Pepper Plant Care
Organic Gardening

How to Troubleshoot Pepper Plant Growing Problems

This is part I of a 2 part post-series. Peppers can sometimes be finicky. Use this guide to identify any issues with pepper plants to help find a solution, treatment, and care. Part two will cover diseases and disease management, along with an FAQ.

Peppers can sometimes be finicky, depending on the variety. One year I’ve had a good year with peppers, and the next they are struggling. They like heat, but not too much. They like the sun, but not too much. At least that’s what my experience has been with them. Other times it just comes down to weather that’s out of our control.

To help you identify growing problems, I’ve compiled a list of the most common ones you may run into while growing peppers and solutions that can help to correct it.

Growing Peppers – A Quick Guide to Pepper Plant Care

Peppers are a warm-weather crop and come in all kinds of varieties, colors, and shapes. You might often see peppers referred to as capsicum. Capsicum comes from the Greek word, “kapto”, which means “to bite” or “to swallow”. 

Fun fact about capsicum: Most varieties of capsicum contain capsaicin. Capsaicin is a lipophilic compound, a chemical compound that produces a reaction that causes a burning sensation. This compound’s purpose is to deter mammals and insects from eating the fruit. However, birds are able to tolerate it, and therefore spread its seed. Bell peppers, which are not spicy, don’t contain capsaicin hence why they aren’t spicy.

Types of peppers you may want to consider:

  • Bell peppers – probably the most commonly known peppers as they’re always sold in stores. They come in a range of colors: red, green, yellow, and orange. These are not spicy.
  • Banana Pepper – a tangy pepper that’s slightly sweet.  They have little to no heat to them.
  • Sweet Italian Pepper, aka pepperoncini – these have some slight heat to them and are sometimes confused as banana peppers.
  • Poblano – It has a mild to medium heat peppers that have more heat than banana peppers, but they’re not as spicy as jalapeño peppers.
  • Jalapeño – the heat turns up with jalapeño peppers. They’re not as spicy as serrano, cayenne, or ghost peppers. There are green and red for this variety. Their spiciness is affected by growing conditions and dependent on the amount of heat and rain it experiences. Dark green jalapeño peppers indicate that they are not fully ripe and therefore less spicy. Red jalapeño peppers are harvested when they are fully ripe for more spice and commonly used to make chipotle peppers.
  • Serrano – are peppers that range in heat between jalapeño and habanero. It’s similar in color to jalapeño and looks like one, but they are smaller. Their colors range from red, brown, orange, yellow, and green. They are commonly used to make salsa, guacamole, relishes, and hot sauces.
  • Bird’s Eye – this pepper is used in Thai cuisine and has a ‘spicy level’ between cayenne and habanero pepper. It is spicy with a slightly fruity flavor.
  • Piri Piri – (also known as peri peri or pili pili) originated in South Africa, like Mozambique and areas bordering South Africa. In Swahili, pili pili means “pepper”. At that time, the area was Portuguese territory and the Portuguese originally produced the pepper in southern Africa (perhaps in Angola or Mozambique). The Portuguese brought this pepper back to Portugal. 
  • Habanero – is commonly thought of as a pepper from Mexico since the Yucatan Peninsula is the largest producer, but it’s actually from Peru. It’s VERY hot, with a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) of 100,000 to 350,000.
    • (SHU is a sugar-water measurement that gauges heat. Essentially it figures out how much sugar-water is needed to dilute a chili pepper mash to the point where you won’t feel heat.)

Pepper Plant Care
2 Peppers on a Plant

Pepper Plant Care: Sunlight, Where to Plant, Soil, and Watering

Peppers like full sun. I realized when it’s very hot, pepper plants enjoy some shade. They are very sensitive to extreme heat.  Consider using a plant that can help with sun coverage, row covers, or a shade cloth. We planted them next to our butterfly bush. The bush provided coverage during the hottest parts of the day. I don’t recommend doing that. Our butterfly bush was extremely large the next year and would’ve provided too much coverage for the pepper plants. Consider companion planting with plants that can offer shade like eggplants and zucchini. Use additions to your soil like compost and other organic materials. Don’t plant peppers where you grew nightshade plants previously. The soil must be well-draining. Provide the plants with deep soaks of 1 to 2 inches of rain per week and avoid shallow waterings. 

Deep soakings are preferred by most plants instead of shallow waterings. Mulch the soil to maintain moisture levels and help plants in between waterings.

Pepper Plant Care: Key Issues with Peppers and How to Identify Them

There are a number of pests and diseases that affect peppers. Let’s start by identifying pests and what they do. For pests, it’s a good idea to become familiar with which plants they like to feed on to help with identification. Pepper plant diseases and disease management to be continued in the second post of this two-series segment.

Pepper Plant Pests

PestsWhat They Do & How to ID themHow to Treat/Recipes
CutwormsWhat they do:

Cutworms are larvae that come from the cutworm moth. They cause a lot of damage to peppers, especially to young plants.

How to identify them:

There are different varieties of cutworms. They have skin in a variety of colors: brown, tan, pink, green, gray, or black. They are common pests to many different plants: cabbage and other crucifers, asparagus, beans, carrots, celery, corn, lettuce, peas, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes.
One of the best ways to control cutworms is checking your plants regularly. Handpick worms off of plants. Use diatomaceous earth (DE) around the base of the plants. Do not place near any flowers. Pollinators can be killed by DE. Consider mulching with leaves as the leaves can deter cutworms.
AphidsWhat they do:

Aphids are an annoying pest. They cause wilting, yellow of leaves, and distortion of leaves. They leave a sticky substance behind on the plants known as honeydew. The honeydew then provides conditions for mold to grow, giving a sooty appearance. Ants are attracted to the honeydew.

How to identify them:

Aphids have a pear-shaped body and range in color from black, green, red, yellow, brown, or gray.
One remedy for aphids is to plant companion plants, like herbs (mint, fennel, dill, yarrow, and dandelions) near plants that can be affected by aphids. Another solution is insecticidal soap, or you can make your own out of soap and water into a spray. Treat the plants every 2 days for 2 weeks. Consider proactively spraying plants as a preventative. Attract beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybugs.
Army wormsWhat they do:

These are actually caterpillars that are laid by a tan to brown moth moth and wreak havoc in the garden. Army worms are commonly found in the garden around early fall, but they are not easy to predict when they’ll be out and about. They strip the plant of its foliage.

How to identify them:
They are 1 ½ inches in length and have a skin that ranges from pale green to dark green-brown and black, with orange, white, and black stripes. Their head is either a yellow or orange color.
Be diligent in checking your plants. I check my plants at least once a day and look for any signs of something going amiss.There are natural enemies of army worms such as wasps, flies, and ground beetles. Animals such as birds also like to eat large amounts of these insects.Homemade all-purpose insecticidal spray: in a spray bottle, fill 1 quart of liquid soap. Next pour in ½ cup of rubbing alcohol. Shake vigorously to mix. When applying treatments, always spray either in the morning or in the evening. Spraying in the middle of the day can cause your plant to burn.
Fruit wormsWhat they do:

Fruit worms can cause damage to a number of plants. They eat new growth, flowers, fruits, and leaves. 

How to identify them:

There are many types of fruit worms, but green fruit worms are the most common. The green fruit worm larvae are laid by an adult moth. When the larvae hatch, they are a cream color. Then they turn yellow, and finally green.
By the time you discover damage by fruit worms, it may be already too late. Check your plants daily in early to mid spring. Fruit worms only have 1 generation per year, but can overwinter underground.Look for terminal shoots and damage to buds.  On fruit, the damage will appear as scars or a brown scab.Hand pick off caterpillars.Use sticky strips to catch adult moths.Wasps and nematodes are your friend.
Flea beetlesWhat they do:

Flea beetles are commonly found on squash, beans, sunflowers, lettuce, potatoes, and weeds. 
They live in leaf litter, hedgerows, and wooded areas. Adult female beetles lay their eggs in soil, leaves and roots. Once the larvae hatch, they begin eating the plant. Most damage occurs in the spring.

How to identify them:

There are many different types of flea beetles. They have various skin colors: bronze, black, blue, brown, or gray. Some have stripes. They also have large back legs that they use for jumping.
Use row covers. Remove the covers though when the plants are flowering for pollination.Monitor on a regular basis and check for any damage on plants.Consider using sticky traps.Remove any debris and weeds from around the plant.Use the homemade all-purpose insecticidal spray mentioned previously, or a recipe from the Sierra Club of Canada.
Corn borersWhat they do:

Corn borers go after any type of plant that has a stem that’s wide enough to lay its larvae in. They weaken and slow the growth of plants by eating them. Plants with severe damage have foliage that will snap off. Damaged parts of the plant are prone to rotting.

How to identify them:

The moth lays its eggs in clusters of 15-20. They’re oval, flat, and a creamy color, and an iridescent appearance. The color of the eggs changes to an orange, beige, or tan as they age.
The larvae are a light brown or pinkish gray, with a brown or black head.
Interplant dill, buckwheat, and coriander as a deterrent. Use beneficial insects to your advantage. Wasps, lady beetles, and lacewings are examples of enemies to the corn borer.
HornwormsWhat they do:

Hornworms, or tomato hornworms, prefer tomato plants. However, they will also destroy peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.

How to identify them:

Eggs are laid on the lower and upper parts of leaves. They’re a smooth and pale yellow color. As pupae, they overwinter and emerge in the springtime as the adult moth.

Small hornworms are yellow to white color and do not have any markings. As they age, they have a green color and develop markings. These markings are 8 V-shaped marks on either side of the worm. It has a black “horn” on the last abdominal section.
One of the best solutions is to hand pick the worms and toss them into soapy water.Remove weeds to provide less places for eggs to be laid.Predatory insects like lacewings, lady beetles and wasps are friends to the gardener. There are even parasitic wasps that lay eggs on the hornworm.
White fliesWhat they do:

Like aphids, white flies feed on the plant juices and produce a sticky substance known as honeydew. The honeydew then causes fungal diseases.

How to identify them:

These are not flies, in spite of their name. They are closely related to aphids and mealybugs. They have a triangular body and are white. 
Check underneath the leaves for eggs.Spray white flies off by blasting the plant with water.Use the homemade all-purpose insecticidal soap I mentioned previously.As a preventative, attract white fly enemies – ladybugs, spiders, green lacewings, and dragonflies.
Root-knot nematodesWhat they do:

Root-knot nematodes feed on the roots of plants. Damage to the roots is noticeable as they form large knots, which reduce crop yields.

How to identify them:

There are good and bad nematodes in the soil. Nematodes are a type of roundworm and considered one of the most abundant animals on Earth with 20,000 known species. They’re parasites that live in animals, plants, soil, fresh water, marine environments, vinegar, and beer malts.
Grow plants that are disease resistant to root-knot nematodes and certified disease free. If your plants happen to suffer from root-knot nematodes, destroy the plants. This includes ripping up the roots of the plant. Work the soil 2-4 times during winter and allow the soil to solarize. 
Colorado potato beetleWhat they do:

Larvae are responsible for the majority of the damage to plants. They love potato plants, but also eat common nightshade, eggplant, ground cherry, henbane, horse-nettle, pepper (rarely), tobacco, thorn apple, and tomato.

How to identify them:

These beetles come out in the springtime. Larvae are a red color with black heads. As they age, they turn a pink to salmon color. All larvae have 2 rows of black dots. Adults are orange-yellow with black stripes. Eggs are laid underneath the leaves and are a yellow-orange color.
Handpick any that you see.Squish any eggs found, or consider using tape to pluck them off the leaves.


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