It's getting hot this weekend at West Dean's celebration of the chilli with Sarah Wain


The Evolution of the West Dean Chilli Festival - West Dean presented the first chilli day (possibly in the country) in August 1996 and as our chilli collection had featured on Gardeners World just before the open day the event received loads of free publicity.

We were caught unawares by the numbers that turned up; our 400-500 estimate turned into approximately 2500 visitors, so the decision was made there and then to make it a two day affair the next time and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now the chilli fiesta welcomes in excess of 22,000 chilli heads over three days with 150 stall holders and music galore. There is an overwhelming array of chilli food and chilli sauces to taste and plenty of other  exciting chilli merchandise.

Come along with your friends on the 8-10th August 2014 (this weekend) see for more details.

Peace and tranquillity will resume duties in the gardens the following week. I can revel in the blaze of colour in the cutting garden and borders at West Dean - it says summer to me and makes the heart sing.

Top Tips for Chilli Growers:

  1. For beginners use books, the internet or ask a knowledgeable friend to help you get started on chilli growing, there is heaps of info available to get you on your way
  2. If you have a heated propagator and grow lights you can start sowing fresh chilli seed in Feb/March. Some species such as C. chinense benefit from a long growing season
  3. By selecting early fruiting Capsicum annuum cultivars such as ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, you can leave sowing until late March early April and still get a crop that season without horticultural accessories.
  4. Use fresh seed raising compost, small clean pots and mains water when sowing seed and remember chillies need warmth and light to germinate and grow well.
  5. Pot up from a 7-9cm pot into a 15cm pot after a month or so using your favourite compost, it just needs to be free draining. You may need to stake the plant at the same time.
  6. With vigorous non branching varieties it helps to take out the growing tip using finger and thumb when the plant is about 20cms high to initiate branching below- more branches means more sites for flowers and fruit to develop. No need to do this on multi-branched varieties.
  7. Chillies can be grown in various containers, small varieties in a 1.5L pot, larger varieties in a 2-5 L pot, grow bags, glasshouse borders and cold frames. They thrive outdoors in the UK. in warm sheltered positions but only in sunny summers.
  8. Feed regularly- initially with seaweed extract to initiate root development then with a balanced fertiliser after the first potting and finally after the final pot or when flowers and fruits start to appear, change to a fertiliser high in potassium (such as a tomato feed).
  9. Attend to the plants: pick off all old flowers especially around the fruits to avoid fungal problems, remove fallen leaf litter and keep an eye out for aphids on the leaves- squashing any that dare to appear. You may also have to stake the branches of large fruited varieties so that the plants don’t fall apart
  10. Finally don’t forget to harvest, try chillies at all stages of their development from their unripe colours of green, cream and purple through their transitional colours to ripe colours of orange and red to find out when you enjoy them the most. 

My favourite varieties: Hungarian Hot Wax Rooster Spur and Habanero to name just a few!

Chilli ice-cream:

Mash up a ripe mango and combine with a very finally chopped ripe habanero chilli. Soften a tub of plain ice-cream and combine with mango and chilli- refreeze. It’s a weird combo of hot and cold.

Enjoy! See you at the weekend.

Tags: west dean gardens, sarah wain, chilli festival