Growing Peppers in Containers
If you have never grown vegetables in containers on the patio, you would be hard pressed to find a plant more rewarding than the pepper. These are great home small patio or apartment patio ideas.
Yes, tomatoes are and always will be the big shot celebrities of the garden world. But such superstar status also brings the pests and diseases that just seem determined to bring them crashing back to Earth. And that is what really endears the pepper to me. I would be in error to say that the pepper plant does not have its share of pests, but I can honestly say that I have experienced very few, when compared to other vegetable plants.
The pepper is also a very attractive and has true ornamental value, even if you don’t care for the fruit that it produces. Some selections are sold in nurseries purely for decorative purposes.
Why on the patio? I do have a backyard, but when the home was constructed the backyard was professionally landscaped. There really isn’t room for a garden. For many folks who live in apartments, condominiums, or spaces where they have limited room for gardening, using containers is the only way to go.
My first experience with attempting to grow vegetables in containers really began on a whim and quite by circumstance, with a bunch of sweet baby bell pepper seeds that my son had set aside after they were sliced in preparation for cooking. These were commercial grade peppers that had been purchased at a local supermarket. Trust me, a farmer, I am not. But the peppers were so tasty that I had to save the seeds.
With the seeds having dried over a period of two weeks, I planted them in a 14” x 12” ceramic pot on the patio. Five months later, and the pot was home to a 26-inch sweet bell pepper bush that produced close to fifty to sixty-five over the course of its almost two-year life. What a motivational incentive to cultivate a green thumb!
This experience has brought about the realization of how easy and low maintenance these plants can be. As compared to other vegetables, pepper plants remind me of fruit trees. Few vegetable plants have the life span and productivity of peppers. Growing them is a learning process and I am limited only by the size of my patio.
Peppers are somewhat related to eggplants and tomatoes. They are all members of the Nightshade family. Peppers absolutely demand warm weather and are sensitive to prolonged cold weather. I have had Anaheim and Bell peppers growing during weather conditions where temperatures dropped to near freezing overnight. I did cover them with frost cloth. They were undamaged and merely went dormant for several weeks.
Patio location, weather and sunlight
While most vegetables expire after production, the pepper can continue to thrive for years and I spoke with one person who had a pepper bush growing continuously for four years. My experience, however, has shown me that the quality of the pepper fruit begins to deteriorate with a lessening flavor and thinner skin walls, with the passage of time. For that reason, I recommend pulling the bush out and starting over. In hot summer weather, choose a location where exposure to afternoon sun is limited. Peppers are frost sensitive as well, but they can be over wintered by moving them indoors or into a greenhouse environment. They will go dormant during this period, so do not expect growth.
Choosing a container
Ideally, a five-gallon container or larger for an outdoor patio; larger container will also retain water better and require less watering.
I, personally, have had the most success using Mexican style clay or concrete pottery. When Mexican artisans created these pots, they must have had growing pepper plants in mind. Living in the arid Western U.S., these pots are ideal. The lighter color reflects the sun’s solar energy and this tends to help keep the roots cooler. Bear this in mind in cooler climates, where you may find darker colored containers more effective. For my own patio growing, I do use the water saucers at the bottom to help retain water. I have also had a lot of success with the Earthbox brand containers. The Earthbox uses the wicking method of moisture introduction. You can purchase an Earthbox here: EarthBox 1010002 Garden Kit, Terra Cotta.
Creating your soil
Soil composition really varies by your geographic location. Garden soil has a lot of clay. Clay has the effect of hardening and holding moisture, and in a pot this can hamper root growth. Potting soils drain much better, but can also dry out very fast; this is due to a lot of moss in the mixture. My best success has come from combining both. Half garden and half potting. Small mix-ins of sand, perlite and compost can also help with drainage and enhancing nutrient values. After two years of use, completely replace the soil as it will be depleted of nutrients and result in inferior plants.
Getting to know your peppers
I place pepper plants into 4 categories: Ornamentals, Sweeties, Mild to Mediums, and Five alarm fires.
Ornamental pepper plants look marvelous in containers. They have a bushy, upright habitat and are well branched. Although they are sold as ornamentals, many of them are edible and can really spice up your dishes. They also tend to be very tolerant of high heat and humidity. This variety also does well in hanging basket pots.
Sweet peppers primarily refer to Bell Peppers. Bell Peppers are popular for their versatility and they are the hit of any salad bar. Other varieties include Paprika, Banana peppers, Peperoncino, and Pimentos. These plants are more chill tolerant and I have had success planting and growing them earlier in the season. They are sensitive to direct hot sunlight and it is common for my Bells to suffer leaf burn. Some peppers have produced during the height of summer but are susceptible to sunburn on the fruit. Some sort of afternoon shade is highly recommended. Bell Peppers need a larger container in order to yield truly large blocky and meaty Bells that you find at the Supermarket. I have grown mine in 14”x 12” pots and the fruit is generally about half the size of store samples. Although the taste is often superior, I have never achieved the results that I would have liked and can honestly say that I don’t think they produce well in containers. For better results, I prefer mini bells. These are wonderful bite size bell peppers that can be found at some online catalogs.
Within the category of mild to medium exist my two personal favorites. The Anaheims and the Jalapenos. The Anaheims are also often referred to as “New Mexican” peppers. If you ever tasted one these after a good roasting, you’ll be hooked. One of my best producing pepper plants in a Mexican concrete pot was an Anaheim variety called Joe Parker that was developed and released by New Mexico State University. I purchased these seeds from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. The plant lived for nearly 2 years, reaching a height of 30 inches and was a prolific producer, producing pods in Spring and Fall. 115 peppers from this one plant! Even after I left on vacation overseas one summer, and temperatures soared over 100 degrees, the plant went without water for over a week and a half. I was stunned to find the plant alive on the patio. Looking miserable and drooping leaves, but still green. After watering, it recovered and went on to produce peppers near the end of September.
Jalapenos are also a favorite because of their toughness. Even at the height of scorching summer temperatures, this one looks as green and as lively as ever and does not seem to suffer the blossom drop that others may experience in hot temperatures. Other types are Cayennes and Poblanos. Poblanos are often stuffed and served as chili rellenos.
The challenge of growing the five alarm fires, as I call them, entices many gardeners. Chiltepins grow exceptionally well in containers and have the ability to grow unusually large. Chiltepins rank in the top 3 hottest peppers on the market. Do not be fooled by the small size of these fruits, they pack a powerful punch. Habaneros also perform well in containers, but are slow to germinate and require constant warm and moist conditions. Small lantern shaped in form, Habaneros are 1,000 times hotter than Jalapenos. Other fire breathers are Tabascos, Serranos and Thai chilies. And of course, I would remiss if I did not mention the legendary Bhut Jolokia…….the Ghost Pepper. I have not grown this one, don’t know much about it, but I have begun to see the seeds being offered at. If you try a Ghost………take care and don’t rub your eyes after touching it!
If planting from seed, sow them ¼ inch deep. In colder climates plant them indoors about 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost. Optimum soil temperature is at least 70 degrees, whether indoors or outdoors. Peppers will grow slowly in cold weather, and sometimes not at all. Germination rates can be erratic if the soil becomes too dry. The soil should remain moist but not water logged. As the weather becomes hotter, mulch should be added to the top portion of the container to help hold in moisture. I have had just as much success with transplants as I have growing peppers from seed. In fact, if you live in a colder climate, it can be your best option.
Peppers tend to be hungry plants. Nitrogen rich fertilizers such as bone meal tend to yield good results. But be sure to scale back on the nitrogen as the plant develops, as this can create a plant that has too much foliage and not enough fruit. Switch from nitrogen to fertilizers that are higher in phosphorus and potassium. An organic approach that I have always used and yields instant results is the application of fish emulsion. Fish emulsion releases its nutrients almost immediately, providing quicker gratification. Water them well as peppers can be prone to Blossom End-Rot. Additional calcium via foliar feeding also has positive benefits. Some staking may also help as some varieties can have brittle branching.
Pepper plants are self-pollinating. However, friendly bees often like to assist and if you plant different species of peppers near each other, some cross pollination can occur. I have noticed that this does not affect that season’s particular crop, but any seeds harvested for future planting can in fact have different genetics implanted in them and you may end up with some sort of unique pepper that will be dramatically different than what you thought you planted! Peppers are generally ripe and have the most flavor when they turn color. Specifically red, yellow, purple or orange.
Try different sized containers and various varieties of pepper seeds and transplants. This is the best way to determine what works best in your area. And above all, don’t fret if you inadvertently kill some plants on occasion. It is a learning process, and you can always start over.