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Overwintering Peppers

Overwintering Peppers - How to Successfully Overwinter Hot Pepper Plants!
Most people are not aware that peppers are actually perennials! The reason they are usually grown as annuals is because the winter temperatures in most places will kill them. They are semi-tropical plants, and just cannot handle cold weather. However, it is possible to keep a pepper plant alive for several years, via a technique known as "overwintering".

Overwintering is a method of providing a pepper with the proper growing conditions to keep it alive and thriving during the cold winter months.

What are the benefits of overwintering? It can allow you to...

  • Amaze your friends by enjoying fresh home-grown peppers in the middle of winter!
  • Use a colorful pepper plant as a holiday decoration!
  • Grow a much larger pepper plant than would be possible in just one year
  • Get a hugh crop of peppers from a second-year plant
  • Get a head start on next season
  • Get a crop in early spring, while your friends are still trying to get their seedlings going!
  • Grow a very long-season pepper (like some of the South American varieties)
  • Grow a rare or favorite pepper plant for several years
How To Overwinter Peppers:
So, how exactly can you do this?

One thing that a pepper plant needs to survive during the winter is warmth, so the first thing that you need to do is to move your pepper plant someplace out of the cold, such as indoors to a sunroom or conservatory, kitchen, living room, etc., or somewhere else that is warm and protected from the cold winter temperatures. The general rule of thumb is, if the temperature is comfortable for you, it should be comfortable for your pepper plants as well.

Next, a pepper plant needs sunlight, so be sure that you located it somewhere where it can get some sunlight, such as near a sunny window.

Lastly, a pepper plant needs water and fertilizer, so make sure that you water and fertilize your plant regularly (see the tips section below for more specifics on fertilizing).

Some Peppers Are Easier
In experimenting with overwintering, you will quickly discover that some pepper varieties are much easier to overwinter than others. We have observed three different ways that peppers can respond to being overwintered -

  1. Some pepper varieties, such as Habaneros, can not only be overwintered successfully, they may continue to produce new peppers for you all during the winter months!

  2. Other peppers, such as Cayenne Pepper, can be overwintered easily, but may react to the change in season by going into a semi-dormant state - looking much like a healthy houseplant, but not producing any flowers or peppers over the winter. Once spring hits, you can suddenly see a burst of new growth, flowers and peppers as the pepper plant "wakes up" from it's hibernation!

  3. Some pepper varieties, such as Jalapenos, just don't seem to like the winter, and can be more difficult to overwinter successfully. You shouldn't get discouraged if some of your peppers don't do well on your first attempt, some are just harder than others.
TIPS:
Following are special growing tips for overwintering peppers:

  • Start any peppers that you might want to overwinter in containers. While it is possible to dig-up a pepper plant from the garden and re-plant it into a container, you are likely to cause at least some damage to the plant's roots in the process. By growing your pepper plants in containers, it will make it a lot easier to overwinter them later!

  • While some people prefer fancy (and expensive) grow lights for overwintering, we have noticed that light from a sunny window typically provides enough sunlight for peppers over the winter. An East-facing window seems to do the best.

  • Don't place your pepper plants directly in the windowsill if the glass gets very cold, in order to keep from freezing the plants out, but instead put them near the window where they can catch the incoming sunlight.

  • If you have to use artificial light (such as in a heated basement), use either grow lights or fluorescent lights. Light bulbs (incandescent lights) do not provide the proper kind of light spectrum for pepper plants, and can burn them.

  • If some of the plant's leaves start turning yellow or falling off after it is moved, this is a normal reaction to the reduced sunlight and change of season. The plant should perk up once it gets used to it's new growing environment.

Finally, a secret tip just for our readers...

For peppers, you normally want to use a fertilizer that is higher in Phosphorus than Nitrogen (i.e. - the second # is higher than the first). The reason for this is that too much Nitrogen can result in a pepper plant that is very green and bushy, but with very few peppers!

However, we have discovered that by reversing this approach and feeding a pepper during the winter with a fertilizer that has as much or more Nitrogen (i.e. - with the first # the same or a bit higher than the second), rather than just surviving the winter, you can actually encourage the plant to go into a "vegetative growth" state over the winter months, producing new stems, more leaves, and a much larger pepper plant! Then, when spring hits, you can switch back, and your larger, leafier plant will now be able to produce many more peppers!

We tried-out this approach one winter with some Orange Habaneros, using a liquid fertilizer with a little more Nitrogen than Phosphorus (which also allowed our plants to continue to provide us with habaneros over Christmas) and the results were fantastic!

Overwintering can be challenging at times, but the results are well worth the efforts! If you have any overwintering stories of your own, let us know.

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