Growing chilli: plant care guide
Add a little fire to your food garden with a chilli plant. It’s not just a food plant, it can become a collectable obsession, too!
What you need to know about a chilli plant
Name: chilli, chilli pepper (Capsicum species, mainly Capsicum annum, C. chinense and C. frutescens)
Plant type: small to medium shrub, perennial, short-lived. Sometimes treated as a long-season annual.
Height: 30cm to 2m+ with variety
Foliage: generally dark green, shiny, sometimes lightly hairy, oval-shaped with a smooth edge and a distinct extended point.
Climate: tropical, sub-tropical, warm temperate and as a warm season annual in cool temperate.
Soil: free-draining quality garden soil or potting mix. Doesn’t grow well in heavy clay, damp or wet soils.
Position: best heat and flavour of fruit comes from full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Avoid windy positions.
Flowering and fruiting: flowers across summer, fruit follows.
Feeding: controlled-release fertiliser at planting time or annually.
Watering: keep reliably moist, but never wet, while actively growing and fruit is developing.
Appearance and characteristics of a chilli plant
Chillies are fascinating plants. They are thought to have been harvested and used as a flavouring since 7500 BCE or earlier. Today, thanks to the incredible hybridisation and selection that has taken place across all those millennia, there is a huge, some say countless, number of varieties, from naturally occurring forms to colourful ornamental hybrids, from mild and sweet tasting to mind- and mouth-blowingly spicy. All of the readily available chilli varieties are very easy to grow and quite trouble-free. In fact, you’ll likely get a great crop without even trying!
The chilli plant is a multi-branched, semi-woody small shrub. Its form is generally rounded, often down to ground level, but older plants may have a definite central trunk and a more vase-like shape, or a distinct canopy. Under ideal conditions some varieties will live for four years or more.When happy and healthy, the canopy of foliage will all but obscure the framework of branches.
A chilli plant makes a very handsome garden specimen. It has deep green glossy or semi-glossy foliage and a neat form. When in flower it will be dusted all over with tiny white blooms and then look awesome when covered in colourful fruit. The fruit is most often green, ageing to various shades of red once ripe, but there are whites that age to purple, browns and vibrant oranges and yellows.
Some of the smaller varieties have been hybridised as neat, compact potted plants for use as table centrepieces.
Chillies make great ornamental plants, but the temptation to have a bite can be too great for some kids. If children are old enough to understand, make sure they know not to eat them, otherwise position the plants out of reach of little fingers.
Uses for a chilli plant
A chilli plant can be grown for a variety of uses, including:
- A must-have addition to the herb or vegie garden
- A great ornamental plant
- Varieties suitable for gardens and pots
Many collectable varieties, some with incredibly intense heat.
How to plant and grow a chilli
Full sun will bring the best performance from your chilli plant, and your chillies will have the best flavour. Chilli will grow in part sun, but it can become a little leggy or stretched.
Ideally, chilli likes a warm, sheltered position, especially if grown in cooler regions. Its branches are quite brittle and its leaves are easily torn, so it needs wind protection.
It will be happy in most garden soils, or sandy soils with added organic matter. However, it will not grow well in heavy clay soil, and will probably die in soil that stays wet for any period of time.
In pots, use a premium organic potting mix or a blend for herbs and vegies. Avoid putting a saucer under the pot; water regularly instead.
• Chilli can be planted straight into regular garden soil, but will benefit from some well-
composted manure or compost being blended through at planting time.
• Sandy soils should be improved with the addition of quality compost or manure.
• Add a controlled-release fertiliser at planting time.
Caring for chilli plants
Regular applications of a suitable organic or seaweed-based liquid product will help keep soil active and the plant flourishing. Ensure you remove the fruit of the chilli plant as it starts to ripen. Regular picking can stimulate a second flush of flowering and fruiting.
Pruning your chilli plant
At the start of the growing season or with newly planted plants, lightly tip prune new growth to encourage bushiness. This is more important if your plants are in a shady spot. In autumn, after the last fruit of the season has been picked and the plant is dropping leaves, you can prune the plant back quite hard. Trim back spindly and leggy branches, leaving a nice open framework with an even branching pattern.
Diseases and pests affecting chilli plants
Chilli has very few pest and disease problems. Aphids may attack new growth, and fruit fly may sting ripening fruit.
How to grow chillies from seeds
- Chilli is generally grown from seed, as plants grow quite true to form.
- Collect and dry seeds from last season’s chillies.
- In very early spring, spread the seeds across tray of seed-raising mix and cover lightly with mix.
- Keep the tray in a warm position and keep the seed mix moist.
- Hotter chillies require warmer conditions to germinate (20˚C or warmer), so you may need a mini-greenhouse with a warming mat underneath. Once seedlings arise, avoid over watering, as they are prone to rotting.
- Pinch out the centre of seedlings as they develop to encourage side-branching and bushiness.
How to grow chillies from cuttings
- Take cuttings from new growth tips in early spring.
- Dip in a striking gel and place in pots of propagating mix in a warm location. They should strike readily.
If you like this then try
How to start a herb garden: mix and match your flavour options with a herb garden.
Ginger: this must-have Asian flavouring can make an excellent garden or potted plant.
Coriander: with its sharp and spicy aroma and flavour, coriander is a food garden must-have.
Start planting today
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