Growing your own chillies saves you money and gives you far greater choice than supermarket varieties, says expert grower Sarah Wain of West Dean Gardens
‘Habanero': one of the hottest around!
‘It is worth investing in a thermostatically-controlled propagator in which to start your seedlings in March.’
Despite the vagaries of the British climate there is every reason to grow your own chilli plants as the fruits are relatively expensive to buy compared to a packet of seeds. In addition, the range of fresh chillies available in the shops continues to be very limited and, if you want to extend your pepper palette, the only way to do it is to grow your own.
Many traditional dishes that incorporate chilli specify particular varieties because of their individual qualities. Take mole as an example. It’s the national dish of Mexico with many regional variations, one of which incorporates dried pasilla chillies, dried mulatto chillies or chipotle chillies, none of which is readily available in the UK. If authenticity is important to your developing pepper passion than growing from seed is the only option. Fortunately most of us have room to grow at least one or two chilli plants at home and there are different varieties to suit most situations, from a sunny windowsill to a full-sized glasshouse.
Hungarian Hot Wax
‘Hungarian Hot Wax': banana-shaped
All peppers, both sweet and hot, are members of the Solanaceae family, a group which also includes those other important food crops, tomatoes, aubergines and potatoes. They are also all in the genus Capsicum, the bulk of whose species originate in South America and of which five have been domesticated and are now grown globally. These are C. annuum, the commonest and with the most varieties; C. baccatum, whose varieties are starting to become more readily available; C. chinense, which produces the hottest varieties such as the well-known ‘Habanero'; C. frutescens, from which the world famous Tabasco sauce is made; and C. pubescens, the hairiest, hardiest and least common of them all.
Outdoor growing is, of course, subject to the weather, which means it is less than reliable – but if you live in a mild area or can offer them a sheltered microclimate, it’s certainly worth a try as a supplement to those produced under cover. But there is no doubt that growing in a glasshouse, polytunnel or suitable windowsill should be the favoured option.
As with the raising of anything, be it people or plants, it is the formative stages which are critical. It is worth investing in a thermostatically-controlled propagator in which to start your seedlings in March. Without this it will be difficult to provide a consistent 22-25°C (72-77°F), which is the optimum temperature most chilli varieties require to germinate successfully.
As you will probably only want a few plants of each variety use the smallest pot size practical – that way you can crowd more onto the propagator. Fill the pots with seed-sowing compost and then sow two or three seeds, on the surface, in the centre of each pot. Then give a light covering of vermiculite, available from all good garden centres, which will prevent the seed from drying out too quickly and the soil surface capping. Finally, water with clean mains water and place in the propagator.
Upon germination remove the weaker seedlings leaving the best one to grow on at a temperature of about 16°C (61°F). Don’t allow the seedlings to dry out! Water by standing the pot in a tray of water and allowing the compost to absorb the moisture from below, like a wick. Potting up will take place in five to six weeks, firstly into an 18cm- (7in)-diameter pot with all-purpose compost of your choice and, finally, at the end of June into a 23cm- (9in)-diameter pot. However, if it’s a small variety like ‘Medusa’, a 20cm (8in) pot may be more suitable.
While the seedlings are young, feed with a weak solution of seaweed extract such as Maxicrop. This helps to develop the fine, feeding root hairs that are so necessary for healthy plant development. After the first potting up, change to balanced liquid fertiliser with an N:P:K ratio of approximately 1:1:1 which will promote strong, green growth.
When the first flowers appear, change to a high-potash (K) liquid feed. However, having gone onto the high-potash feed, it is important that you revert to the balanced fertiliser one day of the week to keep the plant producing leaves and framework on which to sustain fruiting. At all times it is far better to feed with small daily doses rather than in one great indigestible weekly blow-out, so divide the weekly recommendation by seven and add that seventh to your daily early morning water. Steady watering is best, early in the morning and then again early afternoon if required. Avoid watering at the end of the day as moist, humid atmospheres aid the development of fungal problems.
Some varieties are naturally bushy and you can see by their growth that they don’t need pinching out. However many chilli varieties produce just a single stem of growth, unless you intervene and break off the top of the stem when it’s approximately 20cm (8in) high – a finger and thumb pincer movement will do the job satisfactorily. This will induce laterals below the pinch point and give you many more young branches on which flowers and fruit will develop; more branches equal more fruit.
There are some chilli varieties whose fruit are so large and heavy that the plants tend to fall apart under the strain unless staked. This is particularly a problem with plants that are exposed to the wind. If you suspect this will be a problem, stake the plant centrally with a split green cane after potting the young plant into a 23cm- (9in)-diameter pot. As the branches develop, stake three to five of them at the point where they hang over the edge of the pot. Just thrust a cane into the pot along the edge and use string or a green twist-tie to secure the stem to it loosely.
Pests and diseases
Early in the season the main pest problem is likely to be greenfly, which can multiply rapidly, weaken the plant severely and possibly infect it with a virus, if left untreated. Daily attention to your plants in the early months pays dividends and a quick pinch with a finger and thumb is the easiest method to control this troublesome aphid.
The other problem you might face is grey mould (Botrytis). This is particularly prevalent during grey, rain-laden summer months, when light levels are low and the air is moist. Hygiene and a suitable environment are the best control methods. Immediate removal of all dead, diseased and dying foliage, stems and faded flowers, plus maintenance of a well-ventilated growing environment is the order of the day.
Follow all of the above and you should be picking a fine crop of fresh chillies of your own selection by late August. And, if producing your own plants from seed seems just a tad too ambitious for this year, then start with a few plants.
‘Numex Twilight': multi-coloured
Sarah’s six of the best
‘Habanero’ – one of the hottest around, with recipe books dedicated to this variety alone. ‘Habanero’ and its relatives takes longer to germinate and has a longer growing period than some, but many believe it’s worth the wait.
‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ – early cropper with banana-shaped chillies ripening from grassy yellow to orange red. Reasonably hot and good for a variety of dishes.
‘Lemon Drop’ – lemon-coloured with a slightly citrus taste and fiery burn.
‘Medusa’ – ideal for small spaces such as windowsills. Produces long, twisted, skinny chillies. Looks fantastic when several plants are placed together.
‘Numex Twilight’ – multi-coloured fruits range from cream to green, purple, orange and red on a big, bushy plant. The heat varies on the ripeness of the fruit. ‘Tabasco’ – produces masses of fiery, orange-red, erect chillies on upright plants. Ideal for sauces and hot!
By Sarah Wain