How to Grow Hot Peppers
There are so many kinds of peppers to grow and taste, it's time to think outside the jalapeno-shaped box! Learn how to grow hot peppers in your garden this year.
It’s hard to find much variety in hot peppers at the store: jalapenos, maybe some poblanos and not much else. That’s why it’s time to explore and grow your own gorgeous hot peppers, from some that are just a little spicy to others that are the hottest on Earth. Here’s how to grow hot peppers, and how to choose the best types for your garden.
What Hot Peppers Should I Grow?
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The beautiful thing that people forget about hot peppers is that there are so many varieties, and gardeners have lots of options to grow the spiciness they prefer. The best way to narrow down which hot pepper to grow is to see where they fall on the Scoville heat units (SHU) scale.
The amount of capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers hot, determines how many Scoville heat units a pepper has and where it ranks on the scale. Some examples: sweet bell peppers are at the very bottom, with zero Scoville heat units, jalapenos are 2,500-8,000 SHUs, and the world’s hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper, can reach 2.2 million SHUs.
- Hottest peppers: In addition to the Carolina Reaper, try Scotch bonnets, which are used in Jamaican dishes, as well as ghost peppers, habaneros and Thai chili peppers. Burpee has a new, fiery pepper for 2021 named the Armageddon that can be harvested sooner than Carolina Reaper, but still has a volcanic 1.3 million SHUs.
- Medium hot peppers: These include ancho, serrano, heirloom fish peppers, Hungarian wax, hot lemon, cayenne and tabasco. These medium-range hot peppers will give a potent hit of spiciness for salsas, hot sauces, stir fries and stews. Another new hot pepper from Burpee is named Real Deal. It has the fruity flavor of habanero pepper (which you’ve possibly never experienced because of the intense heat). But Real Deal is milder than typical habaneros, so you can taste the unique flavor without as much suffering.
- Mild peppers: Good choices for mild hot peppers are jalapenos (they range between mild and medium heat), poblanos, pepperoncini, shishitos, cascabel and cubanelles. These less intense hot peppers are great for eating fresh in salsas and other dishes, or to stuff, fry or pickle.
Starting from Seed vs. Buying Seedlings
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There are good reasons to grow your hot peppers from seed. For one, there are endless varieties of hot pepper seeds to choose from, including heirloom and organic types, or peppers bred for early harvesting. Because some hot peppers can take 100 days or more to reach maturity, starting seeds indoors gives growers a head start, especially in cooler regions.
The challenge is that hot peppers can be tricky to start from seed, as they need a lot of warmth and moisture, and even then seeds can fail to germinate. Buying seedlings or young plants from a nursery is always an option, though you won’t have as wide a variety to select from.
To start seeds indoors, plant them 1/4-inch deep in seed starting soil. Keep the pots in the warmest location possible, around 75° F, or use a heat mat like this to help. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, which could take 14 days or more. Two weeks after the last frost date, start to harden off the seedlings. This means moving the plants outside to a sheltered spot where they can slowly acclimate. Then, after a few days, you can transplant them into the garden.
Where to Plant
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Hot pepper plants need a location that gets six to eight hours of full sun per day. The soil must drain well so that no water will pool around the roots, and should have organic matter or compost worked in before the plants are added.
Burpee recommends covering the planting area with dark, plastic mulch for about a week before plants go in—this will warm up the soil, which will make your pepper plants very happy. Space the plants at least 12 inches apart.
How to Care for Hot Peppers
- Watering: Once your hot pepper plants are transplanted and settled, it’s important to keep the soil moist. Water them consistently through the summer, and use mulch around the base of plants to limit evaporation.
- Don’t overfertilize: Too much fertilizer on your hot pepper plants will greatly reduce the number of peppers they produce. Instead, amend the soil before planting with compost or organic material. Epsom salts also seem to help pepper plants and can be sprinkled over the soil or diluted in water and sprayed on the plants.
- Remove the first flowers: This may sound strange, but gardeners say pinching back the first set of flowers on hot pepper plants allows the plant to grow stronger, and set more fruit throughout the season.
- Check plants regularly: Though hot pepper plants are relatively easy to grow, beginning vegetable gardeners make the mistake of ignoring plants once they’re in the ground. Check your plants often for pests, signs of stress or disease, and to remove weeds.
Tools You’ll Need
Tips for Growing & Harvesting Hot Peppers
Keep kids and pets away
They’re hot peppers of course, so the oils in the peppers can burn skin and eyes, and will be very unpleasant for unsuspecting kids and animals. Plant your hot peppers in an area that children and pets won’t get into them, or place fencing around the plants. While the capsaicin in hot peppers isn’t lethal for pets, it can cause gastrointestinal issues, as well as being painful if eaten.
Label the plants
Hot peppers can be planted with other vegetables, flowers or herbs (as part of a lovely edible landscape). But be sure to label your pepper plants, so you and anyone else visiting your garden knows what’s what. It would be awful to reach for a sweet snacking pepper only to take a bite and realize (too late!) that it’s a habanero!
Harvest with gloves
The color of your peppers will tell you when you can harvest them. Many hot peppers can be harvested before they’re mature (still green). Or you can wait until peppers mature, which depending on the type is when they’re red, yellow, orange, purple or brown. Mature peppers can be strung into ristras and hung to dry.
To protect your skin from the hot pepper burn, wear gardening gloves to harvest and handle them. Don’t pull the peppers from the plants (this could tear and damage stems), instead cut them with scissors or gardening shears.
How to Get Super Spicy Hot Peppers
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Hot peppers are already pretty spicy, but you may actually be able to make them even hotter.
One way is to hold back on watering the plants. And yes—we did just tell you that peppers need consistent watering! However, waiting longer between waterings, which stresses the plant, seems to increase the heat of peppers that are just beginning to set.
Another way to get hotter peppers is to leave them on the plants for as long as possible before harvesting. Fully mature peppers are much spicier than those picked when they’re still green. An example: jalapenos that are fully ripened and bright red are the key ingredient in fiery sriracha sauce.
Finally, put lots of space between your sweet pepper and hot pepper plants. Cross-pollination happens easily between the two, and gardeners have reported that hot peppers from cross-pollinated flowers are less spicy.