Summer might have ended, but that doesn’t mean your peppers have to. It’s easy to overwinter pepper plants and have fresh peppers by mid spring again! Here’s how.
Summer is winding down and fall is in the air. The days are still warm, but the nights are longer and cooler, triggering a “hurry up and finish before it gets too cold” response from the plants in the garden.
For many warm season vegetables — squash, corn, melons, beans, and the like — the end of the summer is the end of them as well. They flower, fruit, the plants die, and that’s it — they’re off to the compost pile.
But for a surprising number of others, especially peppers and tomatoes, if you give them a little protection from cold weather, they’ll bounce right back in spring. They’ll also flower and fruit several weeks earlier than new plants would, giving you garden-fresh veggies in May instead of June or later.
With a little care, overwintered peppers can last a decade or more, becoming more like woody shrubs than annual vegetables. Tomatoes don’t last as long, but will still give you several years of fruit production.
Meet the Solanum Family
Peppers (both the sweet and the spicy kind), tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and tomatillos are all cousins in the Solanum genus of plants.
Solanums are part of a much larger plant family, Solanaceae. Other members of the family include nightshade, tobacco plants, and petunias. Many are poisonous.
While members of the Solanaceae are native worldwide, the Solanum subgroup is mostly spread among tropical and subtropical regions of the globe. The largest variety is native to Central and South America, which is where peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. all originated.
While native potatoes can be found in the cooler reaches of the Andes mountains, peppers and tomatoes all hail from the warm, tropical and near tropical regions surrounding the Caribbean and the Western Atlantic coast of South America.
In their native habitat, where there’s very little difference between the seasons, these plants are perennial shrubs or small trees that flower and produce fruit nearly year-round. Over centuries of cultivation for food, breeders have modified the plants to condense their growth habit and production for shorter seasons and cooler climates at the expense of vigorousness and lifespan.
But there are still many varieties of peppers and tomatoes, especially older heirloom varieties, that will return to the perennial ways of their tropical homes if given the right growing conditions.
Tomatoes are more difficult because of extensive cross-breeding, but pretty much any pepper plant—small, big, sweet, hot, hybrid, or open-pollinated—will grow for years if given the chance (I have some that will be seven next spring).
How to Keep Pepper Plants Growing for Years
Knowing peppers are tropical in origin, it’s probably no surprise they like warm soil more than anything. As long as the soil is kept above 60 degrees F (16 degrees C), they’ll survive months of limited sun and cold (with a little protection), and bounce right back when things warm up in spring.
Overwinter Indoors or Out?If you live in USDA plant hardiness zones 10 – 13 you don’t need to do anything. That’s their home. They’ll overwinter just fine outdoors with no special care.
Residents of zones 8 and 9 can leave the plants outdoors through the winter as well, though you’ll want to give them a little protection with some floating row cover or landscape burlap on the coldest nights when temps drop into the 20’s (F) or lower for more than a couple hours.
For those in zones 7 or lower, you’re going to need to dig the plants up and overwinter them indoors to ensure the pepper’s roots stay nice and warm.
Peppers are easy to dig out. The root ball is compact and will be about half the depth of the plant’s height, and not quite as wide as the outermost branches. All you need to do is dig a little deeper and wider than that and scoop the plant out.
Transplant the pepper into a pot that’s a little larger than the root ball and water in well to make sure there’s no air pockets around the roots. The roots won’t do much growing over winter, so you don’t have to worry about it getting root bound.
Preparing Pepper Plants for Overwintering
Regardless of whether your plants are riding the winter out in the elements, or you’re bringing them indoors, you want to do a couple things to ensure they’re ready to grow when spring returns.
1) Pick all remaining peppers
First, you’ll notice when the nights get longer and cooler in late summer and early fall, the plant will start dropping leaves. That’s because the main way peppers spread their seed is through birds. Dropping leaves makes any fruit remaining on the plant more visible, so it’s easier for the birds to find and eat them.
Once you see the pepper plant start doing this, if there are any remaining peppers, pick them (you’re as good as a bird in the pepper’s opinion). This will cue the pepper to begin storing energy for another growth phase.
2) Cut the plants back
Peppers only flower on new stem growth. Once the stem has flowered and fruited, it will drop any remaining leaves and die back to the nearest branch node. New branches will grow from the node, so you want to trim the dead (or dying) ones from this year to give next season’s stems plenty of light and space in which to grow.
With a pair of pruners or scissors, snip off the old stems about half an inch from the branch node. That will ensure you don’t accidentally cut the node and keep it from producing a new stem next year. The remaining nub of the stem will dry out and fall off before the new growth appears.
If your pepper plant is only a year old, it’s likely to have just one or two main branches and look kind of sad when it’s pruned back. Don’t worry though, each year those branches will produce others and it’ll start filling out. Eventually, it’ll look more like a pruned bush than a sad stick.
Overwintering Your Peppers
If you’re in any USDA zone under 11, the pepper is going to go semi-dormant once nighttime temperatures reach the 40’s.
If you’re overwintering your peppers outdoors, a good layer of mulch around the base of the plant should keep the roots snuggly. Use floating row cover or tunnel housing to provide protection from freezes and wind. They need very little water while they’re in this stage, so let the soil dry completely before watering.
If you live in a colder region and need to overwinter indoors, just make sure you keep your peppers somewhere where the pot it’s in will stay above 50 degrees (warm roots), and the plant will get at least five hours of sunlight a day.
Again, they don’t need much water at this point, so only water when the soil is completely dry.
Transplanting Outside in Spring
In spring, once the daytime temperatures are in the high 50’s or low 60’s and the overnight temps are above freezing, peppers will come out of their semi-dormant state and start to grow once again. You’ll know they’re waking up when you start to see the branches turning green and small leaves start growing from the branch nodes.
If you overwintered them indoors, harden them off by taking them outside in the morning and bringing them back inside in the evening for a week or so. After that, you can transplant them back into the garden.
Early in the growth phase the peppers’ roots will consume lots of nutrients so it can make leaves and new stems. If you’re an organic grower like me, well-rotted manure or compost tea is most effective. If you’re ok with non-organic, a good all-purpose vegetable and plant fertilizer works well too.
Care During the Growing Season
Once the peppers are growing again, there’s not much to worry about. You’ll notice that, unlike brand new pepper plants, the stems on older plants are woodier and less likely to break.
Additionally, they will start to flower several weeks before first year plants. It’s not unusual for the first few flowers to not produce any fruit, so don’t worry about it. That’s just the plant getting back into the swing of things. It’ll start flowering in earnest quickly after that.
One of the other upsides to older peppers is they produce far more flowers and peppers over a longer period than younger plants. If you’re in an area that gets an “Indian summer” in early fall, they will probably flower again even if they’d stopped earlier. Give them a little cover at night, and they can provide you with fresh peppers into late October and even November.
It Works With Tomatoes Too
Tomatoes can also be overwintered, but it’s more difficult and the plants will only last three or four years rather than up to a decade. First, the tomato must be an indeterminate (keeps growing and fruiting all season) variety. Determinate tomato plants put all their energy into producing the tomatoes all at once and then die.
Additionally, based on my experience, the tomatoes should be mid-sized cluster varieties and not big single-fruit varieties like a Brandywine or Beefsteak tomato. I’m not entirely certain why this is, but my hunch is that because the wild tomatoes in the tropics are perennials and produce fruit in clusters, the cultivated tomato plants that grow clusters are closer to the original, perennial form.
So, if you have a tomato plant you grew and want to keep for next year, it’s possible. The steps are the same for picking and pruning. The only difference is, if you’re keeping the plants outside, you want to mound mulch or soil several inches up around the base of the plant. If you’re overwintering them indoors, pot them a couple inches deeper than they were when you dug them out of the garden. Tomatoes will create new roots along the stem if it’s in contact with the soil, so it’ll have a stronger start in the garden in spring.
Tomato Varieties I’ve Overwintered
Here’s a quick list of tomatoes that I’ve either kept outdoors all winter or overwintered in the greenhouse (a cold greenhouse, so no heat other than the sun).
You might notice these are all heirloom varieties. Again, I’m not sure why heirlooms overwinter better than some of the hybrids, but I assume it’s because these varieties are closer to their native cousins than the newer breeds.
Now that summer’s over, you don’t need to say goodbye to your peppers and tomatoes. Pick a few of your favorites, and with only a little effort, they’ll be back in the garden next year.
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