Peppers are usually grown as annuals, but in warmer climates they flourish as perennials. This means with a little extra care, you can keep your pepper plants alive indoors for the winter. Overwintering pepper plants can be a little tricky, but if you own a specialty pepper, especially chili peppers, keeping the plants over the winter is a great way to get a jump start on next year's growing season.
It isn’t difficult to overwinter pepper plants as long as you provide them with the correct growing conditions. Below we'll cover how to prepare peppers for the winter, how to care for them indoors, and how to restart overwintered pepper plants in the spring.
Why Overwinter Pepper Plants?
Peppers are members of the Nightshade family, just like eggplant and tomatoes. This family of plants lives year round in warmer climates, making them ideal candidates for overwintering indoors.
Overwintering not only gives the pepper plants a jump start for spring, but the plants may actually fruit better in their second year. Their established roots have access to more water and nutrients, allowing the peppers to produce more leaves, branches and larger fruit.
This seems to be especially true of hot peppers, which are notoriously slow growers. Overwintering may allow hot peppers to fruit as much as a month earlier and produce longer. It is also a great way to save rare varieties of pepper or those you’ve grown fond of.
How to Overwinter Pepper Plants
Can You Grow Peppers Indoors?
A note — if you plan on overwintering pepper plants, realize that doing this will keep the plant alive, but it will not produce fruit during the winter. In order to produce fruit, peppers need a certain temperature and amount of light that the average house in the winter cannot provide. If you want to grow peppers for fruit in the winter, you will need to do so in a greenhouse with supplemental light.
If you don't have a greenhouse and still want to try getting fruit, it can technically be done. Be advised however, that the full sun exposure and heat that peppers thrive on is more difficult to mimic indoors.
Indoor grown pepper plants will never grow as large as those grown outside and they will likely not fruit. If you are looking to produce fruit, choose varieties that do well container grown -- generally small, hot peppers such as piqu’ns, chiltepins, habaneros and Thai peppers.
Prepare Peppers for Overwintering
If you've already been growing your pepper plants in containers, overwintering is as simple as bringing them indoors and placing them into a south facing window. If the peppers have been growing in the soil, you need to carefully dig the plants up prior to the first frost.
Remove any immature peppers and check the plants for any pests. If need be, spray the plants with neem oil or add some sticky traps for insects.
Pot the peppers in a container with potting mix and mulch the top. Be sure the container has drainage holes. There is generally no need to prune the plants unless you need to make them smaller to fit indoors. If you do need to prune, cut above a bud.
Choose the Right Location
Peppers enjoy full sun and heat, both difficult to mimic in a house. You can try growing your peppers in a south or west facing window, but even this will likely not give sufficient light for the plant to fruit. Instead, provide the plant with supplemental artificial light about 6 inches (15 cm) above the plants for 14-16 hours per day (or at least 6 hours of natural light). A heat mat will provide additional warmth.
Even with the addition of supplemental light, most pepper plants will not fruit in a home. At best you are keeping them alive until temps warm to 50 F (10 C) and they can be moved outdoors.
Winterizing Pepper Plants
Another way of keeping peppers around during the winter is to store them in an area that is protected from frost, such as a garage through the winter. This method allows the plants to go dormant until the spring.
Pot up your peppers if needed. Place them in a protected area like under the eaves of the house, covered patio or even under a stand of trees. Keep them out of the rain and cover them if temps dip.
Shortly after you place the pepper in a cool location and cut back watering, you will notice the leaves starting to die back. DON’T PANIC. This is normal. The pepper plant is entering dormancy. It’s almost the same thing as what happens to trees outdoors.
Once the leaves start to die, you can prune back the pepper plant. Prune back the branches of the pepper plant to a few main “Y”s on the plant, leaving about 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) for the upper part of the “Y”. This step in overwintering pepper plants will remove the dying leaves and make the plant less susceptible to pests. The pepper plant will grow new branches in the spring.
Care for Peppers Indoors
Water the plants every 3-4 weeks and allow them to dry between watering. Do not overwater and do not let the plants sit in water. There is no need to fertilize when the plants are dormant.
Six weeks before you would set out pepper transplants (6 weeks before the last frost date), begin to prepare the plants to go outside by gradually introducing more light and a light fertilization. When new growth appears, water more frequently.
How to Move Peppers Outside
About a month before your last frost date, bring your pepper plant out of the cool location and move it to a brighter, warmer spot. You may even want to use a heating pad under the pot to add additional heat. Resume watering, but make sure not to overwater the pepper plant. In a week or so, you should see some new growth appear.
As the days lengthen and temps begin to warm outside, increase watering. Move plants outside in ever increasing increments gradually over a week or so. New growth should begin to emerge. Fertilize with a dilute food.
Prepare a place in the garden with full sun and move the plants after all danger of frost has passed in your area.
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Heather Rhoades founded Gardening Know How in 2007. She holds degrees from Cleveland State University and Northern Kentucky University. She is an avid gardener with a passion for community, and is a recipient of the Master Gardeners of Ohio Lifetime Achievement Award.
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