How to Grow Pepper Plants in Pots or Containers
Don’t let limited space keep you from a plentiful pepper harvest. Peppers, whether spicy or sweet, grow great in containers! In this article, gardening expert Danielle Sherwood shares what you need to grow beautiful and tasty pepper plants in pots.
Peppers make the perfect potted plants. They are colorful and eye-catching enough to work as an ornamental spotlight while lending tons of flavor to your favorite meals. I’m so proud of my peppers that I’ve highlighted them with matching showy pots at the base of my front porch.
Growing peppers in containers gives you the flexibility to keep them a step or two away from the kitchen or wherever they can get the heat and light they need to produce a delicious harvest.
Growing peppers in containers will spruce up your patio and palette if you’re not working with a ton of space. Even better, you can bring the containers indoors to extend your season. Ready to grow your own? Let’s dig in!
First, Pick the Right Container
Peppers like to stay moist but not waterlogged. They need to breathe and want room for their roots to spread. To choose the right container, keep these factors in mind:
Peppers are pretty slow growers. While your seedling may look small now, it will soon fill out a large container with just one plant. To get a good yield, a 5-gallon container is perfect. At minimum, choose a container 12 inches in diameter and 10 inches deep. Peppers grow well in raised beds but space them at least 12-18 inches apart to give each plant enough room for airflow and mature spread.
Peppers need freely draining soil. Verify that your selected pot has drainage holes, and drill them yourself if needed.
Terra cotta pots are classic and work well for peppers, but they dry out more easily. Pick a ceramic or plastic pot if you’d like to water less frequently.
If the flexibility to move the pot around is important to you (whether to maximize sun exposure or to move inside for a continued harvest in fall), pick a lightweight material like a fabric grow bag. Check out these Epic Grow Bags, which provide a good balance of breathability and moisture retention, are BPA-free, have durable handles, and are available in the perfect 5-gallon size for peppers.
Pepper plants are great in larger raised beds if you have the space. Birdies Metal Raised Garden Beds are my top pick because they are made of long-lasting galvanized steel that weathers better than traditional wood.
Plant at the Right Time
Peppers like it warm and sunny. They are notoriously slow growers, so most gardeners start them indoors around 8-10 weeks before their last expected frost date. Those in zones 9-11 can sow directly outdoors in spring.
Once your peppers are a few inches tall with at least 2 true leaves, they can be transplanted or up-potted, but don’t put them outside until temperatures are consistently 65℉ or above, even if you purchased a nursery start.
Their ideal temperatures for capsicum plants are between 70-80℉. Planting them out too early (when the weather is 50℉ or below) can cause stunted growth. Conversely, peppers will struggle when heat soars above 90℉. Provide them with some shade if your summer’s off to a hot start.
Choose the Right Site
Both sweet and hot peppers are plants that like warmth and bright sunlight. Site them where they’ll get at least 6-8 hours of direct sun, and consider placing pots near a south-facing wall for added heat in cooler climates.
Containers give you the added bonus of moving your peppers around to get the best sun or to a shaded location when things get too hot. Look for sun scald on leaves and transfer to a shaded area if your pepper struggles with the heat. Likewise, if your pepper displays leggy growth and minimal fruiting, it needs more sun.
If you’d like to harvest your pepper seeds to grow again next year, make sure to keep your sweet and hot peppers separate, as they are easily cross-pollinated.
Give it Good Soil
Peppers like well-drained, fertile soil. Fill your pot with a high-quality loamy potting mix that contains perlite for optimal drainage. If it feels too heavy, mix in a bit of horticultural sand. Add a layer of compost for more nutrients.
Once planted, top off the pot with mulch (leaving the area around the stem clear) to retain moisture and stabilize the soil temperatures.
Choose The Right Variety
There are so many cool and varied types of pepper that some gardeners grow them exclusively. While I’m not a “pepper head,” I’m still dazzled by all the choices I can grow in my garden. Fortunately, most grow well in containers. When selecting the pepper you want to grow, consider spice level, size, colors, and ornamental potential.
Here are some varieties I recommend trying in your container garden this season:
Poblano peppers are one of the most popular Mexican peppers and the star of delicious chile rellenos. They are larger than bell peppers with a long and pointed shape. Harvest them green for a mild flavor, or wait ‘til they turn red for more heat. These take 70-90 days to mature.
This is the variety to use if you’d like to dry your pepper for year-round spice and flavor. You might know them from the crushed red pepper you buy as a seasoning (I can’t eat pizza without it). They are long (10-25 cm) and ornamental, with bright red dangling fruits. They’re tasty pickled, too!
These sweet bell peppers are my kids’ favorite. They are big enough to stuff at 3.5-4 inches long and wide, with lots of sweet, crisp flavor rather than heat. These perform well even for those with short seasons and will be ready to harvest around 70 days after transplanting.
If you’re planting peppers for the heat, try the highly ornamental Santaka variety, which is just as beautiful as it is spicy. Originating in Japan, these peppers pack the heat with 40-50 thousand Scoville units.
They are nice to use fresh in Asian cuisine. Santakas turn red when ripe and have a great yield of tear-drop-shaped fruits that point upward on the plant.
Seed vs. Nursery-Grown Plants
Peppers are fun to grow from seed but take a while to reach maturity. To plant from seed, most begin indoors in late winter 8-10 weeks before the last frost. In warm climates, you can sow them directly outdoors once soil temperatures are 70℉ or above.
Sow seeds ¼ inch below the soil at least 6 inches apart. Keep them moist, and they will germinate in 10-25 days. A heat mat will speed up germination.
Once the peppers are a few inches tall, you can thin them out to the best seedlings every 12 inches. Keep them under grow lights or in a very bright sunny window.
Transplant your pepper seedlings outdoors when temperatures are consistently at 70℉+, and they have at least two true leaves. Plant one per 5-gallon container, or space them 2-3 feet apart in larger raised beds.
If you have a very short season or don’t want the hassle of starting seeds, you can buy a nursery-grown plant. Look for nice bushy growth and a plant at least a foot tall. Check for a sturdy stem. Avoid plants that are already flowering, as you want them to focus on root growth in their new home first.
Give seedlings (nursery or homegrown) a few days to harden off before planting. Plant on a cloudy day or give them a bit of shade to reduce the likelihood of transplant shock.
Water the Right Amount
Peppers have shallow roots. If watering is inconsistent (soggy for a few days, then left to dry out completely as part of a random cycle), they may develop blossom end rot. Keep them evenly and consistently moist but not waterlogged, and don’t let more than the top couple of inches of soil dry out.
They need 1-2 inches a week for most of the growing season, but check them daily and adjust based on your growing conditions. Remember that container-grown plants dry out more quickly than those in the ground. Pepper plants may also need more moisture when first transplanted, while in flower, and as fruits begin to develop.
If your pepper plant is thirsty, it may display curled leaves and have reduced growth. Revive it by placing the entire pot in a larger tray or bucket of water. The roots will soak up moisture from the bottom.
If waterlogged and wilted, keep it in bright sun and don’t water again until the top 2 inches of soil are dry. Check that nothing is blocking your container’s drainage holes, and repot if needed.
Fertilize When Needed
Peppers appreciate rich soil and additional nutrients to grow their big, colorful fruits. Use an all-purpose, balanced organic fertilizer mixed in with the soil at planting time.
Fertilize again every couple of weeks or when the pepper plants start to flower. Choose a low-nitrogen formula (the N in NPK) that will encourage the plant to focus on fruit production rather than green leafy growth.
To Prune or Not to Prune
If you want big, bushy pepper plants and a high yield, you may want to prune them, a practice called “topping.” This helps the plant develop more side shoots, increasing fruiting capacity.
However, if you have a particularly short season, you may want to avoid pruning. It can slow down the plant’s growth and take more time to rebound and yield fruits than you have left in your season.
One thing I recommend, regardless of where you’re growing peppers, is staking. Those fruits are heavy! Pepper stems are brittle and can break easily. Increase stability by sticking a stake into the soil of your pot. Use a soft fabric tie to secure the stems to the stake. Tomato cages also work well.
Patrol For Pests
Aphids suck the sap from pepper plants, distorting the leaves and weakening growth. If you find these pear-shaped pests congregating on your peppers, give them a direct spray from the hose to wash them off. They’re slow and usually die before they can get back up.
Just like aphids, whiteflies like to suck the juices from your pepper plants. They are white with small wings and like to hang out in clusters on the leaf undersides.
Check for them if you see wilted, yellowing leaves. Hose them off, and prevent further infestations with yellow sticky traps.
Cutworms are the larvae of several species of moths. They are caterpillars in various colors that will munch on the leaves and stems of your pepper plants. If you see munched leaves, check for cutworms and manually remove them (relocate them to another area of your yard to feed the birds, or plunge them into a jar of soapy water).
Blossom End Rot
Blossom end rot develops in response to inconsistent watering and is caused by the plant’s inability to absorb calcium from its soil due to fluctuations in moisture levels. It creates a mushy brown or black spot at the blossom end of the pepper’s fruit.
Prevent it by keeping a regular watering schedule and frequently checking the soil in your pepper’s pot to ensure consistent moisture.
You can harvest your peppers once they are full-sized and green for a milder flavor. Alternatively, wait until they turn their final color (most capsicums ripen red, but they’re sometimes yellow, purple, or brown) for the sweetest or hottest taste, depending on the variety. Almost all peppers will start out green, but it’s fun to watch the colors appear!
Sweet varieties usually take 70-90 days to ripen, while hot peppers may take 150 or more.
To harvest, snip the pepper off with scissors or slice with a knife rather than pulling it from the plant, which can break the fragile stems. Leave a short bit of stem attached to the pepper.
Always use clean, sharp scissors or shears and sanitize them between plants to prevent the spread of diseases. Wash your hands after harvesting and handling hot peppers so you don’t cause skin or eye irritation from the spicy capsaicin oil.
Harvest often to encourage more fruit to set. Depending on your climate, you can get multiple crops of peppers in a season. If you want to keep harvesting in winter, bring your pepper indoors and keep it in a sunny spot.
Peppers can flourish in small gardens. Their shallow roots and compact size are ideal for growing in containers. Feed them well, moisten the soil, and place them in direct sun. Prevent weak growth by staking to support fragile stems and watching out for pests.
While most grow peppers to incorporate in cooking, they are also surprisingly beautiful garden plants that look impressive in containers. Plant them in patio pots for an instant upgrade in decor, and have fun experimenting with different levels of heat and flavor profiles. Enjoy your peppers, and keep on growing!
Remember their preferred hot, sunny, and freely draining conditions for a successful harvest. Snip and enjoy often (or lean in for a little aromatherapy). You’ll soon look for new ways to incorporate this delicious spice into your repertoire!