How to Grow Bell Peppers from Seeds
Many of my gardening friends enjoy growing bell peppers, but most of them buy transplants from local garden centers, and that limits them to only a few popular varieties. If you start your own plants from seeds you get many more choices, including different sizes, shapes, and colors like green, red, yellow, orange, purple, white, and black. We’ve been growing bell peppers from seeds for 30 years, and it’s easy to do. Here’s how.
Starting the Seeds. Six to eight weeks prior to your last frost date sow seeds indoors on the surface of a peat based seed starting mix, and cover with a light dusting of milled sphagnum moss. Moisten the moss by spraying gently with water from a pump spray bottle. Cover the flat with plastic, place in a tray, and keep moist by adding water to the tray. At room temperature the seeds should germinate in 5 to 7 days.
Grow the seedlings under fluorescent lights or in a bright window without direct sunlight. When several true leaves have appeared transplant to individual pots. About 2 weeks before planting outdoors acclimatize the transplants to sun and wind by placing them outside for increasing lengths of time.
Planting. Strip off all but the top 4 to 6 leaves and plant deep so that only about 6 inches of stem are exposed. Space the plants at least 2 feet apart so that the sun can reach the fruit and ripen it to the color you chose. Cover with shade netting or spun row cover for a week or so to prevent sunscald.
If you want to get a head start on the season, sow seeds in late February and transplant into the garden in mid-April, surrounding each plant with a water-filled plant protector (like Wall ’O Water). You’ll have edible peppers by the second half of June.
Some varieties set fruit large enough to break the side branches. You can prop up the branches with bamboo stakes, but we have better luck installing small tomato cages at planting time.
Put a collar around the stem to help keep crawling insects away. Cut the bottom out of a butter tub so that the collar will be about an inch wide, and insert into the soil about halfway when planting.
Fertilize monthly with a soluble tomato fertilizer, poured directly on the foliage. Your harvest should extend into October.
Preserving. My chef quarters the peppers, removes the seeds and the pith, and places them on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Once frozen she moves them to plastic bags labeled with the date. Peppers will not retain their crunchy texture when thawed, but will still add color, flavor and nutrition to dishes prepared all winter. Frozen peppers should be good for a year if your freezer is at zero degrees.
Favorite varieties. We’ve tried many varieties that turn from green to red, including ‘California Wonder’, and they’ve done well. But our best overall performer for more than 20 years has been Park’s ‘Early Thickset’. The crop starts early, yet even late in the season the plants are still producing excellent medium-sized fruit.
Until recently we’ve not had a lot of success with yellow or orange bells. ‘Canary’ did well for a couple of years in the ‘90s, but then the seed became unavailable. ‘Golden Summer’ was good but not great. But the past 2 summers we planted ‘Gloria’ from Stokes Seeds, and it gave us large, blocky, deep yellow fruit all summer. ‘Gloria’ is a keeper.
Try growing peppers from seeds next summer. It’s easy and fun.
Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575. © 2013 NC State University.