Growing Shishito Peppers: A Guide to Cultivating this Gourmet Crop

Are you a fan of Japanese cuisine? If so, you’ve probably heard of shishito peppers. These trendy vegetables are not only popular in restaurants and farmers markets, but they can also be grown right in your own backyard. Shishito pepper plants are incredibly easy to cultivate, and they produce a bountiful crop of slender, thin-skinned peppers with a mild spiciness. Whether you want to flash fry them or enjoy them raw, growing shishito peppers is a rewarding experience that will elevate your culinary adventures.

shishito peppers
Shishito peppers are a gourmet treat! The slender fruits are mildly spicy and can be cooked or eaten raw.

Why Shishito Peppers Deserve a Spot in Your Garden

The name “shishito” translates to “lion’s head” in Japanese, inspired by the bumpy blunt tip of the pepper that resembles the king of the jungle. These peppers thrive even in northern zone 5 gardens, surprising many gardeners with their productivity. The harvest typically begins in late July and continues until frost, making them a summer staple. Shishito pepper plants are compact, reaching about two feet in height and 15 to 18 inches in width. The wrinkled and puckery peppers, which are two to four inches long and 3/4 of an inch across, have thin skin that makes them perfect for quick frying, grilling, or tempura. While considered mildly spicy, some peppers may have a surprising kick. However, even the spicy ones are milder than a jalapeño, making them an enjoyable treat.

Starting Shishito Peppers from Seed

To start your shishito pepper journey, sow the seeds indoors under grow lights about 8 to 10 weeks before they are ready to be moved to the garden. If you lack grow lights, a sunny window will suffice, although rotating the pots every few days will encourage straight seedling growth. Plant the seeds in pre-moistened seed-starting mix, just a scant 1/4 inch deep. A heat mat is beneficial, as shishito peppers prefer a germination temperature of 75 to 85°F (24 to 29°C). Once half of the seeds have sprouted, you can turn off the heat mat. Keep the grow lights on for 16 hours a day as the plants continue to grow. Water lightly, aiming for moist, but not wet, soil. When the seedlings have sprouted several sets of true leaves, fertilize them with a diluted liquid organic fertilizer. One week before transplanting the seedlings outdoors, begin the hardening off process. This process acclimatizes the indoor-grown plants to the sun, wind, and other outdoor weather conditions.

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growing shishito peppers
Shishito peppers can be grown in gardens and containers. Look for a site with at least eight hours of direct sun for this heat-loving vegetable.

Transplanting Seedlings to the Garden

Once you’ve grown your own seedlings or purchased transplants, it’s time to transfer your shishito peppers to the garden. Wait until about a week after the last expected spring frost, ensuring that both the soil and air temperatures have warmed. Short-season gardeners may warm the soil beforehand by covering the garden bed with black plastic for 7 to 10 days.

Select a sunny spot with at least eight hours of direct sunlight and well-draining soil enriched with compost. Before transplanting, top the beds with an inch or two of compost or aged manure. Give each plant enough space, spacing them 18 to 24 inches apart to avoid overcrowding. Bury the seedlings slightly deeper than they were in their pots to encourage a robust root system. After planting, water the plants thoroughly and monitor the weather forecast for the next few days. In case of a temperature drop, protect the pepper plants by covering them with a row cover, ensuring it is not in direct contact with the delicate growing tips. Remove the row covers once the weather stabilizes.

Growing Shishito Peppers in Containers

Shishito peppers are an excellent choice for containers such as pots, planters, and grow bags. Opt for containers that are at least 12 inches in diameter and have adequate drainage holes, as proper drainage is crucial. If you choose to use unconventional containers like buckets, don’t forget to add drainage holes before filling them with the growing medium. A drill with a 3/8 inch drill bit works well for this purpose. Fill the pots with a high-quality potting mix and compost, using a rough ratio of 2/3 potting mix to 1/3 compost. To provide additional nutrients, incorporate a slow-release organic fertilizer into the growing medium. After transplanting the seedlings, water them thoroughly and support the plant’s growth by inserting a tomato cage or bamboo stake into the pot.

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container vegetable garden
Shishito pepper plants are early to mature and compact in size. Plant them in raised beds or containers for a large harvest of the slender fruits.

Cultivating Shishito Peppers

Growing shishito peppers is a breeze as long as they receive ample sunshine and well-draining soil. However, with a little extra care, your harvest can become exceptional. Here are four key tasks to remember:

  • Watering: The frequency of watering depends on factors such as weather and soil type. Clay-based soil retains water better than sandy soil, and hot weather dries the soil quicker than cloudy or overcast conditions. In general, water your garden peppers once a week if there has been no rain. Container peppers require watering every day or two, unless the weather has been wet. Aim to water the soil rather than the plant to minimize the spread of soil-borne diseases. Drip irrigation systems or soaker hoses can simplify the watering process.
  • Fertilizing: Incorporate slow-release organic fertilizer into the soil when planting in raised beds or containers. Once your plants start to flower, give them a dose of liquid organic fertilizer such as Neptune’s Harvest. Repeat this feeding with a second application three to four weeks later.
  • Supporting: As summer progresses, the weight of the peppers can cause branches to break in heavy rain or strong winds. To prevent this, provide support by staking your shishito pepper plants with four-foot-tall bamboo stakes or tomato cages.
  • Weeding: Weeds compete with pepper plants for nutrients and space, so remove them as soon as they appear. A shuffle or collinear hoe is an ideal tool for cutting weeds at the soil surface.

pepper harvest
Shishito peppers are one of the easiest types of peppers to grow and yield a heavy crop of the slender, wrinkled fruits.

Addressing Common Pepper Problems

Shishito pepper plants are generally resistant to pests and diseases. However, here are a couple of potential issues to watch out for:

  • Blossom End Rot: This physiological disorder, often attributed to stress and calcium deficiency, is a common problem in peppers. Consistent watering, especially for container-grown plants, can significantly reduce the occurrence of blossom end rot. Mulching with straw or shredded leaves helps maintain soil moisture.
  • Aphids: Aphids are tiny insects that suck sap from plants, causing damage to growth and potentially reducing overall yield. Planting herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings can help control aphid populations. If necessary, use a strong jet of water from a hose to dislodge aphids from plants.
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harvesting shishito peppers
I pick most of my shishito peppers when the fruits are 2 to 4 inches long and still green.

Harvesting Shishito Peppers

Shishito peppers have an earlier harvest season compared to most other pepper varieties. You can start picking green shishito peppers about 60 to 65 days after transplanting. For ripe red peppers, wait an additional three weeks. Most shishito lovers prefer harvesting the green fruits, which are crisp, quick to cook, and possess a mildly spicy-sweet flavor. Harvest the slender peppers as soon as they reach a length of two to four inches. Use herb snips to avoid accidentally breaking the entire branch. Remember to pick the peppers frequently, as continued harvesting promotes increased plant productivity. If you prefer red peppers, keep in mind that allowing them to mature will reduce the overall yield.

cooking peppers
My favorite way to cook shishito peppers is to simply pan-fry them in a bit of olive oil until they turn blistered and golden. Sprinkle a little sea salt on top, and enjoy their mildly spicy-sweet flavor.

Creative Culinary Ideas for Shishito Peppers

Shishito peppers offer endless possibilities in the kitchen. One of the simplest and most delicious ways to enjoy the green fruits is by sautéing them in a hot pan with a splash of olive oil until they blister and brown. Sprinkle them with a touch of sea salt, and they make a delightful appetizer or side dish for barbecued steaks or chicken. You can also consider broiling, barbecuing, or roasting them in the oven. Shishito peppers are excellent for tempura and stir-frying with other garden vegetables. Towards the end of the season, allow some fruits to mature to a vibrant red; these are sweeter than the green peppers and add a delicious touch to salads or nachos.

For more information on growing peppers, check out these articles:

  • Pruning Pepper Plants for Improved Health and Yields
  • Companion Plants for Peppers
  • The Fish Pepper: A Fascinating Heirloom Variety
  • Growing Hot Peppers in Gardens and Containers

So, are you ready to embark on the exciting journey of growing your own shishito peppers?

growing shishito peppers