Like any topic with a long rich history, garden lore dictates a dozen answers for a single question: When to start pepper seeds? Seed packs and general internet experts suggest starting peppers indoors anywhere between 6 to 12 weeks prior to your last freeze.
Why do I have to start Pepper Seeds Indoors?
Before going too far into the weeds, yes, unless you have a greenhouse, start pepper seeds indoors. Peppers are one of the slowest to start common garden plants. Direct sowing of pepper seeds is discouraged. While possible, without the correct conditions, success rates will be extremely low. Due to the slow nature of peppers, a direct sown plant will come into conflict with late fall frost before reaching mature fruit stage in Ohio. Start Indoors.
Peppers Germinate SLOWLY
Germination can be short as any other seed if planted directly from a fresh pepper. Very fresh seeds, days from being removed from a pepper and still “wet” will germinate in as little as 3 days! Wet fresh seeds are never sold commercially as seeds not properly dried will easily mold.
In general, the older the seed the longer it takes to germinate. A properly dried fresh seed, for example a late fall harvested pepper seed grown three months later for the next season may germinate in as little as 7-10 days. Ohio Peppers only sells fresh seeds from the most recent growing season, unless otherwise specified. Some exceptions exist, a few cultivars are notoriously slow to germinate, notably chiltepin and majority of superhots.
Expect between 5 to 20 days for a pepper seed to germinate. Ten days is the happy zone. Old-wives tales speak of presoaking seeds with various solutions to quicken germination. We will address this in future tips. Spoiler alert: Do not waste your time on these strategies unless growing chiltepin and other notoriously hard to germinate seeds.
So When do I Start Pepper Seeds?
Six to twelve weeks prior to last frost is such a wide range. Anywhere in that range is the right answer. Here are the determining factors to determine where in that range to start:
- Pot size – better yet – the size of pot you’re willing to deal with. Pot bound peppers slated for outdoors will fail to prosper. Odds are you will be start pepper seeds in a small starter cell. From there, they will be uppotted to a larger pot (a a 4” pot, a red solo cup with drainage, etc.) If you have no issues storing larger plants indoors/green housed, start on the early end of the range. For Ohio – that can mean you can start pepper seeds early as mid January for the SW part of the state, late Jan to early Feb. for the Mahoning Valley/Toledo/Cleveland areas.
- Superhots/Chinense (Habanero, Ghost, Reaper, Scorpion, 7 Pot, as examples) will germinate slower. Start them a week or two earlier than you would typically start pepper seeds of other species.
- Know your last freeze date – and your available space. Starting earlier will mean large plants – upwards to 12″ or more. Ask: Is it reasonable to do the “hardening dance” (moving plants indoors and outdoors to expose them gradually to the elements) with larger plants for weeks – plus bringing plants indoors on days of frost risk? A handful of plants are easy cheesy! When managing hundreds or thousands – well – that’s another story.
What is my real freeze date?
As noted prior, tolerance to move peppers in and out during hardening or bringing in overnight when freeze risks are present is a factor. Moving 20 plants is no big deal. Moving 500 is a pain in the… rear. Peppers need to be hardened/exposed to the outdoor elements in small doses before being planted in their final garden location – and this is best done by eventually just leaving them outside 24/7 – with an eye out for the F word. Frost.
Tons of websites have last freeze dates. The accuracy of some of the websites is suspect.
To keep it simple, there are two that I will swear by: Dave’s Garden and the Midwestern Regional Climate Center’s Vegetation Impact Project. The map on this page is from the MRCC’s VIP’s Late Freeze resource. The map shows the date that a 90% certainty of freeze has passed. Their website also has maps of other % certainty – as does Dave’s Garden. I prefer to target the 90% date and use weather forecasts to see if it is worthwhile to plant even earlier. Weather forecasting easily looks ahead 10+ days. We use the forecast and common sense to determine the best planting times.
The average last frost date in Cincinnati is April 23 and shows up as April 21-30 on the map. I would never plant on April 23 without looking at a projected 10+ day forecast. We start looking out from around April 19th or so. If many warm days are ahead, we will plant early. Periods forecasted in the 30s will cause us to pause and wait. There is no rush to put a plant outside if a plant will have to deal with the potential of frost at 36F. We will wait out any foreseen cold snaps. Three months of work destroyed because of a few days of impatience? Na. Nobody has time for that nonsense.
I Don’t Visit Websites to Read Stupid Life Stories. Seriously. When Should I Start Pepper Seeds?
Yeah, my bad, In short, no two pepper grower will agree on when to plant. Our goal is to produce as many peppers as possible for commercial purposes in the “north”. Money is a pretty strong motivating factor to be methodical about process. Using hardiness zones as a general reference (they are not meant to measure last frosts but they offer a generalization) – Ohio Peppers grows In 6b (We claim 6b – due to the metro heat bubble concrete jungle of Kenwood Mall and assorted Kenwood commercial entities .2 miles away)
We start pepper seeds around the 3rd week of January. That is a solid three months plus a few days before my last frost.
In the Midwest, any time from January to late February is ideal. Faster growing peppers such as paper lanterns, jalapenos, and various annuum species will be fine starting in March. Adjust for your location. Plants are started in Jan/Feb for a late April/Early May planting, based on the last freeze. Use some Kentucky windage to adjust for your dates by subtracting between 12 to 8 weeks from the planned date of planting.
What is the fastest way to germinate pepper seeds?
If this was a homebrew website the response would be “relax, have a homebrew”. Well, Relax. It is easy to start pepper seeds. There is no need to dig into methods that have made their way around the internet like soaking the seeds in chamomile tea, coffee, hydrogen peroxide, bleach, or anything of that nature – unless it is a chiltepin or other hard to germinate pepper or you feel a soak is needed to prevent the spread of disease.
Can you plant pepper seeds straight out of the pepper?
Yes! A rapid way to start pepper seeds is to plant fresh ones straight out of the pepper. This only woks if the pepper is ripe. For example, if you try to start pepper seeds from a green jalapeno – the outcome will be disappointing. A fully ripe habanero or bell pepper from the market? No reason why one should not plant those seeds. Detractors may talk about hybrids sold at the grocery. Common peppers sold in stores are as stable as the day is long. Isolation wise, grocery peppers are grown on massive monoculture fields. Plant the bell pepper – get a bell pepper. Too easy.
More Growing Facts on how to start pepper seeds and grow peppers:
Cornell Home Gardening Guide – Peppers – Additional pepper growing facts on how to start pepper seeds and variety suggestions for more northern growers, New York in particular.