Why do my plants have holes in the leaves?


How To Tell What Bug Is Eating Your Plants

Deer and Rabbits

Deer lack upper incisors, so they bite foliage and tear it free, creating jagged edges. This is also true when they bite a stem –the edge is jagged. When deer are present, you’ll see hoof prints in soft soil and lawn.

Rabbits leave neatly clipped stems and prefer new, tender growth, including stems, growing tips and leaves. Sometimes they’ll munch an older leaf but may not eat the entire thing. Rabbit damage tends to be low to the ground. They also chisel away bark on woody plants, especially in fall and winter.

Slugs and Snails

These slimy critters like to hang out where it’s moist and shady. They’ll also attack plants in sunny beds, provided there’s a place to hide out during the day, like under rocks, landscape timbers, pots or mulch. Slugs and Snails tend to create through-and-through, irregular-shaped holes in the leaf itself, not along the edges. (Most insects start feeding from the outside of a leaf and work their way in.) The surest way to identify Slugs and Snails is to visit your garden after dark with a flashlight. Look beneath leaves.


These munchers eat irregular holes in leaves, attacking both older and new growth. Some types, known as Cutworms, chomp through seedling stems at soil level, causing plants to keel over. Many Caterpillars boast camouflage that allows them to blend in with the leaves they’re eating. Watch for butterflies fluttering around plants, landing on leaves and laying eggs. That’s a sure sign Caterpillars are coming.


This Wasp cousin has larvae that resemble Caterpillars or Slugs. There are several types of Sawflies. As some larvae feed on plants, they create irregular holes that don’t extend all the way through a leaf. This makes the holes appear transparent. Other types cluster along leaf edges, so that up to a dozen worm-like creatures are feeding on the same leaf.

Japanese Beetles

Shiny, metallic Japanese Beetles feed on flowers and leaves. They feed in the middle of leaf blades, eating the tissue between leaf veins to create a skeletonized effect. The larvae are lawn Grubs. Their feeding causes brown patches in grass and a spongy feel underfoot.

These fierce-looking insects, with their rear-end “pincers,” feast on dead and living organisms, including insect eggs and adult Aphids. But they also like to eat soft fruits (peaches, apricots, berries) and new growth on plants. Typically, they chew irregular holes along leaf edges or inside the leaf blade. On seedlings, they’ll eat all tender growth –leaves and stems. You’ll usually spot them hiding inside blossoms or growing shoots of plants.

Leaf-Cutting Bees

These introduced Bees are welcome pollinators but do cause some damage to ornamental plants, such as roses and ash trees. Their marks on leaves is distinct: They cut neatly edged, half-moon disks along leaf edges. They use this material to line the cells in which they lay eggs.

Pests of Peppers

Key to Pepper Pests

Skip to Key to Pepper Pests

More than 35 species of insects and mites are pests of pepper. However, of these only 12 species occur in North Carolina, and only 7 species may be considered of economic importance. These are the European corn borer, corn earworm, beet armyworm, fall armyworm, pepper maggot, green peach aphid, and the tobacco hornworm. Flea beetles, cutworms, plant bugs and the pepper weevil are minor pests of pepper in North Carolina.

Insects damage peppers by feeding on foliage or fruit or by spreading virus diseases. Obviously those feeding within the fruit are of most concern to the processor.

Three critical periods exist when insect damage is paramount. By mid-June, aphids have usually established colonies in pepper fields. By early July, populations of second generation European corn borers, corn earworms, and pepper maggots are growing. By early August, the most critical period, third generation European corn borers, armyworms and corn earworms have reached devastating levels unless a control program has been implemented.

A. Insects that feed externally on plants

  1. Caterpillars with three pairs of legs near head and five pairs of prolegs
    1. Beet armyworm – Green or black larva, up to 30 mm long; three lightly colored stripes running length of body; black spot on each side of body on second segment behind head (Figure 1); damages bud and young leaves
    2. Tobacco hornworm – Greenish caterpillar up to 90 mm long with red anal horn; body with fine white pubescence and 7 diagonal stripes on each side (Figure 2); strips leaves from vines; infrequently feeds on fruit, leaving large, open superficial scars (Figure VV)
  2. Beetles – hard-bodied insects with wing covers which meet in a straight line down the middle of the back
    1. Flea beetles – Various species of tiny, darkly colored beetles 2.5 to 4.5 mm long (Figure 3); have solid-colored body or dark body with pale yellow stripe on each wing cover; chew tiny round holes in foliage
    2. Pepper weevil – Reddish-brown to black snout beetle with brassy luster; body about 3 mm long; spur on inner side of each front leg (Figure 4); chew holes in foliage, buds, and tender pods
  3. Green peach aphid – Soft-bodied, pear-shaped, yellow to green insect up to 2.4 mm long with pair of dark cornicles and a cauda protruding from the abdomen (Figure 5); may be winged or wingless – wingless forms more common; winged adult with dark dorsal blotch on yellowish-green abdomen; cornicles over twice as long as cauda and slightly swollen toward tip; yellow-green nymph with three dark lines on abdomen; cause discoloration or mottling of the foliage; transmits virus diseases; excrete honeydew on which sooty mold grows
  4. Potato leafhopper – Spindle-shaped pest, up to 13 mm long; green body with yellowish to dark green spots (Figure 6); usually jumps instead of flies; extracts sap from underside of leaf causing leaf to crinkle, curl, and turn yellow
  5. Corn earworm – Early instars – cream colored or yellowish-green with few markings; later instars – green, reddish, or brown with pale longitudinal stripes and scattered black spots; moderately hairy; up to 44 mm long; 3 pairs of legs, 5 pairs of prolegs (Figure 7); leaves holes in peppers
  6. Fall armyworm – Green, brown, or black caterpillar with black stripe down each side and yellowish-gray stripe down back; body up to 40 mm long; 3 pairs of legs near head and 5 pairs of prolegs (Figure 8A); head capsule with pale, but distinct inverted Y (Figure 8B); rarely found in North Carolina before July; eats leaves and gouges fruit

B. Chewing insects that mine leaves or bore into fruit

  1. Corn earworm – Early instars – cream colored or yellowish-green with few markings; later instars – green, reddish, or brown with pale longitudinal stripes and scattered black spots; moderately hairy; up to 44 mm long; 3 pairs of legs, 5 pairs of prolegs (Figure 7); leaves holes in peppers
  2. Fall armyworm – Green, brown, or black caterpillar with black stripe down each side and yellowish-gray stripe down back; body up to 40 mm long; 3 pairs of legs near head and 5 pairs of prolegs (Figure 8A); head capsule with pale, but distinct inverted Y (Figure 8B); rarely found in North Carolina before July; eats leaves and gouges fruit
  3. Pepper maggot – White, translucent, legless maggot up to 12 mm long with a pointed head (Figure 9); feeds inside fruit; infested peppers have 0.4 x 0.3 mm egg punctures and turn red prematurely
  4. Pepper weevil larva – Grayish-white, cylindrical, slightly curved legless grub up to 6 mm long; pale brown head (Figure 10); feeds at seed core of pepper or tunnels in walls; inside of pepper is black and filled with frass

C. Insects that bore into or sever stems

  1. Cutworms – Several species of fat, basically gray, brown, or black caterpillars; 40 to 50 mm long when fully grown; 3 pairs of legs, 5 pairs of prolegs (Figure 11); occasionally feed above ground when young; older larvae burrow in soil during day, sever plant stems at night; curl up when disturbed
  2. European corn borer – Cream to light pink caterpillar with reddish-brown to black head; body up to 26 mm long with several rows of dark spots; 3 pairs of legs near head; 5 pairs of prolegs (Figure 12); bores into stems leaving tangled frass and silk near entrance hole; stems break or plants wilt readily; young larvae sometimes feed under the fruit cap and later bore into the fruit (Figure TT)

Figure 1. Beet armyworm.


Figure 1. Beet armyworm.

Figure 2. Tobacco hornworm.


Figure 2. Tobacco hornworm.

Figure 3. Flea beetle.


Figure 3. Flea beetle.

Figure 4. Pepper weevil.


Figure 4. Pepper weevil.

Figure 5. Green peach aphid. A. Winged adult. B. Wingless adult. C. Nymph.


Figure 5. Green peach aphid. A. Winged adult. B. Wingless adult. C. Nymph.

Figure 6. Potato leafhopper.


Figure 6. Potato leafhopper.

Figure 7. Corn earworm.


Figure 7. Corn earworm.

Figure 8A. Fall armyworm.


Figure 8A. Fall armyworm.

Figure 8B. Fall armyworm head capsule with inverted Y.


Figure 8B. Fall armyworm head capsule with inverted Y.

Figure 9. Pepper maggot.


Figure 9. Pepper maggot.

Figure 10. Pepper weevil larva.


Figure 10. Pepper weevil larva.

Figure 11. Cutworm.


Figure 11. Cutworm.

Figure 12. European corn borer.


Figure 12. European corn borer.

Figure TT. European corn borer in pepper.


Figure TT. European corn borer in pepper.

Figure VV. Tobacco hornworm on pepper.


Figure VV. Tobacco hornworm on pepper.

Common Insects Attacking Peppers

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

Pepper production in Kentucky is plagued by moderate levels of insect pests. This includes European corn borer and beet armyworm that attack the fruit (direct pests) as well as insects attacking the foliage such as aphids (indirect pests). However, as with most insects encountered in the Midwest USA, populations of individual pests vary from year to year and location to location, reinforcing the need to routinely monitor pepper fields.


European corn borer can cause severe damage to peppers through damage to the fruit and premature drop of small fruit. Borer entrance holes in larger pods allow water to enter, resulting in fruit rot. When rotting begins, borers often leave and move to infest new fruit. In this way, one larva can damage several pods. In addition, plants may break due to tunneling by the borers in the stems.

Figure 1. European corn borer is less common since the introduction of Bt corn.

European corn borer moths tend to congregate in tall grassy areas around field margins, called action sites. Females fly into fields at night to lay their eggs. Weather conditions during egg laying can greatly affect the severity of corn borer problems. Calm warm nights are most favorable for moth activity while few eggs are laid on windy, stormy nights.

European corn borer eggs are laid in masses of 15 to 30 eggs per mass. Eggs are round and flattened and overlap each other like fish scales. Often they are placed on the underside of the pepper leaf near the midrib. Age of the egg mass is indicated by its color: freshly laid eggs are white, then cream. When a distinct black spot, the head of the larva, can be seen in the egg, it will hatch in about 24 hours.

Newly hatched larvae, about 1/16 inch long, leave the mass and crawl toward the developing pods. They do little feeding on pepper leaves. Within 2 to 24 hours after hatch, young larvae reach the calyx of the pepper pods. Once under the calyx, they are protected from insecticides and natural enemies.

There are two to three generations of this pest each year. The first appears in late May through early June. The second generation develops from late July through August. A partial third generation may occur in some years in early September. The second, or midsummer generation, is most likely to cause problems for commercial pepper producers.

Abundance of European corn borers varies from year to year. Inspection of pepper leaves for corn borer egg masses and young larvae is impractical and ineffective. Growers are encouraged to use pheromone traps and/or black light traps to determine if corn borer moths are active and when treatments should be applied to control small larvae before they enter the pepper pod. If corn borers are caught in traps, then begin looking in grassy areas around near your field. If moths are found in these action sites, then a spray is justified.

Corn borers are difficult to control because of the short interval between egg hatch and larval tunneling into the pod. The insecticide must be applied before larvae have entered the fruit or stems and spray coverage must be thorough. Over reliance on pyrethroid insecticides can lead to the rapid buildup of aphids on pepper foliage through the reduction of natural enemies. While pyrethoid insecticides can provide effective corn borer control, they should be used in rotation with other classes of insecticides.

Try to avoid insecticide spray applications during the bloom period to prevent unnecessary bee kills. If treatment is necessary, then spray in the early morning or late evening when bees are not active. A dry spray deposit is less dangerous to foraging bees.


The beet armyworm is a major pest in the southwestern and southern US attacking alfalfa, beans, beets, cole crops, corn, lettuce, onion, peppers, potatoes, peas, and tomatoes. It is an occasional invader of vegetable crops in the Ohio River Valley. Although it cannot overwinter in Kentucky USA, it is a significant pest for vegetable growers because of its wide host range and resistance to most insecticides. This insect is killed by the first hard frosts in the fall. Producers of fall vegetable crops need to watch out for this pest during August and September.

Figure 2. Beet armyworm is an occasional pest in Kentucky.

The beet armyworm is a light-green to black larva with four pairs of abdominal prolegs and a dark head. There are many fine, white wavy lines along the back and a broader stripe along each side.

There is usually a distinctive dark spot on each side just above the second pair of true legs. Female moths lay masses of up to 80 eggs underneath a covering of cottony-white scales, as many as 600 eggs over a 3 to 7-day period. These eggs hatch in 2 to 3 days and the larvae first feed together in a group near the egg cluster. As they grow, they gradually move away from the egg masses. Many small larvae die during this wandering stage but the behavior tends to spread out the infestation. Beet armyworm is quite mobile; one larvae may attack several plants in a row. Older larvae may feed on fruit as well as leaves. After they complete their feeding, the 1-1/4 inch larvae pupate in the soil in a loose cocoon containing soil particles and leaf fragments. The life cycle takes about a month to complete.

Figure 3. Beet armyworm damage can be severe.

Beet armyworm feeding on young tender growth can be very damaging to small transplants. Often a fine webbing is produced by smaller larvae near these feeding sites. Older plants can become rapidly defoliated.

Vegetable growers should pay particular attention to fall plantings of beans, tomatoes, crucifers, other truck crops.

Regular scouting of fields to detect the first indications of a beet armyworm infestation is critical. Growers in Kentucky and southern Ohio and Indiana should scout their fields weekly and watch for small beet armyworm larvae feeding in groups on young leaves. If beet armyworm larvae are found, a spray is justified. Sprays containing Bacillus thuringiensis var azawai are effective when used at higher labeled rates against young larvae. Newer, reduced risk insecticides, Confirm, Intrepid, and Spintor will provide effective control. If a complex of insect pests including beet armyworm are present, treat them as beet armyworm when selecting an insecticide. Beet armyworm has few effective parasites or predators which can effectively reduce its numbers.

Timing of insecticide applications is very important. Once larvae are 1/2 inch or longer, they become very difficult to kill with insecticides. So treatment must be targeted against young larvae. Only with frequent field surveys can these pests be detected and controlled effectively. Coverage is also an important consideration. Because insecticides can provide only moderate levels of control, it is important to deliver the proper dose to the pest. Drop nozzles, high pressure (200 psi), hollow cone nozzles, reducing sprayer speed (2 to 2.5 mpg), and a high volume spray will allow for thorough coverage of these vegetable crops.


There are several species of stink bugs which damage peppers including brown, green, and brown marmorated stink bugs. Stink bug feed with piercing-sucking mouthparts and inject digestive enzymes into the pepper fruit while feedings. This results in a type of damage called ‘cloud spots’ to the fruit. These are light-colored corky areas under the skin.

Figure 4. Brown stink bug on pepper fruit.

Stink bugs are highly mobile and readily move from crop to crop as the season progresses. Growers should monitor for stink bugs weekly and treat as needed.

Figure 5. Stink bug damage occurs below the skin of the fruit.


Several aphid species may be commonly found infesting peppers during most of the growing season. The most common aphid on peppers is the green peach aphid. Large numbers of aphids can affect pepper production in two ways. Honeydew produced by aphids can leave a sticky film on the surface of the fruit and cause the development of sooty mold fungi. Various species of aphids can also transmit viruses, notably potato virus Y, that can reduce yields. Aphid infestations may begin in the greenhouse on pepper transplants.

Figure 6. Green peach aphids can be common following pyrethroid applications.

As aphid colonies begin to form on the leaves, development occurs rapidly. Aphids reproduce without mating and individual generations may be completed within one week during the summer.

Winged adult aphids develop periodically and disperse from fields following periods of overcrowding. Colonies are found on the undersides of leaves, usually in the lower canopy.

Many of the insecticides used to control other pepper insect pests can contribute to rapid increases of aphids. Natural enemies such as lady beetles, green lacewings, damsel bugs, and hover fly larvae usually control aphid populations adequately. Broad-spectrum insecticides, particularly pyrethroid insecticides, can delete these natural enemies and allow aphid populations to develop unchecked. Insecticides should only be applied for other insects when necessary, as determined by trap catches and scouting, and care should be taken to select insecticides that do not favor secondary aphid problems.

Revised: 11/19

CAUTION! Pesticide recommendations in this publication are registered for use in Kentucky, USA ONLY! The use of some products may not be legal in your state or country. Please check with your local county agent or regulatory official before using any pesticide mentioned in this publication.


Photos courtesy Ric Bessin, University of Kentucky Entomology

Growing Peppers from Seed for Beginners

Growing peppers from seed requires a certain amount of patience. The willingness to dedicate time to nurture that seedling, and care for it as it matures, can reward you with amazing fruits.

When I first started growing, I recall researching all over the web for info on how to get started. Everyone has different methods, some just too complicated for me. Peppers are easy to grow, and I keep it very simple. After several seasons of growing hot peppers, and testing many of the tips I found all over the web, I present the step by step of what has worked best for me.

I don’t have a greenhouse and I only grow a handful of different pepper plants each year, like 5 – 10. I also don’t have garden space, so all my plants grow in containers outdoors once they are ready and it’s warm enough outside. So let’s get growing!

1) When to start your seeds

Generally, you start your seeds in the winter indoors. Exactly which month you’d like to start is up to you, but November – February is a good starting point. I’ve always started my seeds in January. November and December have too much holiday travel, gift buying and work going on for me to focus on my peppers, so January works for me

2) What are the easiest peppers to grow?

If you don’t want to wait too long for germination, Capsicum Annuum’s are probably the easiest to grow. These include jalapeños, serranos, cayennes, Thai peppers, Anaheim, Hatch, poblano, many ornamentals and more. They also do better in cooler climates and germinate readily even at lower temperatures (50oF -75oF).

Chinense species, which include the super hots, habaneros, scotch bonnets, etc., tend to have slower germination times (often up to 6 weeks) and higher soil temperature requirements (75oF-90oF).

Just keep in mind that the germination process can be slow and irregular as the degree of dormancy (or in other words, how long it takes those seeds to wake up and grow) varies considerably between species.

3) Where do I get seeds?

You can buy seeds from your local garden center, from the many online seed suppliers (a couple I like to by from are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and pepperjoe.com), or simply purchase your favorite peppers from your local supermarket and scrape out the seeds. Good to go.

4) I have my seeds, now what?

You are going to start your seeds indoors. Before you plant your seeds, soak them overnight in warm water. I’ve grown seeds with and without soaking, and I found the ones I soaked did a better job of sprouting. So I pop the seeds in shot glasses with warm water (shown below) overnight and then plant in the morning. Keep track of what seeds are in what glass. You will be planting 3 seeds in each ‘pod’. Only one of these three seeds will become the producing plant, so don’t get attached.

Also, just because your seeds sprout, this does not guarantee they will all survive to become healthy plants. To ensure you grow at least one strong producing plant of each variety, plant a minimum of 6 seeds or more.

Now we’re ready to get the seeds into some soil. I’ve had the best results using Jiffy peat pellets (this is the exact box I use, available from Amazon, but all of the Jiffy boxes are far cheaper from Home Depot or any other local garden shop in your area).

I’ve also tried starting my seeds in ‘seed starting’ soil in little dixie cups, but the jiffy peat pellets give me far better germination results, so I prefer them. And they come with the greenhouse dome, which is great for getting seeds to sprout quickly in a normal home environment in the winter.

So follow the instructions on the Jiffy box. You basically pour water onto the pellets and then give them some time to absorb the water. The pellets will fully expand after several minutes (shown below).

Once the pellets are ready, pull back the mesh on the top and dig about a 1/4″ deep hole. Place 3 of the same seeds into the soil and very loosely cover with soil. Don’t pat down the soil. You want to make it as easy as possible for the seedlings to breakthrough.

Additional Soil Boosters:

Myco Blast is a soil additive I use at this point. I add Myco Blast to the seed pods right after planting the seeds and water once a week with it until the first set of true leaves appear. Myco Blast naturally enriches the soil producing stronger healthier seedlings. It is also used when transplanting.

Chile seeds require moisture and warmth to break their dormancy (meaning sprout). Dormancy is the seeds built-in survival mechanism which prevents seeds from germinating in cold conditions which would kill the young seedlings. Just be aware that the germination process can be slow and irregular as the degree of dormancy varies considerably between species. I place my seed trays on a Seedling Heat Mat to help with the germination process. It warms up the soil and I’ve found that my plants sprout far faster with the use of a heating mat.

Once the first seeds start to sprout remove the greenhouse dome and start to make sure the seedlings have enough sunlight. I keep my seedlings under a well-lit window all day, but since they sprouted in the winter months (providing fewer daylight hours) I add a very simple grow light which I turn on once the sun goes down or if it’s a cloudy day. The one I have is LED and doesn’t produce any heat, so you can put it pretty close. This year my light is about 6″-7″ above the seedlings. I turn off the grow light around 8-9 pm. Spritz the seedlings with water if the soil starts to turn a light brown. Keep them moist, but not wet.

What next happens is the survival of the fittest! You planted 3 seeds in each pod. Only one of those sprouts will move one to the next round. Your seeds will start to sprout. In each pod, you may notice one sprout doing better than the others. After the seedlings get about 2 inches, you should see the strongest sprout. You must select the strongest sprout and trim the others to let the strongest seed grow.

Now sometimes it might not be super clear on which is the strongest. I’ve had that happen. Check out the image below. You can see the obvious winner in the right pod, but all look fairly equal in the left pod. For the left pod, go ahead and pick your favorite, because they are all strong, but only one can take up that space. Trim 2, leaving only one sprout to move on. If you are VERY gentle, you can try to separate all 3 of the strong sprouts for planting separately, just try not to damage their delicate roots.

The first leaves that sprout from the seed are the cotyledons (an embryonic leaf in seed-bearing plants, the first leaves to appear from a germinating seed.)

The next set of leaves that will develop are called their ‘true leaves’. I transplant each into larger cups once they are about 3″ with their first set of true leaves.

I use plastic cups at this point. Poke 1-2 drainage holes into the bottom of each cup with an awl or screwdriver. Fill each cup with potting mix. Dig a hole that will fit the root ball. If your seedlings are in peat pots (as shown above), remove the entire peat pot mesh lining, and then place the root ball into the newly dug hole. Be careful not to disturb the roots or damage the seedling. Cover as much of the stem to promote more root growth. I plant mine lower in the cup, so the very top of the plant is about 1/2″ below the cup top so it is protected from the elements once I start hardening off.

What kind of potting soil (or potting mix) do I use?

It is important to know the difference between potting mix (also called potting soil) and garden soil. Potting mix is specially formulated for use in containers. It contains ingredients like bark and peat moss that ensure good drainage and airflow for strong root growth in containers.

If your pepper plants are going into a container, use potting mix. If they are being planted in a garden, use garden soil. I typically use Kellogg Patio Plus found at Home Depot since my peppers are grown in containers.

Time to talk about fertilizing.

After the first set of true leaves appear, this is also the point you can start fertilizing. Start using a diluted amount of fish emulsion or fish and kelp fertilizer (this is what I grab from Home Depot) to promote growth. Read the instructions on the container and then use 1/4 strength when you water your plants. I know some people really don’t like the smell of a fish fertilizer (I don’t think it’s bad at all), so feel free to use whatever fertilizer you prefer.

*Note: if you have dogs that love the smell of dead things, as mine do, you may need to keep the plants out of their reach when fertilizing with fish fertilizer. If I spill even a drop, my dogs will try to lick it up because it’s fishy smelling. They’ve stopped trying to dig in the plants after fertilizing, but the first time they smelled it, they wouldn’t let go of trying to find the source of the smell in my pots.

Foliar feeding:

After your plants have three or four sets of true leaves, you can apply magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) directly to the leaves and stem. Epsom salt keeps the plant foliage strong and prevents light green to yellow leaves from developing.

Make sure that the Epsom salt you use does not have any additions such as scents.

Add a 1 teaspoon Epsom salt to a gallon of water and shake it up well. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle and then spritz the leaves and stems with the solution until thoroughly covered. Spray your plants every other week so that one week you water with fish emulsion, and the other week you give your plants the foliar feeding.

There are a couple of other soil additives I use. The first is Myco Blast. I add Myco Blast to the seed pods right after planting once a week until the first set of true leaves appear (then switch to regular fertilizer). Also, add Myco Blast to the soil when transplanting to naturally enrich the soil.

The second one I use is Soil Blast. Water with the Soil Blast and tap water solution once every week. It establishes beneficial bacteria necessary for excellent soil and strong plants.

For the next month+ you’ll watch your plants grow. Water, fertilize and keep them healthy. During this time I start to harden off my plants. This is a key step in the survival of your plants. Don’t skip it.

What is hardening off and when do I start?

Your plants have been in a controlled indoor climate, with no wind, extreme sunshine or cold nights to deal with. Hardening off is the process of gradually allowing your young plants to slowly get used to outdoor conditions.

The process takes a couple of weeks, so start a couple of weeks before you plan to transplant them outdoors. And this is not a strict schedule. You just want to get the plants outdoors for longer and longer periods each day, but keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t start to wilt. Also don’t set them out on days that are very windy. Keep in mind the soil will dry faster outdoors due to sun and wind so water more frequently.

Here is a basic schedule to start with: Set them outdoors the first day for 1/2 hour in just partial sunlight in an area protected from the wind. After your plants are outdoors for 1/2 hour somewhat protected increase the time daily to 1 hour, 2, 3, 4, leading up to 8 hours per day. Then leave them out overnight for a full day (as long as there is no threat of frost).

When is a good time to transplant your plants?

Plants should be 6-10 weeks old with dark green color, thick stems, and no blooms. Pinch off any blooms so the plant will put energy into adjustment after transplant. Wait until the last frost date for your zone has passed and nighttime temperatures are above 50° F, and your seedlings are hardened. Peppers are warm-season crops that grow best at temperatures of 70-80° F during the day and 60-70° during the night.

Transplanting time!

Once your plants are adjusted to being outdoors, it’s time to move them to their permanent home. All of my peppers plants go into pots outdoors. I’ve used a few different containers; regular pots, home depot buckets, the EarthBox, and the City Pickers raised garden bed kits. If your local garden center has these in stock, they are typically much less expensive in-store.

My personal preference is the EarthBox. The EarthBox is better made than the City Pickers box. They are very similar, but a couple of the wheels snapped off on my City Picker Box first year, and my EarthBox, which I’ve had longer, is still going strong. Here’s more info on how the EarthBox works. My plants just do better in the EarthBox compared to any other pot. Plus it comes with organic fertilizer, dolomite, mulch covers and a detailed set of instructions explaining exactly how to plant your plants using their system. It’s just simple and I like simple.

I will typically plant 4 pepper plants (and not necessarily the same type of pepper) in one EarthBox. I use the EarthBox for plants that tend to grow larger. Also, if you have access to compost, certainly mix that in with your soil.

I do use regular pots for smaller pepper plants. If I’m growing something that is small and compact, like ornamental Thai peppers, those do fine in small pots. Here’s some I grew in a small pot.

Note on reusing pots from year to year: If you are reusing pots, which is totally fine, your previously used pots need to be sterilized to kill any organisms that may spread disease to next year’s plants. Once emptied and washed out, pots should be soaked in a solution of 1 part household bleach and 9 parts water for about 10-20 minutes, and then rinsed and soaked in clean water to remove any bleach residue that remains.

Once you’ve chosen what your plants are going into, it’s time to move them. I use the same type of potting mix as the first time I transplanted them, an organic potting mix (for containers) that says it’s good for peppers & tomatoes. These soils typically have a mix of peat moss, some sort of bark, perlite, & dolomitic limestone. Peppers like well-draining soils.

Dig a hole for each plant that is a bit larger than the root ball of the plant. Hold the plant by the rootball (not the stem) and place it in the hole. Take care not to disturb your plant’s roots during transplant. Set the plants slightly deeper (up to an inch) than they were grown in the container.

You will need to water plants more frequently than was necessary indoors.

In addition to shallow roots, peppers have fairly brittle branches that eventually grow heavy with peppers. Some plants benefit from staking (insert a stake into the soil and tie your plant to the stake) or caging. I do stake many of my pepper plants to give them added support once they start growing taller.

And there you go. Fertilize and water on a regular schedule and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Common problems you may have:

Tall ‘leggy’ seedlings:

‘Leggy’ seedlings typically have stretched skinny stems and look fragile. They may start bending forward rather than growing up straight with a strong stem. The most common issue here is not enough light. The young seedlings are struggling to access adequate light from any source they can. I would suggest using a grow light placed fairly close (6” – 8”) from the seedlings.

White ‘fuzz’ growing on the soil:

This is a result of too much moisture and is a common white mold you find on top of potting soil. Let them dry a little. You can run a fan at the plants to slow the mold growth down and strengthen the stalks of the plants at the same time. If it’s still sticking around, You can also simply scrape it off. This happens to me a lot and it’s never harmed my seedlings.

Gnats around your indoor pepper plants:

Gnats love moisture and are attracted to fruits, so it’s no surprise that they often infest kitchens. I have several fruit trees in the backyard so gnats always find their way into the house and love to hang out on my pepper plants while they are growing indoors.

My simple solution to get rid of these little pests is to set up a vinegar trap. Gnats find the scent of apple cider vinegar very attractive (and wine… I’m always trying to keep them out of my wine glass). So I just set a small glass of apple cider vinegar in the middle of my plants and they wind up in the glass. Typically that’s enough for me, but if you have a good amount of gnats you can set up a larger trap in a Mason jar. Put apple cider vinegar into the jar, like the bottom 3 inches should be good. Pop several holes in the jar lid then cover the jar. You could also use plastic wrap with holes to cover the jar. The gnats will enter the jar via the holes on the lid and get trapped in the vinegar solution.

Bell Pepper Plant Problems


Disease is caused by various microorganism living in the soil that infect plant tissues. The plant will exhibit symptoms which will help you diagnose what the disease is and how to treat it. Common diseases found in bell pepper plants include:

  • Leaf Spot: Yellow, brown, or black spots on leaves that form lesions and fall off.
  • Stem Rot: Stem of seedlings or older plants rots and the plant falls over
  • Southern Blight: Black spots on leaves and stem, foliage yellows and dies
  • Powdery Mildew: A white powdery fungus that affects wet foliage

Most of these diseases are caused by moisture coupled with warm temperatures and poor airflow. Give pepper plants plenty of space and trim lower branches to increase air circulation near the soil.

Make sure plants are potted in well-draining soil. If there is pooling on the top of the soil after a watering, it needs amending. Amend with sand, coconut coir, organic matter, or compost until the soil soaks in water readily.


Preventing pests from building up in the garden is the best way to protect your plants from damage. Create a biodiverse ecosystem that attracts predatory insects and birds. These animals feed on problem-causing beetles and aphids.

Aphids are a common bell pepper pest. These tiny green beetles cause foliage to curl and deform before stunting the plant’s growth altogether. lacewing flies, ladybugs, and praying mantises are all excellent control for aphids in the garden and these insects are available commercially.

If you come out one day to find your seedlings chopped off at ground level, it’s likely due to cutworms. These grey grubs live in the soil around the base of your plant and come out at night to eat the delicate young stems. Cutworm collars can be made from household supplies to keep them off of growing plants. Organic insecticide made with dish soap is another option for controlling cutworm damage.

Growing Issues

Pepper plants exposed to temperatures outside their preferred range of between 60-75°F (15-23°C) tend to stunt or drop developing blossoms. Check seed packets for individual varieties and temperature ranges.

Over or under watering tends to cause growth issues in pepper plants. Stick to a regular watering schedule and always adjust for natural precipitation. The most important factors in growing healthy peppers are temperature, damp soil not wet soil, and establishing beneficial companions nearby.

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