I’ve been growing chilli plants regularly in zone 10 since 2006. In this blog post I share tips on how to cultivate your own chilli plants. I don’t know which variety of Capsicum Frutescens I’m growing, they could be Siling Labuyo – see how the pods grow upwards!
How to choose your chilli seeds
Choose your chilli seeds wisely to avoid disappointment. You want to start with fairly new seeds that have been stored in a cool dry place. Make sure the seeds were saved from chilli plants that were not allowed to cross pollinate. Grow the type of chillies you love to eat. I like these little ones because they are strong, with a predictable amount of heat in each pod.
Planting chilli seeds
You can start the chilli seeds off in damp kitchen roll to get them to sprout in early spring – don’t let them dry out! Once they have become established enough, carefully plant (one each) in a seed tray or you can just start each one off in a seed tray. Once the threat of frost is over you can move them outside. Choose your favourite chilli plants and move each one up into their own small pot (keep it’s dirt with it), with ample drainage stones – give the rest away! Pot them up slowly, as and when you can see the roots through the holes in the bottom of the pots. Chilli plants like to feel their roots snug in their pots. I eventually take my chilli plants up to one of those large black rubber builders buckets (with drill holes in the base).
Growing chilli plants
They like to be in the ground or have a 30 cm deep tub for themselves, lots of regular watering and full sun! Don’t let the pots dry out. Fertilise with the same liquid feed that you’d use on tomatoes. Sometimes if you’re lucky, the chilli plants can grow up to 4 feet and can get a bit unruly – you might then need to support the main stem with a piece of cane.
Saving chilli seeds
To isolate a flower, catch it before it opens. Use some fine fabric mesh to cover it loosely and tie it tightly around the stem – leave enough room for the flower to bloom. Once the flower opens it can self pollinate – you can give it hand by shaking and gently rubbing the flower. Once the chilli pod appears you can take off the mesh and tie some coloured wool around the stem, so you can identify your isolated seed pod. I will isolate several flowers at a time. Some growers choose to isolate the whole chilli plant using a box structure with mesh. The main purpose is to stop the insects getting to the flower and cross fertilising your chilli plant with any capsicum within a kilometre, so use a mesh with a very fine weave. When the chilli pods is nice and ripe, dry it. Then scrape the seeds out and store in a tiny labeled folded paper envelope.
Harvesting chilli plants
Taking the ripened chillies off the plant encourages more production. I generally crop 3 times a year. This is the 2nd harvest I got from my potted 3 year old chilli plant that I grew from a seed. I got the seed from an isolated flower on my 12 year old chilli plant, that died of old age (with a little bit of help from the cat). I find that the plants produce their best harvests when they are between 3 and 8 years old, even when the plant dies back to a stick each winter.
How to dry chillies
If you are growing in a city, you might want to wash and dry your chillies before threading. This is my chilli necklace that I threaded up on our long, bleak car journey going to Czech. When I pick the chillies, I leave a bit of stem, so that I have something to sew a needle and thread through. I dry the strands slowly in pretty red necklaces before storing them away in an airtight jars. If your chillies turn black, it means they have gone mouldy, so discard those. To avoid mould, when drying large juicy chillies, you might need to make a nick in the pod to allow for more air flow.
Pruning a chilli plant
Prune in late winter before the plant starts to shoot again. The main stem is the structure, leave this as long as possible, with a few main branches. If you don’t prune, your chilli plant will have dead wood in its midst, which hinders air flow. Every cut is going to make a spray of new shoots. I leave a centimetre, so the stem has a bit of space to recede before the node. Even if your plant dies right back, keep it going, it might surprise you that the roots still have plenty of life left in them.
Chilli sauce recipes
With a hand blender add equal parts chilli pods, ginger, garlic. Add a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon and a medium sized roughly chopped onion. The onion should provide enough liquid to make a paste. The paste can be stored in an air tight container in the fridge and used in cooking. To make a raw spicy sauce, you can add to the paste – fresh herbs (cilantro, chives, grated lime zest), oil, lime juice and a little sugar to taste. To make a chilli jam you can boil the paste up with an equal part of white sugar. Once the boiling bubbles reduce in quantity, it’s time to cool and store in jars.
Sometimes, even with the best ingredients and recipes, the addition of chillies can really lift a dish
A young chilli plant, a jar of dried chillies, a chilli sauce with a personalised label or a string of ripe chillies all make for very welcome gifts.
If you would like to commission a chilli painting please get in touch. I’d love to do an oil painting of chillies.