The Valentine's guide to growing chillis
And most other Mediterraneans such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers
Hopefully seeing this - containing the V word as it does - won’t have shocked you into running to the garage for flowers/Dairy Milk/‘hilarious card’, returning casually to give the impression that you’d remembered the day all along.
Once whichever token of affection has been handed over, this is how you need to spend half an hour today. I wrote a sort of version of this a few years ago, and his highness rather liked it, so you can have faith.
Every Valentine’s Day, my wife knows she’ll hear those three special words from me: ‘Just sowing chillis’. It is my default day for sowing all chillis and the other sun lovers - peppers, tomatoes and aubergines. I also sow a speculative batch in mid-to-late January that I hope get ahead of the game without being nabbed by the cold, and a ‘last resort’ batch in mid-March that serves only as back ups in the worst circumstances.
Mediterraneans are very particular, but if you follow the right steps, they are easy to grow. Your primary job is to give them the light and heat they crave.
First, I have a weekend shopping list for you:
a bag of peat-free potting compost
If you’re feeling proper flush - a greenhouse
If you have a few quid spare - a heated propagator….or
If you’re not feeling flush at all - a nice cake
Second, here’s the ten step guide to success with chillis that works with the other Mediterraneans too.
1 - Sow into Jiffy 7s - small discs of coconut husk that expand when wet. Sow one seed in each. You can use a seed tray, but I find Jiffys less of a fiddle and root disturbance is minimised.
2 - Never let the compost dry out completely from the moment you sow. Water little and often, using water that’s at room temperature to avoid cooling the compost.
3 - Germination is best at 27˚C; be patient, as it can take around a month. A heated propagator is ideal, but an airing cupboard will substitute as long as as you take the seedlings into the light at the very first sign of germination. Jiffy 7s allow you take them into the light one at a time.
4 - Seedlings grow best at around 21˚C during the day and around 17˚C at night - you can adjust the temperature with the propagator, or allow the natural shift in house temperature to do it or you if not using a propagator. If you are without a propagator, encourage the dog or cat from their favourite warm, sunny place using a few treats and place your seedlings in the sunny spot, ideally near a radiator. If there is a well-placed windowsill above a radiator, even better.
5 - When the roots fill the Jiffy 7s, tear the outer netting to let the roots grow through and pot the seedlings on into 10cm pots planting to a depth just below the initial seed leaves.
6 - Fortnightly or more, use a liquid plant feed (high in potassium) to promote healthy growth and fruiting.
7 - When the roots start filling the pot, transplant the seedlings to their final location - this is likely to be two months or so after sowing.
8 - Grow them undercover; even the sunniest spot is a gamble on the UK weather. A greenhouse is perfect, as it offers equal light from all directions, avoiding leggy or skewed growth. Most varieties will do well on a sunny window sill, as long as you turn the pot very day or two to keep the plant growing evenly and use 3 litre pots to - in effect - bonsai the plant.
9 - Grow each plant in a 22cm pot, or allow 60cm between plants grown in the ground. I add a few handfuls of pelleted chicken manure to release nutrients slowly. Liquid feed fortnightly through the summer months.
10 - If all goes wrong or you don’t sow in time, buy grafted seedlings (see suppliers, below), usually available in May. These smashers are varieties grown on established roots that not only get the plant well ahead by the time you get them, they reduce the likelihood of disease.
6 varieties to try:
Apricot - a delicious, aromatic and very mild (500 Scoville Heat Units) habanero
Trinity - a flavoursome, hot, productive habanero (40k SHU).
Stumpy - a lively (20k SHU) chilli that 12cm or so
NuMex Twilight - a beautiful and very productive chilli (30k SHU) which produces and ripens fruit over a long period, which means plants usually have red, green, yellow, orange and purple chillis at the same time.
Pimiento de Padron (12k SHU) is one you are likely to find on a tapas menu - very mild when young, but turning hot overnight. A Russian roulette of a dish.
Super Chile (36k SHU) - madly prolific (300 chillis is not unusual), lively, and does well in a pot.
Pickled chillis (from my book A Year at Otter Farm)
Pickling preserves chillis’ shape, colour and flavour so well, and this only takes a minute or two. The weight of chillis you need may vary a little with size.
100g caster sugar
a pinch of salt
500ml white wine vinegar
3 bay leaves
Dissolve the sugar and salt in the wine vinegar in a pan over a medium heat. Add the peppercorns and bay leaves, increase the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Put the chillis in a sterilised jar (see recipe note), pour the hot spicy vinegar over them and seal. Store in a cool, dark cupboard for up to a year. Keep in the fridge once opened.
Courses, seeds, plants - www.seaspringseeds.co.uk
Seeds and grafted plants - www.otterfarm.co.uk
Jiffy 7s - Singly or 1000
Propagators - Vitapod from www.greenhousesensation.co.uk