Saturday, 28 January 2012

Mid-winter thoughts of heat and warmth: growing chilli peppers in the UK

It's probably the coldest time of year but my thoughts have turned to the most exotic plants I grow - chillies.  For us in the UK, growing chillies is a real challenge as to do this with any degree of success we need to replicate the dry hot climate they originate from.  Moisture and temperature can be controlled to a degree by growing indoors (in addition to my greenhouse bench I've grown a few plants on the windowsill in my office).  However, the added complication is that our growing season is much shorter than in their native Mexico thus making the act of growing chilli peppers from seed a bit more challenging, requiring more attention and intervention than most other food crops.  

Over the past few years I've experimented with a few varieties, both growing from seed and purchasing small plants from garden centres or garden shows in the spring/early summer.  Varieties such as Hungarian Hotwax, Scotch Bonnet, Habanero and Cherry Bomb have all provided me with a small supply of fiery fruits but on the whole the plants have never seemed entirely comfortable nor have they matched vigour and the supplies of fruit provided to me by a variety which happened to catch my eye and I grew for fun and interest rather than anything else.

My most successful chilli growing has been with the variety, Razzamatazz (Mr.Fothergills). The seeds are not the cheapest perhaps - last year's cost £2.05 for 50 seeds (which is two year's sowings worth) - but the germination rates have been very high providing me with as many plants as I needed to fill my greenhouse bench, spare windowsills and spares to give away.  I don't have a heated greenhouse or use heated propagators.  Nevertheless, sowings in late February or early March, on a warm window sill or covered in my unheated greenhouse, have been successful and provided me with seedlings to pot on up until May when they go into their larger pots* to remain until their fruits are fully ripened in September or October.  By mid summer the fruits start to appear in a variety of colours (including orange, green, yellow and purple) finally ripening to a rich red providing you can resist the temptation to use them earlier.  The chillies are as hot as most people require and have proved perfect on pizzas and as the fiery ingredient in other regular meals such as curries and chilli-con-carne.  They are also suitable for adding to jars of home made pickled onions and six or eight added to a kilo of ripe tomatoes, garlic, red wine vinegar and brown sugar make the most amazing chilli jam - a perfect accompaniment to a toasted cheddar sandwich for a 'chilly' January weekend lunch.  Storing couldn't be easier as they can be dried or simply placed in a plastic pot in the freezer until needed. 

Hmmm time for that sandwich. 
Thanks for reading,

 * I've found 6" pots are as good as 9" for these plants with a free draining gritty medium.  Up until last year I never went smaller than a 9" pot for chillies but last year I posed a question via Twitter to Monty Don (@TheMontyDon) about the optimum size pot for chilli plants and received the succinct reply 'rather smaller than you might think'.


  1. What you say about the size of the pots is very interesting. Maybe I'll try a controlled experiment...

  2. The pot size question is very interesting, I didn't realise that and to date have chosen a larget pot for chillies.

  3. Oh! you are lucky to be growing hot chillies. I buy all these plants which promise to be hot but they have nothing - they are neither sweet nor hot; only the jalapeno last year was good. I don't know if the chillies are for American taste-bud or my soil is not warm enough. Do you put black mulch or something to make the soil hot? It would be nice if you can provide step by step instructions about growing chilly from seed without a heat mat. Thank You.

    1. The advice I have been given about chilli plants is to water very sparingly, the least amount of water you can get away with. The more water they get, the less hot the chillies turn out. As far as soil, I use general multi purpose compost mixed with some home made (sieved) compost and a handful of grit to help drainage. Then I only water in the early morning so during the night when temperatures in the greenhouse drop the plants are not sitting in damp. About once every 2-4 days during the summer depending on how hot the weather is; if the compost is damp I'll not water and check the next day. As I said above, they need more care and attention that most other plants I grow but it is a nice challenge to grow things suited to a different climate. As far as sowing and germinating without heat, the seeds take longer to start moving but I've found as long as I keep the pots/trays covered and free of frost they germinate fine. Generally in early March we can get a few days sunshine which gives them a heat boost, if it looks like cold I'd bring them indoors to the kitchen window sill for protection. I'll post about my sowings in a few weeks as I do them. Thanks and good luck