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How to Transplant Pepper Plants for Healthy Growth & Harvest

A photo showing peppers at various stages of development and tips for how to transplant pepper plants.

How to Transplant Pepper Plants for Healthy Growth & Harvest

Are you afraid of mishandling your pepper plants- cutting off your chances of a good pepper harvest before it ever gets started? Fortunately for us, pepper plants are hardy. In my experience, they’re pretty likely to bounce back and produce well even if you make a few mistakes along the way.

But you’re always better off doing things right the first time whenever you can. Today, I’m going to be sharing how I transplant peppers, both as tender seedlings and as older plants.

How to transplant pepper plants: Young pepper seedlings are ready to be transplanted into a larger pot when they have at least three sets of true leaves, typically about 4-6 weeks after planting seed. Pepper plants are ready for hardening off and transplanting outdoors after about 8-10 weeks after all danger of frost has passed; they should be at least 6 inches tall and have at least six sets of true leaves.

In this article, I’ll walk you through how to transplant pepper plants step-by-step at the early seedling stage, through hardening off, and transplanting pepper seedlings outdoors so you can enjoy a healthy and productive pepper crop.

Let’s get started!

What is Transplanting and Why Do You Need to Do It?

Transplanting is the process of moving a plant or seedling from one location or pot to another. It’s a necessary step for most pepper plants to go through at least once on the journey from seed to mature plant.

But why transplant? Why not just plant your pepper seeds wherever you plan you grow them for the season and skip all the in-between steps?

You could plant pepper seeds straight in the garden or a large pot- they would certainly grow. In tropical climates with long growing seasons, peppers can be perennials, and gardeners direct-sow them successfully.

But most of us don’t live in the tropics with a year-round growing season, so we need to start pepper seeds indoors during the late winter if we hope to enjoy any peppers during the summer. And transplanting from a small pot to a larger one as the plant grows is key for a couple of reasons:

  • Space. Using a full-size container for each seed takes up a lot of space. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely limited in space under the grow lights.
  • Moisture. Tiny seedlings can’t process as much water as larger plants, so planting seeds/young seedlings in a smaller soil volume protects them from overexposure to moisture.

Transplanting Pepper Seedlings Indoors

If you start pepper seeds indoors, plan to transplant indoors at least once before you move your plants outside to their permanent home.

Let’s talk about how to know when you should transplant your tender seedlings, the supplies you’ll need to do it, and the actual process.

When to Transplant Pepper Seedlings Indoors

I start my peppers seeds in 12-cell seedling trays, and they take up to two weeks to germinate. Once they do, the first leaves you’ll see are seed leaves, or cotyledons. Cotyledons are pointy and narrow on peppers, and they’re not actual leaves capable of photosynthesis- they’re actually a part of the seed that nourishes the new plant until it can produce its own food.

After a couple more weeks, the pepper sprouts start producing true leaves- those that are capable of photosynthesis. True leaves are larger, glossier, and look like mature pepper plant leaves- only smaller. You can see the true leaves sprouting here:

A young pepper seedling with one set of true leaves.

There are signs that pepper seedlings are ready for transplanting:

  • There are at least three sets of true leaves.
  • The seedlings should be at least 2 inches tall.
  • It’s been about 5-6 weeks after planting the seed.

Containers and Soil for Transplanting Indoors

There are a couple of different schools of thought here. There are plenty of gardeners who transplant from seed-cell to a 3-inch pot, then transplant again into a 4-inch or so pot before the pepper plant ever gets outdoors.

I prefer to go with a simple approach- I transplant my pepper seedlings one time indoors, taking them directly into a 4-inch container. I like to recycle materials whenever possible, and I find that a 4-cup plastic yogurt container works perfectly. Just make sure to drill several drainage holes into the container before planting and water carefully.

A pepper seedling in a small pot ready to be transplanted into a larger pot.

You can also purchase plastic nursery pots in 3-inch or 4-inch sizes, and I know lots of fellow gardeners who swear by Solo Cups as mid-size seedling pots.

Whatever pot you use, wash/sanitize it every year, then use it over and over until it cracks. Get your money’s worth!

As far as soil for peppers goes, use a high-quality potting mix- never “topsoil” or “garden soil.” Potting mixes have a light texture that drains easily but still holds water molecules for your seeds to absorb slowly.

I love Fox Farms Happy Frog– my peppers absolutely took off this soil! I’ve also used Miracle-Gro Performance Organics Container Mix with good results in the past.

How to Transplant Pepper Seedlings Indoors

Once your pepper seedlings are old enough to transplant and you’ve got your pot and soil, it’s time to prepare them for more space. 

Here’s how to transplant peppers indoors step by step:

  1. Water the pepper seedlings thoroughly the day before transplanting.
  2. Pre-moisten the soil, and fill the pot with approximately 1-2 inches of soil.
  3. Gently remove the pepper seedlings from the seed trays or smaller pots.
  4. Place the pepper seedlings in the new pot and surround the roots with soil. Make sure the soil level in the pot does not exceed the soil level on the seedling stem.
  5. Water the transplanted pepper seedling and return it to its normal place under the grow light or in a full-sun window.

Grown Best Gardening shows an alternative method for transplanting pepper seedlings. It’s pretty interesting- give it a look:

Hardening Off Pepper Seedlings

My pepper seedlings usually explode in growth when I move them into a larger pot. Typically, it will be another 4-6 weeks until you can get your peppers outdoors. Then it’s time for the critical step of hardening off.

Hardening off involves slowly acclimating your pepper seedlings to the harsher outdoor environment while they are still in their mid-size pots before transplanting them into their long-term home. West Virginia University Extension recommends allowing seven to ten days for the hardening off process, and I’ve found that to be a good timeframe with my own plants.

I have a covered hoop house that I move my seedlings into for acclimating them to the outdoors, but you don’t need to have one to successfully move your seedlings outdoors.

Here’s how to go about hardening off peppers:

  • Wait until all danger of frost has passed for your region.
  • Take your seedlings outdoors to a sheltered location, and leave them there for about one hour. After that, move them back inside to their normal spot.
  • The next day, place the seedlings in the sheltered location for two hours, then move back indoors.
  • Follow the same pattern, increasing the amount of time daily for the next couple of days.
  • Then choose a sunnier location and leave them there for a few hours. Use the same gradually increasing time pattern.
  • For the last couple of days, place your seedlings in the full-sun location where you plan to grow them all season.
  • Once you’ve hit eight hours of sun exposure daily, leave your seedlings out overnight.
  • After about ten days, your pepper seedlings should be ready for transplanting outdoors.

It’s a lot of work, but take my word for it- hardening off is non-negotiable. If you don’t take the time and effort to properly transition your peppers to the outdoors, they will likely die or be severely stunted. Then all your hard work up til now will have been wasted.

NOTE: If you purchased pepper seedlings from a garden center, they have already been hardened off and are ready to go into their permanent home.

Transplanting Pepper Seedlings Outdoors

Once your pepper seedlings have been properly hardened off, it’s time for the final transplant.

When to Transplant Pepper Seedlings Outdoors

Pepper plants are no contender for freezing temperatures. The National Weather Service website shows you estimates for regional frost dates, so check for yours and plan to transplant 2 weeks after that to avoid any potential cold spells.

Your pepper seedlings are ready for transplanting outdoors when:

  • They are about 8 to 10 weeks old and have at least six sets of true leaves. 
  • The outdoor overnight air temperature should consistently be at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The soil temperature must stay above 55 degrees F. Cold soil prevents root growth which stunts pepper plant growth and flowering, so don’t let that early-spring planting urge get the best of you.
  • Your pepper seedlings have been fully hardened off.

Containers and Soil for Transplanting Outdoors

Choose a sunny location with well-draining, nutrient-rich, pH-neutral soil. Consider a soil tester to check pH, temperature, and nutrients.  Add fertilizer to the soil only if there are nutrient deficiencies.

I’ve always had great results growing peppers in containers, and my personal favorite are food-grade 5-gallon buckets. I find that’s plenty of space for a pepper plant to thrive. I’ve also grown peppers in grow boxes and got a good harvest.

If you’re planting your peppers in the ground, make sure the area has good drainage, and mix in some organic matter to nourish your plants and help improve soil structure.

How to Transplant Pepper Plants Outdoors

Dig holes that are twice as wide as the pepper seedling’s root ball and deep enough so the root ball top is level with the soil surface. I promise I’m digging a hole in this photo, but it didn’t come through very well:

A gardener digs a hole in a large pot for transplanting a pepper plant.

Carefully remove the pepper seedling from its container and loosen the roots. I always do that by gripping the top of the current pot/container with the pepper’s main stem between two fingers. Then I invert the pot, squeeze the sides if needed, and the plant usually slides out easily:

A gardener demonstrates how to hold a pepper seedling for removal from it's small pot.
A gardener tips a small pot upside down to remove a pepper seedling for transplant.
A cloesup view of a pepper seedling rootball after removing it from it's old pot.

Place the pepper seedling in the hole and backfill with enough soil to cover the root ball by about 1/2 inch:

A pepper seedling rootball transplanted into a larger pot.
A gardener fills in soil around the rootball of a newly transplanted pepper plant.

Gently tamp down the soil around your plant, ensuring that it’s nicely upright and has plenty of soil support:

A pepper seedling transplanted into a larger pot.

Water thoroughly and keep the soil fairly moist. Adding 2 to 3 inches of mulch around your peppers is a good idea- grass clippings (from untreated lawns), compost, or straw are some nice options. Wait to apply fertilizer for peppers until seven to ten days after transplanting. This gives your peppers time to settle in before the strain of processing extra nutrients.

Caring for Pepper Plants After Transplanting

After you transplant peppers, provide optimal care to help them grow and thrive. 

  • Water deeply 1 or 2 times per week depending on weather conditions- if it’s especially hot and dry, you may need to water every day. Pepper plants need moist but not waterlogged soil.
  • Be vigilant to pull weeds that grow around the pepper plants- get them when they’re small!
  • Fertilize every 2 to 3 weeks with a balanced organic vegetable fertilizer until pepper plants are a foot tall, then switch to a fertilizer with less nitrogen.
  • Inspect pepper plants regularly for signs of pests or disease and treat them promptly.

Frequently Asked Questions about Transplanting Pepper Plants

Pepper plants transplant well as long as there’s not much root damage and they have been hardened off from indoors to outdoors. Keeping the soil moist after transplant can help to lessen transplant shock and help pepper plants grow.

Pepper plants usually like lots of bright sunlight except when they are being transplanted. Transplant peppers when it is cloudy or in the evening to prevent drying out and wilting.

If a pepper plant does not grow after transplant, it could be due to a few things. The most likely reason is transplant shock, but it could also be due to being root-bound, water imbalance, too hot or too cold soil, soil pH imbalance, lack of soil nutrients, or lack of sunlight.

Once pepper spouts are at least 2 inches tall and have at least three sets of true leaves, they’re ready for their first transplant indoors. Pepper seedlings are ready to transplant outdoors when they are 8-10 weeks old, are at least 6 inches tall, and have at least six sets of true leaves.

Final Thoughts

Pepper seedlings may look delicate, but I promise you they are tougher than you might think. I hope that by learning the steps for how to transplant pepper plants the right way in this post, you’ve seen that it’s pretty simple.

Of course, transplanting isn’t totally risk-free, even if you do it right. So it’s always a good idea to plant more pepper seeds than you think you’ll need. You can always give away extra plants later!

I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other questions about transplanting peppers, or do you have any other transplanting methods you’ve developed over the years? Learning as a community is the best way, in my opinion, and what you’re thinking may be just what someone else is wondering too. So please share your thoughts in the comments!

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