Growing Peppers at Home

PACMAS WAM TongaIf tomatoes or capsicum will grow in your neighbourhood then it is more than likely that so will chili peppers. Given a sunny location, free drainage and reasonably fertile soil pepper plants should grow well and fruit from about February through until the first frosts (if any.) Because some varieties require up to 130 days from seed planting until harvest, growers in cooler climates may need to begin the germination process under glass. They are an attractive metre high shrub with generally dark green foliage, usually with white flowers and lovely pods in contrasting colours of many hues.

Soil and Location

Chilies need a warm sunny location for good fruit set and ripening, and seedlings should not be set out into the open ground until the minimum soil temperature reaches 18 degrees C. Shelter is needed from strong winds, but a certain degree of air circulation is preferable to avoid the build up of fungal pathogens that may present a problem in very still humid environments. It is unlikely that the perfect soil for growing chilies exists anywhere in New |Zealand in the natural state, so some soil treatment will almost certainly be needed. A well drained loam or a sandy loam high in well rotted organic matter is ideal. Any pH between 6 and 8 is ok with the optimum being around 7.2.

Acidic soils (ie those with a low pH) can be treated with lime or dolomite, whereas alkaline soils (those with high pH) can be lowered with the addition of peat or compost. Heavier, clay loams need plenty of well rotted organic matter and, if drainage is a problem, raised beds will also improve the health of the plants.

Any doubts about the suitability of your soil can be confirmed (or otherwise) by undertaking a soil test and there are many laboratories offering this service. Follow their instructions for gathering the samples and be guided by their recommendations.

Typically a soil test report will provide the following information: soil type and texture, pH, percentage of organic matter present, salinity, and levels of fertility indicated by the relative percentages of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus (N,P,K). Some soil reports also mention the presence or otherwise of trace metals and elements, but these are generally not required in the home garden.


Large amounts of nitrogen are only an advantage during the early stages of growth. Beyond that it will tend to encourage leafy growth at the expense of flowers and fruit.

If the garden plot has recently been in fallow, pasture or a legume (such as lupins, mustard etc.) and all then ploughed or rotary hoed in, there should be an ample supply of nitrogen for initial growth. In poorer soils, plants will respond positively to the addition of fishmeal fertiliser or blood and bone, both of which supply nitrogen and phosphate, or a well made multi-ingredient compost. Apply a handful under each plant at planting out time. After establishment, it is preferable to switch to a better potassium source, eg seaweed (applied as meal, seaweed enriched compost, or a liquid feed) or a comfrey based liquid feed. This should be applied “little and often” through flowering and fruitset –ie every week to ten days.

wam tonga 2Deficiency symptoms to look out for include yellowing of the whole plant (usually with the older leaves affected first) indicating a lack of nitrogen. Very dark green foliage, with some reddening or purpling can indicate low phosphate levels. Applying a side dressing of fish fertiliser or compost can alleviate both these conditions. Be particularly careful using non-organic fertilisers (such as urea) as a side dressing around plants, as it is very easy to burn them with an overdose.

A potassium deficiency can be diagnosed by the appearance of chlorotic (pale) areas between the leif veins and/or necrotic (brown, rotten) spots on the leaves, and should respond to the application of seaweed products. If there is a die-off of the growing points, the soil may be low in calcium and need the addition of lime or dolomite. However it is better to assess calcium levels before planting by testing the pH level and amending accordingly (see under SOIL) as plant responses can be slow thereafter.

Planting Out

Chilies can be planted in rows approximately one metre apart, with individual plants about 30 centimetres apart in the row. Approximately 3000 plants can be grown in this manner in a quarter acre. Seedlings should be planted so that the soil level is no higher up the stem than it was in the pot, and the soil should be firmly pressed down around the plant to prevent wind rock.

Weed Control

Most varieties develop into quite bushy plants up to 60 centimetres high and will shade out weeds within the row after some initial hand weeding. Rotary hoeing at intervals between the rows will keep the rest under control. Chilies are very sensitive to most herbicides so their use is not recommended – besides being prohibited under organic regimes.

Mulch of hay, straw, or other organic materials laid up to 10centimetres thick will help suppress weeds and ahs the added advantage of maintaining soil moisture. Weed matting and plastic works ok on some soils but there does seem to be an increased risk of root rot on others, perhaps because of the reduced aeration of the soil.


Care must be taken that the young seedlings do not dry out and wilt when first planted out (ideally done just be rain). Once the plants are established, irrigation should only be needed during prolonged dry spells and then should regular and thorough.


KF uses mainly the hotter varieties of long red cayenne and yellow or orange habanero.


With early establishment (ie planting out in November) and good care, yields should average about half a kilogram per plant, although up to two kilograms have been recorded. Reducing weed competition for food during vegetative growth and maintaining a good supply of potassium during flowering and fruit-set will help maximise yields and encourage ripening.

Picking and Delivery

Chilies for processing should be at least 50% red or totally ripe, and should have the green calyx removed. They should be delivered fresh to the factory within 24 hours of harvest, or can be frozen (immediately after picking).

If the peppers are intended for supply to the fresh market, or are going to be dried, the green calyces should be left on, and the fruit should be in perfect condition ie unmarked, close to fully ripe, and of a reasonably uniform size.

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For any other queries please contact:

PO BOX 411
Ph/Fax (09)4433097

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