Gardening Magazine

Chillis - Where Do I Start???

By Mwillis
You can hardly miss the fact that I like growing chillis! Jane and I feel the same about chillis when it comes to their culinary qualities: we like them in moderation, and we don't like them searingly hot. We are more interested in their taste and color. Having said that, a bit of background heat from a chill is very welcome in lots of different types of food - and not just "curry" and Mexican food either. For instance, you might not know that lots of Italian dishes use chilli. Have you tried sprinkling a few chilli flakes and dried Oregano on some Mozzarella cheese marinated in olive oil? If not, you must!
In the UK, many chilli enthusiasts sow seeds in early January. This is sometimes a good idea, but not always. Some of the chilli varieties (particularly those in the Capsicum Chinense family) need a long growing period, so it may be desirable to start them early, but sowing too early often leads to weak, leggy plants. To successfully start your chillis in January (in the UK) I think you need artificial lighting and possibly heating too. Some seed-merchants optimistically tell you that plants will do well on a sunny windowsill. I think not! In any case, where do you find a sunny windowsill in January anyway?? I have a "Growlight House" which provides good light for young seedlings, but even with this I usually delay sowing seeds until Mid-February. For ease of remembering, I usually plan to sow on or about Valentine's Day (14th Feb).

Chillis - where do I start???

Garland "Growlight House"

This Growlight House, which retails at about £60, is just the right size to fit on a chest of drawers in our spare bedroom, but it would be too wide to fit on a windowsill. It provides good light, but not heat. The height of the light array is adjustable, so that you can raise it or lower it to suit the height of your seedlings.
The number of chillis I can grow is really dictated by the number of pots I can fit under the lights. Each of those four trays can hold four 3-inch pots, so 16 is the maximum at any one time. I suppose I could use some very small pots, but that would mean the seedlings would outgrow the pots too soon. Actually, 16 is a sensible number of chilli plants for me to have, because I don't have a huge amount of space in my garden to devote to them. There has to be room for pots of tomatoes and potatoes too, you know.
This year, the biggest challenge of all for me will be to decide which varieties of chilli to grow. Lots of my friends have sent me seeds, and I have also bought a few as well as having loads of seeds saved from previous years. I must have 50 different types! These three from Victoriana Nursery Gardens will definitely be on the team...

Chillis - where do I start???

Scotch Bonnet "Caribbean Antillais"

Chillis - where do I start???

Bolivian Rainbow


Chillis - where do I start???

"Bolivian Starfish"

I normally sow my seeds in pots of commercial general-purpose compost, and cover them with plastic bags to increase the humidity. Last year many of my plants suffered badly from the effects of weedkiller contamination in compost, so this year I may start off my chillis in home-made compost. I put two seeds in each pot, and then if both germinate I remove the weaker one. In order to speed up germination I put the pots in the airing-cupboard, where they get nice even warmth. When the seeds germinate, the pots go under the lights.
Chillis - where do I start???

Since I am also a tomato enthusiast, I will be wanting to use the Growlights for those too, so my plan is to get the chillis to a size at which they will be OK on a windowsill without artificial light before sowing the tomatoes. I think this will mean that the tomatoes will be sown at about the end of March or beginning of April.

Chillis - where do I start???

This is big enough to be put on the "sunny windowsill"

When the weather starts to warm up (maybe late April / early May), my chilli plants gradually get accustomed to the outside conditions by spending the daytime in one of my plastic mini-greenhouses.
Chillis - where do I start???

Initially they get brought indoors every evening, but after a couple of weeks of "hardening-off" they will be OK to spend the whole time outside in a greenhouse, and then eventually they will be transferred to big (10 or 12-inch) pots and placed in their final growing positions in the open air.
Chillis - where do I start???

Different types of chilli ripen at different times, and the weather has a big influence too, so it's not possible to say when you are likely to get ripe chilli fruits. Let's just say "Late summer onwards". This is when all the tender loving care you have lavished on your plants for months and months finally pays off!
Chillis - where do I start???

When you see a basket of mixed chillis like that I think you will understand why I love them so much! There are so many features to keep the enthusiast interested: different colours (both fruit and foliage); different sizes of plant and of fruit; different levels of heat and flavor. Brilliant subjects for photography too.
Now back to the task of deciding which ones to grow this year...
P.S. Thanks for all your comments and suggestions about vegetable blogs. I have a few "good lines of enquiry" to follow up now!

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