on your rapidly growing peppers
Once your seedlings have their first true set of leaves – the leaves that appear after the ‘seed leaves’ – they should be ready to transfer to a larger pot. You can use potting mix for potting on, adding a bit more with each larger pot.
Check the bottom of the seed modules for roots poking out, and re-pot the young plants before they become root-bound (i.e. before the roots run out of space and start strangling each other, and take on the shape of the pot).
Most seed modules are about 1.5 inches in diameter, and you can move pepper plants from these seed modules to small pots of 4 inches in diameter.
As your plants outgrow each pot, you can relocate them to a larger pot until you either plant them out in your garden or move them to their final container of at least 12 inches in diameter.
Hardening off sweet pepper plants
Hardening off refers to a period of gradual exposure to a different, often more challenging, environment.
Once the last spring frost date has passed, you can start hardening your plants off by leaving them outside during the day in a sheltered area and bringing them indoors at night.
Hardening off should be done gradually over a period of at least 2 weeks so that your plants don’t suffer shock from a sudden environmental change. Plants that are not hardened off before planting out often suffer damage to their leaves from sudden cold or sun exposure, and they can even die.
Planting out young bell pepper plants
Growing bell peppers
Once nighttime temperatures are above 70 F, you can introduce your young peppers to the garden.
Space your peppers 18 to 24 inches apart, and don’t plant them any deeper than they were in their pots as the stem could rot.
(You can force tomatoes to grow extra roots by burying the stem up to the first set of true leaves during transplanting, but peppers cannot do this and will suffer).
Support plants with canes or tomato cages
Bell pepper plants naturally grow vertically and have shallow roots, so they need adequate support to stop them from sagging or falling over when the peppers start growing bigger.
Staking with bamboo canes or metal poles is one solution, or you can invest in tomato cages that will support both the plant and the fruit-bearing side stems as the plant grows and starts fruiting.
Fertilizer and plant food
It’s a good idea to feed your plants with a diluted solution of liquid plant food as soon as they start flowering. Once or twice a week is usually enough to support growth.
Nitrogen-rich fertilizer can help a young plant increase vigorous stem and leaf growth. However, too much nitrogen fertilizer can halt flower and fruit production because the plant will focus on growing leaves.
High potash (potassium) feed will help flowers and fruit to form, and strengthen the plant against disease.
Make your own plant food
Comfrey, nettles, and liquid from wormeries are all fantastic organic sources of fertilizer. Comfrey is particularly good as it contains potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorous – all the essential nutrients needed by growing plants.
To make a comfrey liquid feed, simply harvest some comfrey leaves, submerge them in a container of water leaving some space at the top, seal the container, and wait for them to decompose for a few weeks. The resulting liquid will stink to high heaven but it will make a fantastic fertilizer!
Ensuring a maximum yield of bell pepper fruits
After many months of tending to your peppers and hopefully achieving mature, healthy plants, you’ll definitely want to give each one of them everything they need to flower and fruit successfully.
Ideally, every flower would get pollinated and create fruit, and every pepper would grow to maturity and ripen fully. Of course, nature doesn’t quite work that way, but you can increase the chances of high fruit production with a few simple tricks.
Most peppers are self-pollinating, although insect visitation can result in bigger and more symmetrical fruits.
Outdoor plants shouldn’t have any problems with insect visitation, but you can always attract more pollinators with flowers such as zinnias, cosmos, calendula, daisies, and sunflowers in your garden.
If your peppers are in a greenhouse, try to leave the door open for a few hours a day in warm, sunny weather to allow pollinators to visit.
What to do when flowers drop before they are pollinated
Sometimes very hot weather can cause your pepper plants to drop their flowers. This can be disappointing, but luckily plants will grow new flowers once the temperature is favorable again.
Use shade cloths outdoors to cool your peppers down, and water more regularly to prevent additional flowers from dropping.
How to deal with bell pepper plant pests and diseases
Bell pepper plants can suffer from a few pests and diseases, although generally, they will stay healthy with adequate care.
Getting rid of aphids
Aphids are the bane of the gardener’s existence! These tiny, soft-bodied insects feed off of the sap inside your plants, damaging and weakening the plants shockingly quickly.
Aphids are usually only 1/8 inch in length, pear-shaped, and can be green, yellow, grey, red, or black.
Inspect your plants regularly for aphids, as they can be hard to spot at first. You’ll usually notice them clumped together on your peppers, often feeding on new shoots and buds.
They leave behind a sticky substance called honeydew, so look for sticky sap on the leaves of your plants. Aphids reproduce rapidly and can soon cause extensive damage, stunting flower and fruit production.
Once you’ve identified aphids, there are a few things you can do to get rid of them.
- Remove them by hand and squish them. This works if you have only a few plants, as it can get tedious to squish hundreds of sticky bugs!
- Blast them off with a hose.
- Use an organic aphid repellent such as garlic and cinnamon spray. Use one clove of garlic and a stick of cinnamon, add water and leave in a container for 4-5 days to infuse. Dilute 2 tsp of this solution in a liter of water, add a teaspoon of detergent, and apply to the affected plants with a spray bottle. Spray your plants twice a day, and you should see the aphids turn black and die within a day or two. This organic pesticide is non-toxic and won’t harm your plants.
- Spray your plants with a solution of organic soap and water, or neem oil and water. These substances are natural pesticides for aphids and they won’t kill other garden critters or plants.
Aphids produce a substance called honeydew that attracts ants, and so by managing your aphid infestation you can keep ants away. Ants do not harm plants – in fact, they act as pollinators – but they can cause problems in your home.
Red spider mites
Dry, warm weather is the perfect condition for red spider mites to infest your beloved pepper plants.
Identifying spider mites
Lower leaves will start yellowing and looking mottled and unhealthy. A closer look will show webbing on the underside of leaves, and the tiny spider mites themselves can be difficult to spot.
Getting rid of spider mites
An organic bug spray such as the garlic and cinnamon spray mentioned regarding aphid eradication will also work on spider mites.
Blossom end rot
Also known as apical rotting, blossom end rot is mostly associated with tomatoes, but it can affect peppers too.
What does blossom end rot look like?
Blossom end rot is very easy to identify. The end of the fruit, where the flower typically falls away after pollination, starts to cave in and becomes discolored. The pepper will still be edible but the damaged part will be wasted.
Causes & Solutions
Calcium deficiency is one of the main causes of blossom end rot, as calcium is essential for plants to make healthy cell walls and cell membranes. Lack of calcium means thinner, weaker cell walls that are susceptible to damage.
Firstly check the soil pH, as calcium could be present in the soil but not available for plants to access. For example, if the pH is too low, a pepper plant will have low calcium uptake.
If the pH is too low, you can add a horticultural lime product to reduce the acidity and free up the calcium for uptake by your peppers. You can also add calcium directly into the soil by mixing crushed eggshells into the area near the pepper roots.
Secondly, make sure that you have a consistent watering schedule that ensures your plants don’t dry out or get waterlogged.
Tobacco mosaic virus
Viruses are spread by sap-sucking insects such as aphids. Tobacco mosaic virus can affect peppers, and once it has infected a pepper plant the only real solution is to destroy the plant to prevent the virus from spreading.
There are many pepper types that are resistant to the tobacco mosaic virus, and these are a good option for lowering the risk of disease in your peppers.
Try some of these tobacco mosaic virus-resistant sweet bell peppers:
- Baby Belle
- California Wonder
Resistant varieties are great because they give you peace of mind, at least when it comes to bell pepper plant diseases.
Harvest unripe green bell peppers for their grassy, herby flavor and extra crunch. Leave unripe peppers on the plant to ripen, and pick them whenever you choose.
If the growing season is coming to an end and you still have peppers left on the plant, harvest them all and ripen them indoors.
If you’re lucky enough to have a glut of peppers – in other words, consistent, huge harvests! – you can preserve them by pickling or canning them.
Successfully growing your own beautiful bell peppers is a great achievement that is the end result of months of care and attention to your plant babies. Enjoy the fruits of your labors!