Grow your own chillies

Sarah Wain from West Dean Gardens shares her secrets and tips to get the best from your chillies.

chillies
Grow something with a bit of a kick - try chillies! Image: West Dean Gardens
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Chillies are amazingly simple plants to grow, they are really rewarding too especially if you pot them up and feed them regularly. Their shiny fruits in rich warm colours are glorious to look at and their spicy flavours are an integral ingredient to many cuisines from around the world.

Growing chillies

chilli seed
It’s easy to grow chillies from seed. Image: Martin Mulchinock

You can choose to grow from seed, starting them off in February, or you can buy young chilli plants in April and May and cut out the seed sowing process. Many seed companies offer the opportunity to buy young plantlets now, which will get you on the way to chilli heaven. You can search online for a source and you won’t be disappointed. Equally farmers markets and plant fairs may have chilli plants for sale too. Buy three or four plants and you’ll soon find that you’ve become a fully paid up member of the Chilli Head Growers’ Club.

Chilli choices

The choice of chilli varieties available to grow in the UK is huge- where to start if you are an absolute novice?

Seek out chilli-heads (those people nutty about chillies) and ask their advice, visit chilli fiestas (there’s one at West Dean in August) to talk to experienced growers for their top tips, and look online for descriptions of different varieties.

Some people like to grow chillies for their decorative qualities (who wouldn’t?) others for their productivity or specific taste but if you just want sample a few varieties, try these as starter selection:

  • Dorset Naga – super hot and a productive plant
  • Hungarian Hot Wax – extremely versatile in the kitchen and colourful
  • Pencil Cayenne – super slim cayenne type good for drying and using in Indian cuisine
  • Super Chilli – another amazingly productive variety
  • Rooster Spur – a short bushy variety which produces masses of small very hot fruit and is ideal for a window sill.

Caring for your plants

chilli
Chilli ‘Apache’. Image: Unwins Seeds

Once you’ve got your plants home they need a little TLC.

  • Chillies need light and warmth to thrive and do very well in an unheated glasshouse from mid-May onwards.
  • As the young plants develop, light is the most important factor to consider, the 250 chilli plants that we grow at West Dean, are spaced and re-spaced maybe three times so that light hits all the plant all the time which is important for a healthy development and stability.
  • Aphids are the biggest nuisance on chillies particularly early in the season. A daily check will mean that you find the problem soonest, which is a good thing. Remove the aphids by washing them off with plain water (only use soapy water when the plant is older) or squashing them.
  • Another hot tip is to water your plant well in the morning and if additional watering is required, make it early afternoon- remembering to water the compost only not the plant itself.

Feeding, potting, pinching out and staking

A regular feeding program for chillies is preferable for fruit-bearing plants. The first fertiliser to use is seaweed extract, which importantly initiates root development when the plants are small. Change to a balanced fertiliser after the first potting in late March and finally use a fertiliser high in potassium (such as a tomato feed or Flower Power) after the final pot in mid- May or when flowers and fruits start to appear.

chillies
Chillies. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Some chilli varieties shoot up heavenwards and left to their own devices grow into plants 1.2 metres plus in size. As we can’t accommodate that sort of height in our pit-houses (a type of glasshouse) the tips are pinched out (i.e. the top bunch of leaves are broken off cleanly above a pair of leaves) when the seedlings are about 20cm tall. This helps initiate the production of branches further down the main stem which then provide further positions for flowers and fruit to develop.

Other varieties don’t need this treatment because they start to branch out immediately as they grow, so we leave their tips alone.

You need to pot your young plants into bigger pots so they can flourish. Use your preferred compost – chillies are pretty accommodating so just make sure your compost is free draining.

At West Dean we use a mix of 2/3-multi-purpose compost and a 1/3 loam-based compost by volume, with a small proportion of grit to aid drainage and it works well. We pot plants from a 7cm into a 12.5 cm diameter pot in late March and then into a 25 cm diameter pot for the final potting up in mid-May.

Staking is advisable for the bigger fruited varieties – use a cane to support the central stem and other canes to support branches that are laden with larger chillies as they can become quite weighty and might break branches with the weight of the fruit.

Sarah Wain

About Sarah Wain

Sarah gained her Diploma in Horticultural Science in Australia, after which she worked in the temperate department at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Returning to Australia she managed a local council nursery, and the gardens at Burnley Horticultural College where she trained. In 1987 she and husband Jim returned to the UK where they have worked together establishing gardens at Lockerly Hall in Hampshire and restoring and developing West Dean Gardens since 1991. Sarah is a member of the RHS Vegetable Trials Forum.
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