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Chilli plants make great gifts for the cook or grow your own enthusiast. The more compact varieties will thrive in a cool conservatory, sheltered patio, or even a sunny window sill and the more you crop them the more they produce.
One of our most popular gifts, chilli plants are easy to care for if you follow
a few basic rules:
1. Chilli plants like sunshine, the more sunlight the fruits receive the hotter they will grow
2. The most common cause of problems with chilli plants is over watering so make sure you only water when the top of the soil is dry to the touch and never let your plant sit in water for any length of time.
3. Chilli plants are not hardy, so in the garden they are best treated as annuals and harvested before the first frosts. Indoors many varieties will over winter with a bit of care.
Chilli plants should be fairly easy to care for.
They need to be protected from frost and will do best in a sunny spot out of any cold winds or draughts. A South or East facing windowsill or sheltered patio is ideal
Chilli plants should be kept on the dry side. We see far more problems from overwatering than underwatering. If the soil is allowed to remain soggy, you often see the leaves turn yellow as the roots start to suffocate and eventually the whole plant can shrivel up and die if left unchecked. The rule is therefore to only water when the top of the soil is dry to the touch. That might be once a month in the winter or as much as twice a day in the summer. You can spot when your plant is getting underwatered as the leaves will start to droop quite dramatically. At this point you will need to water straight away but they will perk up again quickly. In fact there is a school of thought that suggests that by watering only when the leaves are drooping you stress the plant into producing hotter fruit!
Chilli plants should be kept in a small pot. They really don't like being overpotted and will suffer from placing in to large a pot too quickly. Most of our chilli plants shouldn't need repotting in their first year, however if you are struggling to keep up with the watering or if your plants is 3 or more times the size of it's pot then you can repot. Just choose a pot that is only 2 or 3cm bigger in diameter and use a good general purpose compost with some drainage.
Chilli plants love sunshine, they originate in South America after all, the more sunlight your plant can get on fruit, the hotter the fruit will become.
Chilli plants are greedy feeders and will benefit from feeding in the growing season. A tomato feed, baby bio or any other high nitrogen feed will keep the leaves nice and green and keep your plant fruiting longer. Apply in line with the manufacturers instructions every couple of weeks from July through to September.
Chilli plants were traditionally grown as annuals but with a little care they can be overwintered and will come back even stronger the following year.
The more compact pot chilli plants over winter better than the larger fleshier plants and the apache chilli plants seem to do particularly well in their second and even third year.
To achieve a strong chilli plant the following season it is important to let your plant 'rest' over the winter. Your plant does need to be kept well above freezing and a cool sunny spot is best, such as a greenhouse, conservatory, porch or cool room where the temperature is roughly between 5 and 15C. At some point in December or January you should then notice that your plant slows right down and stops putting on new growth and fruits. At this stage, you need to harvest any remaining fruits (whether they are red or green) and hold back on the watering so that the top of the soil dries out completely. Then take sharp seceteurs and prune your chilli plant right back to 3 or 4 main branches. Always make your cuts just above the 'nodal point' where the plant branches. You are aiming to remove two thirds of this years growth and your plant will look a bit bare and pathetic when you finish.
In this state you will hardly need to water your chilli plant and in fact unless the room is on the warm side can probably leave off watering completely until march or so when you should see the first one or two new leaves emerge from a nodal point. At this point water half a teacup to get your chilli plant started and then after a week or so - once it is putting on new growth - you can then give it a dose of feed and then return to a more normal watering routine. NB new shoots and branches will develop from where you cut back your chilli plant so if you didn't cut your plant back hard or far enough it will look a bit 'straggly' the following year.
Typically chilli plants kept indoors over the winter will be a bit ahead of any sown that year so you should start to see the first flowers form in April/May with fruits soon after. In a warm room we have seen customers manage to keep their plants fruiting and flowering right through into February from the year before but plants treated in this way will eventually run out of energy without a rest.
Our chilli plants are normally supplied in 1L pots and can be kept in these until next year.. Because Chillies benefit from a small pot, they should only be repotted if they are either more than 3 times the size of the pot or if you are struggling to keep up with the watering. At this stage they can then be repotted into a slightly larger pot (2-3cms bigger in diameter) using a rich general purpose potting compost.
Chilli plants should only be repotted in their growing season (late spring to late summer) never in the autumn or winter. If your chilli plant has been in the same pot for more than a year but it is still quite small you can always gently remove the old compost in the spring and replace with fresh potting compost and this will give it the boost it needs without the danger of overpotting it.
Drooping leaves are a sign of either under or over watering, if the weather is warm and the soil is dry then water immediately and within a few hours you should see your plant visibly perk up. However if the soil is wet or damp to the touch do not water a plant with drooping leaves but try and get it in the sunniest warmest place to dry the soil out. If you can catch it in time the leaves will slowly perk up over a number of days but you may lose the odd branch. Unfortunately overwatering can be terminal. If this is the case the leaves will loose their green colour, shrivel up and eventually go mouldy and there is nothing you can do to bring it back.
Over time you may notice the leaves on your chilli plant getting lighter and yellower, this means they need a feed. Chilli plants and particularly potted chilli plants work very hard producing fruit in the summer months and this uses up nutrients that do need replacing. Tomato feed, baby bio, miracle gro or any high nitrogen feed will soon colour the leaves up again. Apply at half the manufacturers strength directly on to the leaves for quickest results but make sure you are doing this only on a cloudy day or in the evening to avoid scorching the leaves.
Pests can be a problem with chilli plants, the most common being aphids or greenfly. These tend to attack the young shoots and flowers in the spring and can cause considerably damage if not caught early. If you are vigilant you should be able to catch and treat them early. Apidius colemanni or Aphid midges are effective biological controls for aphids but if you manage to spot them when there are only a few breeding then a washing up liquid bath will often get rid of the problem before they get hold. The only other thing to watch out for is thrips. This is normally more of a problem when the plant is young and the damage is quite distinctive, leaving wrinkled and deformed leaves. Severe attacks can kill off a seedling but older plants will normally survive an attack and put on new growth to replace the damaged leaves.
A 2 year old apache chilli plant cropping well in the nursery
A ring of fire chilli plant showing yellow leaves due to lack of nitrogen
A thai demon chilli plant recovering from thrip damage
At the plants4presents nursery we also trial our chilli plants in the ground
Chillies can be eaten green for a milder flavour but the longer you leave them on the plant the more flavour and (usually) heat they will develop.
Regular harvesting will encourage your plant to reflower and produce new chillies so you can always pick and store a glut of fruits. When storing chillies it is best to pick them when the flesh is still firm and once picked whole chillies will keep well in the fridge for several weeks.
If you do have a bit of a glut of chillies in mid summer, they can be made into a simple paste by blending with salt and oil in a food processor or alternatively fill a bottle of good quality olive oil with whole red chillies and in six months you will have your very own chilli oil. You can also freeze chillies in an air tight container or bag but once defrosted they will be soft and need to be used straight away so it is a good idea to freeze them in ‘portions’.
The hot flavour of chillies comes from the concentration of oil in the fruit flesh and seeds. Generally speaking the longer the fruit is allowed to ripen on the plant and the stronger the sunlight the fruits receive as they ripen, the greater the concentration of oils and therefore the 'hotter' the flavour. However this concentration not only varies between varieties but between plants and even between fruits on the same plant. Sunshine plays a part but so does stress, temperature and watering.
So if you want the hottest chillies possible
1) choose a hot variety
2) make sure it is in a really sunny warm spot so that the fruits get as much sunshine as possible
3) allow the fruits to ripen on the plant until they go red.
4) keep your plant on the dry side and only water when the soil is completely dry to the touch
5) use all parts of the chilli pepper including the seeds and the fleshy bit where the seeds join the flesh.
If you like your chillies a little milder
1) choose a milder variety - normally with a larger fleshier fruit
2) pick the fruits before they are fully ripe (depending upon variety this will be when they are green, yellow or purple)
3) remove the seeds and the fleshy part that joins the seed to the flesh before using
4) cook your dishes a little longer - if on tasting your chilli or curry is a little too hot just cook it for another half an hour or so and some of the heat will disappear.
It is often hard to tell how hot an individual chilli is going to be, rather than blowing your head off, cut another vegetable with the chilli knife and taste that.
You would normally add chillies at the beginning of a dish but if you don't think a dish is hot enough you can always add more later.
If you do slip up and make a dish too hot, you can cook it for longer to reduce the heat or add cream, yoghurt or coconut milk (depending upon the receipe) to cool it down.
Raw chilli is an accquired taste - less is more!
Chilli is not just for savoury dishes, try small amounts of chilli in sweet and chocolate dishes to cut through the richness.
1. Dry-fry 1 teaspoon cumin seeds and 2 teaspoons coriander seeds in a small non-stick
frying pan until aromatic.
2. Transfer the seeds to a food processor along with all the other ingredients and whizz together to make a smooth green paste.
3. Excess paste will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.
1. Warm some oil in a large pan over a low heat. Add 40g curry paste and the chicken pieces and fry for a few minutes until the chicken is sealed and starting to brown in colour. Add the coconut milk, boil, then simmer for 5 minutes.
2. Toss the courgettes in oil, season, and fry on a hot griddle for 2 minutes each side. Add to the curry and cook for 6 minutes. Add the asparagus and broad beans and cook for 3-4 minutes, then stir in the basil. Serve with jasmine rice and lime wedges to squeeze over.
SWEET CHILLI STIR FRY (serves 4)
The trick with stir fries is to keep it hot! The oil should sizzle when the first ingredients are added and the pan or wok should be kept over maximum heat the whole time it is cooking, the action of continually stirring will stop it burning. Serve piping hot with rice or noodles.
Once you have the basic recipe, you can adjust the flavours to suit your tastes and experiment with different vegetables, beef, chicken, pork, salmon, duck or prawns.
CHILLI CHOCOLATE SAUCE: (Serves 6)
Can you taste the difference between the slow after burn of the thai demon and the more immediate roof tingling of the apache chillies?
Do you have a chilli recipe you would like to share with us?
For more information on how to care for your Plants4Presents chilli plants or for help with a problem that is not covered here then please do give us a call on 0845 226 8026 and our customer service team will do their very best to help.