It is difficult not to become slightly obsessed with chillies. Like tomatoes, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from – if you grow from seed. Yes, of course you can buy plug plants or larger plants in pots from garden centres, but the diversity is not as great. The seeds take a little longer and need a bit more heat to germinate than tomatoes. But once they get going chillies are easier than tomatoes – less susceptible to diseases like blight, and they don’t need as much training, so they really are wonderful.
Chillies are ready to harvest from mid to late-summer, but I’m making them my Star of the Week in mid-February because they need to be sown before the end of this month. This crop needs a long growing period – from the 10-14 days needed to germinate to the steady growth over months before flowers form.
I’m growing two varieties for Rob Smith’s heritage trial, and a further seven for my own fun. Unlike many chilli aficionados, I am not someone who likes it so hot I need to drink a pint of frozen yoghurt straight after eating one – but I love stir frying the thinly sliced ‘Serrano’ or ‘Gusto Green’, seeds and all, with garlic and olive oil and stirring it through some spaghetti.
My chillies for 2016, then, are these:
Rob’s ‘A’, which is a milder variety, and chilli ‘B’, which is hotter – this is all I know about them so far, as it is a blind trial.
Then the following named varieties, in order of heat:
‘Pimiento Padron’ – this is actually a sweet pepper but its shape is chilli-like and I will use it as a green chilli in stir fries.
MEDIUM – 5,000-15,000 Scoville Heat Units
‘Serrano’ – I grow this every year; it has a gentle heat and so is perfect for slicing raw into salads, pasta or onto grilled halloumi. It is reliable and productive, easy to grow outdoors in the south of England, and stores well.
‘Fuego’ – a first for me this season, this has a slightly confusing name as “fuego” means “fire” in Spanish, yet its heat is said to be gentle/medium.
MEDIUM-HOT – 15,000-30,000 SHUs
‘Nosferatu’ – this is the first year I am growing this chilli, and, as the name suggests, has almost black leaves and produces black fruits that turn red when ripe.
‘Joe’s Long Cayenne’ – another debut for me on Plot 35a this season, it can produce chillies as long as a school ruler (30cm) and is fairly hot, so I will use this for making chilli con carne, or adding to curries.
‘Gusto Green’ – despite the name, these end up as red chillies. They are milder than ‘Gusto Purple’, which are much more fiery.
HOT – 30,000-50,000 SHUs
‘Cayenne’ – not long and not belonging to Joe, but the classic chilli – this is about as hot as I can take it before eating gets too unpleasant. (Considering the hottest chillies in the world are over 1,000,000 SHUs, I am a wimp!) In its dried powdered form it makes cayenne pepper.
To get the seeds going, I sow them in small 5cm pots or coir pellets in a propagator at around 25C – this is hotter than I would grow tomatoes. Chillies can grow in slightly cooler temperatures in an unheated greenhouse but germination is less reliable. After about two weeks shoots should begin to show – if they haven’t germinated after three weeks, give your packet one last chance and sow a second batch. If nothing comes up, discard the packet – this will save time next year.
Once they have grown two true leaves beyond the first seed leaves, remove them from their heat and pot them on into slightly larger pots, but keep them indoors or undercover until the risk of frost has past – I wouldn’t put mine outside until May, and I am in south London.
They will not romp away too quickly so although it feels like a long way to go until they are to be planted out, the chillies will be fine indoors for all this time. In May, plant them into open ground or in pots. I successfully grew chillies outdoors, without any cover, last year as well as some under a polythene-covered frame (the key difference is the ones undercover will ripen until late autumn, while those outside will remain green if they haven’t ripened by September), but further north they might need to stay under cover. Once they flower, feed with a liquid organic fertiliser. I wouldn’t plant them in grow bags – the same goes for tomatoes – because they never get big enough.
Keep watering and feeding as the chillies grow. Last year I got my first harvest in August, and this crop carried on until early November, when the last chillies undercover had ripened to red:
while those that were outside were still green:
This is no bad thing, because green chillies are still delicious. Once harvested, they store for several months in the fridge or can be dried by stringing up into a classic ristra.