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Kitchen Gardening

How to Start Pepper Seeds

If you like to grow unusual peppers, you’ll need to start from seed.

  • Gardeners who want to grow unusual peppers need to start their seeds indoors.
    Photo/Illustration: Jodi Torpey
  • A wet toothpick or chopstick helps pick up pepper seeds to make for easier planting.
    Photo/Illustration: Jodi Torpey

After a failed attempt at starting my pepper plants from seeds, I finally cracked the code. My big mistake wasn’t the soil medium I was using, it wasn’t a lack of light or not enough water. I even used a heating mat to help them get going. Then I realized the cool air in the basement was causing my pepper problems.

Once I moved the whole operation to a warm upstairs room and placed the seeds on a table over a heating vent, the seeds sprouted quickly. 

While the basement was fine for other seeds, like tomatoes, pepper seeds need extra heat to help them germinate and start to grow.

Starting from seeds may seem daunting to beginning vegetable gardeners, but it’s the best way to get more planting choices, control how plants are grown and save money. It’s also especially rewarding to plant, tend and watch the seeds grow.

Some seeds, like sweet or chile peppers, need more time to germinate than other vegetable seeds. Most seed packets recommend starting pepper seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before the last average frost date. I time my pepper transplanting for when I know the weather will be warm enough for consistent night-time temperatures of 50-degrees. That’s usually late May or early June.

Count back the number of weeks from transplanting to know when to start seeds.

There are plenty of options for indoor seed starting. Some gardeners (like me) prefer to use ready-to-plant kits; other gardeners prefer to use clean, recycled containers with holes for drainage. 

Always use a sterile soilless seed mixture. Before planting, moisten the planting mixture to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Follow packet instructions for spacing seeds. It’s always a good idea to plant two or three pepper seeds in each cell and then thin the seedlings when they start to grow. That’s seeding insurance in case a seed or two don’t sprout.

Light, heat and moisture are important ingredients for healthy seedlings. Sometimes a warm sunny location isn’t enough, and seedlings need supplemental lighting from fluorescent lights or special grow lights. Place lights 2-4 inches above the seedlings for 16 hours a day and raise lights as the plants grow. 

A heating mat provides bottom heat to help speed germination and extra ambient room heat will give pepper seeds a good start.

To prevent damping off, a fungal disease that causes new seedlings to die at the soil surface, keep the moist but not soggy. A small rotating fan keeps air moving around seedlings to improve air circulation to prevent damping off. 

Keep peppers healthy until it’s time to move them outside. Be sure to acclimate them slowly to the outdoors before planting in their summer-growing spot.

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