Many pepper growers feel unsure of their fertilizing habits. Am I fertilizing too often? Not enough? Is this Miracle-Gro even any good for my plants? Is it safe for vegetable plants? We’ve been there, too.
In this article, we’ll go through some of the best fertilizers for pepper plants. We’ve tried many different fertilizers, both organic and chemical, and determined some of our favorites.
Quick summary: We recommend this fertilizer trio to keep things simple (though it is not organic). Or, get this for the vegetative stage of growth and this for the blooming/fruiting stage of growth (organic options).
There are countless fertilizer brands on the market today. Every gardener has their favorite, and you’ll find what works best for you and your plants. Each vegetable has a different growth period and pattern, but peppers are pretty standard.
The fertilizer regimen we use for peppers will work for a wide variety of flowering garden plants. They go from seedling to leafy growth, and then right to flowering and producing fruits.
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For peppers, we use two fertilizers through the growing season. The first fertilizer should encourage leafy growth and root development, while the second stage fertilizer encourages pepper pod production. We’ll show you exactly which fertilizers we use, when and how often we use them, and where to buy them.
But first, I want to explain why we choose to use two fertilizers instead of just one.
Fertilizer Grades and Contents
On the packaging of most fertilizers, you will find a 3-digit number. This is an important number as it represents the relative amount of three important elemental nutrients. It is called the ‘fertilizer grade.’
These numbers appear something like this:
The first number represents the amount of nitrogen, the second number is the amount of phosphate, and the last number is the amount of potassium in the fertilizer. This number is a national standard for fertilizers, and it is essential to understanding how the fertilizer will feed your pepper plants.
There are three major nutrients that are essential to all plant life. They correspond to the fertilizer grade directly, and can be derived from many different sources (organically and inorganically).
1. Nitrogen is first because it is the most important element for foliage production and health. Nitrogen is essential to the process of photosynthesis in new leafy growth.
2. Phosphate is a nutrient that gives plants phosphorus, an essential nutrient in most life forms, allowing plants to take in energy from the sun.
3. Potassium is essential to plant life due to its role in water and nutrient movement throughout the plant’s tissue. Without potassium, the regulation of photosynthesis could also be compromised.
Each element helps in a large variety of ways, but these are their most critical roles. With this understanding, we can choose the optimal fertilizer for pepper plants.
While the main three nutrients are the most important, there are secondary nutrients, or trace elements, that are also critical for ideal growth of peppers.
Calcium is very important for healthy cellular development in pepper leaves and fruits. If your fertilizer does not contain calcium, be sure that your soil does. If you need to, you can amend your soil with bone meal to add calcium.
Magnesium is important for healthy, green foliage. Epsom salt is a great way to amend soil with magnesium and sulfur. A magnesium deficiency can result in stunted plant growth.
While elements are the building blocks to healthy pepper plants, soil-based microbes play an important role to healthy gardening. Some examples include bacillus licheniformis, bacillus megaterium and other colony-forming bacteria.
Many fertilizers will include these beneficial bacteria, so be sure to check the analysis for them!
Best Fertilizer For Pepper Plants
When you plant a pepper seed, the seed itself contains the nutrients required to germinate and become a small plant. However, once a certain size is reached, the plant requires nutrients, either from the soil or from the air. Most home gardeners fertilize through the soil, and that is the method we will focus on today.
To put it simply, pepper plants require lots of nitrogen during early growth to produce healthy leaves. They then require less nitrogen, but plenty of phosphate and potassium during later-stage growth to ensure healthy fruiting. This can be achieved using an even-grade fertilizer all season, or ideally by switching fertilizers halfway through the growing season.
Want To Keep It Simple?
If you want to keep it simple and stick to one brand, Fox Farm makes a great trio of fertilizers that you can buy on Amazon. They even have a straight-forward feeding schedule which makes the growing process a lot easier.
Stage One Fertilizer for Peppers
One fertilizer we like for early growth is called Miracle-Gro Performance Organics (11-3-8). This water-soluble mixture provides the 3 basic nutrients along with other secondary nutrients for young, growing plants.
With an 11% Nitrogen makeup, we know that our plants will grow strong, plentiful leaves in the early months of growth. However, we wouldn’t want to use this throughout the summer, as it may inhibit the production of peppers.
Another organic option is Espoma Garden Tone which provides plenty of nitrogen as well but is not water-soluble. It also includes beneficial bacteria for healthy soil. If you prefer to use a mix-in fertilizer instead of one that is water-soluble, this may be a good fertilizer to consider.
We prefer to use an organic, water-soluble fertilizer with a higher nitrogen level for the younger pepper plants. This is due to nitrogen’s effect on producing new, healthy green leaves.
Note: If you plant in a medium that has built-in nutrients (potting mix, etc.), be careful not to over-fertilize your seedlings. If the medium they are in contains all the necessary nutrients, hold off on fertilizer until the plants are more mature.
When pepper plants are just starting, they should be focusing energy on growing a large canopy of foliage to take in lots of energy from the sun. This will help generate maximum energy later on when the plant is producing actual pepper pods.
Tip: If you prefer to use just one fertilizer for the entire growing season, use one of these options and reduce strength when flowering starts.
Stage Two Fertilizer for Peppers
The fertilizer we use for the blooming stage of growth is called Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed (2-3-1).
Once our pepper plants have begun sprouting flowers, we switch to our second fertilizer. This fertilizer has much less nitrogen, but provides plenty of phosphate and potassium for pepper pod production.
If we kept providing lots of nitrogen, the plant may be healthy with lots of leaves, but will ultimately produce fewer peppers.
If you wanted, you could use this fish and seaweed fertilizer during early stage growth as well. It provides an excellent, highly usable assortment of nutrition that is beneficial to peppers during any growth stage.
Note: This fertilizer could also be used as an all-season fertilizer, but is slightly more expensive. It also does not provide Calcium or Magnesium, so you would have to supplement with cal-mag. It also has a slightly fishy smell. We love fish-based fertilizer, it does an amazing job!
How Often To Fertilize Peppers
Many casual gardeners fertilize whenever they remember to do it. This is not ideal, as you may be over or under-feeding your plants. To get the most out of your pepper plants, you’ll want to keep track of when you fertilized last and stick to a schedule.
When To Start Fertilizing Peppers
Once your plants have sprouted their first true set of leaves, you can apply a light feeding of fertilizer. Since seeds are started in seed starting soil, the soil itself does not contain any nutrients. That is why it is vital to begin fertilizing as soon as the plants need it.
For most pepper varieties, fertilizing can begin about 2 weeks after seeds have sprouted. The first application should be light (half strength at most, depending on fertilizer potency), as the root systems will be small and tender. However, fertilizer will play an essential role in forming healthy roots early on, as well as strong stems and leafy growth.
If your seeds were planted in a nutrient rich medium, hold off on fertilizing until they are established in a final planting location. Compost, potting mix and other soils can contain all the nutrients that peppers need, in which case there is no need to add more!
Pepper Fertilizer Frequency
Aside from the initial fertilizing, which should be 1/2 the normal strength at most, we simply follow the packaging guidelines. Most fertilizers are administered weekly or bi-weekly.
Some fertilizers are meant to be worked into the soil before the first transplanting. Just try your best to keep to a consistent fertilizing schedule. Your pepper plants will thank you!
Do not over-fertilize and expect good things to happen – pepper plants require a steady intake of nutrients, not an abundance of nutrients all at one time.
Nutrient Burn and Flushing
If you administer too much fertilizer, your pepper plants will show you. Leaves will develop brown spots, usually towards the edge of the leaf. This is because the nutrients have no further to travel within the tissue, and end up burning the ends.
If you notice brown spots and have ruled out disease, you may be over-feeding your plants. One option is to flush the nutrients from the soil to reduce the amount of excess compounds.
To flush your pepper plants, water the plants with nutrient-free water, allowing the excess water to flow out of the pot’s drainage holes. This process removes excess salts and minerals from the soil and root system.
Allow the plants to fully drain, and replace under grow lights or into the sun. Do not allow the soil to become soggy with water!
If your plants are in a raised bed or in the ground, simply water without nutrients for a week or two, effectively reducing the frequency with which you are providing nutrients. This process will reduce the minerals present in the soil, relieving the plants of nutrient overload.
While nutrients are what make pepper plants healthy and strong, the pH of your soil is arguably more important. Peppers prefer a soil pH between 5.8-6.2, or slightly acidic soil.
Why is pH important, you ask? Well, if the pH is too low or too high, your pepper plants may not be able to take in and use nutrients from the soil, even if they are present. This is called ‘nutrient lockout’ and can be detrimental to productivity and overall plant health.
You can test your soil’s pH with a simple meter, though the readings are often inaccurate. If you suspect you have low pH soil, you can get a soil test, or add some lime and hope that you were right!
I hope this helped clear the air on what the best fertilizer for pepper plants is. Remember, it’s important to “listen” to your plants. If a plant is unhealthy or nutrient deficient, you’ll know it!
What works for some people in certain climates may not work for others, so experiment with new regimens. What’s your favorite fertilizer? Feel free to leave questions or suggestions in the comments below.