Start the Year off by Sowing Chillies
As the January frost twinkles under the winter sun, the promise of the gardening year ahead begins to stir, particularly for those with a penchant for the piquant – the chilli growers. A greenhouse, that haven of warmth and light, offers the perfect nursery for these fiery favourites, and with a bit of heat from a propagator or heat mat, you can sow the seeds of your spicy harvest right now.
For those eager to kickstart their chilli growing, using heat and light is essential when the days are still short, and the light is weak. Grow lights are invaluable allies, offering a substitute for the meagre winter sun, ensuring your seedlings receive the energy they need to flourish, plus you can house them easily in your greenhouse. Without such aids, it is prudent to wait until the later weeks of February or the onset of March, when there is more daylight, however for those with the equipment, it’s all systems go!
The chilli varieties you choose to grow can vary as much as their heat levels, with a general rule being that hotter varieties take longer to grow, and crop compared to more mild ones. Compact varieties like 'Quickfire' are ideal for those working with limited space, perfect for containers or even old tin cans on the greenhouse staging or shelves. And for gardeners who appreciate a dash of dramatic flair, varieties such as 'Sugar Rush Stripey' deliver with their ornamental striped fruits that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are delicious; great for larger containers or in the greenhouse borders once the temperatures have warmed up.
For those with a taste for the rare and unusual, perennial chillies such as the Rocoto can become a long-standing feature of your greenhouse. These robust varieties can endure cooler temperatures and if kept above 6°C, will happily overwinter, offering a perennial source of heat. I have a four-year-old ‘Scallywag’ chilli that happily lives in an old bucket all winter in the greenhouse which is fitted with a frost bar to keep the cold out.
When sowing, use a fine, peat-free compost and sow the chilli seeds thinly, covering them with a light layer of compost. Gently water them and place them upon a heat source to encourage germination – a steady 25-30°C is best. As they germinate and unfurl their first true leaves, they're ready for a little more space and light.
The secret to a bumper chilli crop lies not just in their start but in their ongoing care. Encouraging a stout, bushy plant is simple: when they reach around 15cm in height, pinch out the tip. This action encourages lateral growth and leads to a sturdier plant that will produce more flowers, followed by a larger crop of chillies. Just remember, there is no need to remove the tip from shorter types of chilli, as they naturally branch at a smaller size.
As your chillies grow, repotting will become necessary to accommodate their expanding roots, so each time you see them sticking from the base of the pot, it’s time to move to the next size up, until you are ready to transplant them into the greenhouse border, or they are in the pot you want them to grow in. Regular feeding is also important once the plants produce their first flowers; general tomato fertiliser will boost your crops, as will comfrey feed or any of the specialise chilli fertilisers available. It’s also a must for adequate sunlight when growing chillies, with direct sunlight being the best, so try not to grow your plants in the shade for best results.
Each chilli plant, with its individual flavour and heat, adds a unique touch to your cooking, with Jalapenos for stuffing, and Cayenne for drying and making powders. Starting your chillies in a greenhouse early is promising a year of growth, and a bumper crop of spicy fruit for the future. So, here’s to the spice of life – may your greenhouses be warm, your plants fruitful, and your chillies hot (or not, depending on your taste). Happy gardening!
Don’t forget, if you have an excess of chillies, you can freeze them whole, then when you want to use them in your cooking, just take them out of the freezer and add them to your dish. You can also dry chillies on the windowsill until crisp, then store them in jam jars for later use, or why not have a go at making your own chilli sauce; there are lots of recipes available online.
Images courtesy of Robert Smith and Darren Lakin
Om Robert Smith
Rob is a seasoned gardener, specialising in growing edible plants. Not only does he write for multiple national Gardening Magazines, but he also appears now and again on TV and radio, sharing his passion for the “Grow Your Own” lifestyle on social media (@robsallotment). Alongside his public persona, Rob also works with several of the counties best known gardening companies, including Suttons, Thompson & Morgan, Dobies, and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, to source new and exciting types of fruit, veg and flowers to be launched into garden centres across the UK and Europe. At home you will find him in his Kitchen Garden, come rain or shine, accompanied by his faithful companions, Nipper and Reggie.Get to know Robert Smith
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