Japanese shishito peppers are trendy in restaurants and farmers markets, but this is a vegetable you can also grow in your home garden. In fact, shishito pepper plants are easy to grow, early to mature, and yield a heavy crop of fruits. The slender, thin-skinned peppers are mildly spicy and we like to flash fry them for a delicious appetizer. One bite and you’ll want to grow this gourmet pepper in your backyard! Read on to learn everything you need to know about growing shishito peppers in garden beds and containers.
Why you should be growing shishito peppers
‘Shishito’ means ‘lion’s head’ and the name was inspired by the bumpy blunt tip of the pepper fruit which resembles the king of the jungle. I first started growing shishito peppers five years ago and was surprised how productive they were in my northern zone 5 garden. Now they’re a summer staple and we look forward to the harvest which begins in late July and continues until frost.
Shishito pepper plants are compact and grow about two feet tall and 15 to 18 inches across. The fruits are two to four inches long and 3/4 of an inch across. They’re wrinkled and puckery and have thin skin which makes them perfect for quick frying, grilling, or tempura. The immature peppers are green, maturing to bright red. Traditionally shishito peppers are harvested green and that’s how we enjoy most of the crop from our garden.
This pepper is considered mildly spicy but occasionally you’ll find a fruit that packs a punch! Even so, a spicy shishito pepper is far milder than a jalapeño and we consider the occasional hot shishito a treat.
Starting shishito peppers from seed
Peppers are a heat-loving vegetable and can’t be planted outdoors until the risk of frost has passed in spring and the weather has warmed. I sow shishito pepper seeds indoors under grow lights 8 to 10 weeks before I intend to move the plants to the garden. If you don’t have a grow light, place the pots in a sunny window but turn them every couple of days to encourage the seedlings to grow straight.
Start the seeds in pots or cell packs filled with pre-moistened seed-starting mix. Sow them a scant 1/4 inch deep and place the trays or pots on a heat mat if you have one. Ideal germination temperature for pepper seeds is 75 to 85 F (24 to 29 C). A heat mat warms the soil and can both speed up germination and increase germination rates for pepper seeds. Once half of the seeds have sprouted, turn off the heat mat.
As the plants grow keep your grow lights turned on for 16 hours a day. Water as needed aiming for lightly moist, but not wet soil. Fertilize with a diluted liquid organic fertilizer once the plants have sprouted several sets of true leaves. About a week before you want to move the seedlings outdoors, start the hardening off process. Hardening off acclimatizes indoor grown plants to the sun, wind, and other outdoor weather conditions. It’s easy to do and you can find a detailed article on how to harden off seedlings here.
Transplanting the seedlings
Whether you grew your own from seed or bought transplants, it’s time to move shishito peppers to the garden about a week after the last expected spring frost. Don’t hurry peppers outdoors as they won’t be happy if the soil and air temperatures are still cool. Short season gardeners may wish to pre-warm the soil by stretching black plastic over the garden bed 7 to 10 days before transplanting.
Boost success by choosing the right site for your shishito pepper plants. They grow and produce best in full sun (8+ hours) and well-draining soil that has been enriched with compost. I top my beds with an inch or two of compost or aged manure before transplanting.
Shishito pepper plants are compact, but I don’t want to overcrowd them in the garden so I space them 18 to 24 inches apart. I bury the seedlings slightly deeper than they were in their pots to encourage a robust root system. Once planted, water well and keep an eye on the forecast for a couple of days. If the temperature dips, cover pepper plants with a row cover to protect them. Don’t lay the row cover directly on top of the plants, instead float it on hoops. If the fabric is in direct contact with the plants it may rub against the delicate growing tips, damaging them and impeding growth. Remove row covers once the weather has settled.
Growing peppers in containers
Shishito peppers are a great choice for pots, planters, and grow bags. Choose containers at least 12 inches across and check for drainage holes as good drainage is essential for pepper plants. You can buy pots or upcycle a bucket as pictured below. In the case of a container like a bucket you’ll need to add drainage holes before filling with the growing medium. I use a drill with a 3/8 inch drill bit to make a dozen holes in the bottom.
Once your’e ready to transplant, fill the pots with a high-quality potting mix and compost. My rough ratio is 2/3 potting mix and 1/3 compost. I also add a slow-release organic fertilizer to the growing medium, blending all the ingredients well. Transplant the seedlings and water. Insert a tomato cage or bamboo stake into the pot to support the plant as it grows.
Growing shishito peppers
Growing shishito peppers isn’t difficult; give them sunshine and decent, well-draining soil and you can expect a good harvest. With a little extra TLC that good harvest can become a great harvest! Here are four tasks to keep in mind when growing shishito peppers:
- Watering – Frequently of watering depends on factors like weather and soil. For example, clay-based soil holds water better than sandy soil. And hot weather dries soil out quicker than cloudy or overcast weather. I usually irrigate my garden peppers once a week if there has been no rain. Container peppers are watered every day or two unless the weather has been wet. Water deeply and try to water the soil not the plant because splashing water on the foliage can spread soil-borne diseases. To make watering easier use a drip irrigation system or a soaker hose.
- Fertilizing – I incorporate a slow-release organic fertilizer into the soil when I plant in raised beds and containers. Once my plants begin to flower I give them a dose of Neptune’s Harvest liquid organic fertilizer. I repeat this feed with a second application three to four weeks later.
- Supporting – In late summer pepper branches can be heavy with fruit and are susceptible to breaking in winds or heavy rain. I stake or support my shishito pepper plants with four foot tall bamboo stakes or tomato cages.
- Weeding – Weeds can compete and crowd out pepper plants so remove weeds as they sprout. A shuffle or collinear hoe is ideal for cutting weeds off at the soil surface.
Common pepper problems
My shishito pepper plants are bothered by few pests or diseases, but here are a couple of potential problems that can affect pepper plants.
Blossom end rot – This common issue isn’t a disease but rather a physiological disorder generally thought to be caused by stress and a lack of calcium. Jessica has written in detail about blossom end rot on peppers, tomatoes, squash, and other crops here. But to sum up, it’s incredibly important to water consistently, especially when growing in containers. This can greatly reduce the occurrence of blossom end rot. Mulching plants with straw or shredded leaves can help maintain soil moisture.
Aphids – Aphids are a common garden pest and are tiny, pear-shaped insects that can be green, brown, gray, or other colors. They suck the sap from plants, often from the tender plant tips, damaging growth and potentially affecting overall yield. To reduce aphid populations in my garden I plant herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs and lacewings, that feed on aphids. Once I spot aphids, I’ll wait a few days to see if any good bugs come to feast. If no beneficial adults or larvae show up after three or four days, I’ll knock the aphids off my plants with a strong jet of water from my hose.
Harvesting shishito peppers
The harvest season for shishito peppers begins earlier than for most other types of peppers. I usually start to pick green shishito’s about 60 to 65 days after transplanting. If you’d rather ripe red peppers, wait another three weeks. Like most shishito lovers, it’s the green fruits I want to pick. They’re crisp, quick to cook, and have a sweet-mildly spicy pepper flavor.
Harvest the slender fruits as soon as soon as they’re big enough to eat; between two and four inches long. I use herb snips to pick the peppers. Trying to tug them from the plant can break the entire branch (trust me!). It’s also important to pick often as the more fruits you harvest, the more the plants can produce. If you decide to let the peppers mature to red, you’ll reduce the overall yield.
Eating shishito peppers
Shishito peppers are so versatile in the kitchen. My favorite way to enjoy the green fruits is to sauté them in a hot pan with a bit of olive oil until the peppers are blistered and browning. I sprinkle them with a bit of sea salt and we enjoy them as an appetizer or alongside barbecued steaks or chicken. Simple and delicious! You can also broil, barbecue, or roast the peppers in the oven. They also make excellent tempura or can be stir-fried with other garden vegetables. At the end of the season I always let some of the fruits mature to red. These are sweeter than the green peppers and taste great sliced in salads or over nachos.
For further reading on growing peppers, be sure to check out these articles:
- Pruning pepper plants for improved plant health and yields
- Companion plants for peppers
- The fish pepper: how to grow this fascinating heirloom variety
- Growing hot peppers in gardens and containers
Are you growing shishito peppers in your garden?