Curious neighbors wondered why I was potting up all the pepper plants in my garden last November.
For the past several years, I’ve overwintered at least one of my most robust or interesting pepper plants. Last year I decided to experiment on a larger scale.
Like tomatoes and eggplants, peppers are tropical perennials that can live year-round in warmer climates. Unlike tomatoes and eggplants, peppers can be worth overwintering in Northern California.
Tomatoes grow like weeds once the weather warms up, and they are much healthier grown from seed or even from a cutting kept in a warm window. But peppers grow more slowly and can survive dormancy – an overwintered plant can outperform the same variety grown from seed.
The following questions can help you decide whether it’s worth overwintering a particular pepper plant.
• Is the plant healthy?
• Did you like the peppers enough to grow it again?
• Is it a rare or hard-to-find variety?
• If you grew it from seed, did it grow slowly?
• Did it take longer than other varieties to produce mature peppers?
• Do you have a place to keep the dormant plants?
Many hot peppers are notoriously slow growers, so they are particularly good candidates for overwintering.
Hot-pepper aficionados have told me that overwintered plants can start fruiting as much as a month earlier, compared with plants grown from seed, which means they are productive for a longer season. Overwintered plants with well-developed root systems also produce more peppers at a time.
Both of these factors contribute to double (or more) yields.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Carefully dig up your plants at the end of the season, before the first frost. Keep some soil around the root ball. Put them in containers and add potting mix (not garden soil) around the root ball. Add mulch on top. Remove any immature peppers so that the plants can go dormant. I’ve pruned my plants only if I needed to make them more compact to fit my space. Be sure to prune above a bud to avoid leaving stubs that can invite disease.
2. Keep the plants in a cool location, out of the rain. I’ve kept my plants inside a fenced carport or under the eaves. If a freeze is forecast, be sure to add extra protection. The plants need some light until the leaves have dropped, and then a cool, dark location such as a garage is acceptable.
3. Water the plants every three to four weeks. Let them dry out between waterings, but don’t let them dry out fully. Make a note on your calendar so that you don’t forget about them.
4. Approximately six weeks before the last frost date (or six weeks before you would set out your pepper transplants), start preparing your overwintered plants to return to the garden. Give them more light and maybe a little fertilizer. Once you start seeing new growth, also give them more water.
When I’ve overwintered only a few well-coddled plants, I’ve had close to 100% success.
This year, I treated my plants with benign neglect, sometimes forgot to water them, and didn’t follow my own advice to prepare them for the garden. Still, seven out of 24 sweet pepper plants and six out of 13 hot pepper plants survived.