Growing sweet peppers and then harvesting large amounts of bright red, orange and yellow fruit each summer makes me feel rich like no other vegetable can. It’s one of the things I get most excited about in the summer garden.
But difficulty growing sweet peppers is one of the most common issues I hear from gardeners each year. A lot of people find it very challenging to do successfully.
In this article, you’re going to learn the secrets to growing amazing sweet peppers, even if you live in a cold climate like I do (WI, zone 5). And we’ll be focusing on how to grow ripe sweet peppers, not green peppers. Here’s why…
Green peppers are the tasteless cousins of the red pepper. In fact, I don’t waste my time with them. If possible, I wait for every single one of my peppers to turn red, yellow or orange before I harvest it.
In the book Ripe, the author, Cheryl Sternman Rule, perfectly expresses my opinion of the difference between red and green peppers:
“If a green pepper rang my doorbell, I might look through the peep hole and then pretend I’m not home, easing back from the door so it doesn’t see my shadow. But, a red bell pepper? That’s a different situation…
If a red pepper came to the door? I’d let it in, pull out a chair, and invite it to stay. Then I’d tackle it from behind and eat it.
You ring my bell, you take your chances.”
The difference in flavor between an unripe green pepper and a colorful ripe pepper is incredible. Eating a green pepper is like munching on a tasteless, fibrous piece of cardboard.
But a ripe pepper! It’s all I can do not to eat every one I pick right out of the garden. Juicy, tender, and sweet with an acidic undertone – there’s nothing like a red pepper fresh from the garden.
In this guide, I’ll walk you through the whole process of growing sweet peppers. And, when you’re reaping the harvest and hauling bowls full of red peppers to your kitchen, you can consult the easiest ways to preserve them at the end of the guide. I even share some of my favorite pepper recipes.
Let’s dive into sharpening our pepper growing skills!
Best Varieties of Sweet Peppers
When clients and fellow gardeners share with me their frustrations and failures around growing sweet peppers, my first question to them always is, “What variety do you grow?”
Vegetable variety is a very important ingredient in the success of your garden. Not all varieties are created equal. I find this to be very much true with peppers.
Each year I grow around 35 pepper plants. I try new varieties every year in the hopes of finding new successes. More often than not, I’m unimpressed with the trials. Year after year, my two favorite varieties outperform all the rest. Without fail, both of these varieties produce reliable crops of beautiful, sweet red peppers.
Carmen red peppers – look how loaded the plants are!
Favorite Sweet Red Peppers
Carmen – A sweet Italian frying pepper. It’s a hybrid variety that can be purchased through Johnny’s Selected Seeds here. Carmen reliably produces many red peppers on each plant. I’ve counted as many as 17 on one plant!
Jimmy Nardello – An heirloom variety from Seeds Savers Exchange. The peppers are long and thin like a hot pepper, but the taste is unbelievably sweet and rich. Seeds can be ordered here. Sometimes Seed Savers also offers plants for sale through the mail.
Lively Yellow peppers
Other Favorite Varieties
Besides the above two varieties, I’ve found good success with these varieties as well. In general I find that orange and yellow pepper plants are quite as prolific as their red counterparts.
Tequila Sunrise – Carrot-shaped fruits that grow to 5 inches. Lots of fruit on one plant. Find through Seed Savers Exchange here.
Lively Orange – Italian type pepper similar to Carmen, but not quite as productive. Seeds through High Mowing here.
Escamillo – The cousin to Carmen red pepper, this yellow variety was bred by the same person. Long Italian type pepper. Seeds through Johnny’s Selected Seeds here.
Lively Yellow – Cousin to Lively Orange, bred by the same person. Another long Italian frying pepper to add to the mix! Find seeds through High Mowing here.
A Note About Bell Peppers
You may notice that none of these varieties are bell peppers. I think that’s the most common mistake gardeners are making – trying to grow the bell peppers they see in the grocery store. I haven’t had much success with them over the years, so I’ve abandoned that pursuit for one that’s much more successful – growing the above varieties that are all not bell peppers!
Where to Find Pepper Plants
Peppers should not be direct seeded into your garden. You need to plant seedlings instead.
Start Your Own
There are lots of reasons to start your own plants at home. A big one for me is that I simply can’t get the varieties I want at my local nurseries and farmers markets. Over the years I’ve experimented a lot and have found the varieties that work best in my garden. I want to make sure I have these favorites each year, so I now start my own seeds.
If you’re interested in starting your own seeds, or improving your process if you already do, my Masterclass, Super Easy Seed Starting, walks you step by step through the entire process with videos filmed in my seed starting laboratory, calendars, templates and more! Check it out here.
And pepper seeds can be a bit tricky to start at home without some specific tricks. Read all about them here.
It may be difficult to find most of the varieties I listed above as my favorites as plants at the nursery or farmers markets. But, I do see them once in awhile when I’m out shopping.
If you do decide to buy your plants, don’t get them from a big box store. The seedlings that are sold there are not necessarily selected to do well in your local climate. The variety might be more acclimated to a garden in Texas than one in Wisconsin, or vice versa. Those are two very different worlds!
I recommend buying your plants from someone who is actually growing them in your area. The best place to do so is at your local farmers market. I especially like to purchase seedlings from CSA farmers because they are very focused on production since they have to feed hundreds or thousands of people from their fields. Purchasing direct from a farmer also allows you to ask her about each variety.
If you live in the Madison area, I’ve seen some of my favorite pepper varieties as plants in these locations:
Eastside Farmers Market
West Star Organics sells at many nurseries around WI
Troy Farm on Madison’s northside has a yearly plant sale in May that often features some of these varieties
Love Food Farm sells great varieties of plants
When to Plant & Spacing of Sweet Peppers
Best Time to Plant Peppers
Pepper plants are very sensitive to low temperatures. They should not be planted in your garden until you’re certain that the last frost has passed. It’s better to plant later than risk death. I’ve lost pepper plants due to late frosts in my garden, i.e. the weekend of Memorial Day. Ouch.
This article shows you how to figure out your last frost and you can print out a planting schedule template that customizable to your own garden. It tells you exactly what to plant each week of the spring season. Grab it here.
How to Plant Peppers
In this article and video I demonstrate how I prep my garden beds for planting, including adding organic fertilizer. Read and/or watch those first and then come back to find out about the specifics of planting peppers.
Plants can be planted 18” apart in 3 rows per garden bed if your beds are between 3 1/2 – 4’ wide. If your garden beds are more narrow or wider, adjust the number of rows across the bed. For example, if your beds are 2-3’ wide plant two rows down the bed. If your beds are 5’ wide experiment with 4 rows per bed.
I plant 30-35 pepper plants in my garden each year. I usually plant one bed full of peppers and then spread the rest around in my garden. Below are some examples of how I like to plant my peppers:
This photo shows a full garden bed planted with three rows of peppers down the length of the bed.
You should always stagger the planting of seedlings so that they are offset from each other in a triangular pattern like in the photo below. This gives them more room to grow. Below is a drawing of my pepper planting. Each circle is a plant. They are spaced 18” apart in three rows down the bed. The rows are simply distributed evenly across the 3 1/2‘ wide bed.
If you don’t have a full garden bed to devote to your peppers or you just plant a few, you can plant them wherever they’re going to get full sun, 8-10 hours/day.
This photo shows one of my garden beds with a trellis. I planted a single row of peppers on the south side of the trellis so they wouldn’t get shaded.
A Farmer’s tip – In my area of Madison, WI, many farmers use black plastic to grow peppers because it heats up the soil in our cooler climate. I’m not a huge fan of using plastic in the garden, but I did manage to find an old billboard that I use to cover the soil. I cut holes in the vinyl at every 18 inches, three rows to the bed.
I then planted a pepper in each hole. I’ve done some experiments where I planted half of my peppers in the bed covered in black plastic and the other half in a bed covered with mulch. I haven’t seen a remarkable difference between the two, but I’m going to keep experimenting.
You can see the black billboard peeking out from under the plants in one of the photos above.
Plant Care & Maintenance
Don’t overfeed your plants with nitrogen or your peppers will produce a lot of leaves but not much fruit. Using a complete organic fertilizer when planting is a great way to supply some extra nutrients. Read about which fertilizers I recommend here.
Mulching around each pepper plant (I like marsh hay) will help retain moisture and build up organic matter. It will also prevent the pepper fruits from touching the bare soil, which sometimes causes them to rot. Read more about mulch and why it’s the ultimate garden tool here.
Most vegetable plants do best with about 1 inch of water per week, more if you have sandy soil. If it doesn’t rain around an inch during the week then water your plants deeply with a wand and hose or install a drip irrigation system. Read more about the best ways to water here.
Peppers that are fully loaded with fruit have a tendency to lean or fall over. Stake each plant to help it stand up. I tie each plant with sisal twine to a bamboo stake. I also have a few cute U-shaped bamboo stakes I bought at a garden store.
In this photo is a 2′ tall u-shaped bamboo stake. I sandwich the plant with sisal twine and also loop in around the stake to hold it up. See close up shot below. Find them here.
Below is a garden bed of pepper plants each staked with a single straight 2′ piece of bamboo. I tie the plant to the stake with the twine. Find them here.
Peppers grow best at temperatures of 70-80 degrees F during the day and 65-70 Fat night. The plants set fruit at temperatures between 75-86 F. If temperatures are below 72 F they won’t set fruit well. If the temperatures are above 90 F during the day or less than 55 F at night while the plants are flowering they often drop their flowers. This unfortunate timing might result in less overall fruit to harvest.
When & How to Harvest Peppers
During the height of the late summer harvest season, I can often be found out in my garden harvesting bowls and bowls full of red, orange and yellow peppers. I never pick a green pepper; I always wait for them to ripen.
You can eat peppers when they’re still green, but the flavor and vitamin content increases as they ripen to yellow, orange and red. I try to practice patience and wait until the entire pepper has turned its intended ripe color.
At the end of the season when a frost is predicted I harvest all of my partially ripe peppers. I have to admit, I usually leave the green ones out to die.
The year my plants had bacterial spot all of the leaves fell off the plants. It was terrible!
Pests & Diseases to Look for When Growing Sweet Peppers
Peppers are largely disease and pest free in many areas. Possible issues could include verticillium wilts, bacterial speck, bacterial spot, anthracnose, and tobacco mosaic virus. If you think you may have a pepper disease in your garden it’s best to consult your local cooperative extension office. They’ll know about the local diseases and issues in your area
I have never had a problem with disease on my pepper plants until a few years ago when my plants developed bacterial spot. I believe it was from some saved peppers seeds given to me by a friend, but I can’t be sure. It was terrible! I had to completely remove all of my pepper plants that year.
Sun scald can occur when a pepper doesn’t have sufficient shading from the leaves of the plant. It’s characterized by bleached, sunken tissue on the fruit. It can occur when a plant is losing leaves due to disease or a plant is over pruned.
If you do decide to prune your pepper plants (I’ve experimented with this!) make sure you leave some shade for the fruits to be protected from the mid-day sun.
How to Preserve the Harvest
Okay, we’ve made it through the growing and harvesting phases! Hopefully you now have more colorful peppers than you can eat! That means you can devote some energy to putting your extra peppers away for winter eating. Yum!
My favorite way to preserve peppers for later use is to freeze them raw. It’s super easy and I walk you through my process in this article.
Over the past few years I’ve also gotten really into fermentation. One of my favorite ways to use surplus red peppers is to ferment them into a salsa. I share that recipe and a few of my other favorites in this post: 5 No-Fail Fermented Foods Recipes for Beginners.
Additional Resources for Getting Better Results from Your Garden
In each season of my Masterclass – Success In Every Season: Get Better Results From Your Garden All Year Long – we focus on exactly what you need to know to be successful. The seasons build upon one another (just like in your garden!) to create a complete toolkit of skills that will set you up for a more joyful gardening experience
When you make smarter decisions in your garden, you end up having more success, which means gardening is a lot more fun. Read more about it here.
Get personalized advice on your struggles, goals, and garden aspirations with a garden coaching session, either in person or virtual. Read more about them here.
Set yourself up for a successful season with the Smart Start Garden Planner. It keeps garden planning practical, down-to-earth, and fun!
If you want to learn more about how to make the harvest last longer by quickly and easily preserving vegetables, fruits and herbs, check out my book, Super Easy Food Preserving, here.
Get started stocking your pantry for winter!
There are many riches to be had in this world and I’d argue that a garden bursting with ripe, colorful peppers is one of them. Somehow they feel rare, decadent and valuable.
Growing lots of red peppers is very much an attainable goal for your garden. And when you reach that goal, I hope you feel as rich as I do!