Growing Chillies at Home from Seed in the UK.
A Little History on the Chilli Plant.
The origin of chilli plants is obscured by time, but it is thought that they came from Central and South America. Today, they are grown and consumed in many parts of the world, including the U.K.
They are part of the capsicum family and five species are commonly used for culinary purposes. Capsicum annuum includes cayenne and jalapenos, while Capsicum chinense includes the hotter naga and habanero varieties.
The Scoville scale detects the heat by measuring the amount of capsaicin that is present in different chillies. Capsaicin stimulates the bodies’ sensory receptors, some of which are on the tongue.
Chillies can be dried, pickled or used fresh. Adding them, wisely, enhances the taste of many dishes. Growing chillies at home from seed, is relatively straight forward and, if you like them, it is well worth giving them a go.
The Chilli Growers Shopping List
Growing chillies at home requires a few purchases. January is a good time to go to the garden centre for the following:
- Chilli seed
- Small pots (or seed trays)
- Seed and cutting compost
- 10 cm pots
- Potting compost
- Potassium rich fertiliser e.g. liquid tomato food
- Cool white fluorescent lights (optional)
- 30 cm pots
- Stakes and twine
Sowing and Germinating
Late January, or early February, is ideal, but seeds can be planted up to the end of April, or early May.
- Put some seed and cutting compost into each small pot.
- Water gently using a fine spray, then drain for about 15 minutes.
- Place chilli seeds into the compost, at a depth of about 0.5 cm, leaving 2.5 cm between them.
- Label the different varieties.
- Keep them moist, by covering the pots lightly with cling film or plastic packets.
- Keep them warm (around 20 degrees Celsius). If temperatures fall, an old electric blanket can be used, or the pots can be put in the airing cupboard. However other places in the home, like the windowsill above a radiator or on top of the fridge, are usually adequate.
- Depending on the variety, germination takes place between about one and six weeks.
Growing and Planting Out
The next stage requires light, as well as warm, moist conditions.
- When the seedlings appear, remove the plastic and ensure they receive adequate light, warmth and moisture.
- Place them in good positions in the home, like on the kitchen windowsill, in the conservatory or in a mini greenhouse. In most homes this would be adequate but, if deemed necessary, place them under fluorescent striplights (cool white ones). Lights should be about 15 cm above the plants.
- Water from underneath, but ensure the surface stays moist too.
- When the seedlings are about 2 cm tall, put some potting compost into 10 cm pots.
- Move each seedling in its own portion of compost to avoid damaging the roots. Press down gently, but firmly.
- Feed them with a half-strength liquid houseplant fertiliser each week.
- When the plants are about 12 cm tall and the roots appear through the holes in the bottom of the pots, fill a 30 cm pot with potting compost.
- Transfer about three plants to each 30 cm pot. When planting, make sure their roots are fairly near the surface. Water gently with a fine spray.
Outside or Inside
- In June, when frost is no longer occurring, the growing plants can be placed outside, at least during the day. Choose a warm, sheltered spot.
- If aphids appear, spray a weak solution of soap on the plants, but do not spray too often, as this may stunt growth.
- When the plants are about 20 cm tall, tie each of them, with twine or string, to a sturdy upright stake.
- When the growing plants are about 30cm tall, snip the tips to enable branching.
- Ensure the compost is always moist. Water every couple of days initially and, as the weather gets warmer, daily.
Flowering and Pollination
When the plants come into flower give them some potassium rich fertiliser e.g. like that used for tomatoes. A few drops put into their water every second day is sufficient. The cayenne variety flowers earlier than other varieties like habanero or naga.
If the plants are outside, bees and other insects can visit. If flowers start to fall off without fruit forming, or if the plants have been inside because of poor weather, then hand pollinate. Take a cotton bud and place it carefully inside the heads of the flowers, moving from one to the next.
Fruiting and Harvesting
Flowers gradually fall off and chillies emerge around July onwards. To promote a good harvest, cut off the first chillies while still green. Use scissors to harvest them and enjoy enhancing the meals you prepare at home. In September, when the cooler autumn days begin, move the plants inside again. Fruit will continue for one or two months after this.
As the season ends cut the plants back, so just the stem and some strong branches are left. Place them in a warm situation, in good compost and give a liquid feed once in a while.
In the next couple of seasons, the growing chilli plants yield is greater, but by around the fourth or fifth year, less fruit will appear. It is then time to start the process again.