Friday, 9 January 2015

Chillis - where do I start???

You can hardly miss the fact that I like growing chillis! Jane and I feel the same about chillis when it comes to their culinary qualities: we like them in moderation, and we don't like them searingly hot. We are more interested in their taste and colour. Having said that, a bit of background heat from a chill is very welcome in lots of different types of food - and not just "curry" and Mexican food either. For instance, you might not know that lots of Italian dishes use chilli. Have you tried sprinkling a few chilli flakes and dried Oregano on some Mozzarella cheese marinated in olive oil? If not, you must!

In the UK, many chilli enthusiasts sow seeds in early January. This is sometimes a good idea, but not always. Some of the chilli varieties (particularly those in the Capsicum Chinense family) need a long growing period, so it may be desirable to start them early, but sowing too early often leads to weak, leggy plants. To successfully start your chillis in January (in the UK) I think you need artificial lighting and possibly heating too. Some seed-merchants optimistically tell you that plants will do well on a sunny windowsill. I think not! In any case, where do you find a sunny windowsill in January anyway?? I have a "Growlight House" which provides good light for young seedlings, but even with this I usually delay sowing seeds until Mid-February. For ease of remembering, I usually plan to sow on or about Valentine's Day (14th Feb).

Garland "Growlight House"

This Growlight House, which retails at about £60, is just the right size to fit on a chest of drawers in our spare bedroom, but it would be too wide to fit on a windowsill. It provides good light, but not heat. The height of the light array is adjustable, so that you can raise it or lower it to suit the height of your seedlings.

The number of chillis I can grow is really dictated by the number of pots I can fit under the lights. Each of those four trays can hold four 3-inch pots, so 16 is the maximum at any one time. I suppose I could use some very small pots, but that would mean the seedlings would outgrow the pots too soon. Actually, 16 is a sensible number of chilli plants for me to have, because I don't have a huge amount of space in my garden to devote to them. There has to be room for pots of tomatoes and potatoes too, you know.

This year, the biggest challenge of all for me will be to decide which varieties of chilli to grow. Lots of my friends have sent me seeds, and I have also bought a few as well as having loads of seeds saved from previous years. I must have 50 different types! These three from Victoriana Nursery Gardens will definitely be on the team...

Scotch Bonnet "Caribbean Antillais"

Bolivian Rainbow
"Bolivian Starfish"

I normally sow my seeds in pots of commercial general-purpose compost, and cover them with plastic bags to increase the humidity. Last year many of my plants suffered badly from the effects of weedkiller contamination in compost, so this year I may start off my chillis in home-made compost. I put two seeds in each pot, and then if both germinate I remove the weaker one. In order to speed up germination I put the pots in the airing-cupboard, where they get nice even warmth. When the seeds germinate, the pots go under the lights.

Since I am also a tomato enthusiast, I will be wanting to use the Growlights for those too, so my plan is to get the chillis to a size at which they will be OK on a windowsill without artificial light before sowing the tomatoes. I think this will mean that the tomatoes will be sown at about the end of March or beginning of April.

This is big enough to be put on the "sunny windowsill"

When the weather starts to warm up (maybe late April / early May), my chilli plants gradually get accustomed to the outside conditions by spending the daytime in one of my plastic mini-greenhouses.

Initially they get brought indoors every evening, but after a couple of weeks of "hardening-off" they will be OK to spend the whole time outside in a greenhouse, and then eventually they will be transferred to big (10 or 12-inch) pots and placed in their final growing positions in the open air.

Different types of chilli ripen at different times, and the weather has a big influence too, so it's not possible to say when you are likely to get ripe chilli fruits. Let's just say "Late summer onwards". This is when all the tender loving care you have lavished on your plants for months and months finally pays off!

When you see a basket of mixed chillis like that I think you will understand why I love them so much! There are so many features to keep the enthusiast interested: different colours (both fruit and foliage); different sizes of plant and of fruit; different levels of heat and flavour. Brilliant subjects for photography too.

Now back to the task of deciding which ones to grow this year...

P.S. Thanks for all your comments and suggestions about vegetable blogs. I have a few "good lines of enquiry" to follow up now!


  1. I wondered when you'd be sowing your chilli seed, now I know. I like the look of all three from Victoriana Nursery that you're growing.

  2. I guess my experience is an outlier. I've never found extra heat to be all that useful to chilis (or tomatoes). Once they germinated I used to grow them in my laundry room which was about 64F/18C. They always seemed to grow well for me. Thought they had artificial light they also had a big window. So I wonder if that heated them up during the day. I miss chilies.

  3. You must harvest so many! We have loads left after last years harvest & we grew considerably less than you. Mike is taking over the greenhouse this year as his love of growing chillies is increasing over time.

  4. 16 chili plants is still quite a lot! I am anxious to get more chilies growing this year as well & am really looking forward to digging into those seed catalogues (hopefully next week!) and figuring out which ones I'm going to try. Like you said, the hard part will be choosing!

  5. Chiles certainly are addictive, both growing and eating them! I'm looking forward to seeing what you choose to grow this year, you've always got some interesting ones. Love that Bolivian Starfish, it it a baccatum? Last year I didn't grow enough spicy ones so I'm going to add a few to the lineup this year. I'm like you though, I don't like them too hot, you won't see a Bhut Jolokia in my garden.

  6. I love chillies and haven't grown them for some time now as I kept losing my seeds and plants, but hope to try again this year so I can make my chilli jam again. The learning curve is steep, but I won't give up!
    I love the Bolivian Rainbow ~ who needs lights for decoration if you have those?

  7. I agree that suggestion to grow seeds on a windowsill is rarely successful. Our two grow light systems are very well used. I'll be very interested in which interesting new blogs you find.

  8. I've started chillies in January and they did fine. I found them so slow growing that they didn't get leggy. I love that you grow yours outdoors ultimately, it proves that you don't need a greenhouse. I have a jalapeno on the windowsill that I bought at the end of last season for 50p at the local garden shop. I potted it up and cut it back and it's doing well now. It has buds on it at the moment, which are probably too early to do well. It's an experiment though, I shall see how it goes.

  9. Last year I raised 36 chilli and sweet pepper plants, sowing them in the airing cupboard in Feb then potting on and hardening off the tiny plants (without a greenhouse). A few days after the start of leaving them in the cold frame overnight, a very small yellow snail crept into the frame and ignoring the snail/slug pellets, bit through 35 of the 36 plant stems.

  10. Oh no, what a disaster! That must have been soul-destroying. Makes you wonder though, what was wrong with No.36? ;)

  11. The snail was probably full or bored (? too easy) by the time it got to the 36th plant - lucky really, because that one was the sole source of my red chillies. Like all determined gardeners, I just had to sow some more chillies (I'd run out of sweet peppers, the better F1 seeds often only come in packets of 4 seeds), but they only just produced green fruits by the end of the season (not much light last August).

  12. As you know I share your love of chilies. That basket shot is spectacular! I've not yet invested in the starter lights but perhaps that time is approaching. The Bolivian starfish are so pretty - remind me of pattypan squash.

  13. I soaked my seeds for 24hours before putting in a tray in a heated propagator got 24 seedlings from 40seeds so am hoping for a good crop Naga, willy pepper, and two other types but will try some others soon


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