Everybody’s at it. Barely has the tinsel been put away before people are talking about sowing chillies. There is such a thing as indecent haste.
It’s not hard to understand why. Chillies need a long growing season, and so getting them going as early as possible would seem to make sense. And the fact that the middle of winter is dark and cold offers explanation enough for why anyone would want to usher into life a little reminder of Central American heat and sunshine. Of course, being Central American plants, chillies themselves do really require something at least approaching heat and light, two things for which January’s not renowned in the northern hemisphere.
“So what if the seedlings grow long and leggy as they stretch through the winter’s gloom towards the light?”, cry the early sowers. “Just plant them deeper into the compost when potting them on, they’ll soon beef up”.
But while there’s something to be said for this approach, others maintain that there’s no point in starting your crops into life with straggly plants just because you’re impatient to get going, and recommend restraint until the end of February or, better still, March, when levels of light and warmth are more conducive to producing a well-formed seedling. For the record, I tend towards a February sowing. Hedging my bets, you might say.
Of course, the whole discussion can probably be considered as a bit twentieth century. We’ve had domestic heated propagators for decades, but the plummeting cost of LED technology has meant artificial grow lights are now affordable both to buy and to run – as much light and heat as your infant plants require, whatever the time of year.
So, what to do? It’s quite possible to reach a perfect pitch of inertia after reading the wealth of well-meaning, often contradictory advice. As ever, the best course of action is to read these words of wisdom, instantly forget them, and then, most importantly, get stuck in and have a go. You can always return to the advice if things go a little pear shaped, or you feel you could do better next time, but by then, you’ll have your own experience to add into the mix, and there’s no substitute for that. With chillies, now’s as good a time as any to make a start, and I’ve added a few notes below for you to read, and then ignore. Happy chilli growing!
To give yourself the best chance of success, choose a good quality peat-free seed compost – you don’t need something stuffed full of nutrients at this stage. A soil based compost helps to keep a good open texture, or you can incorporate vermiculite or perlite to aid drainage.
Sow your seeds onto moist, well-firmed down compost. You can sow them onto the surface and then cover with a fine layer of sieved compost, or make small holes in the surface of your seed bed (about 5mm deep) to drop the seeds into, before covering over. Water (but don’t drench) gently – the seed wants to be wet, as water is one of the signals for the embryonic plant to kick into life.
Germination is typically 10-14 days, though some varieties can take up to 5 weeks. Place the seeds in their containers somewhere warm with good light – a heated propagator on a window ledge is ideal – I have mine on a metal cabinet in front of a radiator by a window, which seems to do the trick. If your seed tray has a lid, pop it on – artificially heated air can be very drying and it’s good to keep a little humidity around the seedlings.
When it comes to exactly when to sow, opinion is divided, as we’ve seen. If you’re really keen, it will help to know something about the variety of chilli you’re growing, and how long it will need to for the fruit to ripen. Further information can be found on the website of the South Devon Chilli Farm, who also have a great tip about WATERING, which is to use a misting spray and water from above, rather than drenching the compost or watering from below, to avoid lowering the temperature in the growing medium.
The time for this is often described as “when the seedlings are big enough to handle”, which is a wonderfully vague. I like to wait until they have developed their first true pair of leaves – so, the second pair of leaf-like things, as the first are considered the “seedling leaves” and contain the energy source for the young plant’s initial emergence (kind of like the rocket boosters which the space shuttle uses to get through the earth’s atmosphere). These seedling leaves (or cotyledons if we want to get exceedingly technical) will shrink as this food source is used up , and the plant becomes dependent on energy created through photosynthesis in the true leaves.
Ease the seedlings out of the soil, and drop into individual 7.5cm pots or modules which you’ve prepared by filling with compost, into which you’ve stuck a dibber (or a finger, or a pencil) to make a hole ready to receive the plant. It’s important to handle seedlings by the leaves, and not the stems, which might seem counter intuitive, but the stems are delicate and prone to crushing, and you don’t want to constrict the main conduit through which water and nutrients flow within the plant. Firm the compost gently around the seedling, and water in.
This should be done when the plants have four of five pairs of leaves. Move the plants into 2 litre pots, or peat-free grow bags, if that’s how you’re planning on growing them. Sunlight, warmth, and plenty of high potash feed (tomato fertiliser or comfrey tea, a recipe for which you can find in this article by Alys Fowler), which you can start applying once the first fruits have set – another bit of gardening jargon which means when you start to see fruit forming inside the flowers, and the petals begin to fall off.
Chillies are hungry and thirsty. Keep them warm – but not excessively hot – if you have an oven-like greenhouse or a conservatory with no blinds, for example, you may find flowering and or pollination rates drop. Plenty of light and a weekly feed will help guarantee a good crop. At the end of the season, many varieties can be trimmed back and overwintered in frost free conditions to give you a perennial crop year after year.