Chilli peppers are a small, fiery variety of capsicum. They can be green, yellow, orange, red or black. There are more than 200 known varieties and they differ greatly in size, colour and level of hotness. In general, the smaller the chilli, the more potent, but it’s worth bearing in mind that individual chillies of the same variety and even from the same plant can contain different levels of capsaicin, the volatile oil that gives chilli its heat.
HOW TO GROW
- Choose a variety of chillies.Chillies are one of the most wonderful plants to grow, because they come in such a wide variety of colours, sizes, tastes, and spice-levels. Chillies can be either an annual (must be replanted each year) or a perennial (grow back on their own). There are also three general types of chilli: sweet, hot and ornamental. All three types have some level of spice, but sweet chillies are the mildest, ornamental have lovely colours and shapes (but can be very hot), and hot chillies are used primarily for their intense spice and flavour.
- Chillies range from green, butter yellow, peachy orange, and fire-engine red, to plum and a pitch black hue. The colour doesn’t have a direct correlation to the flavour or spice level of each chilli pepper.
- Visit a local nursery to find out what variety will thrive in your local environment.
- Certain chillies are used in different areas of the world for special recipes; for example, Serrano chillies are used primarily in Mexican dishes, while the Calcutta pepper is used in Asian curries.
- Find the best location for planting.Chillies are heat-loving plants, and are the most successfully grown in areas that have plenty of sun. Choose a plot in your garden that gets full sun or at least mostly sun for the majority of the day. If you live in a desert area, you may need a location with a bit of shade so that the chillies do not get sunburnt. If you live in an area that gets lots of rain, try to find a location in full sun with good drainage; too much water will drown out the chillies and cause them to grow less fruit.
- Decide if you’re going to start your chillies early indoors.If you don’t live in the traditional chilli growing zones (near the equator), then you may benefit from growing your chillies indoors in pots during the winter, and then transplanting them outdoors in the spring when the weather warms up. Although you can certainly just plant your seeds directly into the ground, you might not have as high of chances of them sprouting than if you start them indoors and transplant them as seedlings.
- You can grow chillies from seeds or starts from nurseries, but you’ll have much more variety with growing the former.
- Starting seedlings is easy; just plan it out at least 6 weeks prior to transplanting the chillies outdoors
- Amend your soil.The soil in your garden may need to be altered slightly in order to produce the biggest, healthiest, and heartiest crop of chillies. Chillies prefer soil that has good drainage and that has plenty of nutrients. Therefore, mix a bit of sand into your soil to help it to drain better, and incorporate in compost a few weeks or months prior to planting. You’ll notice a significant growth boost if you increase the amount of potassium in the soil as well; visit a local nursery to choose a fertilizer that has lots of potassium and little nitrogen (like a 0-20-0 blend).
- Test the pH of your soil and determine if you need to make further adjustments; chillies like soil that has a neutral or slightly acidic pH of 6.5-7.
- The further in advance you can prepare your soil, the better your chillies will grow.
- Prepare the seeds.To help make the coating of the seed easier for the new growth to penetrate, you can soak the seeds to soften them up. Fill a bowl with lukewarm water, and place the seeds inside the bowl. Allow them to soak for a full 24 hours, and then strain them from the water and lay them out to dry. Wait to plant them until they have dried completely, typically after 10-12 hours.
- If you want a bit more help in speeding up the germination process, soak the seeds in room temperature chamomile tea instead of plain water.
- Plant the seeds in small containers.You can purchase seed trays for your seedlings, or you can simply use individual planting pots for each seed. Fill each small tray or container with your soil (already amended with fertilizer and compost). Then, place a single seed about ½ an inch below the surface of the soil in each container.
- Water the seeds.Seeds will need to be watered on a daily basis, so that the soil is kept moist at all times. Give seeds the biggest amount of water after first planting, and then continue adding about a teaspoon of water daily after that.
- Place them in a location with heat and sunlight.If you’ve planted seeds before, you may have a heat lamp on hand; heat lamps are perfect for aiding your seeds in growing quickly. If not, place your seeds in a location that gets plenty of sunlight, like a south facing window, and lots of heat, like near a radiator. Just be careful the seeds are neither too hot nor too cold, as both will result in little to no growth.
- Watch for the seeds to sprout.It will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for the seeds to first sprout. The seeds will sprout a pair of leaves to start, known as ‘seed leaves’. After a bit, a second pair of leaves will sprout; these are known as the ‘true leaves’ and signals that the chillies are ready for transplanting. You can continue waiting for them to grow and for the heat outdoors to rise, or you can plant them as is when their true leaves come in.
- Harden off your seedlings.Seeds that are grown indoors are used to a constant temperature with little fluctuation; when they are introduced into the ‘wild’, they can experience a bit of shock from the varying temperatures, moisture levels, and changing sunlight. Harden them off by placing their pots or trays outdoors for a few hours every day. Start at only 2 hours a day for about a week, and then add one hour to each additional day they are placed outdoors until they can stand being outside for a full 24 hours. At this point, they can handle being planted outside without fear of shock.
- Plant at the right time.Wait to plant outdoors until after the last frost of the spring, typically around March or April depending on your local weather. Plant on a sunny day in the late morning or early afternoon when it’s not too hot, so as to avoid transplant shock.
- Dig your holes.Chillies should be planted individually to avoid crowding, even if you are planting seeds directly outdoors. Dig small holes slightly larger than your seed or root ball using a garden trowel. These should be spaced about 1 foot (0.3 m) apart, but depending on the type of chilli you’re planting the spacing may need to be greater. Research the chillies you’re growing to find out the perfect spacing conditions for your plant.
- Plant your chillies.Place each chilli plant or seed into the holes you’ve dug. Replace the soil over the top of each, so that only about ½ inch of soil is on top of the roots or seeds. Don’t tamp or press down on the soil too much when you’re finished, as the chillies will grow better in loose, well-draining soil.
- Water the chillies.Chillies will thrive when their soil is moist, but not soaking wet. After the first planting, give the chillies a bit of extra water to avoid transplant shock. Then, water them on a daily basis so that the soil is damp. If you’re growing sweet peppers, you can make them even sweeter by giving them more water than usual.
- Maintain the plants.It will take a month or longer before the chillies begin flowering and bearing fruit, so you will need to maintain their health during this time. Pull out any weeds that you encounter, as these will steal space and nutrients from your chillies over time if you leave them. Incorporate compost and potassium fertilizer into the soil on a monthly basis to keep the nutrient levels high. You can also add a layer of mulch to the top of the soil, to lock in moisture and block out weeds.
- Harvest your chillies.Time to harvest will vary between species of chillies, but you can generally tell when they’re ready by their size. Chillies will change colours, so unless you have a clear idea of what colour the ripe chilli will be, don’t rely on colour as an indicator of ripeness. If you’re questioning whether a chilli is ripe for picking, give it a taste! You’ll know whether it needs to continue growing for a bit longer, or if it’s ready to make a debut in your kitchen.If you’re aiming to make chilli powder or pepper flakes with your chillies, leave them to shrivel and dry up on their own on the branch before harvesting.
- Peppers will benefit from applications of fertilizer to keep them supplied with essential nutrients. A timed release fertilizer can be applied at bloom or the plants can be fed with a liquid fertilizer at planting and every two weeks thereafter. In addition, pepper plants can produce a heavy load of fruit and it can be helpful to provide the plants with some support using stakes or cages to prevent branches from breaking under the weight. Use a soft material to tie plants to stakes or cages.
- Bacterial spot
- Powdery mildew
- Flea beetles
- Tomato fruit worm
Chilli contains up to seven times the vitamin C level of an orange and has a range of health benefits, including fighting sinus congestion, aiding digestion and helping to relieve migraines and muscle, joint and nerve pain. It’s also a good source of vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, folic acid and potassium. Chilli has long been used to reduce food micro-contamination and is also considered a potential metabolism booster for weight loss. Several studies have found it may also play a role in treating lung and prostate cancer and leukaemia.