Growing chillis at home - chilli growing guide
When growing chilli plants from seed you do not need to spend lots of money on expensive gear such as hydroponic systems, all you need is good old compost, pots, and of course chilli seeds. You don't even need to be in a hot climate because as long as you can provide warmth and light your good to go, growing chillis in the UK is a big YES.
Ok, first of all it is always a good idea to plan ahead, by this I mean looking at what type of space you have to grow. If you have a flat or a house with a small garden you might want to stick to the smaller type of chilli peppers such as Apache, Cayenne, Bulgarian Carrot, etc. However if you choose a bigger chilli plant you can grow it in a smaller pot which will give you a slightly smaller version of the plant.
Sourcing chilli Pepper Seeds
You can buy chilli seeds from pretty much anywhere such as DIY stores like Homebase or B&Q, even the Co-Op sell them! I find buying my chilli seeds online is much more convenient and you can buy them on eBay, however you might want to stick to more reliable sources such as Nicky's Nursery, Chile Seeds .co.uk, Simpsons Seeds, Mr.Fothergills, etc. However I can recommend an eBay shop named Premier Seeds Direct, I have brought many seeds through these and have never had any problems and my germination rate has been excellent, not only that but they are quite cheap and the company is DEFRA registered.
Once you have your chilli seeds you are going to need to plant them. A high quality compost is ideal, I have never had problems with own brand multi-purpose compost from places like B&Q, Asda, Aldi, Wilkinsons and Homebase. Compost is pretty cheap and you can get 100L bags of multi-purpose compost for a few pounds, usually you will find deals on where you can buy three bags for £10.
Next you need something to put the compost in, you can use pretty much anything such as old ice cream tubs, yoghurt pots, loo roll holders etc. If you want to buy a propagator you can do so from places like eBay, B&Q, Wilkinsons etc. These propagators are plastic trays where you are able to either fill with compost or place small pots inside, they are also idea for seed cells.
What I find much more convenient than placing pots or seed cells inside the propagator is using Jiffy Pellets (peat pellets) which look like large brown tablets but when you add warm water to them they expand in to small peat filled sacks where you can pop your chilli seed(s) in to then place them in your propagator, they aren't messy and you don't waste any time filling pots up with compost.
How to germinate chilli seeds
Instead of waiting until May/June you can get a head start with your chilli plants by starting to germinate your chilli seeds around March, it will take roughly 60-120 days before you see fruit, this depends on the type of chilli pepper you are growing. A Jalapeno would take around 60 days whereas a Habanero would take longer, around 100+ days.
When germinating chilli seeds you need the right temperature, somewhere between 20c - 28c is good, although I have germinated around 18c before now. Your chilli seeds should start to pop their heads above the compost around 10-14 days, sometimes it can take up to a month so it's always good to get a head start when germinating your seeds.
As soon as your chillis have poked their heads up it's time to get them some light. If you don't get your chilli seedlings light you will get "leggy" chilli peppers, in other words they grow long and thin and become a little weak. Remember they still need a stable temperature of about 20c.
When your chilli peppers have their first set of 4 leaves you can transfer them to bigger pots (I put them in 1ltr pots), if you are growing in Jiffy pellets you might want to transfer to 9cm pots soon after you see the first pair of seed leaves, then on to 1lts pots when you have 4 leaves.
As your chilli pepper plants get bigger you will have to transplant again to bigger pots, I tend to transfer to 2-3ltr pots if I am growing a small chilli plant such as an Apache, or if it's a taller plant then a pot size of 5ltr is a good size, flower buckets are great for chilli peppers, you can get them from supermarkets for about £1 if they are willing to sell you some. If your unsure when to transplant your chilli take a look at it, if it looks like it's getting too big for it's current pot repot to a bigger one, if it looks ok then just leave it until it needs transferring.
When it comes to watering at the seedling age just spray the surface compost so it's moist, you can add a liquid nitrogen feed after about a month with the water once a week to help promote growth but using just water on it's own is fine. Going by my own watering methods I tend to always keep the chilli moist and never wet, even when it's full size I pour on the water but stop before the surface compost is swimming.
Before putting your chilli plants outside you should wait until the last frost in your area, just keep watching the news or check Garden Action for their frost dates in your area. Once you are sure that you will not get any more frosts you can start to harden off your chilli peppers. Hardening off chilli peppers is done by gradually getting your chilli plants used to the outside weather, I make the process 2 weeks long and start by putting the chilli plants outside for a couple of hours a day in a sheltered but sunny position for the first week then the second week I may taken them out late morning and bring them in late afternoon (4-5pm). After that I will leave the plants out over night just as long as the temperature doesn't drop more than 10c, chilli peppers don't like the cold so if it's going to be a little chilli (excuse the pun!) that night then bring the chilli peppers inside.
When to pick chilli peppers
Depending on the type of chilli you have you might want to wait until your chilli peppers have changed colour, most of the time your chilli peppers will change from green to red or orange, of course you can pick green chillis as long as they taste good and have the right heat level there is no reason to wait until they turn another colour. Another tip is to inspect the chilli, if it looks glossy and firm you should be good to go, also the earlier you pick your chilli peppers the more chillis your plant will produce! If you have to many chillis to pick you can store them in a cool try place or even or even place them in your freeze.
If you want to dry your chillis you might want to leave them out in a cool dry place until the pepper shrivles up and is dry to touch. You can then grind them down in to a chilli powder or even break them off (you might need to cut them) and use them as chilli flakes.
Storing Chilli Seeds
If you want to use the chillis seeds from peppers you have chopped up all you need to do is pick out all the the seeds and put them in a kitchen towel and leave to dry for a couple of days or so, once you are sure the chilli seeds are dry you can bag them up in to those little resealable bags but don't forget to label the bags!
Overwintering Chilli Plants
When you overwinter chilli plants it is best to select the chilli plants that have given you the most tastey/hot fruit as you will know roughly how many chilli pods you will get next season. Also remember that you will need to keep your chilli plant in a warm sunny place and don't forget to cut back your chilli plant, you should take the whole plant back to it's main stem leaving about 2" on the sideshoots. Don't forget to water leaving it moist and not wet, do remember in the winter months it probably won't need watering every week so just put your hand on the compost to see if it feels dry.
My name is Jay also known as FireGardenUK from http://www.firegardenuk.com and I grow chilli peppers at home in the UK.