If you're a devotee of that beguiling chilli heat in your food, then growing your own plants opens up new possibilities of variety, flavor, and spiciness beyond the specimens found in most grocery stores. However, successfully raising these fiery fruits can present a challenge to inexperienced chilli gardeners. Here is a complete guide to producing your first bumper crop.
Many of the more exotic varieties of chilli depend on a hot, humid climate with plenty of sun and a long growing season. This makes choosing the right variety for your local climate essential. Even if you're planning to grow your chillies under glass, a variety which developed in the deep tropics is unlikely to find life easy at more rarefied latitudes. That's not to say you can't try to grow your favorite type of hot, obscure pepper, but if you're just starting out then it may be better to choose a more forgiving kind which is easier to grow in more temperate locations.
Chillies aren't overly fussy when it comes to the ideal soil type. Any reasonably fertile soil can lead to good results, although a mildly acidic compost with good potassium levels will produce the most fruit. Ensure the soil is free draining, as although chillies are happy in humid conditions, they don't like to stand in the wet.
Most chillies need a fairly long growing season if the fruits are to fully ripen, so depending on your location and climate, it's often best to start the seeds off under cover in early spring. If you have a heated glasshouse then this is ideal, but a sunny windowsill is fine as well. Most seed varieties require a consistent temperature of at least 20°C to germinate and can take between one and three weeks to show signs of growth. If the night time temperature regularly falls below 15°C, development will be slowed dramatically, while any hint of frost risks killing the plants.
Potting Up the Seedlings
Growing chillies is a balancing act between establishing a good root ball and not disrupting the young plants' development too much. Chillies particularly dislike having their roots disturbed, but if you germinate the seeds in a large pot, a single, long tap-root will be formed rather than a healthy root system. A good compromise is to start the seeds off in small plugs made from organic material, which can later be transplanted whole into larger containers or open soil when the seedlings are a few inches tall.
Chillies thrive best with plenty of sun, but in particularly hot climates, direct midday sunshine can cause the leaves to scorch and dry out. In these situations, lightly dappled shade combined with close attention to watering is the best approach. In exposed areas, young plants will benefit from the support of a cane.
Chilli plants should never be allowed to dry out completely, yet they are fairly tolerant of inconsistent watering. Indeed, if the plants are under mild water stress, the final fruits will be hotter and more flavorsome. Watering little and often is best, but if the leaves start to wilt, give your plants a generous drink and consider adding a layer of mulch to help stop the compost from drying out too quickly.
It's important that the soil remains highly fertile from the first flowers through to final harvesting. Specialist chilli feeds are available, but these products can be expensive. A tomato feed rich in potassium is perfectly suitable, and can be applied monthly, or more regularly if the leaves start to look pale and yellowing. Beware of fertilizing with nitrogen-based products, as this will tend to encourage soft leaf growth at the expense of fruits.
Plants growing outdoors can usually be left to be pollinated by bees and other insects, but indoor specimens will benefit from manual pollination using a fine paintbrush. Simply dab the pollen powder from the blossoms on one plant into another.
An important point to be aware of is that chilli varieties will happily cross-pollinate. This is only a factor if you intend to save seeds for planting the following year, in which case the fruits may not grow true to type instead inheriting a mixture of the parents' characteristics. Reduce this risk by growing different varieties at some distance apart, and not in direct line of the prevailing winds. Alternatively, pick a single favorite variety to grow, or simply allow nature to do her cross-pollination work and see what results - you could stumble across an exciting new variety!
Increasing Fruit Production
The more branches your plants develop, the more fruits will be produced. If your chillies are growing in pots, a trick to increase branch growth is to tilt the containers sideways at 45 degrees, which will encourage new vertical growth from the sides of the main branches. Changing the direction of the tilt every week or so will help develop a bushy, rounded plant with plenty of fruiting potential.
The fruits can be picked at any stage, from early green to fully ripe. As with many fruiting plants, regular picking will extend the productive life. The chillies flavor will change as the weeks go on, and many people like to pick a few specimens at every stage of ripeness to enjoy the variety. Bumper crops can be preserved through freezing, drying, or processing into a pickle or hot sauce.
Although chillies are usually grown as an annual plant, in their natural habitat they are usually perennials. If you have a heated glasshouse or space indoors, you can try to take advantage of this by keeping your plants alive over winter. In most climates, the plants will enter a dormant state as the days grow shorter, so at this point cut them back hard to just above the first branch stems, then keep them minimally watered throughout winter.
Your pruned plants may appear to die off, but so long as the soil isn't allowed to dry out fully, spring will often see them burst back into life. If you manage to keep the plants alive, you can expect a far more productive second growing season, as they will already have produced healthy root systems and can devote more energy to blossoms and fruits.
Growing chillies successfully can confound even experienced gardeners, especially when attempting the more esoteric varieties. However, for the true chilli enthusiast, the satisfaction gained from harvesting your own crop is immeasurable and could be the start of a lifelong quest for the perfect spice.