Growing Peppers~ My Tips for Zone 10 & My Favorite 2020 Peppers

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Let’s talk peppers! Instead of a step-by-step to growing peppers, I just wanted to chat about the main things I’ve experienced growing peppers here in zone 10b and my personal, pepper growing philosphy.

This year was my best pepper year ever. I won’t pretend I didn’t completely pamper and fawn over them—because I did. This year sweet peppers got top priority in my garden because, in all my years of growing, I never felt like I grew enough sweet peppers to feed our family. We love grilling peppers, making stuffed bell peppers, and adding that sweet crunch to many Summer dishes, so it was kind of heartbreaking that I always seemed to fail at growing sweet peppers.

Below is a picture of my 2020 pepper garden setup. Please note that I’m not saying this is the only way to grow peppers AND I’m not sure I’d do it the same next year. This setup was just a really great way to control all the elements so I could better compare the peppers and their growth. For my notes and best tips for growing peppers in your garden, keep on reading….

Hot & Spicy Peppers

My past problems growing peppers did not extend to any hot varieties. Habaneros, Jalapenos, Carolina Reapers, Sugar Rush Peach—-almost any hot pepper did great in our garden. I mostly credit this to the fact that hot peppers seem to actually enjoy our searing hot Summers. They weren’t as finicky.

Sam would take our hot peppers and make delicious hot sauces. I know fermented hot sauce is all the rage right now, but he prefers boiling down the peppers with carrots, onions, and garlic to make his hot sauce. Sometimes he throws in a fruit like peaches or mango. I don’t think we have purchased hot sauce in YEARS and I’m very thankful for that. While I am admittedly not a huge fan of growing hot peppers, I can honestly say that my favorite “super hot” pepper is a chocolate habanero. It actually has a slight smoky tinge in the flavor profile, and we will typically throw one in the pot when we are making carnitas to add a smoky spice. Yum!

Alright, so maybe I should clarify that my favorite “super hot” pepper to grow is the chocolate habanero, but my favorite hot pepper or “spicy” pepper to grow is a jalapeno. We use a lot of jalapenos in our cooking. This past Summer I discovered a recipe for fermented jalapenos from America’s Test Kitchen’s Foolproof Preserving book and wow! Not only can I eat them on everything, but my Mom loved them too. She’s Vietnamese and said they reminded her of a jalapeno side she used to eat a lot in Vietnam but hadn’t really found here. PS: if you love making tacos, these jalapenos are a must!

Here are some other hot or spicy peppers we have enjoyed growing here in Southern California:

Buena Mulata-the colors on these peppers are spectacular. They are hotter than jalapenos, with a scoville range of 30,000-50,000.

Thai Red Chili– a great pepper for any kitchen garden. Use them for curries, stir fries, and other asian dishes. I’ve also fermented these with other peppers for a flavorful, but not unbearably hot, hot sauce.

Sugar Rush Peach-an accidental discovery. The seed packet 3 years ago called it a “snacking pepper” but mine were too darn hot to eat at all! They have a somewhat fruity profile, so I still use them for hot sauce and dicing into salsas (mango salsa especially!).

Carolina reaper– Once called “the hottest pepper in the world” these were grown specifically for bragging rights—Sam had to grow them. If you are into that kind of thing, they were extremely prolific in our garden!

Last but not least, let’s talk shishitos! These peppers (pictured above) have been popular in the culinary and restaurant scene for a while now, and I highly recommend growing them. Shishitos are not necessarily “hot” or “sweet”. They are typically served blistered or grilled as an appetizer as I outline in my recipe for Fire Grilled Shishitos. Mmmmm so good! Fun fact: it is generally believed that 1 in 10 shishitos is spicy!

Sweet Peppers to Grow In Zone 10b

If you are new here, you should know that Sam loves the hot peppers while I am more of a fan of sweet peppers….so let’s get to those!

At the start of 2020, I had committed to de-mystifying sweet peppers in my garden. In the years past I always tried growing bell peppers, and the plants would end up stunted or produce one or two sad, misshapen peppers before stopping. Many MANY gardeners expressed to me that one key to growing sweet peppers in hot, dry climates is to choose more of the bull’s-horn and frying varieties over the bell types. It’s possible that our triple-digit Summers combined with a total lack of humidity makes it difficult for large bell peppers to truly get to the proper size and develop thick, juicy walls. While I can’t give a definitive answer there, my experience with lack-luster bell peppers year after year makes me inclined to believe that there is truth there.

One of my favorite seed companies, Johnny’s Selected Seeds (not sponsored!) has a great selection of sweet peppers. We had worked together on a giveaway a little while ago, and in that process I mentioned I was trying to find some sweet peppers that would grow well in Southern California. Johnny’s was kind enough to send seeds my way for me to trial in the garden and the epic sweet pepper summer began!

Pepper Growing Tips for Zone 10

Before I get to the results of my sweet pepper trial, I wanted to share how I set up my pepper garden for a good growing season. Over the years I’ve learned a few helpful tips for growing peppers in our climate that really surprised me because they go against what you might read on seed packets or in general gardening articles. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that this seems to be the case for much of Southern California gardening. Haha!

Plant in partial sun. Yep, even my mom (who lives nearer the coast in zone 10a) has her sweet peppers in partial sun and they perform beautifully. Most of the time peppers are considered “full sun” plants, but I have issue with that in our desert climate. Full sun here is simply too draining for the plants. Having your pepper plants exposed to 112 degree heat in full sun for months just dries them out and stunts them. This isn’t necessarily true for hot peppers though, so I give location priority to sweet peppers.

Regardless of special planning, in extreme heat your pepper plants might stop producing and experience heat-stress. Don’t worry!  If you continue to water and care for your plants they might resume production once the weather cools. 

Amend your beds with compost before planting. This is simply a good gardening practice. If you’d like to know how we amend and prep our garden beds between seasons, check out 5 Ways To Amend Your Garden Organically. I am a huge fan of compost, and have personally seen the difference it makes to the health of a garden. Whether your garden is large or small, there is a compost setup for you! You can read all about how we compost HERE.

Water deeply but less often. You’ve probably heard this before, but it is better to water deeply, less often than to water shallowly, more often. This is because deep watering encourages larger, deeper root systems that will be less susceptible to temperature changes or damage as opposed to shallow root systems.

Do you have a preference on drip lines versus soaker hoses? Recently, we have been experimenting with both, but I’m leaning towards drip lines in our case because the chances for clogs is greatly diminished. Our water can often have mineral deposits or calcium build-up, and I noticed the soaker hoses were more effected by this than the drip lines. There are many choices for irrigation, so I think it’s important to think of each garden individually when deciding which method is best.

Mulch! As a gardener, I tend to plant my garden closely and crowd things a bit. For peppers, I’m going to be giving them more space from now on. The peppers that I grew in a dedicated bed, as opposed to my more crowded/mixed vegetable beds, performed better. I suspect that my watering was less accurate in the mixed bed and there was more competition for sun and nutrients. I think peppers like their space, and therefore mulch plays a large part in retaining water and protecting the root system. This year I experimented with a fabric mulch that is utilized on one of my favorite flower farms—Floret Flower Farm—but I don’t think it made a difference to the peppers specifically. In general, I think any mulch will do the job so I’ll be sticking with the various methods of natural mulch I discuss in Let’s Talk Mulch!

Start peppers multiple times a season. For many other climates with shorter growing seasons, it is imperative to start peppers early indoors because they can take a long time to germinate, grow, and ripen. Here in Southern California, our seasons are sooooo long—-sometimes they almost feel like one big season. Therefore, yes, start pepper seeds early if you want an early crop but don’t feel limited to just that. You can also start peppers throughout the Summer season in June/July which can provide you with peppers until frost hits (our first frost doesn’t come until January sometimes).

Don’t forget! Subscribers have access to my current seed schedule in the Garden Resources Library. 

Should I prune my peppers? In all honesty, I have gone back and forth here. The hardest part of this question is that different types of peppers react differently to pruning, therefore there isn’t one answer. In general, I’ve found that bell peppers and larger peppers do not react well to being pruned but smaller (and hot) peppers will do fine. Overall, I haven’t been convinced that it is worth it to prune peppers, and feel that with healthy soil and a good growing environment your peppers will do just fine left alone. NOTE: I did have to support my sweet peppers this year with simple bamboo stakes and small tomato cages because I didn’t prune them and they got tall, but I don’t regret my decision.

Choose the right varieties to grow. As a friendly reminder, whenever you choose plants that prefer your climate you’ll be more successful as a gardener—-embrace nature rather than fight it. In regards to peppers specifically, I would recommend avoiding most bell peppers in your Southern California garden IF you are short on space and want to maximize production. One exception might be the California Wonder bell pepper. I’ve heard excellent reviews on the Cal Wonders and have yet to try growing them myself. In general, there are many other sweet peppers that will give you the same flavor and texture as bell peppers, but are better performers in a very hot, dry growing climate. Try looking into growing varieties of bull horn (corni di toro), banana, frying, and cubanelle sweet peppers and check out my pepper trial results below!

My 2020 Sweet Pepper Trial Results

I grew the following peppers using the tips and guidelines I’ve discussed above. You can find most of these peppers at Johnny’s Selected Seeds:

Aura –a lovely, small sweet pepper that ripens to an almost orange.

Sweet Chocolate Bell –see note below on flavor

Escamillo– grew the largest, but wasn’t as prolific. A good option for larger frying pepper.

Cornito Giallo– great sweet pepper, similar to aura in productivity and flavor.

Carmen –really flavorful and red.

Gypsy- ripens at different times for beautiful colors on the plant.

Round of Hungary– did not grow well for me

Award for most prolific-  ‘Cornito Giallo’

Lots of wonderful, smaller sized sweet peppers that ripen to a golden yellow. Supposedly the smaller version of the escamillo pepper.

Runner-up for producitvity- ‘Gypsy’

Easy to grow, and prolific. I really like how to gypsy peppers ripened at diffeent times on the plant, creating almost a sunset look. They eventually turn red for the sweetest flavor, but can be eaten at the different color stages.

Flavor Winners- ‘Sweet Chocolate Bell Pepper’ & ‘Carmen’

Despite it’s name, the Sweet Chocolate bell pepper is smaller than your traditional bell and more elongated. Very sweet and crisp!

I left my ‘carmen’ peppers on the plant until they were a bright red, and they were the sweetest of all the peppers I grew. They did happen to ripen around the same time as our intense heat, so that might have accounted for the extra sweetness.

Notes on Starting Peppers From Seed

Peppers are both easy and complicated to grow from seed. Haha. I’ve found that the hotter the pepper, the harder it can be to start from seed and the longer it can take to germinate. My number one tip is patience!!!! Peppers really can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to sprout, especially if it is colder and you don’t utilize a heat mat. Many gardeners like to use a heat mat for pepper seeds, but I simply keep mine indoors where it averages anywhere between 65-80 degrees anyway.

Don’t feel like you need to start peppers from seed. Super hot peppers like ghost peppers or the carolina reaper are such high-yielding plants that we usually only need one to fulfill our needs. I often swing by my local arboretum’s plant sale and buy a plant for $3-$4 so I don’t need to go through the hassle of germinating them.

For other pepper seed starting tips, check out my whole seed starting section! I’ve got you covered! The process of growing pepper seeds follows the same process I use for all my seed starting.  Enjoy!

Final Notes

While this list isn’t exhaustive, I do feel confident knowing some great options for sweet peppers to grow in my Southern California garden. Next year I will definitely be including all my award winners in the garden again.

Don’t forget, you can overwinter your peppers in mild climates, but that process should be an article all its own. Overwintering is basically caring for a plant through the cold season (as it lies dormant) so it can come to life with new growth in Spring. I have thai chili, jalapeno, and sugar rush peach pepper plants that I’ve overwintered for the last few years and they perform better each year.

PS: Tag me in your garden photos with #FreckledCA on Instagram!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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