One of the pains of gardening is that with annual vegetables, you have to start over each year. Sure, you move forward with the accumulated knowledge of gardening years past, but you still have to grow a seed from scratch and nurse it along until it’s mature enough to produce vegetables. For peppers, this can be torturous—they don’t really kick into action until late summer. Shortly thereafter you’re charged with sending that pepper plant to the giant compost in the sky. Or you might leave your pepper plants in the ground too long, missing out on fall crops that could be planted in their stead.
Why you should overwinter pepper plants
Overwintering your pepper plants solves both of those problems. If you dig up your pepper plant and keep it inside all winter, while it won’t produce peppers during that time, you’ll be miles ahead next year when you plant a mature large pepper plant in the beginning of summer, no need for seedlings. This is helpful if you really liked the peppers off a plant or it was particularly prodigious.
Know when it’s time to bring them inside
You should experience a big August crop of peppers, and it’s hard to know when to let go. Since peppers aren’t frost tolerant, it’s usually time to let them go once you have a few consistent days of 40-degree nights. Soothe your normally sad soul over this transition by bringing your babies inside to ride out the winter with you.
Give your peppers a dramatic chop for fall
We’re going to send this plant into hibernation for the next six months, and to do so, we need it to have as little leaves to support as possible. First, clean your shears with vinegar or bleach so you’re not spreading possible disease to the plant. Start cutting away branches, leaving only the main stem and two forks, each with a node, so four nodes altogether. Strip off any leaves on the main stem.
Dig around the plant generously, so you can break the roots away from the soil. Use a spade to remove the plant, roots and all, from the garden. Turn the plant onto its side and gently use your fingers to free the roots of all soil. You’ll want to cut away all but six to eight inches of roots, as well as any roots that look diseased.
Wash to remove bugs and eggs
Prepare a bucket of water and neem oil and castile soap. Fill a five-gallon bucket about halfway with water. Add a teaspoon of castile soap and the same amount of neem oil and stir. You’re going to dip the entire plant, including roots, into this solution to ensure we’re not bringing any bugs into your home. First, dip the roots in and make sure all the soil is out. Now dip the plant the other way, so the stem—all of it—is submerged. Let each side soak for one minute.
Take an eight-inch pot (one gallon), and put two inches of moistened (not soaking wet) potting soil into the bottom. The soil should hold together in your hand if you squeeze it, but no water should come out. Carefully place the plant into the pot, spread out the roots, and then fill it with soil. You want to try and place some soil between the roots, which you can do with your fingers. You’re not planting the stem deeply; as soon as you’ve covered the roots, you just pat down the soil lightly to stabilize the plant, and give it a gentle watering.
Tuck your pepper plants in for winter
The plant should live in a room that can remain between 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit. If there is light from a window, that’s all this plant should need; if there isn’t, you’ll want to make sure the plant gets ambient light from a plant light nearby for two to three hours a day.
These plants are in hibernation, so they don’t need fertilizer and only need to be watered once every two weeks or so, like a houseplant. They may grow leaves, but you should prune them off with very clean shears—leaves are just a host for bugs, and we’re trying to keep these plants clean and healthy through this hibernation.
Throw it into reverse for spring
In the spring, you’ll harden off this plant just like you do seedlings. Once it’s in the garden, it will have a dramatic head start on the year, but you can start that process inside. As you start your other seedlings, begin exposing the pepper plant to more hours of sunlight or plant lights each day, and make sure it’s watered so that the roots are moist, but never damp. As it begins to grow leaves again, give it fish fertilizer per the instructions on the container. Treat it as you would one of your up-potted seedlings. It will begin to grow new branches and leaves, and by the time it’s ready to go in the garden, it should be a reasonable size already.