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Striking both in look and taste, the chilli pepper is an ideal plant to grow in containers, and will spice up your cooking too, as Fiona Lawrenson reveals

If you have never tried to grow your own chilli peppers now’s your chance to experience a whole new world. I must admit that I can't eat too many chillies, but one of my friends is addicted and maintains that the more you eat, the more you want!

Over the last five years, so many unusual varieties of chilli have become available providing a whole new range of both colour and flavour. Colours include greens, yellows, creams, reds, purples and blacks, and tastes range from sweet to napalm strength.

How to grow?
I prefer to grow these attractive plants in pots. This tends to address all the problems that these little chaps hate, such as the soil being too cold and wet or not providing enough shelter.

Growing peppers is very similar to growing tomatoes, although they do require warmer conditions and a higher light intensity. Sow the seed in mid-March in soil that is slightly acidic, moisture retentive and fertile, with plenty of humus worked in. Initially, I sow three seeds in a small pot at a depth of ¼ inch. The temperature required for germination is critical, the minimum being 21°C. As the seedlings grow, keep them at a temperature of between 12°C and 15°C. When they reach 5cm in height, transfer each one into individual 7cm pots. Gradually lower the temperature to harden off the young plants. Either in the late spring or when the first flowers appear, repot the chilli plants into 23cm-wide containers.

Don’t over-water the compost or allow it to dry out. Maintaining the correct level of moisture is particularly important when the plant is flowering and the fruit is beginning to set. Feed the plants every two weeks using a suitable high potassium tomato feed. In hot weather, your chillies will also benefit from high humidity, since this prevents immature fruits from dropping. So, encourage evaporation either by spraying the plants with water twice a day (morning and mid-day) or by leaving buckets of water nearby. This has the additional advantage of discouraging the appearance of red spider mite.

Harvest your chillies at the end of July/beginning of August. Mature chillies should be smooth and glossy as opposed to the crinkly, matt appearance associated with the immature fruits. Remember that they do tend to become hotter in flavour when left for a longer time on the plant.

To store:
Allow the chillies either to dry on the plant by hanging them up in a cool, dry place, or pop the chilli peppers in olive oil in airtight jars.

Suggested varieties to try:
‘Yellow Cayenne’- large, hot, yellow chilli. Good for drying.
‘Apache’ - prolific plant, brilliant for growing in pots. Can produce over 100 small, hot chillies.
‘Hungarian Wax’ - sweet and hot.

Chilli Fiesta:
Visit West Dean Gardens, West Dean, Chichester, West Sussex on the 12th/13th August, between 10:30am and 5:00pm, for a Chilli Fiesta. Tel: (01243) 818210.

West Dean Gardens grows over 200 varieties of chillies. They sell a wide variety of products, catering both for the ‘chillihollic’ and the more tenderhearted amongst us.

Entrance Fee:
Adults: £ 4.00
OAPs: £ 3.50
Children: £ 2.00
Family Ticket: £10.00

Photograph by Andrew Nichols

Click to view  Chilli Plants for sale  in our online store

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Other Fiona Lawrenson Articles
   New Potatoes        Pumpkins are Cool!
   Rooting for Parsnips        Some Like it Hot!
   Superior Shallots        Wild About Garlic