PHOTO: Jessica Walliser
Starting your own garden seeds isn’t hard, nor is it expensive. Though you do need a few pieces of equipment, after a small initial investment, you can use those tools for many years. Seed starting allows you to grow dozens of plants from seed for the same price as buying a handful of them from a garden center. But, not all plants are easy to start from seed. While marigolds, tomatoes and basil are among the easiest, others require a bit more finesse. Peppers, whether hot or sweet, can prove challenging to some gardeners. Today we share 12 tips for starting pepper seeds to put you on the road to success.
1. Get the Timing Right
Unlike some other flower and vegetable varieties whose seeds germinate just a few days after planting, peppers take a good bit longer. Sometimes it takes two or three weeks for them to poke out of the soil. Peppers are one seed that you’ll want to start a bit earlier than other garden plants. Start sowing pepper seeds about 10 to 12 weeks before the last expected spring frost for your region. That will give the plants two to three weeks to germinate, followed by a good two months to grow before moving them outdoors.
2. Invest in a Light Source
Though you don’t need a special grow light to start peppers from seed, you should have a supplemental light source of some kind. A sunny windowsill will do just fine for most other garden seeds, but pepper seeds grow much better with a closer, more intense source of light. As far as tips for starting pepper seeds goes, buying a few shop lights fitted with fluorescent tubes and hanging them from the ceiling on adjustable chains will do wonders. Raise and lower the shop lights so the bulbs are constantly two to three inches above the plant tops.
3. Set the Lights on Timers
Use automatic timers so the lights run for 18-20 hours per day. If you don’t use timers, there’s a good chance you’ll forget to turn the lights on and off as necessary.
4. Use Clean, Sterile Containers
Though it’s tempting to reuse seeding flats from year to year, don’t do it, unless you sanitize them first. I use a 10 percent bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach) to kill any pathogens clinging to my seeding flats and nursery trays before using them to grow new seeds each season. You can also purchase new trays and flats each year. Peppers are prone to damping off and botrytis, two fungal diseases that can wipe out a tray of seedlings in short order.
5. Pick the Right Pottin Mix
Select a high-quality, peat-based, sterile potting soil formulated specifically for seed starting and you’ll have the most success starting peppers from seed. Do not reuse seed-starting potting soil and do not mix it with garden soil or even compost prior to use.
6. Invest in a Heat Mat
One of the most critical tips for starting pepper seeds is to spend the $20 to $30 needed to buy a heat mat. These flat, waterproof, electric mats are placed under newly seeded containers or trays and raise the soil temperature about 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature. For pepper seeds, warmer soil temperatures mean faster, and better, germination. Use the mat until the seedlings have developed their first true leaves, then remove it.
7. Mark Each Variety
You can use plastic plant tags, plastic picnic knives, pieces of cut yogurt cups or whatever you wish, but be sure to label each different pepper variety with it’s name and the date of planting. It will pay off in spades as the gardening season progresses.
8. Plant to the Correct Depth
Among the most useful tips for starting pepper seeds is to pay attention to the planting depth. Seeds that are planted too deeply might not sprout, while those planted too shallowly might dry out before they germinate. Pepper seeds should be planted about 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch below the soil surface.
9. Cover the Seeded Tray With Clear Plastic
A simple sheet of clear plastic (I use dry cleaning bags or plastic kitchen wrap) creates a mini greenhouse over the seed trays, raising the humidity and keeping the soil constantly moist. After the trays are planted and watered in, lay the plastic over them. Remove it only when you need to water. But, as soon as the first few seedlings begin to sprout, remove it permanently, otherwise you could promote fungal diseases.
10. Water as Necessary
Check your seedlings every day and feel the soil to see if it’s time to water. The weight of the tray will also tell you whether irrigation is necessary. When you do water, make sure at least 20 percent of the water you pour onto the top drains out the drainage holes in the bottom of the flat. This flushes out excess fertilizer salts. When the seedlings develop their first true leaves
11. Feed Your Pepper Seedlings
When the seedlings develop their first true leaves, it’s time to start fertilizing them every two weeks. I use a diluted liquid organic fertilizer for this job, adding it to the irrigation water to feed the seedlings as I water.
12. Provide Good Air Circulation
This one is probably the most neglected of all of these tips for starting pepper seeds. As pepper seedlings grow, they need good air circulation to both avoid fungal diseases and strengthen their stems. Set an oscillating fan on a timer and have it run for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. It should blow across the tops of the seedlings, causing them to quiver a little as it passes.
Once your pepper seedlings reach a few inches tall, it’s time to transplant them into larger containers and care for them until it’s time to harden them off and move them out into the garden.