Chillies: Why I love them & how I grow them

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Since I took on my allotment four years ago I have grown a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Some have worked well and some haven’t. When I first took on my plot, I was perhaps a little over-eager and I attempted to grow as many different kinds of vegetables as possible – even varieties that I wasn’t too keen on eating as I was sure that if they were home grown I would somehow enjoy the taste. Needless to say my lifelong aversion to Sweetcorn was not cured by growing my own, no matter how enjoyable the actual act of growing it was.

Throughout my various experiments though, there was one vegetable (or technically, should that be fruit?) that grew fantastically well and that I also loved to eat. I am not ashamed to admit that I have become a little bit obsessed with Chillies. This addiction began gradually with raising a couple of varieties and it has grown to become an all consuming challenge each year, culminating this year with over 40 individual plants that are currently taking over my home like some kind of low budget remake of ‘Day Of The Triffids’.

I love everything about growing Chillies. The different varieties, the different colours, the look of the plants and of course, the knowledge that I am growing something that I truly love to eat and use a lot of. It helps that I adore Indian, Thai and Mexican cuisine. I know that any Chillies I grow will certainly not go to waste and will save me valuable pennies on purchasing inferior supermarket versions.

With the above in mind, it seemed only right to create a blog post celebrating my love of Chillies and detailing how I grow them. Many people think that it is hard to successfully grow Chillies here in the UK, but it really isn’t and I am hoping my growing guide may help someone else to take the plunge and join me in celebrating this deliciously versatile vegetable.

One thing that I feel it is important to mention is that I purchased my Chilli seeds from a dedicated Chilli farm (The South Devon Chilli farm to be precise). I have heard people recommending others to attempt to grow from seeds saved from supermarket bought Chillies. Although it may save you a couple of pounds, I really wouldn’t recommend this. The plants the supermarket produce may well come from f1 seeds. This is basically a term that means it is a hybrid seed and as such it is genetically unstable. Any plants that grow from seeds saved from f1 plants are likely to be less vigorous growers and will not be true to type. You are risking compromising on that delicious home grown taste by sowing these seeds. For all the time, effort, love and care you will put into raising the plants, it has to be worth spending a couple of pounds on a packet of seed from a garden centre and being safe in the knowledge that you are starting off with the best possible seed.

As mentioned, I purchased my seed from the South Devon Chilli Farm. I found them online and since my first order, I have loved their company. They do such a wonderful selection of chilli seeds (and other chilli based products) and I have always found their service to be fantastic and their prices to be very reasonable. This year I chose about 12 different varieties of Chilli seeds from them. These range from the very mild “Trinidad Perfume”, which is a yellow, Habanero type chilli but with none of the heat, right up to the fiercely explosive “Bhut Jolokia”, which is also known as the “Dorset Naga” or “Ghost” chilli.

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I find that timing is a fairly important factor in my chilli growing. Some varieties can take a long time to mature and given that UK summers are fairly short lived, you want to be sure that your plants and fruit have enough time to ripen. I sow my seeds in mid-February. I used to simply pop them in individual pots and then place them somewhere warm in my house to germinate. This gave mixed results. The mild and medium chillies germinated with a good success rate and went on to grow well. However, the hot and very hot varieties did not fair well. In fact, out of 12 seeds of hot or very hot varieties that I sowed last year, only one single seed germinated at all and that failed to mature into a productive plant. A general rule seems to be that the hotter the chilli, the warmer it needs to be for it to successfully germinate.

This year, I was very lucky. My parents had kindly given me a heated propagator with grow lights for Christmas. This has been a godsend and absolutely perfect for germinating my chillies. I sowed all 12 varieties in mid-February in John Innes seed compost and placed them in the propagator with the temperature set to 27 degrees. This year I had no problems with germination with any of the seeds. The hot and very hot varieties did take slightly longer to germinate, but when they did they grew well and as of today, they are strong, healthy looking plants. If you are not lucky enough to have a heated propagator to start seeds off in then I would recommend sticking to growing mild or medium heat varieties.

Once the seedlings had grown their first set of true leaves (which are the leaves that look like the typical leaves of the plant and are not the very first set of leaves that appear) I transplanted them into slightly larger pots, approximately 4″ in diameter. Although it was tempting to skip straight to a larger pot to avoid too much “potting on”, this is generally not advised. Research seems to suggest that chillies grow best when they are potted up gradually and you don’t jump from a small pot to a very large one. Once the roots are filling the pot and are visible from underneath then it is time to move on to the next pot size.  I always use John Innes compost for my chilli plants as it is a soil based compost and it is also a lovely fine, sandy mix. It is important for chillies to have good drainage so don’t skimp on the compost! John Innes may be a little more expensive, but in my opinion, it is totally worth it! This picture below shows one of last years chillies in a 3″ pot, just about ready to be potted on to a 5″ pot.

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Another important things to get right is watering. Chillies do not like to be left sitting in damp compost, which is why the well draining compost mentioned above is important. It is much better with chillies to give them a thorough drenching when their compost is dry to the touch and then leave them for a few days to dry out again. Constant watering does not help. I must be honest and admit, that I am often guilty of leaving my own chillies unwatered until they are wilting and the compost is almost bone dry. While I am clearly taking things to the extreme, I have never had a plant die on me due to lack of water and once I have watered them, they will always bounce back to life within an hour or two.

Once the weather warms up, generally around late April to early May, I start to harden off my plants. This means taking them outside to aclimatise to outside conditions. For the first few days I leave the plants outside during the daytime only and bring them inside again at nighttime. After a week or so, if the weather is warm I leave them outside overnight too. If I had more patience for bringing plants in and out all the time, I may leave it two weeks before leaving them outside overnight, but to be honest, this is one gardening job that I hate doing and so I try and get away with hardening off as quickly as possible. This years plants are now all permanently outside on my balcony and unless we are forecast any late frosts, that is where they shall remain.

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When it comes to feeding my chillies, I like to use “Chilli Focus”. This is a plant food that is, as the name suggests, specifically designed for chilli plants. If you decide that you would like to use it too, you can purchase it here (affiliate link). I tend to start feeding my plants when I see the first flowers appearing and once the first fruits are visible I feed once a week. If you don’t want to splash out on a specific chilli food then you can opt to use tomato feed instead. Simply make up the food to half the recommended strength for tomatoes and that will work well as a substitute.

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Once my plants are properly hardened off at home, I take them up to my allotment as I just don’t have the space for them all at home! Last year I left them all in pots, rather than planting them out into the soil and the final pot size I used was about 10″, which worked well for me and the chillies. I did have a polytunnel / grow cloche which I placed a few plants inside. However, over summer in the hot weather I found that they did wilt very quickly inside this, even with the “windows” open. For this reason, I actually left most of my plants outside in the open air and these plants did do considerably better than the ones inside the grow cloche.

This year, I am planning on planting a few of the plants into the ground, just to see if this encourages the plants to grow larger and produce more fruit. However, even in pots it wasn’t long before I noticed a substantial amount of chilli fruit growing and as you can see from these photos below, being in pots did not seem to adversely affect chilli production!

As the summer drew on, the chillies came thick and fast. I was harvesting handfuls of them nearly every day and our household certainly enjoyed a lot of spicy dishes during that time! I harvested some chillies while they were still green, allowing for the plant to create further fruits. Others I left on the plants to develop into a more mature, hotter red chilli. By the end of summer, we had loads of fruit left over – more than enough to be able to preserve them to keep us going over winter.

Of all the things I created with my homegrown chillies, one of my absolute favourites had to be “Salsa Verde”. This was a Mexican salsa that made use of many of my other homegrown vegetables, including onions and tomatillos. It was really delicious and I served it with homemade Chimichangas. I may well pop the recipe up on to my blog at a later date, as it is one recipe that is definitely worth a go if you enjoy Mexican food.

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It is only May as I write this, but I am already looking forward to this years chilli harvest and hoping that it is as productive as last years. Some of my plants have already started to flower and that can only mean one thing…… the chillies are not too far away!

 

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