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How to grow chillies

Despite their exotic associations, these fiery peppers are remarkably easy to grow.

There's an ever-increasing range of varieties available but they all have similar growing requirements (both to each other and to tomatoes).

The plants need a sunny site and high temperatures to produce the best crops, so are best kept in a greenhouse or conservatory - although they can be moved outside in summer.

What you will need

  • A packet of chilli seed
  • Seed trays or small pots
  • Seed and cutting compost
  • Larger pots and potting compost

Sowing

As chilli plants have tropical origins, they won't survive outdoors through the rigours of the British winter.

However, because of our relatively warm summers, they can be started off indoors and taken outside later in the year, where they will be most likely to produce a decent crop. Just remember they are frost-tender and require a minimum temperature of 10oC (50oF) and bright light to grow well.

Fill small pots or seed trays with a seed and cutting compost, available from any garden centre. Water them using a watering can with a fine sprinkler head, and wait about 10-15 minutes for the moisture to drain through before sowing your seeds.

When you do, space them about 2.5cm (1in) apart, then cover the containers loosely with polythene to help retain moisture.

The pots should ideally be placed in a warm, light position (such as a windowsill) from late winter to early spring.

Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, transplant each one into an individual 8cm (3in) pot filled with standard potting compost. Move the plants into larger-sized pots as they grow to maintain good, healthy growth.

Planting

As long as you manage to keep the temperature warm enough, you'll find chillies are quite fast-growing once they're established. They can become heavy feeders as a result.

For this reason, you should avoid using general or multipurpose composts that you might see in garden centres and opt for a more powerful potting mix. For a truly bumper crop, you should also feed the young plants with a half-strength solution of liquid houseplant fertiliser each week.

When the plants are 12-15cm (4½-6in) in height, they are ready to be moved into their final containers. A 30cm (1ft) pot should easily support three of them.

Plant them so that their roots are just below the surface and firm down the compost gently by watering it with a fine sprinkler head fixed to a watering can.

If the compost settles, top up each pot until the surface is level and sits about 1cm (½in) below the rim. 'Pinch out' the top tips of the plants by cutting them just above a leaf, to encourage further shoots to form and create a better overall shape.

You will need to train them up canes using loops of string if the fruits are going to be plentiful or large and heavy (check the seed packet).

Caring

The potted plants should be placed in a sunny, sheltered position, preferably growing them in a greenhouse until all danger of frost is passed - usually by around early June.

Check the compost daily and ensure that it never dries out.

Once the plants begin to flower, you can start to feed them. Use a brand of fertiliser recommended for tomatoes, which will be rich in the potassium that they thrive on (garden centres and nurseries will have plenty to offer).

Plants placed outdoors in summer will develop fruit better as they will (hopefully) be visited by pollinating insects such as bees. If plants start to flower early, you can move them outside for the warmest part of the day (to provide insects with the opportunity to visit them) and will likely get an earlier crop because of it.

Remember to bring them inside again once the temperature dips, doing so permanently once the autumn weather arrives. The pollinated flowers will continue to provide fruit for a couple of months after that.

Harvesting

Chillies can be picked and eaten even when they're quite young, but the best flavour usually comes from more mature fruit.

Ideally you should pick the fruit as you need it, choosing those which are green, swollen and glossy and snipping them off with scissors.

If the fruit is picked while it's still young, more flowers will grow and further fruit should follow. Leaving it on the plant will mean a poorer crop.

Varieties

The long history of its cultivation (as far back as 7500BC) has led to many variations of this plant. Here are three of the best that reflect this diversity.

Fiesta
A variety that produces small plants, ideal for growing in pots either indoors or on the patio. The pretty, upright fruits grow up to 2.5cm (1in) in size and can be yellow, orange and various shades through to red.

Prairie Fire
The plant is a prolific cropper and the small-fruited peppers really pack a punch, despite their size. Crops all summer long with each plant producing as many as a hundred (or more) fiery fruits.

Zimbabwe Bird
Forms a small rounded plant, approximately 30cm (1ft) in height and up to 60cm (2ft) in width. The small, triangular chillies are one of the hottest-tasting available.

Now have a go at some of our chilli recipes.

Grow Your Own magazine

This information was kindly provided by Grow Your Own, the UK's leading kitchen garden magazine. River Cottage viewers can trial this magazine today simply by clicking here.

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