17 January 2018 By Mark Diacono
Every Valentine's Day, my wife knows she'll hear those three special words from me: 'Just sowing chillis'. It is my default day for sowing all chillis and the other Mediterraneans - peppers, tomatoes and aubergines. I also sow a speculative batch in mid-to-late January that I hope get ahead of the game without being nabbed by the cold, and a 'last resort' batch in mid-March that serves only as backups in the worst circumstances.
First, I have a weekend shopping list for you:
- A bag of peat-free potting compost
- Jiffy 7s
- Chilli seeds
- If you're feeling proper flush - a greenhouse, ideally Alitex, obvs... or
- If you have a few quid spare - a heated propagator... or
- If you're not feeling flush at all - dog/cat treats
Ten step guide to success with chillis (that works with the other Mediterraneans too)
Sow into Jiffy 7s - small discs of coconut husk that expand when wet. Sow one seed in each. You can use a seed tray, but I find Jiffy's less of a fiddle and root disturbance is minimised.
Never let the compost dry out completely from the moment you sow. Water little and often, using water that's at room temperature to avoid cooling the compost.
Germination is best at 27°C; be patient, as it can take them into the light one at a time.
Seedlings grow best at around 21°C during the day and around 17° C at night - you can adjust the temperature with the propagator, or allow the natural shift in house temperature to do it or you if not using a propagator. If you are without a propagator, encourage the dog or cat from their favourite warm, sunny place using a few treats and place your seedlings in the sunny spot, ideally near a radiator. If there is a well=placed windowsill above a radiator, even better.
When the roots fill the Jiffy 7s, tear the outer netting to let the roots grow through and pot the seedlings on into 10cm pots, planting to a depth just below the initial seed leaves.
Fortnightly, or more, use a liquid plant feed (high in potassium) to promote healthy growth and fruiting.
When the roots start filling the pot, transplant the seedlings to their final location - this is likely to be two months or so after sowing.
Grow them undercover; even the sunniest spot is a gamble on the UK weather. A greenhouse is perfect, as it offers equal light from all directions, avoiding leggy or skewed growth. Most varieties will do well on a sunny windowsill, as long as you turn the pot every day or two to keep the plant growing evenly - and use 3 litre pots (in effect bonsai the plant).
Grow each plant in a 22cm pot, or allow 60cm between plants grown in the ground. I add a few handfuls of pelleted chicken manure to release nutrients slowly.
If all goes wrong or you don't sow in time, buy grafted seedlings, usually available in May. These smashers are varieties grown on established roots that not only get the plant well ahead by the time you get them, they reduce the likelihood of disease.
Six Chilli Varieties to try
Apricot - a delicious, aromatic and very mild habanero (500 Scoville Heat Units)
Trinity - a flavoursome, hot productive habanero (40k SHU)
Stumpy - a lively (20k SHU) chilli that grows to 12cm or so
NuMex Twilight - a beautiful and very productive chilli (30k SHU) which produces and ripens fruit over a long period, which means plants usually have red, green, yellow, orange and purple chillis at the same time.
Pimiento de Padron - (12k SHU) you are very likely to find on a tapas menu. It is very mild when young, but turning hot overnight. A Russian roulette of a dish.
Super Chile - (36K SHU) madly prolific (300 chillis is not unusual), lively and does well in a pot.
You can find my favourite 'pickled chillis' recipe or my 'salt and pepper padron peppers' recipe, on a previous Alitex guest blog.
Courses, seeds plants - www.seaspringseeds.co.uk
Seeds and grafted plants - www.otterfarm.co.uk
Jiffy 7s - www.gardensupplydirect.co.uk
Propagators - www.alitex.co.uk/accessories