Are you growing chillies or chilis? Nevermind the different spellings, there are even more shapes, sizes and colours!
At one stage growing chillis was a special passion of mine.
Do you know how many different varieties there are? And how ornamental they are?
For a while I had about 25 different chilli varieties growing...
But let's forget about me. Everybody needs to grow chillis for cooking. Even if you don't like hot food, just a little hint of chilli to warm it up stimulates the taste buds and everything else tastes just so much better. True.
And chillies will brighten up your garden!
But before we get to the instructions for growing chillis, lets sort out the spelling, lest you think I don't know any better...
There are three ways to spell the name: chili, chilli and chile.
Yep, some people grow chile. This is the Spanish version of the name, which you also find used in English speaking countries, especially the southwest of America.
The Americans changed chile to chili. Originally chili referred to the dish chili con carne. Then it was shortened to just chili. Chili is the preferred name for the spice made from the fruit of the chile plant. But in America chili is also widely used as the name for the plant and fruit, the chili peppers. They grow chilis over there in the US.
The British are growing chillis. Chilli is also the commonly used spelling in Australia and New Zealand. Permaculture originated in Australia, hence we'll stick to that version if you don't mind.
(As for the plural, both chillis and chillies is accepted.)
What do chilli plants look like?
A bush of Cayenne Peppers
Chilli plants grow into small to medium sized bushes from half a metre to two metres tall. How big they get depends on the species and variety.
There are different species of chillies. Most chillies are grown as annuals even though they can live for a few years in warm climates.
Some chilli varieties are true perennials. Most of the common varieties belong to the species capsicum annuum, the "annual" species.
(Bell peppers, called capsicums in Australia, also belong to the species .)
Chillis have small to medium sized, shiny, dark green leaves. The fruit, the chilli peppers, vary wildly in size and shape.
Chilli peppers are green to start with. Most of them ripen to a rich red, but they can also be orange, yellow, purple or brown.
They may hang down or stand up like little colourful candles. There are even ornamental varieties that are mottled and freckled.
The different chilli types not only vary in size and colour, they also vary in how hot they are! If you grow chillies for the kitchen, choose your variety with care...
Where can you grow chillis?
Chilli plants love heat. They are closely related to capsicums/bell peppers and also related to tomatoes (they are in the same family, the solanaceae), but chillies prefer their growing conditions a lot hotter.
Chilli seeds need 20°C to germinate, and it should be 30°C or more for the fruit to ripen. Night temperatures should not drop below 15°C. (At least not on a regular basis. The odd cool spell is ok.)
Chillies also don't mind humidity as much as sweet peppers or tomatoes do.
Most people will need to grow chillis in full sun. In the hottest, sunniest regions chillies still grow well with a bit of shade. Especially afternoon shade can even be beneficial. (The fruit can get sunburned.)
If you live in the tropics or subtropics, great. Your chillies should thrive. Even the "annual" varieties should live for two to three years and they produce fruit all year round.
If your climate is not tropical, don't despair. You can still grow chillies if you get decent summers. And you can extend the growing season by growing chilis indoors, just like you do with tomatoes.
In fact, chillis are also related to tomatoes, so the growing methods and requirements are similar. Except that chillies need more heat.
People with small gardens or balconies will be pleased to hear that you can grow chillis in pots.
How to grow chillies from seed
You can buy chilli plants in a nursery or you can grow chillis from seed. The seed needs at least 20°C to germinate.
Start them in early spring in cooler climates or any time during the dry season. (You could start them all year round in the tropics, but it's a good idea to let the plants grow strong before the wet season hits them.)
Chilli plants are usually started in seedling trays or small pots. They are very vulnerable when small and they don't grow all that fast.
Still, I prefer to start mine directly in the ground, because like capsicums chillis don't like being transplanted.
Actually, I only start them in the ground when I have enough seed to allow for a high percentage of fatalities. (I am the laziest gardener I know, so I don't look after my seedlings much.) I usually have enough because I save my own seed.
If I buy seed of a new chilli variety and I get one of those tiny packets with barely a dozen seeds in them, then I start them in pots.
You can plant several chilli seeds per pot. Once your seedlings have a few leaves, snip off the weaker ones and only keep the strongest plants.
You only want one chilli plant per pot when you plant them out.
Otherwise you will disturb their roots too much and they HATE having their roots disturbed.
If you grow chillies in seedling trays or little punnets, plant them out once they have four to six true leaves (about 5 cm tall). If you don't, their roots will start feeling restricted and it will set them back.
Chillies don't mind growing in bigger pots, so the timing for planting them out is not critical if you use pots. If you live in a cooler climate, use pots. Let them to grow to 10 to 15 cm. Make sure it's warm enough before you put them outside!
Water the chillies before transplanting, so the soil doesn't fall apart when they're removed from the pot. Be VERY careful when removing the seedlings from their pots.
Drop them in a hole in the garden, fill it back in, firm down the soil, water, done.
Growing chilli plants
Chillies grow in a variety of soils. Like most plants they grow better in rich soils and produce more fruit, but they will grow in any reasonably fertile soil and don't need any special treatment. If you use plenty of mulch and compost in your garden the chillies will grow just fine.
If your soil is poor, you'll have to fertilize your chillies. (And start using more mulch and compost...)
When fertilizing chillies keep in mind that, like their relatives and indeed most fruiting plants, chillies like potassium. Too much nitrogen will make them grow lots of soft leaves and no fruit.
It is important to keep your chilli plants well watered and mulched. Mulch not only improves soil over time, it also protects it from drying out.
Chillies have such a tough and hardy image, people often don't realize how sensitive they are when it comes to lack of water. Make sure your chillies have plenty and never dry out.
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