Whilst a lot of young men would not want to admit that they were fond of gardening, they would certainly not hesitate to admit to growing chillis. Chilli-growing has recently developed into a very popular cult – and a very male-dominated, macho one at that! At approaching 60, I definitely don’t fit that stereotype, but I do love growing chillis.
Many people presume that to grow chillis you need lots of expertise and lots of special kit – and definitely a greenhouse. I don’t subscribe to that view. I don’t have a greenhouse, and I don’t claim any special expertise, but starting from scratch I have learned a lot over the years by the “trial and error” method. These days I have little trouble producing some respectable chillis. I think the key to success is dedication and persistence.
How to grow Chillis
Since the UK is not blessed with a tropical climate, you have to start early in the year. Many chillis require a long growing period, so it is best to sow seeds indoors in small containers (yogurt pots are ideal) in artificially-heated conditions. Recently I acquired an electric Growlight House, which is excellent, but prior to that I always germinated seeds perfectly successfully in our airing-cupboard. Once germinated, it is essential to give chilli seedlings maximum light, otherwise they will go “leggy” (long and spindly).
This is hard to achieve unless you have a particularly sunny windowsill (and some sun!).
When your chilli seedlings have four proper leaves and have reached the height of 3 or 4 inches, they should be potted on into bigger containers – for instance 5-inch flower-pots – and moved to a cooler place, so that they don’t get “soft”. If you have a greenhouse whose temperature never goes below zero degrees, that would be ideal. I only have some of those little plastic mini-greenhouses, but I manage OK.
The important thing is not to let the chilli plants get too cold (I reckon not below 10C), but to gradually harden them off (i.e. accustom them to outdoor conditions) and this often entails lots of moving them indoors at night-time and outdoors again for the days. This is where your “dedication” comes into play! It only takes one lapse in the routine on a frosty night and your chillis may not survive.
When the chillis are about 12 inches tall they will be in need of further potting-on. Mine go into 10- or 12-inch pots, depending on the expected size of the plant (some chillis get very big!). I’m sure some people prepare their own special compost mixes for their chillis, but I don’t. I just use ordinary commercial general-purpose compost from my local garden centre, boosted with a bit of my own home-made compost if there is any spare.
After this final potting-on the patience phase begins. You have to water the pots quite frequently if the weather is warm, but there is little else to do. I used to feed my chillis with proprietary tomato-feed, but I have learnt that this is OK if you want your chillis to look nice (the feed will produce bigger, more luxuriant plants with impressive fruits), but it may be counter-productive if you want hotter chillis. In this case it is best to keep the plants hungry.
And of course weather conditions play a big role too. In hotter conditions the chilli fruits are likely to have more spicy heat. In the UK, growing chillis outdoors is always a race against time, and it may be necessary to move your plants under cover for the final phase. Remember though that a chilli plant covered in ripening fruits is also very decorative, so you may be allowed to bring it indoors as a houseplant!
Cooking with Chillis
Contrary to most peoples’ perceptions, we don’t eat many chillis in our household. A few, but not copious quantities. We eat a very varied diet and chillis go into dishes from many different world cuisines – Asian, Indian, Mexican, Italian etc, etc. We love chillis in curries, but they are also great in many European dishes. A favourite of ours is Butternut Squash Risotto, with Sage and Chilli. Fresh chillis keep in good condition for a couple of weeks in the fridge, but they can also be successfully frozen or dried (our airing-cupboard is used as a chilli-dryer too).
Anyone who has visited my blog will know that I love to take photos of the vegetables I grow – especially chillis. Even if I didn’t like eating chillis I would grow them just for the joy of photographing them!
People sometimes ask me what is my favourite chilli variety, but that’s a hard question to answer. It depends what sort of mood I’m in. Sometimes I like the big fat red ones like the “Cyclon” I grew this year; other times I like the little tiny fiery hot ones (Bird’s Eye); sometimes I like the sinister dark ones like “Nosferatu”; sometimes I prefer the “different”-shaped ones like the deeply-ribbed “Numex Suave Orange”.
The list goes on! There are literally thousands to choose from. I think that this is one of the chief attractions of growing chillis – there is always something new to have a go at. And let me warn you: when you start you won’t want to stop. It’s definitely an addictive hobby.