Pepper plants take relatively long to mature and fruit; the hotter varieties usually take the longest to obtain those pretty oranges and reds, or purple, as in the case of the Peruvian Purple Chile . So, as usual, I am starting to plant peppers from seed now. I will plant pepper varieties up until the end of March, if need be. Some of my seeds haven’t arrived yet or need to be purchased still.
Seed starting basics are something I have learned about from many resources, such as The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, and lots of personal experience over the years. The first step for everything is pre-moistened soil (assuming you already have your seeds!). Having made my own soil mixes in the past, I have decided that there are enough benefits to buying seed starting quality potting soil from a reputable garden nursery. I tried the cheaper soil from places like Walmart, but it just doesn’t work as well, not having as good of texture and tending to dry out more quickly and harder. I have never washed and sterilized containers, as is recommended by many people. If a seed isn’t up to handling what’s hanging out in dirt, I figure it has problems I don’t want to propagate.
I add enough water to the potting soil to make it the consistency of thick oatmeal. Then I put it in trays or pots and tamp it down some. I go back and forth about using trays or pots to initially plant in. Trays allow for better space usage in the greenhouse, but require a lot more time transplanting. Plus, any transplanting sets back the timetable for the plants maturity some. Since I carry my pots outside to the patio on a daily basis once the sun is warming things enough, space is not the primary issue for me. Time is. So this year, it is pots.
Next, I place the seeds on top of the soil, followed by a layer of soil. This layer should be about twice the diameter of the seed (unless the seed specifically says it needs light to germinate, something found a lot with flower seeds). After a light finger pressing of that additional soil, I water them in just a bit using the mist setting on my spray nozzle. Labeling can be done very economically using Jumbo Craft Sticks from Walmart and a Sharpie marker. I include the date the seeds were planted on this marker. This comes in very handy if one is wondering about progress. These sticks can then be used in the garden when I transplant out there. They last one season, but by the following spring are looking dilapidated. Meanwhile, they serve well to hold up the plastic that will create the hothouse effect for efficient germination.
Covering the newly planted seeds with plastic of some sort keeps them nicely moist, like a gentle spring rain. Any sort of plastic will do, but I prefer something I can see through. Trash bags are easier to get on and keep on than kitchen plastic wraps. They are also easier to keep up off of the new sprouts. I have used the large garbage can sized bags before, but last year found myself with an excess of clear 10 gallon household waste basket liners and discovered I like using them more. That is partly because slipping one over each end of the tray is more practical than inserting the tray into a large bag, plus it is less hassle to pull them back in the middle to check for sprouts than to having to work with the the folds of the 33 gallon size.
There are a variety of warm places in the house to place seeds until they sprout, which does NOT include a windowsill. At this point, a windowsill would be counterproductive for most seeds, since the seeds usually need to be warmed and at this time of year the window sills are some of the coolest places in the house. The top of the refrigerator, the top of the dryer, and the top of the water heater are all places I have used in the past. I also have a fairly unique option of cupboards in front of radiant heat water pipes. My plants love it in there. I tell you to help you brainstorm for possible locations in your home. There are always heating mats and wires that can be purchased especially for the germination process.
All of the work of planting the seeds will be wasted if you don’t check your pots for germination VERY regularly. I recommend twice a day from the very start, even though I’ve never had anything sprout sooner than 3 days later. The problem is that if you don’t get into the important habit of checking them, you run the risk of not finding the new sprouts until they have gotten leggy. It is almost impossible to save leggy seedlings. Their long stems, originally growing to find the light, are then not strong enough to support the plant. They inevitably bend, break, and the plants die.
I leave most seeds covered under the bags until they sprout, unless that fuzzy mold starts growing. However, I find that pepper seeds like to get a little more dried out after about 3 days in the makeshift hothouses. I don’t mean let them completely dry out, but they definitely don’t like to be as moist as other seeds. The pepper plants also take a little longer, on average, than other seeds to sprout. Be patient. Check for sprouts and proper moisture levels at least daily.
Once they sprout, they need strong, direct light. Even then, a window sill isn’t a good place for them in most cases. The shelves with grow lights are well worth the effort to set up. It can be done fairly inexpensively with parts or you can buy a kit. Either way, you end up with healthy plants. Then, remember to harden them off gradually when its time to acclimate them to outdoor living. Every step is important to the plants’ development.