What’s Wrong With My Peppers?

Learn about common pepper problems—along with a few tips to make things right.

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Photo By: Image courtesy of Burpee

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

A Peck of Peppers

Peppers are mostly a carefree crop. Give plants some sun and water, and you’re on your way to a harvest of brightly colored fruit in a host of flavors, from sweet to sizzling. Sometimes homegrown peppers encounter a few challenges. Flip through our gallery to diagnose your pepper problems, and learn ways to deal with—and prevent—these common pepper issues.

Pepper Flowers Drop

When healthy-looking pepper plants bloom but drop flowers without setting fruit, it’s usually not your fault. Blame this one on the weather. Temps are probably too cold or too hot. Set peppers out too early, and chilly air (nights below 58°F) causes blossoms to fall.  When day temperatures creep over 90°F and nights stay above 75°F, blooms drop. Once the hot spell passes, flower pollination should resume and peppers will form. Until then, keep plants well-watered and fertilized, so they’re ready to jump back into production. Hot peppers handle hot weather better than bell types.

Dark Spots on Stems

If you spy dark spots—from deep purple to black—along pepper stems, don’t panic. This actually is not a problem but a natural coloring that occurs. You’ll see it most often at stem joints and where leaves and peppers attach to the main stem. As long as the rest of the stem is solid, green and healthy, you have nothing to worry about. Just enjoy the show these colorful plants put on.

Holes in Peppers

Small holes in peppers are usually the work of slugs. The problem is, once slugs create an opening, other critters join the party, like pill bugs and earwigs. The wound in the fruit also invites early decay and mold. Slugs attack low-hanging fruit first, but they also slime their way up pepper plants and supports. Research slug treatments and adopt several strategies to deal with them. When pepper season is done, before frost, continue to use slug treatments to kill adult slugs before they lay eggs.

Blossom End Rot on Peppers

Those dark, sunken spots on the bottom of peppers are blossom end rot. It’s so common that veggie growers often call it BER for short. It’s not a disease but a symptom of calcium deficiency. It occurs due to uneven watering (wet-dry cycles in soil), too-high nitrogen or root damage. You can eat peppers with BER—just cut the bottoms off. For a quick fix, treat plants with a calcium spray for BER. Keep soil consistently moist; using mulch helps. Test soil when pepper season ends. Amend as needed.

Broken Pepper Stems

Pepper stems are somewhat brittle, and if you garden in a windy area, it’s a good idea to stake plants. A strong gust can snap stems without fruit on them. Once peppers form, stems are top heavy. It’s actually wise to stake any pepper plant that bears bell-type fruit and especially if you raise the giant varieties, like ‘Big Bertha’, ‘Giant Marconi’ or even poblano types. A traditional metal circular tomato cage provides effective, cheap support.

Peppers Show Several Colors

You have nothing to worry about when peppers on the same plant show different colors. Most peppers naturally ripen through a progression from green to orange or red. Even purple peppers start green before shifting to white and then darker shades. Part of the fun of growing peppers is enjoying the show. In general, flavor intensifies the longer peppers stay on plants. Sweet peppers become sweeter, and hot ones get hotter. The right time to pick is when the flavor is what you like best.

Overripe Peppers

Pick peppers before they start to show signs of being overripe. This red pepper on the right is starting to wrinkle. That’s a sign the pepper is overripe. Pick peppers when skins are taut and shiny. The individual pepper stem should also still be green. The stem on this overripe pepper has turned brown and is starting to die. This pepper is still fine for eating, although you might want to skip the wrinkled part. It will lack that classic pepper crunch.

Slug Damage on Pepper Leaves

Slugs don’t just attack peppers, they also chew holes in leaves and make entire leaf edges disappear. Straw mulch provides a perfect place for slugs to hang out and reproduce. It’s also a great mulch for vegetables. If you use it, consider putting out slug bait or traps to help keep the slimy critters in check.

All Leaves, No Peppers

When pepper plants have gorgeous leaves and no flowers, there’s probably too much nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen fuels leafy growth, and when it’s plentiful, plants have lush growth with dark green leaves. The soil may also lack phosphorus, which helps trigger flowering and fruit formation. Peppers are heavy feeders and benefit from receiving specialized tomato fertilizer, which is usually higher in phosphorous (the middle number on the fertilizer bag). It might read something like 2-3-1.

Bare Stems, Missing Leaves

When leaves disappear overnight and you’re left with bare stems, deer are the likely culprits. While they typically avoid eating pepper fruits, they will chow down on the plants—the sweet types. Most deer avoid hot peppers, although fawns and yearlings may take one curious bite, which they usually drop on the ground. The tell-tale sign of deer damage is ragged and torn leaf edges. Deer lack upper teeth in the front of their mouths, so when they take a bite, they chomp down and yank their heads up, tearing the plant.

Boost Pepper Production

Using plastic mulch to warm soil where you’ll be growing peppers is a great idea in northern zones and regions where summers are short or on the cool side. University research has shown that pepper plants grow bigger and produce more fruit when grown on red or silver mulch. These mulches reflect different light wavelengths onto the plants, which spurs growth.

Soft Spots on Peppers

If you see soft, water-soaked spots along the sides of peppers (not on the bottom like blossom end rot), your plants likely have anthracnose disease. The sunken spots can form on peppers (any size), leaves and stems. Pick fruit showing signs of the disease. You can cut around the spots and eat the unaffected parts. Anthracnose overwinters in the garden on diseased pepper plant parts. Clean up all infected plants and dispose of them—do not compost them. Rotate crops in your garden to minimize outbreaks.

Pepper Pop Quiz

This pepper plant has been through the ringer. How many problems—and non-problems—can you see? If you count four total, you’ve found them all. Those holes in the fruit are slug damage, and if you look carefully you can see that a deer removed the top of this plant. This single pepper shows multiple colors, but that’s not a problem—just part of the ripening process. Dark spots are starting to form on stem joints, but that’s also nothing to worry about.