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Growing chillies at home

Val Bourne / 20 January 2015

Read gardening expert Val Bourne's guide to growing chillies at home, including how to grow from seed and how to care for chilli plants.

Chillies growing in vegetable garden
Growing your own chillies is an excellent idea because you can pick them fresh over a period of months

If you like your food hot and spicy then growing your own chillies is an excellent idea because you can pick them fresh over a period of months.

They generally make smaller plants than sweet peppers and can be accommodated on a kitchen windowsill, or in a conservatory, or on a greenhouse bench. They also look decorative, with their smallish fruits.

Chilli heat is traditionally measured by the Scoville Scale. The hottest recorded chilli, ‘Trinidad Scorpion Butch T’, notched up an impressive at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units to break the world record for the hottest chilli in March 2011.

The fruit contains a chemical called capsaicin that stimulates the nerve endings in the mucous membranes, making them taste hot. Some are hotter than others, but there’s a chilli pepper to suit every taste.

For more on chillies, read Val Bourne's pick of top chilli varieties to grow at home

Growing chillies from seed

Warmth is a top requirement for success and, if you are serious chilli raiser, it’s worth using an electric propagator (such as the Vitopod - ) so that the compost can be kept between 27-32°C (80-90°F). This will ensure consistent germination within 10 days.

In average temperatures of 70°F germination is far more erratic. Although electric propagators are expensive (from £110) they save you from having to buy plants. You can also get the varieties you want to grow.

When sowing, water the compost well, but from then on don't over water, because damping off will occur.

The hottest chillies need starting early so begin in January, February or March, depending on weather. Use a soil-based seed and potting-on compost because these offer better drainage. The John Innes loam-based seed compost is excellent.

Three-inch pots are better than trays. Sow one variety per pot, scattering the seed son the compost and lightly covering. Prick them out before the seedlings become leggy, into small pots. Label carefully at every stage.

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.

Looking after chilli plants

Grow chilli plants in the propagator until they reach four inches or so and then transfer them into a warm, light greenhouse. Keep potting them up little by little until they are large enough for a 9- to 12-inch pot. You can also grow chillies in the ground, especially if you have a polytunnel.

Don’t put chilli plants outside until early June.

Chillies do not like lots of plant food and they also need some shade in high summer. Netting or greenhouse whitening or paint can be used so that the temperature stays at around 30 C (90F ). Water your chilli plants regularly.

Begin harvesting as soon as the chillies are plump to the touch, because this will promote more flower. Don’t wait until the early fruit turns red. Keep picking the fruit, the chillies can be frozen.

The smaller hotter varieties can be used as winter houseplants. Find out more about caring for houseplants in winter.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.