It’s best to plant chilli plants earlier in the year but April is the last month that they will still germinate if they’re kept warm enough and who doesn’t want a mass of fierce colours and vibrant flavour come summer.

If the heat of a hot curry just isn’t for you, growing the world’s hottest chilli probably doesn’t hold much appeal, but if you’ve never grown chillies for that reason you really are missing out.

The gardening industry has hailed 2018 as the Year of the Pepper so why not explore the differences that the thousands of cultivars of chilli pepper offer not just in heat levels but in flavours; too, from sweet to sour and smoky to fruity flavours.

How to grow

The earlier you plant them the better as the hotter varieties need longer for the heat to develop.

From January to April sow thinly 1.5cm (½ in) deep in pots or trays of seed compost. Keep moist and maintain a temperature of approx. 20-25 degrees C (68-75 degrees F). Cover with glass, polythene, a propagator lid or a sunny windowsill.

If you plant some in January it’s worth sowing again in late February or March. They take a few weeks to germinate, so be patient.

Once seedlings do appear, remove the cover, then when they’re large enough to handle transplant to 7.5cm (3in) pots.

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Chilli plants prefer warmth so growing them indoors or in a greenhouse is definitely best. That said, they will grow outdoors if they are in a sheltered but sunny position.

If you want to grow them outside, gradually harden them off and plant out in late May to June, after the last frost. They like large pots and containers and need to be about 45cm (18 in) apart.

Keep them moist, weed free and warm. Use a cloche or fleece to protect them in bad weather.

The plants benefit from help with pollination to ensure a larger crop. Outdoors insects do this but if you are growing yours indoors use a paintbrush to gently move pollen between the flowers.

Keeping them dry results in the peppers becoming hotter.

Gently spray flowers with tepid water to help plants set and once the fruits start to swell feed them with a general fertiliser once a week.

Harvest

Harvest from July to October although outdoor crops will be smaller and later. Hang the last fruit in the greenhouse or indoors to ripen them off as the weather cools off.

Stating the obvious, but it’s worth remembering that chilli peppers can be extremely hot so do make sure you wash your hands after handling them as eyes do more than smart when rubbed with chilli juice!

Most chilli plants can be treated as perennial houseplants and can overwinter indoors, albeit with some pruning.

Storage

Either enjoy them fresh or dry them and they will last for many months.

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If you sew them together by threading through the stems they look attractive while they dry in the kitchen for a month or anywhere else that is warm and ventilated.

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Drying them using a dehydrator or the oven on the lowest possible setting with the door ajar then breaking them up in a plastic bag makes flakes that are then easy to use as a seasoning spice.

They can be frozen and retain their heat and flavour but they can be a bit mushy so are best used in cooking.

Heat

Chillies are not just metaphorically hot. The oil in them, capsaicin, stimulates the neural sensors in the tongue and skin that also detect rising temperatures. Hence feeling that your mouth is on fire! If there is enough heat, adrenaline is produced and the heart beats faster.

The scale used to describe a chilli’s heat was developed by chemist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. He diluted pepper extract in sugar water until its heat could no longer be identified by tasters and the threshold is its Scoville rating.

A bell pepper has zero Scoville Heat Units (SHU) but the Carolina Pepper has 2.2 million SHU!

Nutrition

Chillies are a very good source of vitamins A, C, K and B6 and a good source of potassium, copper, manganese, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, magnesium and phosphorus.

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This article by Lisa Young was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy, subscribe here or buy a copy from your local newsagent.