Pepper plants are a staple in many annual vegetable gardens, but are really perennials which can be grown year-round in warmer climates that don’t experience a frost. They even develop thick, woody stems as they mature into the following year. Read more below about these semi-woody perennials and also how to keep them alive beyond one growing season in northern climates.
Are Pepper Plants Perennials or Annuals?
All pepper varieties are tender perennials, meaning they can continue growing if not exposed to frost.
While pepper plants are often grown as annuals, they can be grown as perennials in areas where there is no risk of frost. Alternatively, gardeners can overwinter their pepper plants indoors and take them back outside in the spring.
Over the years, some pepper plant varieties can grow much taller than they would in a normal growing season. For example, the Dorset Naga and ghost pepper can both grow up to 5 feet or more in a large enough container or in the ground if kept alive for a few years.
How Long Do Pepper Plants Live?
Pepper plants can easily live several years if kept safe from frost and disease. With extra care, some gardeners have been able to keep their pepper plants alive for anywhere from 5 to 15 years.
Since pepper plants are perennials, they can keep growing year after year. The absolute maximum lifespan of a pepper plant is unclear, but some species of pepper plants tend to have an easier time thriving for years than others. But if well taken care of, kept safe from frost, disease, and pests, and pruned periodically, pepper plants can thrive and produce fruit for at least 5 years.
Are Pepper Plants Frost Hardy?
Pepper plants are not frost hardy, dying from a hard frost and suffering damage from even a light frost.
Cold temperatures above freezing are also not good for pepper plants. Cold temperatures can also cause flower drop, and several days of exposure to temperatures below 50°F (10°C) can cause chilling injury in pepper plants or stunt their growth.
One exception is Capsicum pubescens, which is a pepper species that naturally thrives in cool mountainous climates of Bolivia and Peru. C. pubescens varieties include the rocoto and manzano peppers. These varieties are notable for their black seeds and hairy stems and leaves. They will still die from frost exposure, but can set flowers and fruit at 50°F (10°C).
Tips: Overwintering Pepper Plants
- Always bring your pepper plants inside before your first frost.
- Prune your pepper plants before you bring them indoors. As long as you leave some branches with nodes on them, they will grow back. You can use this opportunity to check for and remove pests.
- After taking your pepper plants indoors, keep them in indirect light or under a grow light as they recover. Usually you will find new growth starting to pop up within two weeks.
- Indoor pepper plants need less water than outdoor pepper plants. After pruning, they won’t take up much water until they’re full of foliage again, and even when they grow back, less heat indoors means slower transpiration from the leaves and less evaporation from the soil.
- Pepper plants can be kept indoors next to a sunny, south-facing window or under some grow lights.
- Overwintered pepper plants require less frequent fertilizing. They can be fed once or twice over the winter if you just want to keep them alive and healthy.
- Taking pepper plants back outside in spring: Take your pepper plants outside after your last frost date, and when nighttime temperatures stay above 50°F (10°C). Pruning is not necessary, but some gardeners will prune around their last frost date to get a new flush of growth before taking their pepper plants outside. You can read more about pruning peppers before and after winter here.
- In the spring, overwintered pepper plants can also benefit from hardening off–the gradual exposure to outdoor conditions by taking them outside for a couple hours a day when the sun is not too strong, slowly increasing their time outside until leaving them outdoors permanently for the season.
Can You Get Peppers When Overwintering Pepper Plants?
With adequate light, such as a full-spectrum LED or fluorescent grow light, pepper plants grown in fertile potting mix can yield a winter crop indoors. You might also need to manually pollinate your peppers.
A common situation for people growing pepper plants indoors for the first time is the plants growing healthy foliage but few to no flowers or peppers. If you don’t care about getting a winter harvest and you’re just overwintering your pepper plants to keep them alive until spring, this is not an issue. However, if you want a flush of peppers in winter, the key is having adequate light and nutrients.
Generally, more light leads to more prolific blooms in pepper plants. Keeping your pepper plants in a sunny, south-facing window in winter might be enough to keep them alive, but it usually won’t support as much flower and fruit development, especially at higher latitudes. In this case, you can add supplemental lighting or grow them entirely under LED or fluorescent grow lights.
You also need to ensure your pepper plants are getting enough nutrients. Overwintered peppers typically don’t need much fertilizer, but adding some extra fertilizer, like tomato/vegetable fertilizer spikes, can help support flowering and fruiting in winter.
Lastly, if you’re getting blooms but flowers are dropping, it could be a sign that your overwintered pepper plants are getting too much nitrogen, are overheating (it can happen if you keep your plants too close to hot grow lights), or they’re not being pollinated.
Peppers are self-pollinating, but indoors there are no pollinators and no wind to shake the flowers to release the pollen. In this case, you can give your pepper plants a gentle shake once every day or other day when they’re in bloom, use a fan to give the plants constant, gentle airflow, or manually pollinate them by taking a fine brush or cotton swab and dabbing each open flower.