Turning an Heirloom Pepper into a Keepsake

June 30, 2011

I first heard about the idea of over wintered peppers from the Ottawa Gardener a few years ago but didn’t get around to trying it myself until just this year. The results were much better than I expected and the process was even easier than over wintering some of those popular tender perennial herbs.

The specimen that I chose was one of the Rat Turd peppers that I grew last summer. It had been raised in a container, which made things easier when the time came to move it indoors. But you could also lift a pepper plant from the garden in the fall to over winter. The plant can also then be pruned back a bit to shape it and make it more manageable.

Don’t worry if the plant sheds leaves, branches, fruit, and just looks terrible during the moths that it spends indoors during the winter. As long as it survives it should rebound and send out lots of new growth next season. And your perennial pepper will be further along than those new plants started from in the spring.

I wouldn’t try this technique with my entire stock of pepper plants, but it’s something fun to try with a prized plant or two. From my research it seems that hot peppers are the best types to over winter and some varieties will perform better than others. I’ll probably stick with the compact, small fruited types, and raise them in containers if I intend to bring them inside during the fall.

Nursing a Hot Pepper through the Cold Winter Months

Over Wintered Pepper 300x225 Turning an Heirloom Pepper into a KeepsakeAs far as care is concerned, my plant survived with a lot less attention than it should have received. They need warmth, light, water, and possibly a little fertilizer during the winter months. My Rat Turd plant didn’t consistently receive any of those needs during its stay in the house!

It spent the winter isolated in a spare room with temps that had to be on the cooler side of what it would have preferred. A 60 watt grow bulb supplied light, but it was shared with a six foot bay tree that cast a shadow on the much shorter pepper plant. The plant wasn’t fertilized during its stay indoors and watering occurred on a very irregular basis; twice a month at the best.

In spite of the neglect the hot pepper survived the winter and even held onto some of its ripe fruits. The flowering and leaf growth was suspended and there was a bit of die back and leaf loss but the plant looked good considering the conditions and the treatment that it had received. Looking back I think the plant may have gone semi-dormant and that that helped matters a lot.

Moving an Over Wintered Pepper Back Outdoors in the Spring

After things warmed back up outdoors and the threat of frost had passed the Rat Turd pepper was gradually hardened off, repotted to a larger container with fresh soil, and moved back outdoors onto the patio. I pruned off any dead branches and to give the plant a more even shape and began feeding it again.

Pepper Plant Trunk 300x225 Turning an Heirloom Pepper into a KeepsakeNow things are looking pretty good! Flowering and fruiting has resumed and new shoots and branching is occurring all over, even along the base of the plant which is now forming a trunk. This trunk is also turning brown and woody, much like a tree. Click on the photo to the right for a close up of the fresh new branches, complete with buds and flowers, forming from the plant’s “hardwood” base.

So, I’ll say this pepper over wintering experiment was a definite success it will be repeated again next winter. I’ll see how many seasons the Rat Turd plant can survive and try out some other varieties as well. Maybe I’ll even try to bonsai a pepper plant, but I can strongly recommend that you give it a try for yourself this winter.

Update: Now I’m hearing tales of gardeners over wintering eggplants too! That sounds even more appealing to me than over wintering the peppers… guess there will be a new experiment conducted in my home this coming winter.





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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily June 30, 2011 at 8:21 am

I’ve tried overwintering peppers two year in a row, but can’t keep up with the aphids that seem to take over the plant once they are indoors. Eventually I give up and the plant ends up sucked dry by them. Any suggestions for keeping down the aphids?

Kenny Point July 1, 2011 at 8:39 am

Hi Emily, fortunately I didn’t bring any pests in with my pepper or bay tree last fall. It may have helped that the pepper was in a container that spent the summer on the deck and patio rather than being out in the garden. I would give the plants a close inspection and use a hose to wash away any aphids before bringing the plant indoors. You can also apply a soap spray to treat for the aphids indoors or out. My over wintered pepper is still doing great and is far more productive than and other pepper plant in the garden.

Alan Moore July 8, 2011 at 8:39 am

Interesting. I’ve never even contemplated over wintering any veg. Last Winter was VERY harsh here in Yorkshire and despite snow on the ground for several months and record low temperatures, a few humble veggies survived in the ground. All our garden hedges, however, were killed off by the extreme temperatures. Wonder if I could use my garage to over winter certain produce?

Ryan July 8, 2011 at 10:23 pm

I also kept my pepper plant over the winter but i had 2 75watt florescent light. Mine also has brown tree like bark and looks like tree all the small fruit that had grown over the winter was small and turned red. So when i took it back outside i cut off all the old peppers. And now its well over 2 ft tall and numerous branches on it and is producing new peppers. The only problem that I encountered was aphids.

amy manning July 10, 2011 at 9:16 am

I’m going to be trying to overwinter peppers indoors as well. I hope to write about that experiment on my blog.

Aphids–soapy water works well for me. load up some soapy dishwater in a spray bottle and wash the aphids off. Most of them will die pretty quickly, but you may need to apply a couple of times. That’s what works for me!

Wes July 19, 2011 at 11:56 am

Kenny, I just stumbled upon your site after learning about “bolting” head lettuce the hard way…At least I have healthy leaf lettuce and now a little more room for another row.

I first overwintered peppers about three years ago with two distinctly different approaches. All plants were lifted in the soil they grew in and potted in 2 gallon and slightly larger pots. Several plants came inside the house and were placed on my washer and drier. My laundry room has a window in addition to overhead flourescent lights and the plants continued to bear fruit until they were neglected (basic chilis and cayenne). The bell peppers went into larger heavier pots so I stored them in my (unheated) but well insulated potting room attached to my garage. With less light and heat I wrapped a section of fiberglass insulation around the pots and added a layer of mulch and only watered when there was low risk for a freeze (zone 5/6 SW Ohio). All five plants survived with minimal fuss even though their appearance was less than encouraging.

All this to say the best part of all was the following spring when my best buddy (another gardening novice) came to visit. We had a cold beer and walked the yard looking at new additions to the landscape and of course he was drawn to the freshly planted garden. He didn’t say anything at first but I watched as slyly as I could as he looked at my peppers in bewilderment. The confusion in his eyes was priceless! “Where did you get the pepper trees?” And after letting the cat out of the bag, he pulled the same stunt on his next door neighbor this year.

As for this season I’ll be saving an unknown Italian heirloom said to have been brought stateside at the end of WWII and my Ghost pepper (worth growing for it’s beautiful form if nothing more).

Kenny Point July 20, 2011 at 7:22 am

Wes, thanks for sharing your tips for over wintering pepper plants. That is a good prank that you played on your friend… I may have to try that one.

Kyle July 22, 2011 at 11:07 am

I’d also thank you Wes for the tips that you provided. I feel that properly overwintering pepper plants is imperative for them to grow healthily and without fault, as winters were I live are simply too harsh. Wes, the stunt you pulled on your friend also gave me a good laugh – it’s nice to see that people still have a sense of humor, even us gardeners. I think you need to have one to tolerate all the things your gardening can put you through. :)

msfullroller August 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Please share your friends stories about overwintering eggplant. I have the Japanese Ichiban variety that I would love to to try this on.

outdoor products August 9, 2011 at 1:40 am

Hmmm.. from reading your post and the other comments I see the only potential problem with overwintering pepper plants would be aphids, but it looks like the benefits will definitely outweigh that, because it looks like the plants all come out of overwintering by being better and bigger. Thanks!

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