I don’t know about you, but it has been an unusually busy week in my little corner of the world. The days have been long and full, and I’m not exactly sure how we ended up at Friday already, but I am grateful that we’re here! I’m also grateful that yesterday’s precipitation arrived as (mostly) rain, and we have a shot at a high temperature near 60 this weekend! And of course, there will be more seed starting this weekend, too! With the brassicas off and growing, most of my attention has been on the peppers lately.
I started all but three varieties of my pepper seeds two weeks ago, and then started the last few about a week and a half ago when my seed orders arrived. In previous years I’ve pushed the start date for my peppers up a little, to give them more time to grow, but this year that didn’t happen, so I started them “on time” with 8 or 9 weeks to go. Given how deep the frost line is this year, I think they should still have plenty of time to grow to a good size before they make the move out the garden.
My collection of pepper seed is beginning to rival my collection of tomato seed, which is something I never expected when I first started gardening. I’ve grown to have a great appreciation of all of the deep diversity of varieties, shapes, colors, and flavors. I have purchased quite a few different varieties over the years, but I have also started to save seed from the varieties that I grow year after year. The number of seeds you can save from one fruit are more than what is contained in a typical packet, but then again, you really don’t need that many seeds. A little seed can go a long way, and though the seeds will maintain viability for several years, they do lose their germination mojo a little faster than a lot of other seeds.
Starting peppers from seed is definitely an exercise in patience and trust. It’s not that they are that difficult to grow from seed, but unlike some seeds that seem to sprout up over night, peppers take their sweet time and germinate (and then grow) at their own pace. They also are pretty particular about the conditions they like.
I surface sow all of my pepper seeds, meaning I simply place a seed on the surface of the soil, making sure it makes good contact, but I do not cover it so the seed will still be exposed to light, which helps with germination. Avoid using an all-peat seed starting medium for pepper seeds, as peat can inhibit germination. The soil temperature must be warm (between 60 and 80 degrees is ideal) for pepper seed to germinate, so I put my filled, but not- yet-planted, containers on the heat mat for a couple of days before sowing to prepare the soil and then keep them on the heat mat for several weeks after they have germinated to get them off to a good start. If the soil temperature is too cold, the seed will likely remain dormant until conditions improve, and the seed may even begin to rot. This past winter, I did a little reading up on peppers, and learned that it is best to water pepper seedlings with a spray bottle, as it has less of a cooling effect on the soil than bottom watering, so I’ve been doing that this year with good results so far.
Even under the best conditions, pepper seeds will germinate slowly over time. Some will germinate in as quickly as 4 days, while others will germinate more than a month later, long after you’ve given up on the seed. On average, pepper seeds take about 2-3 weeks to germinate. If I don’t see any signs of germination by then, I usually put another seed in, so as not to lose too much time waiting on a stubborn seed. Nine times out of ten, both seeds end up germinating eventually.
During the first few days after sowing, the seed coat will start to soften, and it will gradually start to develop a little opening where the radicle (what will become the main root) will eventually emerge, like a little tail. Once the radicle starts to poke out, it will tap down into the soil to root the plant in place. Then the stem starts to elongate, and eventually, the cotyledons begin to push the seed coat up and off of the new little seedling. This can also take some time. As tempting as it might be to help the seedling along by trying to remove the seed coat, resist the temptation, as you can easily damage, or even break off the cotyledons (I learned this the hard way!).
When it comes to starting peppers from seed, I always use two trays. One tray is the pepper “nursery,” where I sow the seeds and use a germination cover to hold in the heat and humidity. As soon as a seed germinates, I move it into the second uncovered tray, where the seedling will get more intense light and good air flow. Because even pepper seed from the same packet will germinate at very different times, it is a method that has worked really well for me, allowing for optimal conditions for both the seeds and seedlings. For ease of transition from one tray to the other, I use individual pots for all of my pepper seedlings.
This year I am growing a pretty decent selection of heirloom pepper varieties:
I have a few garden standards, like Jalapeno (the first to germinate and the first to have 100% germination this year), Anaheim (another one with a great germination rate this year), and King of the North (75% germination so far), a bell pepper well-suited for northern gardens.
The new-to-me varieties I’m trying this year are: Fatalii (still waiting on germination), a vibrant bright yellow hot pepper that my friend Peggy, a gardening rockstar from Ohio, gave me last year; Red Mushroom, a uniquely shaped red hot pepper that I have been eyeing for a few years in the Baker Creek catalog; Fish, a seasoning pepper with variegated foliage and multi-colored fruit; and Joe’s Round, a cherry-type hot pepper that is supposed to be excellent for pickling (the last three are the last varieties I started, and they are just starting to germinate now).
Almost all of these peppers will eventually find a home in my raised beds this year, but I am planning on growing a few of them (Fish and Joe’s Round) in containers on the deck as an edible ornamental, which I think will be a fun experience. They certainly have a ways to go until then, but so far I’m pleased with the germination rates and the progress the seedlings are making!