First of all, an apology for not blogging here for a while. It’s been an incredibly busy few months on the work front. But while this blog has been resting, my allotment has not. I’ve spent at least a few hours every week getting to Plot 35a, even in the freezing cold, to keep things ticking over. If you have an allotment and you’ve not been there much during the winter, don’t feel guilty, as things don’t really get going until March. But I get my regular allotment fix for my own health – getting fresh air, exercise, peace and relaxation – as much as for the plot. Even just grabbing half an hour to walk around and check on things growing is worth it.
Most of the winter work has involved clearing away old weeds, cutting down old raspberry canes (for autumn fruiting varieties) and pruning apples, pears and the quince. It’s still so cold though, so alongside this winter maintenance, I’ve got things going at home and sown chillies for the new season.
In the UK, chillies need a long lead-in time to germinate and grow into seedlings big enough to pot on in the greenhouse or a warm spot outside, in time for harvesting bright red chillies in August and September. After that, they’ll struggle to ripen during autumn. Sow them by the end of February to give them plenty of time to grow.
I prefer chillies that are not too hot, with just a little edge. The hottest variety I grow is Cayenne, a medium-hot chilli with a Scoville heat unit (SHU) of 30,000-50,000 – given the hottest chilli on the planet is more than 2m SHU, this is not very hot at all. This may be chilli heresy, but I think once a chilli is too hot it is too dominant over any other flavour. I’m also sowing Serrano, which has a medium heat of 6,000-23,000 SHU and Anaheim, a mild 500-2,500 SHU.
I’ve also sown some sweet pepper seeds, which follow the same growing rules as chillies. My sweet pepper list includes Antohi Romanian, which produces long, tapering fruit that ripens from yellow to red; Biscayne, which is a cubanelle variety (that is, originally from Cuba) whose long, cylindrical peppers are traditionally picked when they’re green and used in Caribbean cooking; and Giallo d’Asti, a yellow almost square-shaped pepper.
Chilli seeds need a lot of warmth to germinate, so a heated propagator, with an adjustable thermostat, is ideal – a south-facing windowsill will also do, but be prepared for germination to be slower. I sowed about five seeds on the surface of moist compost in small 3-5cm pots, one pot per variety, and kept the heat around 23C.
I sowed my chillies in the middle of January and they took about two weeks to come up. Keep the compost moist but not over-watered as they grow, to avoid damping off. Once they’ve germinated you can turn the temperature down a bit.
What follows is a daily check to see they’re not too leggy before each seedling is upgraded to its own pot. They will then be moved out of the propagator but kept indoors, on a windowsill, until late March. Then I’ll take them to the greenhouse at the plot and keep them undercover. Although I live in south London, where we can sometimes have gloriously Mediterranean temperatures in the summer, I will get better results if the chillies stay in the greenhouse. I have grown them outdoors before, but you have to wait until May to plant out, after all risk of frost has gone.
By May, they will have grown enough to either go into the soil or in their final pots, which should be a size of at least 10 litres. Water them well on planting. They shouldn’t need support if in a sheltered spot. Once the small white flowers emerge, which will eventually grow into chillies, they need to be fed once a week with a high potash liquid fertiliser, such as tomato food or home-made comfrey tea, and kept well-watered as it gets warmer.
You can, of course, pick chillies before they ripen when they are green: I love finely chopped green chillies and garlic fried and added to spaghetti, which is so simple and fresh as a summer pasta dish. Their heat gets stronger as they turn red.
Once picked, chillies keep for months – either fresh in the fridge or hung up to dry, threaded onto string as a chilli wreath, or ristra.