You asked what my secrets are for growing chillies successfully. Now let me think, where shall I begin?
I like growing chillies and the plants in return reap the reward of my work and produce abundant harvests. Let’s start with what you like to use in your meals. If this is your first attempt at growing, then my advise is don’t grow trendy “this year’s must grow” chillies to start with. Grow the variety you like to use and this will be a good way to understand what the fruit should look like (green or red) when it comes to harvesting. The following surprises many people, but many chilli varieties can be picked at the green fruit stage and will have a warm spicy heat to them even at this ‘unripe’ stage. Some professional gardeners and seed catalogues advise: pick fruit only when ripe. That is a misconception! Let me reassure you, chillies can be harvested eaten when fruits are still at a green stage with the exception of varieties like Bhut and Naga. They will most certainly need to be ripe, with bright fruit colour, to reap that intense 1,000,000 Shu spice heat they hold!
Which variety to grow?
There are so many chilli varieties to choose from. They can be a mild chilli pepper like Aneheim or slightly higher on the Scoville scale a Cayenne variety, (of which there are many types to choose from), my favourite cayenne variety has to be Pusa Jwala.
But if you lack protected environment growing space and the kitchen windowsill is the only option, than an ornamental bush variety like bird’s eye or thai chilli variety (note the characteristics of these varieties is not only the plants are no more than 40cm in height but the fruit point upwards) makes a good addition to any houseplant collection. If space is of no concern and you like even more ‘fruity’ heat in the chillies than a must grow are Scotch bonnet or Habanero varieties; to date they have never failed me and grow happily in an unheated greenhouse over the whole growing season, and if I had the space to continue growing over winter indoors, they would certainly continue to produce fruit.
Where to grow?
Push those growing boundaries! Don’t worry if you have to plant or place the pots outdoors especially here in UK. I do, and I have great success with bountiful chilli harvests from outdoor plants both mild and medium heat varieties as much as harvests from greenhouse grown plants. Yes, where you live dictates success. I live in Greater London area, and our climate here in these southern regions of UK is warm to hot during growing season but still can be unpredictable. I’ve always got recycled 5 litre plastic water bottles as cloches at hand, with the bases cut off to place over the plants, should the weather decide to turn cold in early summer. I say this with confidence that mild to slightly hot varieties like Jalapeno and Serrano will grow comfortably outdoors in many gardens, whether grown on the patio in pots or direct in the garden. Be sure to choose a bright, sheltered south facing position. But for many of us, here in UK, a successful chilli harvest will be produced in greenhouses, polytunnel or tall cloche structures.
When to grow?
When growing from seed, and best time to start sowing will depend on the variety. Many gardeners who follow me on social media, know that I religiously sow (hot varieties) my chilli seeds as well as aubergine and sweet peppers (blogs on these to follow soon) in January. One important point to note: Hotter the chilli variety on the Scoville scale, longer the seed will take to germinate. Some seeds can take 30 to 40 days even when suitable growing conditions are provided. Connoisseur chilli growing enthusiasts will have no doubt already started their seeds, in the month on December. And this means heated propagators, heat mats and grow lights is a must to give these seedlings a successful start in the winter months. Varieties such as Hungarian Hot wax and Padron, I tend to sow seeds as late as end of February even into the month of March; as they are milder in spice heat and germination success is approx. within 10 days. That said, the latest time to sow chilli seed is mid March, especially when indoor growing space is limited. By April as the outdoor daytime temperature rise, the seedlings can enjoy the outdoor conditions be it under cold-frames, unheated propagators or homemade cloches and brought back indoor every evening to spent cool nights on the dining table.
How to grow chillies successfully
- start seeds which are ‘fresh’. Where possible buy in new seeds. With ‘out of date’ seed packets, you’ll be playing russian roulette. Unless the seed packets have been stored in cool, dry, dark conditions, the seed will deteriorate. And even stored seeds need to kept in check.
- seeds can to sown in either coir pellets or in seed trays. When using coir pellets, soak the pellets in warm water, squeeze majority of the water out, make a dent in the centre of the coir and place the seed vertically to help avoid water sitting on the seed cap when sown horizontally. Using the seed tray method; growing media ration is 1:1 coir to horticultural sand. Fill the tray with mix, temp down to remove air pockets, sow seeds vertically spaced 3cm between seeds and cover by sifting 1cm layer of growing media. Label and water from below ( place seed tray in another tray that is filled with water). Place trays on a heat mat or similar warm environment.
- When seedlings are 4 true leaves strong, prick out and pot on into 7cm pots. My growing media for potting on is 1:1 coir to multi purpose compost, alternatively use John Innes No 1. Continue to water from below.
- When seedlings are 6 true leaf in height, start the ‘sparing’ water regime using very mild liquid organic seaweed feed. Always allow the growing media to dry out a little, before watering. This makes the root system send out further feeder roots and subsequently makes the plant to grow above soil level too. Take note: Frequent watering does more harm than good making plants lazy. Constant wet soil also make for an invitation for pest and disease.
- Pot on into 1 litre pots when plants are 8 true leaf or 30cm tall. Final planting indoors or outdoors (around month of May) into 5 to 10ltr pots with fresh multi purpose compost. Even at this point when it comes to watering always allow the soil to be a little on the drier side prior to next drench.
- Once flowers form in late spring; a weekly feed is a must for a successful fruit harvest. This becomes a regimented routine of alternate weekly feeds of homemade comfrey and liquid organic seaweed, until plants show signs they can work no more (by late autumn), usually due to the low daylight hours and cool nights of November.
- Pest problems in a greenhouse can occur for several reasons. Pests overwinter in the greenhouse and it is a good practice to clean and wash the greenhouse with suitable organic disinfectant prior to any sowing or plants added to this grow space. Although plants need warm growing environment, they also need good ventilation. Open vents and doors during the day to allow sufficient airflow. Greenhouse whitefly and green aphids hate air movement around the plants! Another pest, to watch out for is the red spidermite. They make home when the greenhouse air is kept hot and dry. Bring the humidity up by pouring water onto the greenhouse floor several times a day, and also aids the plants transpire less.
I tend to dry majority of my ripe chillies either in the oven (sometimes dehydrator) or string up in ristras. Dried chillies are either kept whole or whizzed into powder, with both stored in airtight containers placed in cool dry dark cupboard. Some fresh ripe chillies are frozen whole and when needed, taken out and chopped into icy slithers with remaining frozen chilli placed back into the freezer.
For further advice, comments or questions on anything I may not have covered in this blog on growing chillies successfully, kindly comment below on the blog site.