How to Grow an Habanero Plant

In this article we will detail how to grow an habanero plant.

First, an interesting back story on the plants:

In 2014, multiple news outlets across the nation reported an incident at an elementary school in Colorado. Alarming headlines spoke of evacuations, a “toxic” substance, and hospitalizations.

It was major. A full-on school evacuation; police and firefighters hosing down fully-clothed children to decontaminate them; a hazmat crew on-site inspecting the scene. In total, 30 people received treatment, a handful of which did so at a hospital. The school remained closed the day following the incident as well.

What caused all this mayhem? Officials found the answer to that question in the playground, lying in the wood chip footing.

Six habanero chile peppers.

1. The habanero Red Savina the hottest of all the habanero peppers
The habanero ‘Red Savina’, the hottest of all the habanero peppers at around 577,000 SHUs. It held the title of World’s Hottest Pepper from 1994 – 2006.

How Hot is an Habanero Pepper?

If you think this is an extreme reaction to some hapless peppers, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. But no one could have imagined at first that they were dealing with chile peppers.

2. Close up image of six orange and red habanero peppers
Close up image of six orange and red habanero peppers. Reds have ripened on the vine longer, making them hotter.

To be fair, if you’ve never experienced it, the heat that can overcome you just from the act of cutting open or cooking chiles is pretty intense. It happens almost every time I cook with chiles de Arbol, which have only a fraction of the heat habanero peppers do. That happens because the acts of washing, seeding, chopping, and frying send capsaicin molecules – the chemical compound found in every chile pepper that gives them their “hotness” – soaring through the air.

Little kids trampling over habanero peppers, piercing their skin and breaking them apart, would undoubtedly create a little capsaicin cloud, and cause what felt like a moderate to severe allergic reaction for anyone in the immediate vicinity.

The Scoville Scale

3. A version of the ever changing Scoville Scale when the Ghost Pepper Bhut Jolokia was hottest.
A version of the ever-changing Scoville scale, when the Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia) was hottest. It has since been beaten out, several times over. As of December 2020, the Hottest Pepper in the World (tested, proven, confirmed) title is still held by the Carolina Reaper, rated at 2.2 million SHUs. 

“check out the Scoville scale” by leeleblanc is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

It turns out that capsaicin flying all over the place is measurable. You know that just-been-pepper-sprayed feeling you get after eating some really hot peppers? Well, we can assign your pain an actual value and look at it on a scale.

A well-known method that accomplishes this, to a degree, is the Scoville scale. The name comes from the American pharmacologist who came up with the Scoville Organoleptic Test, Wilbur Scoville. The methodology for that testing process is described as follows:

Here, a sample of chili was prepared and repeatedly diluted with water until the test subjects no longer felt any heat. The degree to which the subjects could (subjectively) taste no more heat in the sample was called SHU (Scoville Heat Units). (Chili Pepper Scoville Scale | ? SCOVILLESCALE.ORG, 2021)

This process was the first laboratory test to measure the heat of a pepper and has been in use since 1912. Though not an exact science, ‌it’s still very widely used to this day and appears to be the definitive scale for professional chile growers and entities responsible for official rankings. There’s a whole culture that exists around these rankings and the competition to be at the top – to be the hottest – is beyond fierce.

4. This infographic illustrates the relation and also differentiates
This infographic illustrates the relation – and also differentiates – between Capsicum, capsaicinoids, and capsaicin, which is found in all peppers and what gives them their heat.

Mispronunciations, Misnomers, and More

Here are some noteworthy tidbits about the adaptable habanero before we move on to growing:

  • The proper pronunciation is ah-bah-NEH-roe. As with other Spanish words, the starting H is silent. The N is standard and said without the eñe that you see in ‘jalapeño.

  • The Spanish discovered it in Mexico and spread it around so aggressively it covered the globe. That perpetuated a belief that they originated in China, resulting in its species name of Chinense.
  • It gets its name from La Habana, Cuba (“Havana” in the U.S.) due to its heavy involvement in local trade.
  • They were brought to Mexico by Brazil’s Mayans over 8,500 years ago, where they are now an iconic part of Mexico’s culture.
  • Habanero peppers from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are the gold standard that all other habaneros must match.
  • It started as a chile pequin, much smaller and milder than it is now; it’s taken thousands of years of growing and breeding to become what it is today.

How to Grow an Habanero Plant (From Seed)

Habaneros are easy growers; they are one of if not the easiest chile pepper to grow. As long as they have decent soil and consistent warmth, they can adapt to anything else. Whether you start from seed or buy a nursery specimen, or whether they’re in the ground or containers, they are generous producers of flowers and fruit in a short time.

5. Fully ripened habanero peppers contain viable seeds
Fully ripened habanero peppers contain viable seeds that can be harvested, dried, and sown.

When and Where to Start

As a general rule, seeds should always be started inside. Seedlings you grew yourself will need to be transitioned to an outdoor environment, and more about that follows. Nursery-bought seedlings can go right into the ground, in a location that gets full sunlight at least six hours per day.

There are a few very specific conditions in which seeds can be started outside, but none of them apply to any location in the U.S.

Where we live, the process starts indoors because controlling the temperature is key to germination. Though easy growers, they are finicky germinators and the air needs to be warm and moist. You will need to be sure you know when your area typically experiences the last frost of the winter season – a close approximation is fine – as that date determines when to plant the seeds.

Habaneros take about 100 days, give or take, to go from sprouts to fully mature. With that in mind, drop the seeds about 6-10 weeks before the last frost. Seeds can be purchased from a local gardening store or a reputable online source. This is an orange variety that I buy.

[amazon box=”B019OC7CXW” style=”light” title=”Orange Habanero Seeds” template=”widget” ]

How to Place the Seeds and Where to Keep Them

Seeds should be placed only about 1/4″ deep. 4″ pots, soil disks, or seed trays are perfect for starting habanero peppers. Drop at least 2 or 3 seeds per container or section and then cover with the seedling soil.

Water them in immediately after and keep the soil moist until you see germination. This is crucial. If you’re using seed trays with lids, even better, as the moisture will be held in and you likely will not have to water at all.

Until the first sprouts begin to appear, the seedlings will need to be kept in a dark location with only minimal filtered light.

First Sprouts and First Relocation

6. After they have sprouted move your pepper plants to a window sill
After they have sprouted, move your peppers to a window sill with southern exposure.

When the first sprouts appear, remove the lid and relocate so they’re getting southern exposure (still indoors). A south-facing window sill works well. It is still necessary to continue regular watering, but allow them a full day of drying out in between waterings.

As plants have a natural inclination to reach toward the sun, and you want them to grow upright, rotate the pots or trays as needed.

When to Make the First Snips

What you’re watching for now is the complete formation of a couple of leaves. When you see two fully developed leaves, use small, clean scissors to cut away everything except the single strongest seedling in each tray/section/pot.

7. If you planted two or three seeds per container

If you planted two or three seeds per container, you may see as many sprouts. Snip away the weaker ones and keep only the strongest per container.

Continue to give southern exposure, rotate as needed, and water frequently with the day of drying out between waterings.

The First Transplant

When you see the seedling has 4-6 leaves, ensure you have larger receptacles ready for transplants. When 8 leaves have formed (some will transplant at 6), go ahead and separate and transplant into larger pots.

8. When seedlings are about this size they can be moved
When seedlings are about this size, they can be moved into 3” or 4” pots, as shown. Relocate them in the soil they were started with.

The larger pot should not be much larger than the original receptacle. In fact, if you started them in 4″ pots, it’s ok to continue to leave them a bit longer. If you started in disks or trays, switch now to 3″ or 4″ pots.

Be sure you are using fresh potting soil. Transfer the seedling, and the soil it’s in, to the new receptacle. Once this first relocation occurs, fertilization can begin.

When to Begin Fertilizing

We should be about 6 weeks in at this point. If not, wait until 6 weeks to begin fertilizing. Here is what you need to know:

  • Be sure to use an organic product. Fish emulsion is a favorite among pepper growers.
  • There aren’t chile-specific blends available, but there are fertilizers for vegetables and edibles. Nightshade and tomato fertilizers would be good.
  • Avoid fertilizers that are just for flowers.
  • For the first four months, nitrogen or a nitrogen-heavy blend is needed because of its ability to ensure healthy growth and root formation.
  • After four months, you can switch to a blend heavier in phosphorus and potassium with the nitrogen dialed back.

9. Make sure soil is moist before applying any fertilizer
Make sure the soil is moist before applying any fertilizer. Water first, and then mix in.

For the application:

  • Make sure soil is moist before application, otherwise the roots could burn.
  • Using nitrogen or a nitrogen-heavy blend, mix about 1/4 of the recommended dosage on the bag or bottle, per pot, into the soil.
  • Mix in off to the side about 6″ away from the stem and roots, or as far away as you can get if under 6″.
  • Gradually work into the soil.
  • Do this as often as indicated in the instructions on the bag.
  • Within 8 weeks, work up to all instructions and dosages as indicated.
  • Watch carefully for signs of over-fertilization.

If it is growing quickly and starts to droop, you will need to move to a larger size pot yet again. Every time you move up in pot size, make sure the new pot is just a bit taller and wider. When you transplant, the soil level should plant out below the first leaves.

Transitioning From Inside to Outside

If you have a seedling you started yourself, these instructions also apply.

10. A young pepper plant growing in a container looking healthy
A young pepper growing in a container, looking healthy and happy with foliage a perfect shade of green.

Generally speaking, 2 or 3 weeks after the last frost is the perfect time to start acclimating the seedling to the outside, and the location that will be its new home. This change of environment needs to occur over time as opposed to suddenly moving them outdoors and leaving them there.

The first day outside, only leave them out an hour or two and don’t shock them just yet with direct sunlight. Ensure they are protected from the elements. Every day that follows, gradually increase the time they are outside and move them slowly into direct sunlight.

By the end of about a week, the habanero plants should be in as much full sun as the day provides, and can be left outside 24/7 assuming it stays warm enough.

Note: It’s hard to know sometimes when the last frost really occurs. In Arizona, we get strange weather behavior, and just when you think warmer weather is here for good, another frost will hit. A frost will kill the seedling, so if in doubt, extend the inside waiting period another week or so.

11. This orange pepper plant is thriving in its container in a very well lit
This orange pepper is thriving in its container, in a very well-lit indoor location.

If you’re planning to put them in the ground, you can also leave them in pots a bit longer when you move them outside. This way you can easily bring them in if needed.

Regardless of where your pepper ultimately ends up, continue with the watering and fertilizing schedule as stated.

Tip: Keep a pot roughly 24″ in diameter on hand and ready for use. Habaneros will on average max out at about 18″ wide and 20-24″ inches tall. They will do best in a container home that adds about 6″ to their width, so a pot that’s 24″ in diameter should be perfectly adequate. If they’re staying in a container, this will eventually be its forever home.

How to Grow an Habanero Plant (in the Ground)

If you are working with a seedling you started indoors yourself, the seedling needs to be incrementally introduced to the outdoor environment so as not to shock it. That process takes about a week and was outlined earlier in this article.

Once that acclimation has occurred, the instructions for getting nursery-bought seedlings in the ground are the same for self-started seedlings.

Note: Nursery-bought specimens should be installed within two days of purchase.

12. This young plant is just the right size to be taken from its pot
This young specimen is just the right size to be pulled from its seedling pot and put in the ground. 

The process of in-ground planting is a bit less detailed due to the elimination of everything involved with starting from seed. That can be a nuanced process that you don’t fully appreciate until you don’t have to do it.

Here’s how the in-ground process should go:

  1. Choose a location that gets full sunlight at least six hours per day. Habaneros love sunshine and need it just as much.
  2. Dig the holes to be twice as wide as the pot it’s in, and as deep as needed so that, when planted out, the soil level is just below the first leaves.
  3. Make sure you have amended the soil. Cut in some organic compost, or any other organic material that will aid in fertility and moisture retention.
    1. sand and ash are also good options for amending the soil
    2.  sand and ash aid in disease prevention and encourage root growth
  4. Holes should be dug with proper spacing. Maintain 14″ apart side to side, and 2′ – 3′ apart front to back.

13. Young plants going into the ground should have holes dug that are at least
Young habanero peppers going into the ground should have holes dug that are at least twice the width of the container from which you’re transplanting.

  1. After dropping your seedlings in the holes and backfilling, give them a nice watering in.
    1. allow the soil to become bone dry before watering again as habaneros love extremely hot conditions
    2. let them dry out to the point of near-stress, then give them water, which will result in more flowers and fruit
    3. be aware – this can also make the habanero peppers hotter
  2. Incorporate a good fertilizer into the care routine and use it in conjunction with proper watering.
  3. Keep their growing area free of weeds. They may enjoy drying out and getting a little crusty, but they do not like weeds in the mix stealing their water.
  4. When the habaneros have been in the ground for two to three weeks, add mulch. Use fresh, organic compost or an organic soil amendment to cover the soil. Mound up around the base of the stem; angle down and get level with the ground as you work out and away from the stem. Doing this keeps the soil moist and provides a well-timed boost of natural fertilizer.

14. This image shows young specimens that have been mulched with straw
This image shows young specimens that have been mulched with straw. Any organic material makes a good
habanero pepper mulch, such as grass clippings, wood/bark mulch, leaves, and weed-free hay.

Health Issues After Planting

The growth period for an habanero to reach maturity is so short, every minute of it is critical. At the first visible sign of anything out of the ordinary, address it right away.

Here are the common signs of and solutions for pests, diseases, deficiencies, or other problems.

  • Yellow leaves: nutrient deficiency. If it’s young leaves only, it’s likely iron deficiency. Mature leaves that are yellowing are probably needing nitrogen, sulfur, or magnesium. Increase the amount of the deficient mineral.

15. This could be a deficiency an illness or both
This could be a deficiency, an illness, or both.

  • Reddish discoloration on the leaves: could be indicative of too little phosphorus. Increase amount.
  • Deformed leaves with brown edges, and/or small cracks in the fruit: potassium deficiency. Increase amount.
  • Yellow speckled leaves, or yellow leaves with green veins: calcium and boron deficiency. Increase amounts.
  • Appearance of “burned” leaf edges, or an overall impression of having been near a fire: over-fertilizing. Decrease amount.
  • Unhealthy-looking dark green color of foliage: slowly absorbing too much nitrogen. Decrease amount.
  • Thin stalks and dropping leaves: mineral fertilizers are too high in concentration. Get a lower concentration, follow the instructions on the package to the letter.
  • Messy, sticky webbing on fruit and leaves: beet armyworm. Spray off with a blast of water and treat with insecticide soap.
  • The appearance of black mold: tomato psyllids. Must be treated with traps and pesticides.

16. This looks similar to black mold and could be a case of tomator
This looks similar to black mold and could be a case of tomato psyllids, which are pests that migrate from tomatoes onto habanero peppers.

  • The appearance of “knots” in the limbs: root-knot nematodes (roundworms). Pull out and dispose of the affected habanero  plants, and allow the ground to lie fallow for 3 years. Replant with nematode-resistant habanero peppers.
  • Fungus on the surface of curled-up leaves: powdery mildew. Apply fungicide ASAP.
  • Observation of aphids: keep aphid-free by performing foliar spraying as often as needed.

The Habanero Plant’s Maintenance Requirements

The list is small, but there are a few items you will want to stay on top of, to ensure optimum growing and habanero pepper production.

Habanero Plant Irrigation

The first thing to watch is irrigation. Whether you’re hand-watering or have them on a drip, check them by hand every day if you can, but do not go longer than two days. You’re checking to make sure the ground is drying out between waterings and before the water comes back on, and also that it’s getting the right amount when watering does occur. There’s a small sweet spot between not enough and too much water where you want the peppers to be, leaning a smidge toward the not enough side.

17. Left a young plant in an organic garden on an automatic
Left: A  young plant in an organic garden on an automatic system.

Right: A young plant in the ground being hand-watered. Both types of watering work fine. A good soaking must always be followed by a thorough dry-out time.

Tip: Don’t skip the mulch for your container plants; it works just as well there as it does on the ground. Add mulch around the stem up to the rim of the pot. Proceed with watering, applying the water right to the mulch. It will soak down and through and into the soil. 

Give the pots as much water as they will hold. You should be able to go a week, probably two, before watering again. Check it periodically to ensure it is getting dryer.

Habanero Plant Pruning

There are at least three schools of thought on this: start pruning at about six weeks, prune but not until they’re in the ground, and don’t prune at all.

When it comes to habanero plants, the practice is called “topping,” which automatically comes with a negative feeling as it is reminiscent of tree topping. But in this case, it does not refer to leaving behind only a trunk, as is the case with tree topping (which is an abhorrent practice and should never be done).

Habanero Plant Topping and Tree Topping: Not the Same

Habanero plants grow very upright and tend to get tall and skinny, and the addition of fruit can get too heavy and start pulling them down. “Topping” encourages them to grow lower and wider, and as a result, sturdier.

18. If you are not going to prune your plants you will need to
If you are not going to prune your habanero plants, you will need to either cage them (as shown on left) or stake them (as shown on right). They will need the support to stay upright under the weight of the fruit. 

I am always in favor of pruning that is done because it is beneficial to and in the best interest of the plants’ health. It does prompt the plant to push new growth, and that’s a lot of work for a new plant; it’s taxing. But that work is making them bigger and stronger. It’s not necessarily about getting more peppers, because that is not a guarantee. It’s about making sure the plants are strong enough to withstand their weight.

This should also avoid the need for stakes or cages for stabilization.

This is a great video about implementing a pruning schedule very early in, at about six weeks. These are sound techniques, clean cuts, and plant vascularity is not compromised.

Let me address the pruning debate here. That is a serious point of contention for some, and there are those who disapprove of it at any time, on any plant. I can appreciate that. Anyone who knows me knows I love natural landscaping; if you ball or shear a plant on any of my properties, or trim a Palm too tight, or top a tree, run for your life. But there is a time and a place. Spring cutbacks, for example – I’m a big fan. I will cut a Lantana back to one lone stick popping out of the ground. It’s a practice that works with the plants’ biology and you can see how happy they are by how they look when they come back. I understand it doesn’t happen in nature, but to be fair, a lot of plants in nature get to looking pretty ugly when all those years of growth and dieback just start sitting on the surface. Those poor plants look miserable. So, when done conscientiously, this is a practice I definitely recommend. Not at this stage of their development, but pepper plants are a different animal as far as that goes.

You may need to continue pruning every three or four weeks to establish its new shape and growth pattern.

Overwintering

Habanero plants can be treated either as annuals or perennials. If you’re going the annual route, you simply pull and compost your plants at the end of the season (just before the first frost), and start all over again next year.

If you want to save them for next season, you will need to store them in a dry, warm place where they can stay alive. Habanero plants in the ground will need to be dug up, replanted in a container, and brought inside.

It should be noted that overwintering is not a guarantee of survival; following all the steps below can still result in death. Some species take to overwintering and dormancy without issue, others never recover.

Overwintering consists of the following:

  • remove all peppers still on the plant and then thoroughly hose it off to remove any pests, including the roots
  • when replanting in a container, dig up as many roots as possible because they will use them the following spring when they’re replanted and needing energy
  • rinse all the soil from the habanero plant and pot with entirely brand new potting soil
  • put them in a dark place where they can go dormant, or near a sunny window with some added lights where they won’t go fully dormant, but will not produce fruit
    • in either case, they will still need some water; dormant habanero plants need an occasional spritzing just to keep the soil moist and the plants in the light need just a bit more than that, enough to keep the soil from drying out
      • you will soon start to see leaf dieback; just allow it to happen as it’s only indicative of entering dormancy
        • once the leaf dieback has finished, prune all the dead foliage and branches away to keep the plant free of pests; it will grow new branches in the spring
  • About 30 days before the last frost, pull any dormant plants out and begin reacclimating them to light and warmth; resume a regular watering schedule, but do not overwater
    • new growth will begin to appear in about 7-10 days

19. These pepper plants were overwintered pulled out after the last
These habanero plants were overwintered, pulled out after the last front, and are already enjoying a good amount of new growth.

Überwinterte Chilipflanzen im Frühjahr By Maja Dumat / CC BY 2.0

For anyone out there who detests chile peppers and absolutely will not eat them, don’t let that stop you from growing them. All the different colors of peppers mean they make beautiful ornamental plants. If you know anyone who enjoys spicy food, you can harvest your fruit and give it away in a variety of different forms: whole and fresh peppers nestled in a basket with tea towels; whole dried pods in a rustic bag with a raffia bow; ground up pods in a pretty shaker; or homemade habanero plant jelly in an artsy glass jar.

habanero plant 1 habanero plant 2