Growing peppers (hot or sweet) in a northern garden can be a challenge because they require a longer season and lots of heat. I have failed with peppers many times. But with some help from a hot, dry summer, this turned out to be a great year for growing peppers in pots. I learned more about what peppers need and how they grow in the process.
What a Pepper Wants
Peppers (Capsicum) are native to the tropical parts of the American continents, particularly places such as Peru and Mexico. Like tomatoes and eggplants, they are members of the nightshade family. They like lots of sun, consistent (but not excessive) watering and hot but not oppressive temperatures. Like tomatoes, they will drop their flowers if there is an extended heat wave (more than 90 degrees).
Because my vegetable garden space is small, growing peppers in pots is the way I go. Two of my six types of peppers were in the new raised beds with legs that I made this summer, one was in the ground in the front yard and the rest were in containers about 14 inches across. I used regular potting soil, some of which was reused from 2020, supplemented with a bit of compost and some organic fertilizer. You do not want to go crazy fertilizing peppers. If you add too much, especially fertilizer with a lot of nitrogen, the plants will produce lots of leaves but not many peppers.
This year was a successful pepper year for two reasons. First, it was hot. We had about 27 days where the temperatures were above 90 and lots of days in the 80s. My yard is not in full, full, full sun—no part of it gets more than 6 to 7 hours of sun, so even on the hottest days the peppers got some shade time. The second reason they did well was that I watered regularly. Because we were in a drought part of this year, supplemental watering was essential. You couldn’t forget about it without the plants looking terrible. So, I watered most mornings and I did it by feel. If a pepper pot felt damp, no water. If it was dry, water. Watering is important when you are growing peppers in pots no matter the weather, but especially in a drought.
This year, I grew six kinds of peppers—four were new varieties that I was testing for Burpee. The other two varieties I bought from Heirloom Seedhouse in Oregon and started from seed indoors in spring. All of the peppers had good characteristics and all of them grew well in containers. None of them had disease problems, which I attribute to good luck and growing vegetables near an insectary. My harvests might have been larger if I had grown them in the ground, but with all the plants I had, this was plenty. In alphabetical order, here are the six peppers I grew and my review of each.
Alteno Hot Pepper: This is a large-fruited poblano type pepper that has thin walls and a nice spicy flavor. I did not find them to be super hot. They were good in stir-fries and roasted and were the pepper I was most likely to reach for if I needed just one to add to a meal. The plants got somewhat leggy, but that may have been because they were close to other plants and were reaching for more sunshine. I definitely would grow these again.
Armageddon: Truth in advertising: I have not tasted these peppers yet. They kind of scare me. They are described as “the world’s first F1 super hot chili measuring at 1.2 million Scovilles.” Yikes. My friend Larry, who is braver than I am, tried one both raw and cooked on a Mexican-style pizza. He reported that the heat was pronounced. (“I was warned,” he said.) But he thought the pepper had a nice fruity finish that was not unpleasant. He thought it was less overwhelming on the pizza, which also had refried beans and cheese to mute the intense heat. He recommended I use it in a salsa, which I hope to make in the next week or so.
Calabrian: This was probably my favorite pepper. I bought the seeds because I have noticed that TV chef Bobby Flay uses calabrian chilies in many of the dishes he creates for the program Beat Bobby Flay. (He wins about 70 percent of the time.) Could these be a secret flavor enhancer? Well, yes they could! These are beautiful peppers on the plant, turning a rich, Christmas red color before you harvest them. They definitely have heat, but once cooked they mellow out and add a zesty, fruity taste to lots of foods. I made red pepper relish and replaced the jalapenos with calabrian chilies—delicious but not as hot as I thought it would be. So, I made another relish based on Jamie Oliver’s chili sauce recipe, which is also delicious and has more heat. I’m going to try to save some seeds from the plant to grow next year, since calabrian chili seeds are hard to find.
Demon Red: This is described as an ornamental edible pepper, and it is certainly a pretty plant. The plant grew well in a container on the patio, sending up dozens of straight, bright red fruits. It has the same heat as a habanero. I would grow it again, but as an ornamental. It would be an attractive solo plant in a container among a group of other ornamental containers.
Desperado: Another winning pepper, and it was the most interesting plant to grow. The plant produces large fruits with thick walls and Burpee recommends using them for grilling. It was an attractive plant, with the fruits dangling from 20+ inch tall plants. I roasted mine or used them in casseroles and they were delicious. What is wonderful about these peppers is you can control for heat by when you pick them. As green peppers, they are sprightly but not at all spicy. If you let them go red, however, they are beautiful and they have some kick. I’d definitely grow these again, too.
Violet Sparkle: If you like those little snacking peppers they sell in bags at the grocery store, this is the pepper for you. Violet Sparkle was the most prolific of the six peppers I grew, but the taste was all crunch and no umph. For northern gardeners who have a hard time getting bell peppers to maturity (raising my hand here), these smaller bell-like peppers would be a good option. They go from green to yellow to red to purple on the plant and you can decide when to harvest. There isn’t a lot of difference in flavor with the color change, just appearance.
Tips for Growing Peppers in Pots
I found the peppers that did best were in larger, plastic or wooden containers. Terracotta loses moisture rapidly and while peppers don’t want to be soaked, they need consistent moisture. I did add some liquid fertilizer (an organic fish emulsion type) midsummer because nutrients tend to leach out when you have to water a lot and that seemed to be plenty. As noted above, regular watering is a must with peppers in pots, but do it by feel.
Will I be growing peppers in pots next year? You bet! They are the perfect crop for gardeners growing on patios, balconies or smaller spaces. A few containers give you a summer full of hot and delicious vegetabls.