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All you need to know

Chillies

If you thought a packet of red, green and yellow chillies from the shops, both undersized and overpriced, was as exciting as the fiery fruits got, think again. The most interesting ones are only available to home growers – from chunky and fleshy to blunt-ended and incredibly potent

Although more than 3,500 varieties of chilli are estimated to exist, one of the hottest in the world is grown not in the tropics, but right here in the UK. The ‘Dorset Naga’ was bred from the Bangladeshi ‘Naga Morich’ on a smallholding in southern England. In fact nearly all varieties of this member of the tomato and potato family can do very well in this country.

Over here chillies are usually grown as annual greenhouse plants, although some varieties will crop well on a warm kitchen windowsill or, at the other end of the scale, outdoors on the veg patch. The plants can reach anywhere from 25–180cm in height and produce glossy, mid-green leaves, as well as masses of star-shaped, whitegreen flowers in late spring to late summer which go on to form the small, edible fruits. In the kitchen, the peppers provide a spicy twist to meat and vegetable dishes, such as chili con carne and guacomole. They vary tremendously in their shape and colour (there are red, yellow, green, orange and purple forms) and also in the amount of ‘heat’ they contain. For this reason they should always be treated with care, as some varieties are intensely hot and can easily make your mouth and throat burn when eaten. If you are a chilli fan and want to grow some plants this season, then now is an ideal time to start ordering and sowing the seeds.

If you’re planning to grow your chilli plants outside, you will find they establish themselves more quickly if you cover your proposed planting site with cloches a few weeks beforehand to warm-up the ground.

For the best results, always select a sheltered, sunny spot with a well-drained but moisture-retentive and reasonably fertile soil. When planting, fork over and mix a trowelful of multipurpose compost into the base of each planting hole and backfill around each rootball with a mixture of excavated earth and further compost.

Chilli seeds are best sown from January to March for greenhouse and indoor cultivation, and in April for outdoor cultivation.

Fill a seed tray to just below the rim with moist John Innes seed compost, firm it in to create a level surface and then scatter the seeds thinly on top. Finally, cover the seeds with a 5mm layer of compost or vermiculite and place the tray in a heated propagator at a temperature of 21–25°C. If you only want a few plants, you can sow into small pots rather than a tray. Once the seedlings emerge (germination usually takes 10–21 days) and have two obvious leaves, prick them out individually into 7.5cm diameter pots filled with John Innes no. 1 compost – try not to disturb the roots too much and always handle each seedling by a leaf, not the thin stem, to lower the risk of damaging the plant. Afterwards, position the seedlings in a warm and well-lit greenhouse or conservatory.

If you don’t have a heated propagator, after you sow the seeds, place the tray or pot in a warm airing cupboard instead. However, it’s essential to cover your chosen container with a clear plastic propagating lid or cling film and to check the compost on a regular basis to make sure it doesn’t dry out. As soon as the seedlings appear, the tray must be moved to a warm and well-lit greenhouse or conservatory. They should then be pricked-out in the same manner as those raised in a heated propagator, when they have two obvious leaves.

When the seedlings have developed five pairs of leaves or are around 15cm in height, they should be transferred to their final growing positions.

For greenhouse varieties, plant the chillies individually into 20–25cm diameter containers filled with John Innes no. 2 compost, or place two plants at either end of a grow bag. Certain varieties are happy to be raised on a warm kitchen windowsill such as ‘Apache’ and ‘Red Missile’, and these also need to be grown in pots. If you have a mild plot and want to grow chillies outside, then harden off the plants for two weeks at the end of May or early June, by placing them out on the patio or in a cold frame during the day and bringing them back under cover at night – this will allow the plants to adapt to the change in temperature. When planting, space the chillies 60cm apart in rows that are at 90cm intervals.

Alternatively, plant them in suitable pots, harden them off and then leave outside on a warm and sunny patio.

Greenhouse-grown chilli plants prefer a minimum night temperature of 12–15°C and a maximum day temperature of 30°C – this can be maintained by heating the structure (when necessary), opening the ventilators and damping-down the floor on hot days.

During the main growing season, the compost and garden soil needs to be kept uniformly moist at all times but waterlogging must be avoided. Greenhouse plants also require regular misting with tepid water to create a humid atmosphere, especially when they are flowering, as this will stimulate ‘fruit set’ and help prevent attacks by the sap-sucking pest, red spider mite.

A method of support is usually required for the main stem of taller varieties and a stout cane is ideal for this purpose – always cover the top of each one with an old cork to prevent accidental eye injuries. When the first flowers appear, liquid feed the chilli plants using a high-potash fertiliser on a weekly basis. If a spell of unseasonally cold weather is forecast, always cover outdoor specimens with a protective sheet of horticultural fleece or cloches. And, if any of them get too tall (indoors or out), they can be kept in check by simply pinching out the growing tips back to healthy leaves.

The chillies should be left to ripen on the plants and are harvested when they are firm, crisp and fully coloured. They should be picked regularly when they are ripe, as this clears the way for new ones to form. Once collected, chilli fruits can be used fresh (eaten raw or cooked), dried and frozen.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Order chilli seeds from a specialist supplier.

  • February

    Order chilli seeds from a specialist supplier. For greenhouse growing, sow the seeds and leave to germinate in a heated propagator. Transfer young seedlings into small pots.

  • March

    Order chilli seeds from a specialist supplier. For greenhouse growing, sow the seeds and leave to germinate in a heated propagator. Transfer young seedlings into small pots.

  • April

    For outdoor growing, sow the seeds under cover and ideally leave them to germinate in a heated propagator. Alternatively, cover the same trays and pots with cling film and place in a warm airing cupboard. Transfer the young seedlings from a March sowing into small pots. Plant the chillies from a January or February sowing in their final growing quarters. In warm spells, ventilate and damp down the greenhouse. Aim to keep the chilli plants uniformly moist.

  • May

    Transfer the young seedlings from an April sowing into small pots. Plant the chillies from a March sowing in their final growing quarters. In warm spells, ventilate and damp down the greenhouse to keep heat levels in check. Do it first thing in the morning, so the water evaporates during the day. Keep the chilli plants moist and apply a liquid feed. Towards the end of the month harden-off April-sown chillies before planting them outside.

  • June

    In warm spells, ventilate and damp down the greenhouse. Keep the chilli plants uniformly moist and apply a liquid feed. Harden off April-sown chillies before planting them outside. Be ready to protect outdoor chillies with fleece or cloches in adverse weather conditions.

  • July

    In warm spells, ventilate and damp down the greenhouse. Keep the chilli plants uniformly moist and apply a liquid feed. Harvest and store the fruits.

  • August

    In warm spells, ventilate and damp down the greenhouse. Keep the chilli plants uniformly moist and apply a liquid feed. Harvest and store the fruits.

  • September

    Harvest and store the fruits.

  • October

    Harvest and store the fruits.

  • November

    Harvest and store the fruits.

  • December

    Order chilli seeds from a specialist supplier.

Next
Overwintering Chilli Plants

Overwintering Chilli Plants

Most chillies are forms of Capsicum annuum and, as such, are annual plants and should be discarded (composted) when they stop producing fruits in the autumn. However, a few chillies, notably the species Capsicum baccatum and Capsicum pubescens (which include the varieties ‘Lemon Drop’ and ‘Rocoto Red’ respectively) are short-lived perennials and the plants can be overwintered and used to raise fruits the following summer. Once they have finished cropping, pinch out the growing tips and cut back all the side shoots to 5cm in length, before placing each pot on a greenhouse ‘heat mat’ (available from simpsonsseeds.co.uk) at a temperature of 12–15°C. During the winter, ensure the compost is kept just moist and feed the plants at every watering with a one-quarter strength highpotash liquid fertiliser – this will help to keep their immune systems healthy, giving them some defence against winter fungal diseases. When the chilli plants sprout again, re-pot them and revert to a high nitrogen feed to induce lots of fresh, new growth.

Chillies: Varieties To Try

  • Apache

    A dwarf variety (25–30cm tall) with a neat and compact habit making it ideal for a kitchen windowsill, patio container or the greenhouse. The fruits are mildly hot.

  • Red MIssile

    This low-growing variety is ideal for a greenhouse, kitchen windowsill or vegetable garden. The firm fruits turn from pale cream to orange and then deep red.

  • Ring of Fire

    A hot-fruited chilli which can be raised outside. It grows from 50cm to 60cm tall. The chillies themselves are long, thin and turn bright red.

Bird Food

If you have a few spare or misshapen chilli fruits at the end of the season, then these can be ground down and used to prevent squirrels from stealing wild bird food. Leave the fruits to dry on a warm windowsill, before grinding them into a powder and storing in a dry tin – take care when grinding the chillies as any airborne chilli dust can irritate the eyes. Wash your hands when finished to remove any remaining chilli particles. Whenever you are feeding the birds on a bird table, sprinkle some of the chilli powder over the food. Birds don’t mind the powder but squirrels hate it and will venture elsewhere.

Chillies

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