Growing Chillies at home is not only financially wise – when considering the hefty price of store-bought hot peppers – but is also great fun and personally rewarding.
There is something wonderful about watching your seeds bursting into life, developing into small plants and finally turning into bushes that yield huge amounts of fine tasting Chillies. What’s more, growing them is a piece of cake. With a moderate amount of care and following a few simple guidelines, you will have your own homegrown hot peppers in no time at all.
So let’s start with the basics.
Choosing what to grow
For your first season, it may be best to start with just one or two different types. In doing so, you can develop your growing skills. Growing Chillies may be easy, but mistakes undoubtedly will happen. By restricting your growing to only a few varieties, you will be able to focus on the basics and get things right the first time around.
Choosing what you will grow will depend on your own personal circumstances. If you live in a small apartment, it would be best to choose something that will not grow too big. If the only space you have is a sun-facing window sill or a small patio, you don’t want something that will overshadow everything. You are looking for something far smaller.
Take the Demon Red Chilli as an example. It is a very hot dwarf variety that grows to 14 inches. It was specifically developed for growing in limited space environments. As well as being delicious, this Chilli also makes a great ornamental feature.
From my own growing experience, the Prairie Fire Chilli is a great variety for growing indoors. It grows up to 10 inches high with a spread of 11 inches. This Chilli provides a healthy crop of small, quite hot peppers that are multicoloured (red, yellow and orange) throughout the year.
Other possibilities for growing indoors include the Peruvian Rainbow, Apache, Red Missile F1, Little Elf, Cheyenne F1 pepper and Basket of Fire F1.
In my own experience the Jalapeno, Hot Wax Banana pepper, and Thai Hot chilli are good choices for growing in a garden, whether in pots or directly in the soil. Other possibilities are Ring of fire, Hungarian Hot Wax and Jamaican Red ( a type of Scotch Bonnet).
When considering whether to plant hotter varieties, it is good to bear in mind that many of these chillies have a long maturation period. It can take up to 100 days (from potting on) before they will start producing any fruit. Taking in mind that it only becomes warm enough to plant chillies outside in June in the UK, it is essential to start your growing season early. You should be germinating your seeds indoors well before then.
Where and when to plant them
As previously mentioned, it is essential to consider your own personal living circumstances when choosing which Chillies to grow.
With a property having a garden, the possibilities are broader because the final size of the plant does not need as much consideration. Here you can consider growing the Chillies to maturity solely in pots or gradually transplanting them from smaller into bigger pots and then finally planting directly into the soil.
If only growing in pots, the size of the pot relative to the final size and root structure will be an important consideration. The bigger the plant, the larger the container that will be needed.
Considering that some Chillies can grow to over 4 feet in height if you have restricted space, you might want to choose a dwarf variety, which will be happy in a small pot. On the other hand, if you have a garden or allotment where you can plant into the soil, far bigger varieties can be considered.
So, what do I need?
Now that you have decided which varieties to grow, the fun starts. In the UK, if you have decided to grow from seed, you will need to start your growing project in early March (although for some varieties, sowing as early as January is recommended).
Chillies have quite a long growing season and need plenty of sunshine – so starting later may result in smaller crop (or none at all). You should aim for your plants to have reached full maturity by the beginning of July/August. This will allow good harvesting through to October/ November – when the plants will start to die off.
As it is far too cold to germinate Chilli seeds outside much before June, it is best to propagate your them indoors or in a heated greenhouse. To do this, you will need, a propagation box, good seedling starter compost, a hand-held trigger sprayer and a heating mat (Alternatively you can purchase an electrical seed propagator with built-in heater).
Another item you may want to consider (to make or buy) is an overhead “Grow light” unit. With this’ you can that use artificial lighting to aid in the growth of seedlings once they have germinated. Grow lights are good for starting the season early ( as soon as December) for slow-growing hot chilli pepper varieties like the Scotch bonnet.
All of these items can be purchased inexpensively at your local garden centre or online. If you are handy, much can be made relatively easily using anything suitable you might have lying around. To find instructions on making typical homemade propagation equipment Click here.
How to grow them
The first step is to fill the propagation box with compost. It is best to use specialised seed starting compost – easily found online or at your nearest garden centre – as these are specially formulated to achieve a good germination rate.
Many of these mixtures contain vermiculite or perlite, which will aid drainage – an essential element in chilli seed propagation. Some experts even advocate the use only of Vermiculite in the germination stage.
Under no circumstances do you want the medium that you are growing the seeds in to become waterlogged – as it will develop a fungus that will kill off the seeds. Because of this, if your seed potting mix does not contain vermiculite or perlite, it’s worth considering adding either (or both) to aid drainage.
Next, moisten the soil with a good sprinkling of water from your handheld sprayer. Sow the seeds directly onto the potting mixture and cover with a thin layer (4-5 mm) of compost or vermiculite.
Place the plastic cover on the propagator and keep at a temperature of between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius, using the heated mat or built-in heater of the propagator. It is best to keep the seeds out of contact with direct sunlight at this point. The seeds should take between 7 to 10 days to sprout and can then be moved to warm, sun-facing window sill or heated greenhouse.
As mentioned, the soil must be kept only moist through regular watering. The right way of doing this is by using your handheld sprayer that will allow you to spray a fine mist over the compost /vermiculite covering the roots of the plant. Chilli seedlings do not like too much water!
The seeds have germinated. What now?
Once the seeds have germinated, allow them to grow until they have two leaves and then transplant them into 3-inch pots. It will have taken approximately 3 weeks to be at this stage At this point; you will want to purchase some good quality potting soil and make up a mix of 30% vermiculite or perlite to 70% potting soil. Also, buy a chilli or tomato plant feed and fertilise the plants according to the instructions provided
Once the seedlings have transplanted, keep the pots warm and moist on your window sill or greenhouse. It is best to keep them indoors or in a heated greenhouse at this stage as the plants are still too young to survive the cold.
Tend the Chilli plants through feeding and maintaining a moist and warm environment. When seedlings are young, it is best not to give them too much water as it is not required at this time. The need for more water will come at a later stage in the plants’ development. When watering the plants always spray at the base of the plant and not directly onto the leaves. The droplets of water that land on the leaves may act as a “magnifying glass” when the plant is in direct sunlight, and this may damage the Chilli.
What else should I do?
A further 4 to five weeks after transplanting the seedlings into the 3-inch pots, they will need to be transplanted once again.
At this stage, they will have 6 – 8 leaves and should be transplanted into the pot that will be its final home(or where they will grow until big enough to be transplanted directly into the soil).
The size of the pot will depend on the variety being grown.
For dwarf varieties, a 1-1.5 litre pot (15 cm diameter) will suffice, but for bigger varieties, pots of up to 10 litres (29 cm) may be needed. Before transplantation, it is good to start introducing plants that will be kept outside to open-air conditions. The idea is to toughen them up so they will be able to deal with the wind etc. that they had not faced before this step. To do this, take the plants out onto the patio on warm days and bring them indoors at night. Then slowly start allowing them to overnight outside until they have built up resistance to the elements. At this point, they can be left permanently outside or transplanted directly into the soil.
Maintain a regular feeding programme using Chilli or tomato feed and ensure that the plants receive adequate water. Once again, I re-emphasise how important it is that the plants are not over-watered. You may also want to consider using a seaweed-based fertiliser (kelp) as an addition to your regular feeding. This is normally applied every 7 to ten days by foliar (on the leaf) spraying.
Because of the danger of plant damage ( through the “ magnifying glass” effect mentioned previously) it is best to do this at periods of the day when the sun is not at its hottest, e.g. in the morning or late afternoon. Foliar spraying allows the plant to absorb the feed through the leaves.
You should start noticing flowers appearing on the plants in June. The bees will start pollinating the flowers, and soon you will start seeing small Chillies beginning to develop from the base of the flower. You are now well on your way to harvesting a crop. By July / August you can start harvesting the first couple of green Chillies. A little further on, the plant will be producing hot peppers continuously. You will need to allow the Chillies to mature to allow them to change to the colour they will finally become. Sometimes this might be a process where they have several changes of colour before arriving at the final, e.g. green, yellow and finally red.
This is a typical scenario for the development of a Chilli from seed to producing plant in the UK. Seasons may, however, vary as a result of weather conditions and other factors, so things may not always follow the same pattern. Other countries growing seasons will depend on their locations in the world and so obviously will be different from the United Kingdom.
From here we start producing Chilli jams, chutneys and relishes. Enjoy!