Growing Chillis Up North: Success and Failure

What is your most favourite type of chilli?

Mine is pickled jalapeños. It’s something I only discovered eight years ago when I moved to England. Back in Vietnam, I knew one type of chillies. We called it sky-pointing because of the direction the fruits grow (aka upwards). In England, it’s called bird’s eye chilli and known for being hot.

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Bird’s Eye Chilli or Ớt chỉ thiên

Personally, I can’t tell if bird eye is spicier than jalapeño or not. They are just different. However, there is a Scoville scale which measures the spicy heat of chilli peppers. It varies from zero (the level of bell peppers) to somewhere near two million five hundred (for the likes of Komodo Dragon Chilli Pepper and Naga Viper Pepper). According to this scale, bird’s eye chilli could be 100 times hotter than jalapeños. I found that shocking. Perhaps my taste bud is well off.

When I start growing plants, my partner-in-crime bought me a seed pack for 10 types of chilli, from mild Hungarian wax pepper to hot Habanero chilli. It was quite an adventure to grow all those chillis in containers on our tiny balcony at the time. And the tasting feast was indeed an experience.

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My very own mini jalapeños

This year, I set out to grow chillis again but limited to bird’s eye, jalapeños and the not-at-all spicy chilli pepper often found in Dutch supermarkets. We have more space with sunnier spots, but somehow the output was abysmal. When the disappointment and depression were over, I sat down and contemplated the whys and hows. Here’s something to share about growing chillis in a colder climate.

Seeds

Where to get the seeds

You need to start right with quality seeds. I think this was the reason why my first-year crop was a lot better than the second one. In my first attempt, Ian bought the seeds for me as a gift. He must have got it from some highly-recommended garden centre. This year, I just picked seeds out of chillis I bought in the supermarket.

I am not saying that it’s impossible to grow your own from those seeds. Many others succeeded in doing so. However, if you use the seeds from your last year’s chillis or yesterday’s chillis from the market, and your plants have cross-pollinated, you might get a different variety to what you intend.

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Germination

Doing the germination right and you will get stronger plants faster. You can germinate the seeds using a propagator or some damp kitchen towels placed in a dark, airy cupboard.

Once you see a sprout, transfer it to a pot with care. If you start this step early in spring when it’s still cold, keep the container inside, like on a sunny windowsill until there’s no risk of frost. You can also grow chillis entirely indoors. You just need a place where the sun can reach for many hours during the day.

If you don’t want to germinate the seeds for some reasons, you can sow them directly into a pot. Keep them indoors to start with and don’t cover the seeds with a thick layer of soil. The chance is that they will still come up, but it takes a lot longer. This year, it took me three weeks to a month for a seed to sprout because I was too lazy with the germination.

General care

Providing you give your plants a healthy start, what you need to do next is to water regularly, and at the bottom, not the leaves. Chillis can take repotting so move them to a bigger pot if you spot roots sticking out the water-draining holes. As always, transfer your plants with care.

Make sure your chilli plants have plenty of light. When you see flowers, you can help the plants with some extra feeding. If you keep chillis inside or if you never see bees on your balcony, shaking the flowers or hand pollinating might be needed.

Green Flies

Green flies are the enemy of chilli growers. I hate them because I have no idea how to avoid them. They start small, a few eggs on a couple of leaves, then one day, they explode in number. I once went on holiday and came back to see my sturdiest bird’s eye chilli plant covered in flies, from the bottom leaves to the top flowers. I took me an hour to wipe them all off. The plant didn’t give any fruits despite having a lot of flowers.

As I said, I don’t know how to avoid green flies. However, if you keep an eye on your plant at all times, you can prevent their total evasion. Every day when you water the chilli, check underneath the leaves. That’s where you will find their eggs if there are any. As soon as you see one, take the plant away from the rest and clean its leaves with soapy water. It should scare the green flies away. I also read about putting the infected plant inside a greenhouse with some ladybugs but I don’t have a greenhouse, and I hardly find ladybugs on my balcony. But you do have them both, give it a try.

In addition to green flies, this year, I had to face an unknown enemy. I suspected it’s caterpillar, but I never caught any at her act. However, something loved eating the leaves of my chilli pepper. I got ten plants, and nine of them got stripped naked from the bottom to the top. I ended up with have one chilli out of a plant which only had two leaves. Imagine the frustration!

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Using chillis

The use of chillis is straightforward. People like my mother eat them raw with everything. You can use them, both green or ripe, to add a fiery feel to your dish. When I had a good season, I pickled my chillis so that they lasted longer while looking nice. You can also make your own hot sauce and carry it around like these famous chefs.

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