How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Bell Peppers
Are you thinking of growing some bell peppers in your garden this year, but aren't exactly sure where to start? Bell peppers are actually fairly easy to grow, provided you have the right climate, soil mixture, and meet their watering needs. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey documents all the steps you'll need to follow in order to successfully plant, grow, and care for bell peppers.
Raw or cooked, sliced or diced, bell peppers are a colorful sweet addition to just about any summer meal. This warm-weather crop is a popular nightshade vegetable for any garden. If you loathe spice but still want a sweet crunch, this is the perfect veggie for you. They lack capsaicin, which is the active compound that gives hot peppers their heat. Plus, they yield in abundance all summer long.
Peppers are generally a bit more challenging to grow because they need protection from the cold, plenty of water, and extra fertility. If you keep them happy, you will have plenty of sweet peppers for summer meals and winter preservation.
Before deciding to add this vegetable to your garden, there’s plenty of important information that you’ll need to digest. You’ll want to learn everything you can about how they grow, before embarking on your pepper planting journey. Let’s dig into how to grow the best bell peppers your garden has ever seen!
- 1 Plant History
- 2 Propagation and Planting
- 3 Transplanting
- 4 Companion Planting
- 5 Bell Pepper Varieties
- 6 Bell Pepper Care
- 7 Getting Them to Ripen
- 8 Troubleshooting
- 9 How and When to Harvest
- 10 Frequently Asked Questions
- 11 Final Thoughts
Bell Pepper Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual
Species Capsicum annuum
Hardiness Zone USDA 9-11
Planting Season Spring and Summer
Plant Height 12-24 inches
Fertility Needs Mid-to-High
Companion Plants Alyssum, Basil, Borage
Don’t Plant With Brassicas, Fennel, Corn
Soil Type Well-draining Loam
Plant Spacing 9-18 inches
Watering Needs High
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Days to Maturity 60-90 Days
Pests Tarnighed Plant Bugs, Aphids
Diseases Tobacco Mosaic Virus (uncommon)
Bell peppers (Capsicum annuum) are an annual member of the Solanaceae family along with tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. You may have noticed that all of these plants have similar yellow or purple star-shaped flowers with five petals, which is a key attribute of the Solanceous tribe.
Capsicum annuum is a small bushy pepper plant that yields large, round, mild peppers with smooth outer skins and fresh crisp flesh. The fruits are hollow with many tiny seeds on the membrane of the inner white walls. When cooking, these seeds are easy to cut around and even save for future plantings in the garden.
The name Capsicum comes from the Greek root “kapto” which means “to swallow” or “to bite.” It was originally called a pepper when Columbus misconstrued it as a relative of black pepper (Piper nigrum), but there is no relation. Bell peppers are, however, relatives of hot chile peppers which originated in the Aztec culture some 5000 years ago.
Wild Ancient Origins
Bell peppers originated in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Their chili pepper relatives date as far back as 5000 BC when indigenous people first collected seeds from a wild variety. The seeds were later spread around the world by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Because they are widely adapted to both tropical and temperate climates, they have become a staple in the gardens of America, Europe, China, Africa, and beyond.
USDA records indicate that the first commercial peppers were produced in the southern United States in 1925. Today, the majority are found in grocery stores come from Florida, with some large-scale production scattered around California, Texas, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Fortunately, they are produced on small-scale organic farms and in gardens in just about every growing region of the U.S., albeit their availability is limited to summer months. There are pepper varieties adapted to colder regions, but in general, they prefer a 3-4 month growing window of temperatures consistently above 50-60°F. They are only hardy outdoors year-round in USDA growing zones 9-11. However, with frost protection and proper timing, I have successfully grown bell peppers as far north as Montana, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Green vs. Colored
Speaking of growing in northern climates with short seasons, it can be more difficult to ripen the peppers without enough heat days. You will often end up with lots of green bell peppers if you don’t plant early enough or provide enough extra warmth.
Most people don’t realize that green bell peppers are actually just unripe fruits. That’s why they are cheaper and more neutrally flavored than the orange, yellow, or red bells. As the pepper ripens on the plant, it turns from yellow to orange and then red (unless the variety is bred specifically to grow another color like purple).
Because red bells are ripening on the plant the longest, they pack the most nutrition and have almost 11 times more beta-carotene and 1.5 times more vitamin C than green varieties.
Vitamin C Powerhouse
Bell peppers are low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals. They are rich in Vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, folic acid, and fiber. One medium-sized red bell pepper provides 169% of the recommended daily intake for Vitamin C, which makes it one of the best dietary sources of this essential nutrient.
As mentioned above, peppers with red coloring have the most nutrient density because they are the ripest and stay on the plant the longest, however, all bell peppers are a healthy source of vitamins and minerals. Unripe (green) bell peppers are a great source of lutein, which is linked to better eye health. All colors of bells also have lots of quercetin, an antioxidant linked to preventing cancer and heart disease.
Propagation and Planting
When it comes to propagation and planting, there are a few important factors you need to take into consideration for an effective harvest. Let’s look at some of the basics when it comes to first getting started with planting them in your garden.
How Long Do They Take to Grow?
Bell peppers are warm-season annuals that take 60 to 90 days to mature. This means you need to get them started indoors early in the spring or purchase high-quality seedlings to transplant as soon as the weather is warm and the risk of frost has passed. Many varieties take 65-70 days to grow green fruits, but 85-90 days to produce the coveted ripe red bell peppers.
How to Seed
Start pepper seeds indoors at least 8-10 weeks before the last frost. They are slow-growing and need plenty of time to get established so you can jumpstart your garden season. Use a south-facing window, grow lights, or a small greenhouse nursery to start pepper seedlings. It also helps to have a heating pad to get the best germination.
You can begin with smaller cell trays, 6-pack trays, or a 4” pot. Some gardeners like to start with smaller cells and then up-pot their pepper plants after 3-4 weeks. Others simply start the seedlings in larger round or square pots. Either way, be sure your baby pepper plants are in a consistent warm space above 60°F, preferably with a heating pad underneath to keep soil temperatures around 80-90°F. Use a soil thermometer probe to determine how warm the soil is.
Sow pepper seeds about 1/4” deep in a loamy well-drained potting mix. Keep consistently moist (but never soggy!) for 7 to 14 days until germination. They germinate slower in cold soil, so be patient or warm things up! Once the first cotyledons have appeared, back off the watering only slightly to ensure that the seedlings don’t dampen off (rot at the base).
Pro Tip: For More Flowers and Fruits, Cold Treat Seedlings
Professional growers use a controlled cold treatment method on their pepper seedlings in order to increase the number of flowers and fruits later on. This is a more advanced technique that requires a controlled space like a small greenhouse with a thermometer and heater.
To do it, wait until the third set of true leaves appear and then bring the minimum night temperature inside the nursery down to 53-55°F for 4 weeks. Keep the plants in full sunlight and protect them from harsh winds.
After 4 weeks, bring the temperatures up to 70°F all day and night. Then, grow and plant as normal. The plants should be very resilient at this stage. You can yield at least twice as many peppers with this method, however, you will need to seed 1-2 weeks earlier than usual.
Direct Sowing is Not Recommended
Because peppers need hot conditions and a long growing season, directly seeding them into the garden is not recommended for most climates. Either buy happy seedlings from a local nursery or farm or grow your own seedlings indoors.
Pepper seedlings need to have an easy transition from the protected indoors to the unpredictable outdoor weather. Begin hardening off plants about 10 days before transplanting. You can do this by placing them in a protected (but still sunny) area outside and bringing them indoors at night for the first 4-5 days. Then, transition to leaving outside all night long while still in their pots. Give peppers plenty of time to adjust to bigger temperature swings.
It is time to transplant when the soil is consistently warm and the risk of frost has passed (typically 2-3 weeks beyond the average last frost date for your region). Seedlings should have robust leaves and small buds, but no open flowers.
To transplant bell peppers, begin by gently removing the seedling from its cell, ensuring that its roots have fully filled out the container but haven’t started twirling around and getting root bound. Create a planting hole a few inches deeper and wider than the root ball.
Holding at the base of the plant, shimmy the plant out of the container and place it in the soil. Backfill the hole, keeping the soil surface aligned with the top of the root ball. You should never plant peppers deep the way you do with tomatoes.
Space peppers at 9-12” apart in rows 24-36” apart, depending on the variety. If you plant them too close together they may become stressed from the competition for space, nutrients, and water, resulting in less vigorous plants.
How to Water-In Transplants
To get your baby plants off to a good start, you can water-in the transplants with a high phosphorus solution such as a liquid seaweed fertilizer. This boosts root establishment and prevents transplanting shock.
Use Row Cover
Whether they’re sweet or spicy, peppers like the heat. When we’re growing them in temperate climates like most of the United States, we have to do everything in our power to mimic those tropical conditions that peppers love. Row cover is a gardener’s best friend when establishing bell peppers.
Floating fabric row covers can be secured over wire hoops to provide a buffer against cold weather and early plantings. The only caveat is that you need to open those low tunnels up if the temperatures get above 85°F. If you forget to remove the row cover on really hot days, blossom drop and heat damage can occur.
Companion planting is a common organic gardening technique that helps improve garden growth by cultivating a diversity of plants that support each other symbiotically.
Some bell pepper companion plants repel pests while others attract beneficial predatory insects or pollinators. Leguminous companion plants can add nitrogen to the soil, while ground cover companions help with weed competition.
Best Companions Include:
- Alyssum (attracts pollinators and beneficial predatory insects)
- Asparagus (repels nematodes)
- Basil (improves vigor of tomatoes and peppers)
- Borage (deters hornworms and attracts pollinators)
- Calendula (provides season-long nectar to pollinators)
- Tomatoes (similar growing conditions)
Avoid Planting With:
- Brassicas (cabbage-family crops prefer an alkaline soil pH between 6.5 and 7.0 while Solanum pepper-family crops like acidic soil pH between 5.5 and 6.5)
- Corn (shades out low-growing peppers)
- Fennel (stunt growth)
Bell Pepper Varieties
Bell peppers come in a diverse range of colors, shapes, and sizes. Certain varieties are better adapted to different regions, so keep this in mind when choosing your seeds. If you choose open-pollinated varieties, you can save the seeds and replant them year after year to develop a variety that is specially adapted to your garden.
Baby Bell Peppers
You may notice how green bell peppers always seem to be cheaper than yellow or red. That’s because farmers in certain climates have a harder time ripening them in their short season. Snack peppers or “baby bells” are best for northern climates where full-size peppers may have a hard time ripening.
These mini-sized organic bell peppers are a lovely addition to salads or snacks. The tasty mini peppers average 2-3” long and 1-2” wide. The plants are tall and strong with high yields. They need 60 days to mature for green fruits, or 80 days for orange ripened fruits. Lunchbox varieties are also available in red and yellow. These are my favorite peppers to grow in cold northern climates like Montana and New Hampshire.
This early, sweet mini bell is so dang cute! The fruits are blocky and average 2” x 1.75” in size. When fully ripe red, they are very sweet. The large plants branch prolifically to protect fruits from sunscald. 55 days to maturity for green peppers and 75 days for red.
This early-ripening golden mini bell is snack size and adorable. The flavor is fruity and sweet, and the color is bright golden yellow. The leaves are large and sturdy with plenty of leaves to protect from sun-scald. 55 days to maturity for green and 75 days to yellow ripe.
Full Size Bell Peppers
More like the classic grocery store or farmer’s market bells, these full-size peppers are large, vibrant, and flavorful.
These large flavorful hybrid peppers are organic and high-yielding. They perform well in the south as well as warm areas of the north. The plants are medium-size with plenty of leaf cover for developing fruits. It is also resistant to bacterial leaf spot. ‘Olympus takes 65 days to mature green peppers and 85 days to grow ripe red peppers.
This unique ivory-colored bell pepper yields medium-sized blocky fruits that start out a whitish-ivory and ripen to bright golden. The plants are sturdy and medium-sized with average leaf cover and high yield potential.
Tall, strong, leafy ‘Sprinter’ peppers are productive even in adverse weather. They benefit from as much heat as you can give them, even if it’s just row cover. They are high-yielding with beautiful, large dark red fruits that have amazing flavor. Takes 60 days to mature green and 80 days to reach full red ripeness. It is also resistant to tobacco mosaic virus.
Best Varieties For Cold Climates
Peppers really hate the cold, but a few varieties have been bred for a bit more cold tolerance. They are also faster to mature (short-season peppers) so you have a better chance of yielding bells before the fall frosts set in. Grow these if you live in a northern zone without many heat days.
This is a blocky-shaped baby bell perfect for greenhouse or outdoor production. These bells start out a gorgeous deep purple color (60 days to maturity) and then ripen red at around the 80-day mark. They will yield abundantly in cooler climates, in fact the best purple color comes from nights below 64°F. Warmer conditions create a brownish-purple color, but they still taste great. The flesh is green and tender with a mild flavor.
The name gives it away: this pepper was bred specifically for northern growers! It is open-pollinated and yields nice blocky red fruits in 80 days (60 days for green). The plant is medium-large and somewhat cold tolerant (down to 50°F).
A chocolate brown-colored bell pepper with super sweet flavor, it ripens from green to dark brown on the outside and has a brick-red interior flesh. This is one of the earliest peppers that only takes around 57 days to mature. It tolerates cool nights and will still set heavy fruits of 3-4” peppers.
Bell Pepper Care
Bell peppers are not as beginner-friendly as lettuce or radishes, but they are fairly easy to care for once you get those initial seeding and planting steps over with.
Peppers are fairly shallow-rooted and need plenty of water throughout the growing season. Water stress will result in low yields or small peppers. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are the best options for irrigating, but overhead irrigation will work as long as you water only in the morning and give the leaves and fruits plenty of time to dry out. Bell peppers need daily irrigation for the equivalent of about 1 inch of rain per week.
Soil and Fertility
Bell peppers feed at a slower rate that tomatoes or cucumbers, but they still require a nice dose of fertility to keep them cranking out sweet peppers all season. The best fertilizer for bell peppers is vericompost or composted chicken manure. Apply it once at the time of planting for slow-release nutrition. You can also feed a diluted fish and kelp fertilizer once the plants begin flowering to give them an extra boost as they move into pepper production mode.
Peppers in general like a slightly acidic soil pH between 5.5 and 6.5. A fungal-rich compost is a great option for achieving these conditions. For happy peppers, you will also want to ensure that your soil is well-drained and rich in organic matter.
Mulching with a thick straw mulch, chipped leaves, or even a reusable landscape fabric keeps moisture in while reducing weed pressure. Many commercial farmers grow bell peppers in plastic mulch because it adds extra heat. I prefer not to use plastic mulch in my garden given the environmental impact and risk of microplastics, but the choice is yours and it may help you get earlier, better-yielding peppers if you live in a cold place. There are plenty of organic mulch options out there for your garden.
Bell peppers are warm-weather crops that cannot handle frosts of any kind. They prefer a toasty ambient temperature of 70 to 85 °F. Night temperatures need to be consistently above 55-60°F for optimal growth.
In late spring, after your final frost date, use a soil thermometer to check the temperature of your garden beds. They should not be planted until soil temperatures have reached a minimum of 65°F.
Peppers especially love growing in greenhouses or low tunnels because they stay warm and cozy all night long. You can also use wire hoops and row cover. Protection will allow you to plant peppers earlier and harvest them sooner than outdoor peppers.
Plant bell peppers in full sunlight away from taller garden plants that may shade them out. They prefer at least 6 hours of full sunlight every day.
Some pepper varieties require support trellises to keep them from toppling over from the weight of their fruit. Simple stakes and twine will work great, or you could also try hortanova mesh spread horizontally between stakes to give each pepper its own square to grow into. You can even use strong sticks buried by the base of the plant (careful not to damage roots) and tied to the plant for added support. Be careful never to tie too tight as this could choke or snap the stem.
Getting Them to Ripen
Patience is a virtue. Like their tomato cousins, bell peppers really need plenty of light and warmth to ripen. But what they need more than anything is time. You may have noticed that the days to maturity for ripe red peppers can be up to 20 days after the initial green fruits.
Give your plants 2-3 weeks to ripen those babies up. If you are growing a larger pepper variety, it tends to take longer to ripen the fruit. The impatient or northern gardeners may prefer baby varieties described above.
If it’s too cold, the plant will also have difficulty ripening the fruits. Temperatures below 55°F will stunt pepper plants and may cause them not to ripen. Use a greenhouse, row cover, or start earlier if possible.
Bell peppers don’t usually have many pests or diseases, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to problems! There a few common pepper plant issues you may encounter. We’ll dig into each issue and how to fix them with organic growing methods.
Blossom End Rot
If you find black or brown spots on the bottom of pepper or tomato fruits, you are probably dealing with blossom end rot. This is not necessarily a disease, but rather a physiological issue resulting from a calcium deficiency combined with water stress.
To prevent blossom end rot, add eggshells, bone meal, or small amounts of gypsum to the soil at the time of planting. You can also side dress these calcium sources to help your pepper plant grow more attractive fruits. Note that this is one of many reasons that a normally healthy bell pepper plant may cease to yield fruit.
Tarnished Plant Bug
Tarnished plant bug or Lygus lineolaris is a pesky bug common in central and eastern United States and eastern parts of Canada. The bright green aphid-looking nymphs and green flying adults have piercing-sucking mouthparts that penetrate plant tissues and suck out their sugars like a vampire.
When they feed, they secrete a toxic substance that kills the plant cells. This is why the first sign of a tarnished plant bug problem may actually be small brown spots on young pepper leaves, even when you don’t see the bugs themselves. This can lead to distorted leaves and fruit, holes, and malformed leaves. They can also kill flowers and significantly lower yields.
To prevent crop injury and infestation, keep your bell peppers protected with row cover so bugs can’t fly in. Weed management is also important since they often use weeds like pigweed as a host. Worst case scenario, you can use spray horticultural oil or a biological soap on the leaves to physically remove the bugs.
Aphids seem to attack anything in the garden, and peppers are no different! The best way to control aphids is to plant lots of ladybug-attracting flowers such as white alyssum and flowering cilantro. You can also use a diluted neem spray both preventatively and to combat an infestation.
How and When to Harvest
Harvesting bell peppers is very simple. Just wait until they’ve reached the color you desire (remember, patience is important for bright red ripe peppers), and then use garden scissors or pruners to snip them off the plant, leaving a little bit of stem on the pepper itself. Store peppers in airtight containers or bags in the crisper drawer of your fridge for maximum shelf life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are bell peppers easy to grow?
It isn’t difficult to grow bell peppers, but it is important to start seeds early and maintain warm temperatures in the seedling stage. It is harder to grow them in northern cold climates because they are less likely to ripen and may have stunted growth in night temperatures under 55°F.
What is the best way to grow bell peppers?
Bell peppers are best grown in greenhouses, protect low tunnels, or beneath row cover for optimal warmth. They enjoy a generous helping of high-quality compost and leaf mulch. Peppers prefer full sunlight and consistently warm temperatures above 60°F for at least 3-4 months of the summer.
Can I grow a bell pepper from another bell pepper?
If you have grown fully ripened bell peppers with skins that are beginning to slightly wrinkle, you can harvest the seeds and save them for planting the following season. Be sure you choose an open-pollinated variety that will reproduce true-to-type in the next year.
How long does it take for a bell pepper plant to bear fruit?
Most bell pepper varieties take about 60 days to mature green fruits and 80-85 days to produce ripe red bell peppers.
How many bell peppers does one plant produce?
One bell pepper plant can produce as many as 5-10 peppers, depending on the variety. If you have a long growing season and continuously harvest your peppers, the plants will continue producing until the weather gets too cold.
Why are my bell peppers so small?
Small bell peppers may result from cold temperatures (below 55°F), poor vigor seedlings, low fertility, soil compaction, or a baby variety. To grow large bell peppers, pick a full-size pepper variety and start with robust seedlings, an organic all-purpose fertilizer, and plenty of heat.
Bell Peppers can be one of the most rewarding vegetables to plant in your garden. They grow well in a variety of climates, and companion plant well with many other vegetables. They are also an easy crop to start with if you intend on growing your veggies organically. By sticking to the steps in this guide, we hope you’ll have bountiful harvests year after year!