When to pot up or transplant peppers (and how)?

Generally speaking you can pot up or transplant peppers to a bigger pot when they are showing four true leaves. 

Peppers germinate and sprout in 1-5 weeks depending on the type of pepper or chilli you are growing and the overall growing environment.

Sweet and milder peppers will be faster to germinate and sprout than hotter varieties like habaneros and ghost peppers.

We transplant peppers when they show four true leaves and are large enough to handle.

How to transplant peppers to a larger pot (potting up)

When you transplant peppers you should work fast – but without rushing. You do not want the pepper seedlings’ roots to be exposed to air for longer than necessary. Simply transplant one seedling from start to finish and then move on to the next one.

Check out our instructional YouTube video: Proven way to transplant pepper seedlings into pots
Watch this video on YouTube.

1. Get organised before you transplant peppers

Get your pots, seedlings, potting soil mixes, watering cans and any other equipment you need organised before you start.

You should also make sure that the seedlings are watered and the soil in the starter pots or seed tray is moist.

Place all the tools, pots, seedlings, etc on your workspace and be prepared that it can get messy. We use:

  • 7-10 cm (3-4 inches) pots
  • fertile compost rich soil with perlite (5-10%) for better drainage
  • small dibble or other thin instrument to help remove seedlings from pots
  • larger dibble or fingers to make hole for seedlings in larger pot up pots
  • container for bottom watering seedlings when transplanted
  • watering can to fill up the container with water

2. Mix and pre-moisten potting soil mix

You want the potting soil mix to be moist but not wet. 

Moistening your soil makes it easier to work with and also ensures that your seedlings will be transplanted into a moist growing environment.

You want the soil to be fertile and compost rich. Your seedlings will need nutrients to grow and you will not be adding extra nutrients until your seedlings are established in their new pots. 

3. Fill pots with potting soil mix

Fill your pots to about ¾ with your pre-moistened fertile potting soil mix.

Also, this is the perfect time to label your pots. Trust me, it can be really difficult to remember what went where after only the shortest while.

4. Remove seedling from starter pots or seed trays

The soil in your starter pots or seed trays should be moist as you watered in step 1 above. If not, water your seedling now and allow for any excess water to run off before handing the seedlings. 

Using your dibble or another thin instrument, gently remove one seedling from the starter pot or seed tray.

Insert the dibble at the edge of the pot and gently trace around the plant. At the same time, gently apply pressure from sides and underneath to nudge the seedling out of the pot.

As the soil is moist it should stick to the roots, leaving you with a root ball to move to your new larger pot.

5. Transplant seedling into larger “pot up” pot

Prune first leaves to avoid leaves touching soil
Pruning first leaves to avoid soil contact

Place the root ball into your larger pot and use your fingers to fill the hole with potting mix.

Make sure to place the seedling in the middle of the pot and that no leaves touch the soil. 

Leaves touching soil can lead to bacterial diseases.

To avoid leaves touching soil, we always prune the first leaves or cotyledons before transplanting as they have a tendency to droop as they wither. 

When you are happy with the position, fill up the pot with potting soil mix to stabilise the seedling.

Use your fingers to gently pack down the soil and top up if needed. 

6. Water pots and fertilise when established

Place your transplanted seedlings in a container with 3 cm / 1 inch of water to bottom water your pots.

Firming soil after transplanting pepper seedling
Padron pepper seedling transplanted

Remove pots from the water bath when you see the soil shifting colour or feeling moist. Place the pots in a tray or on a surface where any excess water can runoff. 

It is important to water thoroughly to help the root system get established in its new growing environment. 

We wait about 1 week for the seedlings to get established in their new larger pots before we feed them. Then, we start gradually by giving a liquid fertiliser once a week at half the recommended dosage. 

We watch the plants reaction and work up to the full label recommended dosage over the next couple of weeks. 

Should I cut or divide multiple seedlings in one pot?

It is quite common to plant more than one seed per pot or seed tray cell. And often you will find yourself with several seeds germinating and sprouting green leaves in one tiny cell or pot.

In this situation you can either snip the weaker seedlings just above soil level or divide the seedling into more plants.

We do both and here is why. Hotter peppers like ghost peppers and habanero peppers germinate and grow slower than for example cayenne peppers and Padron peppers

We have found that it works well to divide faster growing pepper varieties including cayenne peppers but to prune or cut the hotter or slower growing varieties like habaneros and ghost peppers.

But, if you are planning to grow one or maybe only a couple of chilli pepper plants, it is better to cut the weaker seedlings.

Cutting the weaker seedlings will of course give you fewer seedlings. But the remaining seedling will grow stronger as there will be less competition in the plant’s important early stages of development. 

Why not transplant peppers into a 5 gallon grow bag directly?

We transplant our pepper seedlings into 7-10 cm (3-4 inches) pots when it’s time to pot up the seedlings. Then, over the duration of the growing season we transplant our pepper plants up to another 3-5 times. 

And there are several reasons why you should think twice about directly potting up into a 5 gallon grow bag or container.

The practical side of potting up seedlings gradually

For gardeners in non-tropical zones there is the practical side of things. It will take up a lot of space to have several large containers or grow bags with pepper seedlings developing and growing indoors. 

Speaking for zone 7 where we live, we often have to wait until early May to transplant or move pots, containers and grow bags outdoors permanently. Move plants out too early and one frosty night can be enough to ruin months of work and preparation. 

And then there is the watering of your plants. A 5 gallon container or grow bag will hold a lot

more water than your seedling and young pepper plant will need. Apart from it being wasteful and hard work to carry that much water, it actually makes it harder to control the level of moisture around your plants root system.

The surface and top layer of the soil will dry out faster. And when you water again, the soil in the bottom half of the containers will still be moist to wet. And now you risk creating a soaking wet soil that could lead to disease and root rot. 

Understanding air pruning when transplanting peppers

Also, when you gradually increase the size of the pot you encourage the plant to develop a strong and compact root system.

The phenomenon is referred to as air pruning [1].

After one or maybe two transplants we start using pots or containers made from a material that breathes. You can use pots made from terra cotta or another organic material. Or like we do, make your own DIY grow bags from breathable garden fabric.

Air pruning occurs when growing roots are exposed to oxygen rich soil in the absence of water or humidity.

When you water, air or oxygen is pushed out and is effectively replaced by moisture or water. 

But as the water drains, oxygen can again fill some of the cavities, nooks and crannies that exist in your soil mix. This is why it is so important to have soil that drains well.

The potting soil towards the edges of your pots, containers and grow bags will always be drier than the soil in the middle of the pot. 

When the roots get exposed to this oxygen rich soil and lack of humidity the roots effectively stop growing in that general direction. Instead, the plant will devote its energy into growing new roots and branching out from existing roots.

This process, air pruning, will help create the strong and compact root systems plants need to be healthy.

Should you transplant your young seedlings into 5 gallon grow bags, the roots will grow long and spindly as there will be plenty of moisture-rich soil in all directions. 

Removing pepper seedling to be transplanted into larger pot
Pepper plant being remover from pot to be transplanted into larger pot

[1] https://depts.washington.edu/propplnt/Chapters/air-pruning.htm

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants and garden vegetables. For the past two years he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.