Could chillies be the perfect grow-your-own veg?
If you’re thumbing through seed catalogues, wondering what to grow, homegrown chillies really make a difference to your cooking. And they’re super-easy to grow, even in pots on windowsills.
And -forgive my pun – they seem to be particularly hot at the moment.
A few years ago I didn’t know anyone who grew their own chillies.
Now there are at least two ‘chilli festivals’ within 15 minutes of me.
Kris Collins of Thompson & Morgan says that ‘chilli festivals are the biggest growth area of the horticultural calendar – there are at least 30 nationwide.’ It’s partly because of our diversifying tastes and exotic TV food programmes, he says. And it’s partly because chillies are so easy to grow.
A explosion of chilli growers in Britain…
I first joined the chilli revolution three years ago when my horticulturalist friend Will Denne gave me a chilli in a pot. I thought I’d need a greenhouse to grow it, and left it sitting around outside.
In spite of complete neglect, it rewarded me with a harvest of tasty chillies.
Oddly enough, the stir-fries and curries I was making seemed to taste better – but it didn’t occur to me that it might be because my chillies were home-grown.
So last year I grew about 6 chilli plants myself from seed (sowing them in the potting shed in April).
They germinated happily, put up with being in a variety of pots and locations. I started harvesting them in August.
My last picking was on Christmas Eve – even though they were outside! (We’re in South-east England and had a mild winter).
Chillies are easy to grow…
This year I reckoned myself a chilli grower. However, over-confidence in horticulture is rarely rewarded. I planted the seeds in February (as indicated on the packet).
Most didn’t germinate. I have since discovered that chilli seeds planted in January and February need a little heat.
Kris Collins says ‘Start early. Use a heated propagator and place them a sunny, south-facing window-sill.’ However, the few that did come up turned into happy-go-lucky easy growers. And I’ve had alot of compliments for my curries.
Proper chillies make food taste much better…
I also went on a brilliant Vietnamese cookery course at the delightful Cookery Studio in Kent. Instructor Diane Perry started by suggesting we taste our chillies.
‘The packs you buy in supermarkets are usually a random mix of peppers and chillies and many don’t have much flavour,’ she said.
Aha! Light-bulb moment – I wasn’t imagining that home-grown chillies were giving my food so much more flavour.
I now actively choose my chillies to match the dish I’m cooking – and not just on hotness. The tiny black Peperoncino, for example (see above), adds warmth rather than sting. It’s great in tomato or courgette salads. While for Thai and Vietnamese cooking, the Birds Eye is a classic choice. And Kris likes the Padron chillies that the Spanish roast and eat as tapas.
Chillies are happy in pots…
As you can see, I’ve got some chillies because they look pretty on tables. For decoration, you can grow chillies in small pots.
If you want a good harvest for the kitchen, Kris recommends using a 2 litre pot as a minimum. ‘For the larger varieties, I’d go up to 10 litres,’ he says.
On the other hand, chillies in smaller pots crop more quickly.
It seems that my rather random policy of putting my chillies in any pot that comes to hand has been a good one – the ones in small pots have cropped early and the big ones are going on for longer.
For those whose grow-your-own is limited to a balcony or window-sill, chillies are perfect.
So I do think chillies are the perfect grow-your-own plant. For any gardener or would-be gardener who loves cooking.
Home-grown chillies are better than supermarket ones, they’re easy to grow, anyone can grow them, they look great and they save you money.
My top chilli growing tips:
From trial and error, I have discovered that:
a) if you plant in January or February, you get an earlier harvest, but you must use a heated propagator.
b) otherwise plant seeds on a window-sill or potting shed in March or April
c) Pot on a couple of times. Chillies will be fine in pots – there’s no need to plant in the ground. Keep them in a sheltered spot outside, on a windowsill or in a potting shed. Greenhouses would be nice but not necessary.
d) You’re supposed to feed them from the first fruiting with a tomato-type fertiliser. I have never fed them and I’ve had as many chillies as I’ve needed.
e) Don’t lose the labels. There is quite a difference between the pleasantly warm Peperoncino and the fiery hot Prairie Fire. There are a couple of non-labelled chillies and I’m not sure if I dare try them….
f) I have been told that some chilli plants will over-winter on a window-sill or in the potting shed. They will have a longer fruiting season next year. I’m going to try this, and have been told to keep them just moist and wrap in fleece during very cold weather.
g) The most common mistake made by novice chilli growers, according to Kris is over-watering. ‘Let the pots almost dry out before watering again.’
g) You can buy chilli plants easily now – so if you don’t fancy growing from seed, just buy a couple of pots for your kitchen windowsill.
h) If your chillies don’t seem as hot as they promised to be on the packet, treat them mean.They get ‘hot’ to stop themselves being munched by animals. Kris suggests you occasionally bruise or snap off a few leaves to trigger this response.