Old chillies v new chillies: how do you grow yours?

To sow or not to sow?

It has been a real labour of love overwintering last year’s chillies in the spare room. It’s the first time I’ve tried to grow chillies perennially and it’s been mostly trial and error. First they had a bad case of fungus gnats, then greenfly. The room was filled with little flies when the in-laws came to stay and the windows covered in sticky residue and blobs where I had squashed hundreds of insects. Then nearly all the leaves fell off, leaving them resembling pots of dead sticks. I fought back with nematodes (very successful – killed all the gnats) and organic fatty acid spray – killed the greenfly provided it was repeated periodically. I collected up the dead leaves and waited to see what would happen come spring.

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A rather leggy specimen

Renovation pruning

Then, a couple of weeks ago, tiny leaves started to unfurl on the leggy stalks. (I was very bad at pinching the chillies out last year – partly through inattention and partly through sentimentality, so they grew much taller than I would have liked and lacked a vigorous, bushy shape.) I’m experimenting at the moment by cutting several of them down to about 15cm from soil level, thus removing the forked stems higher up, to see if I can restructure the plants as the new leaves emerge. I’ve also given them a feed in the hope that a bit of TLC will perk them up. So far it seems to be working and in a week or so I might cut the rest down, once I’m sure they’ll eventually forgive me.

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Radical pruning seems to be yielding results

A growing collection

At the same time spring started breathing life into the old chillies, I began sowing new ones to increase my stock and experiment with different varieties. Last year’s veterans include ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Aji Crystal’, ‘Hungarian Purple’ and ‘Numex Twilight’. This year I’m sowing ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ and ‘Albertos Locoto’. I was also waylaid by some small chilli plug plants at the garden centre who threw themselves into my basket, namely ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Purple Gusto’ (I’m noticing a certain penchant for purple fruit and vegetables in these blog posts.)

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‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ seeds were out of date so I sowed lots – they all germinated…

Chilli ‘Alberto’s Locoto’ intrigued me as it’s supposedly well suited to overwintering, so I’ll be attempting to keep it in the hope of earlier, heavier crops next year. It’s a rare chilli sometimes known as the tree or Rocoto chilli and has big purple flowers, black seeds and numerous fruit in late summer and early autumn. More information is available from Real Seeds.

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Vigorous ‘Alberto’s Locoto ‘ seedlings

How do you eat yours?

For several years we’ve been using fewer chillies as child-friendly meals generally require milder flavours. But as the kids get older their tolerance for spicy food is growing and last year we also ate many of our crop filled with cream cheese and baked, to reduce the heat. This became a favourite supper. I suppose the sensible approach would have been to grow milder or fewer chillies, but where’s the fun in that?

I’d love to know if you have successfully overwintered chillies. How do you prune them in spring and have crops been heavier in subsequent years? How do you cope with a growing chilli collection – do you stop buying new seeds or just move to a house with more windowsills?!

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Full window ledges and so many seedlings to prick out…