I don’t care about chillies, I find them boring. I know as a garden writer and organic vegetable grower I should find them interesting but I don’t. I might as well come clean upfront because you’d only suss me out. I’m writing this because I plan to change this – I want to change – and take you along for the ride.
Nonchalant about chillis
It’s not that I don’t like chillies or spice, I do love their taste and their kick, and I especially like sweet chillies and Padrón peppers. Chris and I could eat a tableful of griddled Padróns covered in sea salt (the Padrón’s not us). We simply don’t cook with chillies enough to warrant a mass adventure into the chilli world. I’ve grown my fair share of them though and I know how to grow them well, so for your delectation I shall reluctantly impart what I’ve learnt, despite my lack of enthusiasm.
Growing chillies from seed
Chilli seeds are given away in restaurants all the time because they are among the easiest edibles to grow. Even if you have no garden you can grow a substantial number on your windowsill alone.
I sow chilli seeds in the last month of winter (February in the UK) when daylight hours are just starting to get longer but before spring has arrived. This gives the chillies a head start for a longer growing season, useful because it takes them longer than other vegetables to flower and crop.
Sow the seeds on top of a tray or pot of peat-free compost, water a little and cover with a lid, glass or cling film until they germinate. Place in a sunny warm location such as a heated greenhouse or sunny windowsill on a heated propagator. Germination can take a week or two, so wait until they all have their first leaves, then remove the cover.
When they have two proper leaves, following the initial seed leaves (four leaves in total) lift them out by a leaf, using a pencil or fork to gently lever the roots out without damaging them. Pot them up into individual 7cm pots. You can always start them all in the 7cm pots to start with if you have space.
Grow them on and pot up into larger pots to an eventual final pot of 20cm, terracotta is ideal for its porosity allowing water escape and air transfer. Or plant out.
How to grow chillies
Key to remember is that chillies lurve the heat, it’s like they absorb all warm energy and use it to power their spiciness. If chillies were a person they’d be slathering themselves in tanning lotion next to the pool and sunbathing constantly.
As such, chillies must be grown in full direct sunlight and won’t tolerate temperatures below 10C, growing best in the 18C+ range. You can grow them in pots of peat-free compost on windowsills inside, window ledges and patios outside, in greenhouses and polytunnels. In warmer climates you can grow chillies directly in the ground of more exposed areas outside in summer.
I’ve grown chillies outside in 20cm pots on our patio and also in the ground very successfully on my London allotment with no cover whatsoever where they revelled in the sunlight.
Watering and fertilising
Chillies need regular watering in summer and fertilising with a high potash fertiliser every couple of weeks to help increase cropping. I use liquid seaweed made for tomatoes or homemade comfrey feed fortnightly through summer.
Pinch the tops and pick often
Pinch off the top main shoot at about 30cm to force branching lower down. Once chillies start ripening, pick them regularly for a continuous crop.
A perennial secret
Although many people grow chilli plants as annuals they are in fact a perennial shrub. If you have space, one of the advantages of growing them in pots is that in winter you can bring them indoors in the warmth to keep them alive until the next year. Older plants produce even more chillies because they’re stronger and earlier to start growing, established and full of energy from previous year/s.
When bringing them inside in late autumn, snip their branches back to the first leaf joint from the main stem. That sounds brutal but it reduces stress and new shoots will emerge in spring. This will force additional branching and extra branches means larger numbers of flowers and chillies.
Water them less frequently during winter to avoid rot, keeping them just on the dry side of damp. They won’t use much water during this time because they’re not growing.
I treat them like bonsais and root prune them in spring once the weather warms up and growth resumes. Sawing off the bottom 30-50% of roots (you can use a bread knife if you don’t have a hand saw), disposing of them and refilling the space at the bottom of the pot with fresh compost.
If you don’t have space for this, don’t worry, growing from seed each year is fine and provides more than enough chillies to eat.
Different levels of spiciness
Chilli spiciness is determined by something called the Scoville scale – which has a backstory involving some loon called Scoville who ate lots of chillies but I’ll leave you to Google that as right now, I don’t care. All we need to know is that spiciness is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU).
OK, I suppose I should explain. Wilbur (strong name) Scoville was a pharmacist and took a more scientific approach to chilli heat than I flippantly suggested above. Basically, chillies contain a substance called capsaicin that produces the heat in our mouths through some kind of reaction you can read more about on Wikipedia.
The SHU of each chilli is determined by the amount of capsaicin contained within it. Clever. The Scoville scale (which I reckon should be renamed the Spiciness Scale as I shall now call it) runs from 0 for not spicy at all, to 3,000,000. Yes, that’s 3 million or more on the Spiciness Scale. As I’m sure you can guess, 3 million is enough to blow your head off. It’s quite literally given people heart attacks.
Cayenne peppers sit around 20,000 – 30,000 SHU and tastes pretty hot to me and I suspect is my limit of chilli eating enjoyment. Scotch bonnets are notoriously goddamn spicy and have around 200,000 SHU. Far too hot for me to enjoy except in a misguided challenge with friends to eat the hottest chilli.
Put it this way, I once grew and ate ‘Royal Pearl’ chilli at 60,000 SHU and it made me cry involuntarily and struggle to breath for about 20 minutes. Leading me to conclude anyone who eats a 3 million SHU chilli is mad or superhuman.
People say milk cools the heat but as the thought alone of drinking neat milk makes me gag, I’ve preferred to suffer.
One of the reasons I love Padrón and less-spicy chillies is that they become more of a vegetable consumed en masse, giving meals substance. Padróns can be brief or grilled to lightly cook. Sweet chillies can be eaten raw or added to salads.
Spicy chillies can be used in the same way but the hotter they get, they more they become like herbs to change the flavour and heat of dishes.
Chillies are easy to store all through winter by drying on a flat tray or threading cotton through them like a necklace to hang in a dry, dark cupboard. You can then leave them like that or store in a jar. Fresh chillies can also be frozen or stored in oil.
Have you grown chillies? If so, which varieties do you recommend? Which are your favourites?