Beginners Growing Guide : Kent Chilli Garden

Beginners Growing Guide

Welcome to the Kent Chilli Garden Beginners Chilli Growing Guide. Please take some time to read through the page, or jump to the section that interests you using the index links below.

 

Introduction
Selecting Chilli Varieties
Preparing Chilli Seeds
Planting Chilli Seeds
Propagating
Seedlings
Growing On
Fertilising
Encouraging Fruit and Possible Problems

 

Introduction

So, you’ve decided that you want to grow chillies? Then welcome to a very popular and rapidly growing pastime! But perhaps you’re a little unsure where to start… maybe you’ve been on some websites or forums and read talk of CFL or HPS lighting, NFT or DWC hydroponics, aeroponics, the different NPK balance of fertilisers, and no end of complicated, high tech growing systems. If all of that puts you off, then worry not. We will talk about these systems in later guides for the more advanced growers (or very enthusiastic beginners) but for now rest assured that you do not need to know about ANY of these things to grow chillies. They are a plant, plain and simple, and with a pot of soil and the right care, you can grow them. So let’s get started; the first question is “what type should I grow?”

Selecting Chilli Varieties

Perhaps you’ve already answered this question, and a certain type of chilli is what has got you interested in growing them for yourself in the first place. In that case go with it! It was the Naga Morich that got me started many years ago. But if you’re not in that position, and do not know what to try, there are literally 1000s of types of chilli out there, from several different families. They range from zero heat to volcanic, huge plants, small plants, ornamental varieties, round pods, long pods, red, yellow, purple pods… you get the idea. Take a look at the seed or plant descriptions on the shop pages to get an idea of what sounds right for you. I personally always grow a few new varieties each season, along with my favourites (how else might I discover a new favourite?!?) and would recommend growing a variety of types to any beginner. That way you can learn which types suit your personal preferences and the growing conditions you can provide.

Preparing Chilli Seeds

Germination of chilli seeds can sometimes be difficult or erratic but there are several methods of improving the germination rate. Some growers are fans of placing them between damp paper towels until they sprout, others swear by soaking the seeds in a mild antiseptic solution, or even tea! I have personally had good results from soaking chilli seeds for 12 hours in plain warm water (28-30° C) before planting - just be sure to label your seeds and avoid mixing varieties when you do this! That said though, none of the seed preparation is as important as the conditions you plant the seeds in. Get the temperature and moisture levels correct and you won’t go far wrong – and that’s the best way by far to improve your seed germination rate.

Planting Chilli Seeds

Plant seeds into small pots, compost, or coir pellets. I have had good success with both peat based and peat free composts, but if you are using your own mix ensure that it has good drainage by mixing in perlite or something similar – one of the worst things you can do with your new seeds is keep them waterlogged, which can lead to them rotting before they have had a chance to germinate. A great way around this, and now my preferred method of germinating seeds, is to use rockwool or root riot cubes. The structure of these ensures the seed will always have a well-balanced level of moisture and aeration, and they also minimise the risk of mould and pests attacking your seeds when compared to soil pellets. Make a small indentation in your planting medium for the seed using a match stick or similar item, and place your seed in it. I plant 3 seeds per pot / pellet, and select the best seedling if more than one germinates. Then cover with soil mixture or vermiculite – do not plant too deeply, a sprinkling of cover is sufficient, and will not weigh down your seedlings as they sprout.

Here are a few of ours in a propagator – a slightly larger (52cm x -42cm) readily available propagator nicely accommodates 80 of these plugs – plenty to keep most chilli heads busy!                         

Propagating Chilli Seeds

For best results, place in a heated propagator or a seed tray with clear lid in a warm place. Warmth is especially important for chinense chilli varieties such as Habaneros, Nagas and 7 Pod strains. Ideally you should keep soil temperature between 26 to 32° centigrade. I aim for 29, which I find is a good temperature for all types of chilli, so you can plant different types in the same propagator. You can monitor temperature with any number of different types of thermometer, but you need one with a sensor that you can place in the soil or plug, at the same level as the seeds, where it will give you a good indication of the seeds temperature. You may find that a good cheap option for this is a meat thermometer that you can buy in most good supermarkets. Keep the compost moist but not too wet or the seed may rot. Another advantage of using rockwool cubes is that you can leave a small amount of water in the bottom of your propagator and it will wick up into the cube, meaning that you can leave the propagator for days without needing to water it. Germination can take between one and six weeks, and can be very erratic, so don’t be too concerned if your seeds do not germinate immediately or if only some of them seem to sprout. Again this is particularly true of chinense varieties.

Seedlings

When the seedlings start to appear, introduce some ventilation to your propagator or seed tray. Be careful not to let the temperature drop too much at night, as plants are very vulnerable to the cold at this stage. You now need to provide your seedlings with a good light source. Depending on where you are and which way your windows face the windowsill or conservatory may well be adequate and provide your seedlings with enough light to flourish. One problem with growing plants this way is that as they reach up to towards their light source (the sun) they can grow tall and weak. It is possible to introduce artificial lights at this stage, which is a subject worthy of a small novel in itself, and can get quite expensive! It need not though, as often a CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) can provide enough light for your seedlings. In it’s cheapest form, this is simply an energy saving bulb. The colour of the light can have an effect on the way the plants grow though, so if you do use artificial lights I would strongly recommend using a blue colour light during the early growing stages of the plants lifecycle. Light colour is measured in degrees Kelvin, and anything above 5500K (noon daylight) will be good for growing seedlings. CFLs don’t get very hot, but still be careful not to let the lights get too close to the plants and burn them!

Of course if you do not you want to get into this whole area, in the UK I would recommend planting your seeds in early to mid February. By the time they germinate that sunny windowsill should provide enough daylight to keep your seedlings happy and healthy. Of course you may have to adjust that depending on where you are in the world.

Four to six weeks after germination, or when plants start to get their 3rd set of true leaves, they can be potted on. Do not lift plants by the stem, if you do need to handle them pick them up gently using the leaves. Again here is yet another advantage of using rockwool cubes – you can simply lift out the cube and plant it directly into the pot of your choice, be that a bigger rockwool cube for hydroponic growth or straight into soil for standard growth.

Avoid disturbing the roots. After potting on, I introduce a gentle fan in the area to help circulate the air around the plants, and encourage strong growth as they resist the breeze. This stops the plants becoming too spindly, and is especially important if you are growing indoors. I would also recommend it for greenhouse growth too. Just don’t make the breeze too strong or cold!

Growing on

As your plants grow you will need to successively re-pot them into bigger pots. You will get to know when it is right for each plant the more you do this, but a general good indication is if you can see roots growing out of the drain holes in the bottom of the pot. As mentioned before, it is important to ensure good drainage for your plants. I mix 30 perlite (by volume) into my soil mixes (more about soil and fertiliser later). How big a pot your chillies end up in depends on the plant type, and how big a yield of pods you want. Bigger yields come from bigger pots, as the plants need a good root system to produce and support lots of fruit. Some of our bigger potted plants are in 40 litre pots, although most grow very nicely in 15 litre pots.

As your plants get bigger and stronger, and are in bigger pots, you may want to start getting them outside. Chilli plants do well in warm, bright environments so a greenhouse or conservatory is the ideal place for them. They can also be placed outside in a sheltered spot or warm patio but acclimatise them slowly, starting with a couple of hours at a time, increasing the time gradually, over days or weeks. Make sure to bring them inside whenever the temperature threatens to drop, and never leave them outside until it is regularly 10° C or more overnight. Also be cautious when placing plants in full sunlight, which if they are not acclimatised to will burn the leaves. Using shading or insulating fleece over plants placed outside is an excellent way of protecting them as they gradually get used to new temperatures and light levels. Several layers of fleece over the plants, gradually reduced, is an excellent way to get more sensitive plants used to the sunlight. Some varieties, particularly chinenses, do not like to be in strong direct sunlight, so if you do not have a shady spot keeping a layer of fleece over them is a good way of keeping them protected.

Fertilising and soil mixes

Let’s start with the easy bit – soil mixes. As mentioned several times already, drainage is vitally important, so I always mix 30% by volume of perlite into the soil. This helps with drainage and helps to provide aeration for the roots of your plants. As for the type of soil, the choice is yours. Chillies are remarkably adaptable plants, but tend to do best in a slightly acidic soil, with a pH of around 6. Over the years we have had best results using sphagnum peat moss based soil. Whichever brand you choose, try to get one that does not have added fertilisers in it. A thin layer of sand on the surface of the pot can also help reduce the chance or pests and mould taking hold in your pots.

Now for the fertiliser. Again, experience has taught me that fertilising chilli plants can sometimes do more harm than good. The real trick with these is “less is more”. Many people starting out with chillies think that if you pump them full of fertilisers you’ll get big fast growing plants, when in fact you may end up with stunted plants that will not produce flowers or pods, and worse case you may even kill your plants! Fertilise little, at reduced rates from the manufacturer’s recommendation.

For those of you interested in fertilisers, it is a bit of a science. Here it is in a very small nutshell. Plants have different nutritional requirements depending on the stage of their lifecycle. Young plants will need nitrogen based fertilisers to encourage growth. However nitrogen produces foliage, not flowers or fruit, so to encourage and support flowering and fruiting you will need to switch to potassium and phosphorous based fertilisers. This is the NPK value you will see on most fertilisers (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium). Also the quality and availability of these elements varies depending on how it is delivered by the fertiliser (organic, salts etc) and of course plants need many other nutrients also, such as vitamins, amino acids, plant available sugars…

HESI Fertiliser Homepage

We have used many different types of fertiliser over the years, and have had by far best and most consistent results using the excellent HESI range of fertilisers. They produce a full range of nutrients for soil and hydroponic (and coco) growth, and they come with clear information about what is in them, good instructions, and are very easy to use. We use them at half the recommended rates for chillies (making them even more cost effective) and get excellent results. Pictured here are the contents of a HESI “soil grow kit” which provides you with everything you need to feed your plants from seedling to pod bearing monster! Take a look at the HESI website here for much more specialist info regarding fertilisers.

Encouraging fruit / possible problems

Your chilli plants will produce flowers when conditions, particularly light levels, are suitable. As mentioned earlier you can encourage flowering by changing the type of fertiliser compound. It is normal for some pedicels (stems) to drop off, however if no chillies are forming at all it could be a result of several things - too little light, too much nitrogen in the soil, overwatering or drought.

If you plant too late in the season or have had growth problems, your fruiting may have come too late in the season. Chillies need a good 12 hours a day of light to produce pods. If you are growing indoors, changing the colour of your lights to the red end of the spectrum (3000K or less) will help encourage flowering and fruit.

If the leaves are becoming yellow and falling off, especially those towards the base of the plant, you are watering too much – water sparingly and often. Chillies prefer to be kept on the dry side, and just because the top of the soil appears dry it doesn’t mean that there isn’t sufficient moisture further down in the pot. It also helps to introduce air into the soil by allowing it to dry somewhat between watering.

Plants will wither noticeably if suffering drought – do not be tempted to water these, or in fact any plants, during the warmth of the day. The sudden uptake of liquid into the plant in the heat will cause leaf burn. Water very early in the morning, or better still in the evening. Get withered plants somewhere cool and shady for a couple of hours at least before watering.

If you have been using a nitrogen rich fertiliser, this can hamper flower production. Nitrogen build up can be flushed through to an extent with lots of clean water, but this will delay your harvest considerably, maybe even for a whole season!

Keep things simple however, water and feed sparingly, and you should have plants producing bundles fruit by late summer.

From this point, you can harvest whenever you like. Some chillies are excellent before they are ripe, others take some time to mature to their best. A large plant full of ripe chillies is quite a sight, however by harvesting pods as they become ready (known as staggered harvesting) you will encourage your plants to produce more, as well as having a ready supply of fresh chillies.

Above all, enjoy your chilli growing experience. But be warned, it can be quite addictive!

If there is anything we’ve missed, or if you have some info or stories you’d like to share, please get in touch.

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