When I started to make savoury preserves I made a chilli jelly - I think it is one of those things everyone loves and we certainly did in our house. Out I went to the shops to buy my chillies and the first thing I found (several years ago) was that there were two varieties available - Red or Green!
In the years since I have had an education and I will never stop learning. But I have become a bit of a chilli fanatic in that I want to tell people that they are not just about HEAT.
I appreciate that for some people they want to eat the hottest pepper they can find - I don't. Having experienced an extremely hot chilli during a Christmas party game a few years ago it is not something I choose to repeat.
But depending on what chilli you grow they can be fruity, citrusy, smoky and the list goes on. Then of course they can be used fresh, dried, smoked - the combinations are endless.
So last week at the Taste Adventure in the Ulster Museum I gave out over a 100 little pots sowed with chilli seeds in the hopes that the children (and adults) who took them home will discover the fun of chilli growing. I made up a little info sheet which many folks photographed with their smartphones. However I promised I would share some info on my website and so here I am doing just that in my first ever blog post.
I am not an expert on chilies by any means but I am sharing what I find works. I grow between 100 – 150 plants on average each year with about a dozen different varieties so I have a gathered a bit of experience along the way.
Chilli growing - part one
Chilli seeds can be bought from most garden centres as all the seed companies do them. If you are a first time grower a chilli like Apache is a great one to start with as it is a small compact plant and will fruit generously. The chillies are not too hot either so it is a good general purpose plant. If you buy a packet of seed why not share the cost with some friends and make it a contest to see who can harvest the most chillies during the year.
But don't worry if you buy a packet of seeds and it seems like a lot to sow. Just make sure there is a good date on the packet and once you open the foil insert and remove the seeds you want seal it with sellotape and keep it somewhere dry and cool and it will be fine till next year.
One thing I have discovered over the years is use seed compost. If I have spent money on seeds and time sowing them I want to give them the best possible start. General-purpose compost is great (and I make my own so I use a lot) further down the line when you are potting up mature plants but not for sowing.
The second thing is to make sure that everything is really clean before you start. I wash and reuse all my pots and trays every year and for sowing I make sure that the trays are spotlessly clean.
For sowing I use divided seed trays and sow 9 seeds per section. Alternatively you can sow into small pots. Fill the pot with compost and firm it down. Place seeds onto the surface of the compost and then cover very lightly with a layer of compost (or vermiculite). I then place the pots or seed trays into a shallow tray of water and allow them to take up moisture for about 5 minutes. I then label and date the pot and put it inside a small plastic bag and set somewhere warm. For seed trays I cover with some cling film.
Nowadays because I grow so many plants I use a heated propagator for some of the varieties that take longer to germinate but a kitchen windowsill is fine.
Check the tray/pot every now and again to make sure it has not dried out but don’t keep it soaking wet or you will
rot the seed.
When you see seedlings start to push through the surface (and this can take up to 28 days so have patience) you may wish to move the tray/pot somewhere it gets good light but not direct sunlight or you will find your lovely little seedlings shrivel!
Once the seedlings have a second set of leaves it is time to pot them on. You can use little plastic pots (many of the bargain shops sell these and once you have them they can be used over and over again each year if you wash them). An alternative is to buy a packet of polystyrene cups. Make drainage holes in the bottom of these with a soldering iron or awl and then pot them up.
Holding the seedlings by the leaves (these will regrow if damaged but the stem of the plant won’t) carefully ease them from the tray or pot using a widger or old kitchen fork. Then set onto the top of the pot of compost (which you have filled to within about two inches from the top) and then fill around with compost and firm in gently.
Then place the pot into a saucer and water from below and set back onto the windowsill. Don’t keep the compost too wet but if you have forgotten to water don’t panic. Just give the plant a good soak in tepid water and it should recover!
When roots start growing out of the bottom of the pot it is time to pot on again. I normally end up with my plants in a terracotta pot between 1 litre to 3 litre depending on the variety.
Once you have got to this point it is a matter of providing them with heat, water and feed and some protection from pests such as greenfly.
And that will be the subject of another blog post!
WARNING: Chili growing is addictive – there are varieties that make the most beautiful houseplants with their foliage and flowers. Once you start to experience the range of flavours there are - so much more than just heat you will begin to look for other varieties to cook with and if you can’t get them then why not grow them