Peppers are probably the #3 container vegetable that interests gardeners after herbs and tomatoes. Based on our trials programs in 2008 thru 2010, there are some excellent varieties that are growing in availability in seed catalogs and garden centers to get you started in producing great peppers.
Unlike more standard garden varieties, you may have to hunt around for a greenhouse that grows these varieties or start the plants yourself. Look for varieties that are labeled "compact" or "for containers". Larger garden varieties', will simply get too tall for a container and require excessive support. In general, hot peppers grow more compact thus largely work great in containers. In our trials, we looked for varieties that required little to no trellising.
Specific advice for peppers in containers:
- Peppers vary widely in mature plant size. We used a 14" pot for all varieties, but some more compact types may work best with 3 plants in a pot. See the specific variety comments for guidance on plant density. Only a few taller bell types required tomato cages for support.
- Use only compact, container varieties. Compared to garden types, there aren't a lot of them, but we found many more for our 2010 program than were readily available in 2009 and earlier. See the variety list at the end for our comments and recommendations.
- Use only potting media (soil) that is labeled for larger pots. Our trial mixes contained substantial composted pine bark blended with peat moss and perlite. Other mixes use coir, peanut shells and rice hulls for similar bulking purposes. Mixes that are high in peat moss will compress too much during the growing season thus reducing root mass. Without this mass, the plants will be unable to develop properly and hold enough water to get through the day.
- If you are growing a type that benefits from support such as several of the bell types in our trial, install the support shortly after planting to minimize damage to the relatively brittle pepper plants. 3 and 4 wire tomato cages have worked great in our trials.
- Good peppers really benefit from regular feedings. Most potting media comes with about a two week fertilizer charge, then the plants need to be fed or growth starts to slow down. Start by applying a timed-release, pelleted, fertilizer following the label directions for rate based on pot size. At about 2 weeks after planting, begin watering weekly with a soluble fertilizer. Until the plants begin flowering, you can use a balanced fertilizer with a 1-1-1 ratio (ie. 20-20-20). Once flowering begins, change over to a high potassium fertilizer. Most fertilizers blended for tomatoes fit this description. In our program, we've been using a fertilizer with a 9-15-30 (1-1.5-3 ration) plus micronutrients analysis. Organic growers can use a combination of fish emulsion, green sand, kelp meal and bone meal to get similar results. Be sure to increase feeding as the plants grow larger. Apply more timed-release fertilizer after 10-12 weeks. There is good research to support the inclusion of seaweed-based supplements even with a strong conventional fertilizer program.
- While insects are seldom a big problem on peppers, aphids may start to build to damaging levels. Look for Ladybird beetles and their larvae before spraying as they often show up just as it appears that the aphids will overwhelm your plants. Within several days of the Ladybird beetles appearance, aphid numbers will drop off drastically. If you apply an insecticide during this period, then the beneficial insects (Ladybird beetles in this case) will be killed.
- Peppers don't usually get too many diseases except for some bacterial spotting which will cause rotting as the fruit matures. Once you start to see fruit maturing, apply a copper-based fungicide/bactericide every 7-10 days to prevent these bacterial rots.
- Harvest your peppers as they ripen completely. This timely harvest allows the plant to move resources to other fruit. Never leave rotten or overripe fruit on the plant as they will degrade other fruit. For the best flavored fruit, leave them on the plant until fully colored.
Individual peppers vary widely in their ripening window. Some plants such as Camelot, can be picked regularly for green bells, while others such as Big Thai will ripen all of the fruit at once. At the first sign of frost, harvest any fruit that looks even somewhat ripe, then toss the plant or cover the plant with row cover during cool periods. Row covers can increase the heat and protect the plants from frost until it gets below 25F.
Sweet Bell Pepper
Camelot - Compact, upright plants with ample yields of small-sized bell peppers.
Jupiter - Very compact, bushy plants that produce ample yields of small-sized bell peppers.
Redskin - Compact spreading plants that produce good yields of lumpy bell peppers that ripen to a deep red color.
Very high production of elongate sweet, green Italian peppers on strong compact plants.
Mohawk - Small, compact plants that produce good yields of small, bell-shaped peppers that turn orange at maturity. Very Sweet.
Super Chili - Small, compact plants that produce good yields of chili-type peppers.
Cheyenne F1 - Very compact plants that produce good yields of short, sweet peppers that turn orange at ripening.
Zavory - This one looks hot like any other Habanero type, but has been bred to have mild heat and maximum flavor. Well behaved in a container, but works well in the garden.
Yellow Mushroom - Very hot pepper that doubles as an ornamental.
Red Mushroom - Very similar to Yellow Mushroom, but the fruit turn red at maturity.
Orange Thai - Ample yields of hot Thai-type peppers on compact plants that double as ornamentals.
Big Thai - Like Orange Thai, good yields of hot Thai-type peppers on strong compact plants.
Prepared by Steve Bogash, retired Horticulture Educator.
Special thanks to Samantha Bollinger & Autumn Phillips, Penn State Summer Horticulture Interns