One of the easiest, prettiest and, in my household at least, most useful things you can grow in your garden are chillies. There are so many to choose from but one I would definitely stay away from is Carolina Reeper – officially the world’s hottest chilli, peaking at an incredible 2.2 million Scovilles.
What’s a Scoville? It’s a measure of pungency, or ‘hotness’ to you and me, used for chilli peppers and other spicy foods, produced by a concentration of capaicin and formally known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test. The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville who devised it in 1912, but it is not an exact science and basically relies on a team of five trained tasters to agree on what they find hot, hotter, and hottest. There’s a wiki article on this for those who would like to understand more about the technicalities, with a useful chart which, for instance, tells us that chipotle ranges from 3,500 – 10,000 Scovilles – remember the Carolina Reeper reaches 2.2 million so don’t touch it with a barge pole! However there are lots of lovely ones that will be a delight so here are some useful tips from Dan May, owner of the world’s most northerly chilli farm based in Northumberland.
To grow chillies from seed:
1 Fill a multi-cell seed tray with multi-purpose compost, firm down and moisten with water. Place a seed in each cell, lightly cover with compost (or a thin layer of vermiculite).
2 Water gently, using a very fine rose, then cover with cling film and place somewhere warm, such as an airing cupboard. Make sure the compost is moist but not sodden.
3 At the first sign of growth (two to four weeks), move to a warm place out of direct sun, but with plenty of light, such as a windowsill above a radiator. Water from below to encourage strong roots – capillary matting is ideal. Check daily that the surface is just moist.
4 When your seedlings sprout a second set of leaves, carefully transplant to 7cm pots of moist compost and feed weekly with a liquid tomato feed.
5 Once plants reach 12-15cm, transplant to 12cm pots (or fit three in a 30cm pot), filling with compost to about 1cm from the top. When plants are about 20cm, support by gently tying to a cane.
6 When plants reach 30cm, pinch out growing tips just above the fifth set of leaves to encourage bushiness. Pot on if necessary; check daily for aphids.
7 When flowers appear, help out the bees with some hand pollination – gently dab a cotton bud into each flower.
8 Snip off first chillies while green to encourage fruiting all season (July to October). You can let the next fruit mature to red for a more rounded flavour.
Chillies can be planted any time up to May, but starting early means they have more chance to ripen in time for summer.
Plant in January and you should harvest in July. Even in the south-east, it’s too cold to start chillies off outside.
By mid-May it should be warm enough to put the plants outside, in a sheltered, sunny spot.
The hottest and more unusual varieties, such as the habanero, take longer to ripen.
If you’re growing tropical varieties, or if you are in northern Britain, keep plants in a greenhouse or on a warm sill.
If you can get a plant through the winter, the fruit yield will increase in the second and third years. At the end of the growing season choose a healthy plant and cut it back to leave the stem and a few healthy branches.
Make sure the plant is free from pests and that the compost is relatively fresh. Place plant on a warm windowsill and give an occasional liquid feed.
An overwintered plant will produce fruit earlier and more prolifically. After four or five years, yields begin to fall and it is time to retire that plant.
Best of luck.