Growing Peppercorns: planting your own Black Pepper supply

young peppercorns

Regarding self-sufficiency, baby steps can make all the difference to the feelings of success and motivation. Becoming self-sufficient in the smallest things makes the process completely worthwhile, and peppercorns fit this topic perfectly. We have almost achieved self-sufficiency with our sustainable supply of several spices including peppercorns, also known as black pepper; this article is about our process.

How hard is it to grow your own peppercorns?

With all plants, especially spices, the garden location matters. When growing beyond the natural locations where any plant is native, we, while gardening, can manipulate the local environment to mimic the preferred conditions that peppercorns do best in. This doesn’t guarantee you grow peppercorn plants successfully, though.

Growing peppercorns is easy if you can get close to the conditions it prefers, as a general rule.

In this light, it is easy to say that growing a black pepper supply at home is not hard, but it becomes increasingly difficult the further you go from the equator.

Is the plant a Vine or a Bush?

The peppercorn plant, or piper nigrum, is a curious thing because it can be both a vine and a bush (more on this below). When we started growing this plant, it was with the bush version, and we thought this was its natural state.

We planted it in a fully shaded location, and for the most part, we pretty much ignored it. It grew into a small clump and produced a good number of seeds or peppercorns. Nowhere near enough to consider us self-sufficient in it, but it was a great introduction to this plant.

So, to become self-sufficient in black pepper (we use a lot of it), we set out to find more bushy plants to place in our yard. We found several at a plant nursery in Cairns, in far north Queensland, and brought them home.

It was our wet season, and peppercorn plants love heat and humidity. Our new plants settled in and then took off, growing vines instead of the expected bushy habit we had come to know. We thought we had been taken for a ride, and these vines were different plants.

Over the next few months, the vines grew and climbed out of the gardens and up anything near them. This was so not like how a bush behaves. Well, fast forward to today, and these vines are two years old.

They have climbed the structures we built for them and educated us well along the way.

It turns out that the vine is peppercorn, correctly named piper nigrum. How come it’s now a vine? Our other pepper-producing plants are bushes!

Propagating Bush Peppercorn Plants.

This is where we had an aha moment and discovered that the vine is an extremely generous plant when one considers the whole return from just one healthy vine and not just the harvest of seeds.

The vine grows well in warm wet conditions, as long as the soil is reasonably well-draining and has good nutrient levels.

As it is a vine, at each leaf node, it sets roots that either grasp a structure to carry weight as it climbs, or these same roots will convert to feeder roots if the conditions are right. Other spices like Vanilla beans do the same thing, as detailed in “grow vanilla bean at home“.

Our wet season triggers this change, so taking an active tip from the vine is easy.

peppercorn vine cuttings
Cuttings taken from both active vine tips and the branching section.

The exciting part about this is our choice of where to make the cut. If we take it from an active vine tip, another vine is likely.

If we take from the top of the vine, where it starts to branch out and create an umbrella-like shape, this is where we can expect to get a bush peppercorn plant.

What type of peppercorn plant will grow the most spice?

This is the best part of the whole deal. It is the branching zone near the top is where the great majority of the peppercorns are produced, in our experience. The seeds cluster around a thin hanging stem and remain green until completely ripe where they then turn red. They will become black when dry. We have picked them when green for a different flavor but the black seeds we leave for grinding.

The only difference between the two types of peppercorns growth habits is the height of the crop. This then brings a whole new set of opportunities and design ideas into the picture. As a Permaculture designer, this is enticing.

Suppose you are looking to grow peppercorns at home; when gardening, we advise you to sit down and consider the plant’s preferred conditions and whether you can supply them before planting your black pepper.

What conditions are best to grow peppercorns?

From our experience, we have observed that peppercorns grow in deep shade, in light shade, and in dappled sunlight.

We have plants in all described situations plus one that is in full sun. So far, the tropical sun has not stopped the plant from climbing or harmed the leaves but we are about to get our hottest months of the year so we will find out if it can cope.

The image below is the main mother vine we use to take cuttings from, and it has now poked its head up above the pergola that we have it climbing, and the leaves are now exposed to full sun. This wet season (that is almost upon us) will determine if the plant can cope with the full sun.

pepper vine above pergola
Full sun in the tropics. We will find out how the plant copes.

If it proves so, it is safe to assume that pepper will grow in full sun in sub-tropical zones and possibly into the more moderate temperate locations.

The following table gives conditions for climatic variations. Please note the tropics are the natural climatic zone for this plant.

Shadepart shade/full sunfull sun/part shade *full sun/part shade *
HumidityNaturalNatural/ created *Created *
RainfallHeavy seasonalSeasonalwatering required
SoilsAcidic shallowDeep acidicNeutral to alkaline
* Shade required in hot dry weather. The hottest months in the tropics are the wettest with cloud cover.

Over the last five years, we have tried several locations to find the most appropriate spot to grow this pepper plant, and now we are confident to share our observations, failures, and successes. Your location will be different, but hopefully, you can take something from our experience and apply it to your situation. Consider the table above as you research your potential.

Peppercorn success will rely on the willingness of the gardener to experiment, though. Peppercorns should do well in greenhouse-type setups in temperate zones with planning.

What Soil is recommended to grow peppercorn plants?

We can only offer facts that we know to be true because we have observed them. The soil peppercorn plants like is well-draining and should hold medium quantities of organic matter. For the record, we use no chemicals, manufactured fertilizers, or sprays and our soil fits the description above.

We do apply compost to the peppercorns when we have a batch going, and we regularly mulch with wood shavings from the lathe work we do in a separate business. This generates a reasonable amount when we are busy and helps when gardening.

We water the peppercorns as required, but generally, we ignore the plants for the most part. These conditions and soil types seem acceptable to the plants, which is all we want.

A note on compost.

We find compost to be such a game changer for us that we wrote a dedicated article on our process. You can read it here. When gardening, we often use it when planting new areas to get plants settled in.

Using fertilizers instead of compost.

We don’t use manufactured fertilizers, and we choose to use composts and natural manures while gardening. You may not have the ability to make compost so we suggest the fertilizer peppercorn plants will do ok with is a balanced type not heavy in nitrogen.

A tip to planting, based on an observation.

While gardening we have re-designed several areas building our optimal permaculture design on our land, and while filling in swales and moving things around we used slab-timber off-cuts as small retaining blocks in places.

These have been buried now and we planted some peppercorn vines close to where these blocks rest. The observation and tip is hügelkultur works with peppercorns.

What can peppercorn vines grow on?

We have two primary structures where we have peppercorns growing. One is more advanced than the other, but the following information is suitable for any backyard.

Peppercorn vines will grow on any vertical surface if the conditions are suitable. The requirements are enough humidity, warmth, and water.

Those conditions allow the vine to set the grasping roots, and we have observed the vines climbing metal and hardwood posts using those roots. Note that it is likely you will need to guide this plant as it grows.

peppercorn root nodes
Photo taken near the top of the vine. Branching is visible.

This observation allows us to put the design hat on and think vertically. If the vine wants to grow, then the opportunity is to use a far smaller ground-level footprint for the plant’s base and stem. It’s details like this that make gardening very enjoyable for us.

The space where the crown would be if it were a bush is now many feet above the ground, creating an umbrella effect where an opportunity now presents itself for other plants to grow below it while enjoying the new shade.

This kind of thinking allows us to stack several plants into a small area and convert what was possibly an empty space in the garden into a very productive zone. It also makes growing black pepper fun.

How tall can peppercorn vines grow?

If you consider that the peppercorn is a vine, it will climb any structure and grow as tall as that structure. This can be ten meters or more if you let it get that high.

If you search the internet for stock images of piper nigrum vine, you will see pictures of the vines climbing palm trees, and they get pretty tall.

They pick peppercorn berries with ladders. We don’t have to go this far, so we can set the height of the structure to a more manageable level that fits the available location. This is how we have approached the structure pictured below.

Hardwood posts for growing peppercorn plants on
4 old fence posts wired together as a climbing structure.

Can you be self-sufficient in home-grown peppercorns?

This is where it is up to you. As you can see in the images above, peppercorns take up little space and can be a net positive in shade development for softer plants to grow below.

young peppercorn plants at base of grow tower
There are 4 plants at the base of the tower. Ginger rhizomes can be seen front-right.

If you need several plants, the observation we have to offer is that one good healthy plant will give you multiple new plants each year. After the main vine has reached a point where it begins branching, this is where the under-story peppercorn bush versions are taken, so consider the opportunity to diversify your planting of the spice.

Peppercorns are a self-replicating plant that is worthy of every yard. Depending on how much pepper you require, planting just one plant and taking cuttings during wet season can allow you to be self-sufficient in black pepper in about three years’ time.

Three years is enough time for the new plants to get to a fruiting age, and then you are all set.

Peppercorn Plant care.

This is a straightforward process with not a lot of challenges, in our experience. As long as the plant is mulched at the soil surface and the soil holds moisture without being waterlogged, the plant should do well.

Can Peppercorn Plants be Transplanted?

We have included this section only to share what happened to our original plant. We redesigned the front section of our yard after it had grown far too wild and was totally out of control and creating problems.

Mind you, it was all food, but that garden area was predominately perennials; they were mostly woody shrubs/bushes/trees. In amongst this work was the first or our peppercorns, and it had to be moved. Long story short, it did not survive the move. We were ignorant to correct peppercorn plant care, particularly when moving one.

We treated it poorly, and it paid the price, unfortunately. It may have been a success with more care and dedicated attention, so we can neither say yes nor no to the transplanting. However, I am leaning towards possible.

What to look out for when growing black pepper.

Attention should be given to several things when selecting a location to plant black pepper into.

  • Soil conditions
  • Soil drainage
  • Structures to climb
  • Space to grow
  • Room to pick and harvest
  • Ease of maintenance

Some suggestions to growing a black pepper supply indoors.

When keeping black pepper indoors, regular care like watering and allowing the black pepper plant enough sunlight will help the plant thrive. A slow release organic fertilizer is recommended also. We recommend the bush variety for indoor growing if space is not available for the vine to climb. All notes in this article otherwise apply.

Our Conclusions.

We trust that you can use the information above on how to grow black pepper. To cap off the article in a few short sentences, we have the list below.

  • Black pepper qualifies as a quality fill-in plant for the garden that serves multiple purposes. It gives a harvest. It can create patches of shade for other plants to grow under. It can serve as a vehicle for sharing/trading plants with other gardeners.
  • It is a perennial. You plant it once and pick for years to come.
  • It is hardy. We talk from experience when we say we totally ignored the first plant and it survived. We have had zero problems with this plant.
  • It is generous with the yield. Our best guess is 6 black pepper plants to be self-sufficient. (it’s a guess)
  • The plant is a nice looking one and is no trouble to other plants around it.
  • Lastly, growing peppercorn plant is strongly recommended.

Article by Tim Blanch for He is a qualified Permaculture designer.