Hardening Off Pepper Plants – Moving Peppers Outdoors

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If you have read one of our pepper growing guides, you know that we always start our seeds indoors. This means that, for the first several weeks of a pepper plant’s life, it is living inside.

At some point, we need to allow the sun to take over the job of our grow lights. This means moving the pepper plants outdoors, into the elements. This process is known as ‘hardening off’ the plants, and must be done gradually to avoid stressing them.

In this article, we will share our method for hardening off pepper plants properly. We’ll cover when to start the process, how to gradually increase sun exposure, tips to keep in mind, and some methods for in-ground plants. Let’s get started!

Hardening off pepper plants outdoors
Hardening off pepper plants.

What Is Hardening Off?

Many gardeners start their pepper plants indoors to extend the growing season and get healthy harvests. After several weeks of growth inside, the plants will of course need to move to the outdoors to mature and bear fruit.

However, indoor climates are very different from the outdoors. We keep the temperatures constant, the wind at bay, and we use grow lights. Here are a few things that will be new to plants when they move outside:

  • Wind
  • Temperature fluctuation
  • Direct sunlight exposure
  • Rain
  • Wild animals

Since the plants will need to adjust to deal with all of these factors, we must slowly transition our peppers to the elements. This process can take 2-4 weeks depending on each plant’s final planting location.

In our growing guides, we always recommend exposing your indoor pepper plants to some of these factors when possible. One method we use is an oscillating fan to mimic wind. This helps build a stronger stem while the plants are young.

Another method to train young pepper plants for the outdoors is to crack a window at night. This will allow some cooler air to reach your indoor plants and expose them to colder temperatures early on, better preparing them for natural swings in temperatures outdoors. Just be sure to stay above 55°F (13°C).


When to Move Pepper Plants Outdoors

So, when should you start the process of hardening off pepper plants? This will depend on two things: outdoor temperatures and the proximity to your transplanting date.

Generally speaking, start hardening off pepper plants about 2-4 weeks prior to moving the plants outdoors permanently. This gives them enough time to gradually adjust to the outdoors until the plants are fully acclimated.

Hardening off pepper plants
Pepper plants hardening off outdoors.

There is no strict schedule for moving the plants outside, but we do have some guidelines to help ensure your plants adjust properly.


Tips for Hardening Off Peppers

Before we get into the steps for how to harden off your plants, I’d like to share some important tips that you should know about. Each of these were learned through trial and error, and knowing them now will save you the headaches!

  • Start in the shade. For the first few days that your plants spend outdoors, choose a shaded area (or an overcast day). The plants will not tolerate much, if any direct sunlight. If you live in a location that doesn’t get much overcast, start in a shady spot in the morning or afternoon for the first 2-3 days.
  • Avoid windy days early on. In addition to avoiding direct sunlight early on, you should avoid windy days, too. Your young pepper plants will be relatively weak coming from the indoors. Simply check the weather for any strong winds and work around it.
  • Expose young seedlings to a breeze indoors. As I said before, running a gentle fan breeze indoors can help prepare the plants for normal outdoor winds. Start this as soon as the seedlings sprout and rotate the trays to keep things even.
  • Don’t leave young plants on the ground outdoors. Young, tender pepper plants (and other veggies) are a tasty treat for some common wild animals. Rabbits and mice especially love young foliage, and they will make quick work of your plants. So, during hardening off, keep the plants elevated and, ideally, in your line of sight to avoid disaster!
  • Use shade cloth for in-ground plants. If you are taking your plants to a full-sun location to be planted in the ground, hardening off can be tricky. If you don’t have a full-sun location in which to gradually transition the plants, moving to the open garden bed can be a shock to the plants. I recommend using floating row cover to partially shade the plants. Start with a couple of layers, and remove them one at a time over the course of several days. This effectively decreases sun exposure until the plants have adjusted to full-sun conditions.
  • Watch the temperatures. High temperatures can be overwhelming to a young plant. Peppers should be fine with daytime temperatures between 65-90°F and nighttime temperatures above 55°F. Any colder, and they should spend the day/night indoors.
    Note: If you are using a balcony for hardening off, be careful. Micro-climates can form and cause very high local temperatures, even if the ambient temperature outdoors are normal. In short, use a thermometer!
Hardening off pepper plants
Have a cat? They like to eat pepper leaves too, so beware!

With these critical tips in mind, you should be ready to begin transitioning your pepper plants to the outdoors.


How To Harden Off Pepper Plants (Steps)

Keep in mind that these steps are just a loose guideline that can be followed. However, depending on your climate, the temperatures, wind, and precipitation can make an impact, so use your best judgement and stay vigilant.

How to Harden Off Pepper Plants

  1. Choose a suitable first day.

    We generally begin the hardening off process 2-4 weeks prior to moving our peppers outside permanently. This date range will depend on your specific climate. Whatever container the peppers are in will do, but we like to keep ours in large 1020 trays for convenience.Hardening off plants - cloudy day

  2. Start in the shade.

    Avoid direct sunlight for the first few days of hardening off. Choose a shaded spot and avoid windy days. These factors will stress the plants more than is necessary. After about 2 hours in the shade, bring the plants back inside until the next day.

  3. Gradually increase outdoors time and sun exposure.

    After 3 or so days of shade, the plants should get some sunlight. We usually start with just 10-20 minutes of sun exposure before returning the plants to the shade. The plants will adjust quickly, and each day you can increase sunlight exposure by another 10-20 minutes. Watch for drooping leaves and sunscald, and adjust sun time accordingly.

  4. Monitor the temperatures.

    During this process, temperatures will be key. Indoors, the plants had even temperatures, but outside, they fluctuate. Use a simple thermometer to monitor the area and avoid temperatures above 95°F or below 55°F.Hardening off thermometer

  5. Leave plants out overnight when above 55°F.

    Once the plants have been hardening off for around 2 weeks, they should be prepared for an overnight stay.
    Tip: Keep the plants elevated and protected from rabbits and other hungry herbivores that may like to feast on your plants!

  6. Move the plants outside permanently.

    After 2-4 weeks, your pepper plants should be transitioned to the outdoor elements and ready to keep growing in their new homes.

During the hardening off process, we are still fertilizing and transplanting at the appropriate times. The plants can be hardened off in whatever container you have them in. The point is to adjust the plants to the outdoor climate in the meantime.


I hope this article helps you properly move your peppers outside for the growing season. If you have any additional questions about hardening off pepper plants, let us know in the comments.

Calvin Thumbnail

Calvin

One of the original Pepper Geeks! When Calvin isn’t gardening or learning more about peppers and botany, he might be traveling new places or playing some music.

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22 Comments

  1. Hi Calvin. I started off my Padron Peppers at the end of March inside. At the end April, the weather was warm enough to start hardening them. Unfortunately, the weather has turned cold and windy and Itll be at least a week before I can start over. Problem is that I think the plants have outgrown the 1/2gal. planters they are in. They are currently about a foot tall and healthy. I have 5gal buckets I was going to transplant them into after they had hardened, but not that looks like its weeks away.

    Should I go ahead and transplant them now? I have room..
    Thanks!

    1. @peppergeek,
      Thanks much for the advice. I transplanted them yesterday and they are adapting very well, Perky!
      To ask about the hardening phase again. Looking at the extended forecast its going to be 2 months, into July, before A realistic hardening is going to happen due to over night temps of below 55deg.. Can you give recommendations on what to do if weather prohibits your plants from going outside, prolonging indoor growing. I see now I grew them too soon using standard general recommendations from the internet. People in WA. probably shouldn’t start pepper plants until end of may..

      I have three plants in a space with grow lights. Should I continue to put the plants outside on warm days or keep them under the lights until I can put them out everyday? Average outside temps right now are 50/60s day and low 40s over night. We get spikes to day upper 60s with varying overcast and full sun so I could take them out but Ive read that flip flopping them can be harmful when hardening. Inside temp is constant 72deg.

      Thanks for reading!!

      1. Hmm, in your climate it sounds like you may have to take some risk and put the plants out despite less-than-ideal conditions. The plants need time to establish and produce their harvests before the frost arrives, so just make sure that they will have at least 4 months of outdoors growing before the colder weather typically arrives in fall. Some peppers can handle the 40s better than others (C. annuum and C. pubescens types tend to do better than C. chinense and C. baccatum in my experience with colder temps). So, for you I would suggest putting some plants out sooner rather than later, and maybe try something like a floating row cover to keep the plants a bit more insulated during this transition month. Hope this helps!

  2. I recently started moving a handful of my plants outdoors. I did 2 or 3 hrs yesterday and they seemed to handle it fine. I put out today for a few more hours and got occupied and didnt realize it had started raining. I moved back inside and sopped up excess water in hope to not drown them however I noticed that some of the plants have several little cracks in the leaves now. I am curious if that would have been wind or the rain drops or something else that might have resulted in the cracking.

    1. Rain can do a bit of physical damage, but almost never anything to worry about. In fact, we usually see our plants boost a bit after their first rain outside

  3. Calvin, this is a well-organized, informative, and occasionally entertaining* guide to growing habanero peppers. I was sitting on the fence as to whether to try my hand at it, instead of waiting as I usually do for my more-experienced nephew to do his successful pepper-growing thing, and then getting some of his harvest, again. However, after reading through your article (some parts of it multiple times), I find myself motivated to get my own fingers “soiled,”* so to speak, this year. That’s a good thing in my book, as it gives me, a retiree, another purpose to get out and do something pleasant and beneficial.

    *(I, too, am a fan and practitioner of paronomasia.)

  4. I live in Philadelphia and gets very cold in the winter . I’ll bring them in my basement that is cooler. But would they grow peppers in the summer again ? When I take them back out in spring.

  5. Just to add a few things: I’m in Canada and the plants usually get shade from till about the aforementioned 3 pm. It’s been relatively hot off and on the last few weeks up to 28 above.

  6. Hi there, just started to try to grow Carolina Reaper and Armageddon pepper plants. I bought one of each type of plant from a garden centre. They were 3 inches tall or so when purchased they are now around 9 inches tall. I didn’t really practice the hardening off procedure with my plants and just placed them on the balconey where they get sun from about 3 to 8 pm. Both plants are growing quite well, but im noticing what appears to be sunscald on leaves. Not a huge amount but there are spots here and there on both plants. Is there something i can do to prevent further damage?

  7. Hello,

    I’ve been trying to harden off my pepper plants, I started in the shade for 3-4 days starting with an hour each day and gradually increasing the time. I then placed them in partial sunlight for 10 mins and I try to gradually increase that each day. After a week I tried full sun for 10 mins and the leaves curl and they all droop. When I put them in full sun it is on a balcony and usually late afternoon around 73 degrees. The one day I had them out in the early morning around 64 degrees full sun and they lasted for 25 mins. I’m thinking full sun and mid to high 70’s is too hot for them? I was hoping to plant them this weekend!

    1. The newer foliage will grow in much stronger. It is okay to lose a few leaves to sun scald. I’d recommend sticking to a gradual increase, and focus on the new growth rather than the old leaves!

  8. I live on the North Shore of MA and the temperatures have remained in the mid to upper 40’s to the low 50’s. What outside temp is optimal in hardening off my peppers. They are currently about 2″ and are producing their set of leaves. When can I start placing them outside to build their endurance. I plan on putting them in the ground on Memorial Day weekend. Thanks.

    Mark

  9. Calvin, love your website. You have inspired me so much to grow my own Italian Long hot Peppers.
    I have them indoors in pots right now, it is too cold in Michigan to even harden them off outside, but I do open my patio door for them to get a breeze. I am taking any early flower buds off of them.
    My question is this, once I move them outside into bigger containers for their permanent home “when” do I stop picking off the flowers so it can then turn into peppers??? Do I do this right away? Or is there a specific height they need to achieve? I cannot find this answer anywhere. Thanks in advance for you response.

    1. If you have the space indoors, I would put them into the bigger containers right now. If you can’t, then I would keep removing early flowers/fruits until the plants have been outside for 2-3 weeks. Then let the plant go to town!

  10. Calvin
    Is there any advantage to cutting the top off a pepper plant when it gets a foot to 18″? A friend said it is better for the plant but I am skeptical because I have not seen it written anywhere.

    1. We no longer bother with topping our peppers. We haven’t really seen significant yield changes, though pruning can be used at any time to re-shape your plants (but it is more cosmetic than functional).

  11. Hey Pepper Geeks! Long time watcher, first time “caller”!
    I think I over exposed some of my seedling babies and gave them sun scald. I know I need to adjust my hardening off schedule, so that’s step one, but my main question is:
    Will they be able to recover? Should I leave them inside for a few days? How do we get them back on track? It’s my first year growing this many varieties and my Bhut Jolokia just weren’t ready. Do I need to start them over?
    Thanks!

    1. Hey, thanks for being a long-time viewer :). I’m sure your bhuts will be okay – I would just reduce the outdoors time at this point, and keep an eye on new foliage. Sometimes, tender plants will just drop their old leaves, and begin producing new leaves that are much sturdier. You’d be surprised how resilient pepper plants can be! Best of luck!

  12. Attempting to grow Carolina Reapers purple, started from seed 1 months it took for them to sprout now they just been growing can’t get them to go past two leaves oh, I live in Florida oh, I had transitioned a little bit with them outside following your directions on hardening I guess I must have more patience

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