In praise of the phew!
For an explosion of colour in the garden and flavour in the kitchen, grow your own chillies and you will feel the heat all summer long
Chillies are hot stuff right now, with celebrity chefs and home cooks chucking them in pretty much everything. They have become hugely popular to grow in the garden, too, which is no surprise because they’re a hardy, easy-to-grow and fun-to-watch crop.
The flavour of a fresh chilli compared to dried flakes is incomparable. So whether you are adding a kick to your linguine sauce, throwing spice on your pizza or turning up the heat on a curry, fresh chillies will soon become a friend in your kitchen.
And if you don’t like it too hot, there are some great chillies that are mild but still full of flavour. Pencil-thin Tokyo Hot chillies are great in Thai and Mexican dishes and despite the name are only a medium heat.
Red chillies also contain tons of Vitamin C. To top it all off, these exotic, bright, and fiery-looking plants are a seriously attractive addition to your home.
So let’s look at how to get your own windowsill chilli garden going.
Growing chillies is great fun and will save you money. Get them right and they will go on producing year after year.
They have a long cropping season, so you could be harvesting fresh chillies from late spring to December. And they can be frozen, too, when you have a really bumper crop.
During summer, they can sit outside in warm weather. A bit of breeze will help give your plant strength. But to get them off to a good start, you will need a sunny windowsill, porch or greenhouse.
You can buy them as pre-grown baby plants or produce your own from seed. If you are going for the latter, choose a few varieties – red, yellow, long, short.
You will want to sow between February and April, though at a push you can still grow now if you are quick. But check your variety, as they can differ wildly in how long they need to mature.
The seeds can be tricky to germinate but once they are going, you’ll be fine.
I wrap mine in muslin cloth, tie with some wool, then soak it overnight in a Thermos flask warmed to about 45C.
Next morning, plant a couple of seeds at a time into baby pots about the size of your palm just using ordinary compost.
Pop the seeds on top and cover them with a thin layer of compost, firm it down and soak thoroughly. If you’ve got a heated propagator, great, but any warm, sheltered spot is fine. Many people cover them in clingfilm and pop them in the airing cupboard.
They like a steady temperature of 25-28C and you will want to keep
them moist –but not drowning. In about three weeks, you should see signs of germination. But don’t worry if they are slow to emerge. Chillies sprout when they are good and ready.
Once the seedlings appear, they will want to be uncovered and on a bright and warm windowsill.
If using a propagator, you should ventilate it now. Wherever you have got them, don’t let the temperature drop too low at night at this point. And use a normal fertiliser at about quarter strength to give them a good boost – seaweed extract is perfect.
If you buy pre-grown seedlings, again, choose a warm windowsill or greenhouse. As the weather begins to warm properly, take them out in the day to toughen them up but don’t forget to bring them back in at night. When all danger of frost has passed, you can either move them outside or pop them into a larger (9-12in) pot.
After they start to flower, keep feeding regularly through the growing season – about every fortnight is fine. But make sure you also water regularly, especially when it is hot. About once every week or two will be great. I recommend giving them standard tomato food. They will need staking by the time they are about 20cm, otherwise they will start to lean. Watch out for aphid infestations and treat accordingly if your plant gets hit.
Chillies produce their fruit on side stems, so when the plant is around 30cm, pinch off the tops of the stems. That will allow your plant to focus its growth. And the more side stems, the more chillies.
Snipping off your first chillies while green will encourage fruiting all season – July to October. You can let the next lot of fruit mature to red for a more rounded flavour.
Even if you don’t need them at the time, you should pick them and keep them in the freezer until you do, because the more you harvest, the more the plant will produce.
Nothing beats the tang of a fresh, homegrown chilli. Just be careful not to burn your mouth.
BLAST Ripening to orange
ZINGER Jalapeno peppers ripening BURNING DESIRE HEATWAVE Red hot chilli peppers Tokyo Hot chilli