Starting your own peppers indoors gives you the advantage of enjoying them on your dinner table earlier in the season. In harsh climates, indoor germination prevents seed loss from frost heave and heavy storms. Germinating peppers indoors also eliminates weeding and scaring off marauding birds. Gradually expose germinated seedlings to the outdoors on a sheltered porch, in a shady location or in a cold frame in a process known as "hardening off." With just a bit of care the home gardener sowing peppers indoors can reap a bountiful harvest.
Prepare to germinate your peppers by getting familiar with pepper varieties and cultivation requirements. Taking up to four weeks to germinate, peppers vary by type and germination is affected by the temperature of the growing medium. Start peppers indoors at least nine weeks before you plan to plant outside. Planting outside is done when soil has warmed in the spring and all danger of frost is past. Harden seedlings off before planting outside using a 6 x 6 rule; when they reach 6 inches in height or are six weeks old. Hardening off requires ten days to two weeks; put pepper seedlings out in a sheltered spot during the day and bring in every night.
Buy seed from a reputable seed dealer to guarantee better germination rates. Read seed packages to get information like variety, days to maturity and cultivation requirements. Some specialty growers also put a hotness rating on their pepper seeds.
Use clean grow-packs, seed trays or individual pots. Reusing old pots and trays may introduce fungi or bacteria, so clean with a 10 percent bleach solution, rinse and dry before adding soil mix.
Buy a commercial seed starting medium containing peat moss and perlite or vermiculite and add one-third sand, mixing well to ensure drainage. Use commercial mixes because they are sterile and free of bacteria and plant viruses. Sterilize sand by spreading in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and baking in a 250 degree F oven for at least 1 hour. Fill containers close to the top, stopping below the lip to hold water.
Soften the casings around pepper seeds by soaking for a day before sowing to speed germination.
Sow peppers in your containers on the top of your starting mix, then sprinkle just enough mix to cover them. Plant pepper seeds no deeper than ¼ inch; they should not be buried. Water containers till the soil mix is completely damp, but don't soak. Label the containers so that you'll be able to tell which type of seedlings are sprouting. Use masking tape with the pepper variety written on it.
Cover the seed containers with cling wrap to create a mini greenhouse. Slip small containers inside 1 gallon plastic bags. Keeping pepper seeds warm helps germination. Check for condensation and lift off the wrap for a few minutes a day if too much moisture is present. Once seedlings have sprouted the wrap can be removed completely.
Use a grow light for warmth or put containers in a warm sunny location. Check the starting mix once a day--it should always be damp and warm. Spray with a mister to moisten so the soil over the seeds is not disturbed. Look for signs of seedlings. Germination occurs at different rates according to pepper type and soil warmth. Keep soil at 75 degrees for best results. The University of Wisconsin Cofrin Center for Biodiversity recommends starting peppers in trays on heating pads to keep soil warm.