How to Grow Great Chilli Peppers Whether you spell it chilli, chili or chile, the chilli pepper is a very popular indoor food crop. The good news is, they're pretty easy to grow.

The important thing to remember is that chillies need a relatively long growing season. To get the most out of your chilli plants, you need to start them off early. This means sowing the seeds in January or February - March at the very latest.

Sowing the seeds

Chillies aren't too fussy about the compost you grow them in so a decent multi-purpose will do. Sow individual seeds into modules and keep the seed tray in a warm place - a shelf over a radiator is ideal. Make sure the compost stays slightly damp but don't drown the roots. As with most seeds brought on in seed trays, a good water of the compost before you sow the seeds and then a cover over the top to retain the moisture will do just fine. Depending on the variety, you can expect to see the seedlings begin to appear at between 5 days to 4 weeks after germination.

Give them plenty of light

As soon as the seedlings have emerged out of the darkness, they're going to be hungry for light. If you have a south-facing windowsill in a warm room then placing them here should be okay as long as you turn the trays regularly to stop the seedlings bending and stretching towards the light. However light levels, even on a south-facing windowsill, are very low in January/February so you could consider adding a bit of artificial light for good measure. Chillies need between 12 and 15 hours of light per day and you're not going to get that in winter.

Simply train three or four desk lamps over the seedlings, taking care not to have them so close that they burn the plants. You can use specialist grow lamps but they are expensive and, for the purposes of bringing on the seedlings, ordinary low-energy compact fluorescent light bulbs should do the job just as well. Look for bulbs which have a high value of lumens - you'll see this printed on the outside of the box. 1200 lumens or higher is best. You want a total of around 4000 lumens if you can so 4 at 1000 or 3 at 1500 or any combination so long as you get close to 4000.

It is true to say that lumens are a measure of the light humans can see and not at all indicative of the kind of light a plant needs but for the purposes of providing temporary lights in the early stages, they are a reasonable and less complicated method of determining what you need.

If you can't supply extra artificial light, the plants will grow on a warm windowsill but perhaps a bit more slowly than they would without the extra light boost. The important thing to remember is that natural daylight is best and the sooner you can give your plants enough of that, the better.

Growing on

When the seedlings have developed their second set of true leaves, move them on into medium-sized pots and then, when the roots fill those pots, move them on into bigger pots. If you can get them into a greenhouse that will be frost-free, do that as soon as you can. If not, give them plenty of space on your windowsill. As the plants grow, provide a cane for support should they need it. When they get to around 30cm, pinch out the growing tips so that the plants will begin to beef up.

If you have a sheltered spot outdoors, you can put the plants outside as soon as the weather warms up and all danger of frost has passed (usually end of May/beginning of June in the UK) but make sure you go through the process of hardening-off first. In other words, put them out during the day and take them in at night for about a week before you allow them their first sleepover outside.

When the plants produce flowers, give them a feed with liquid tomato food to encourage good fruits and, if you're growing indoors, don't forget that the plants can't make babies without being fertilised first. This means that, if bees are unable to get to your plants, then do the job yourself by taking a small paintbrush, feather or cotton bud and stroking the inside of one flower followed by another, preferably on a different plant. This ensures the pollen is transferred, that fertilisation has taken place and that the plants are good to go for fruit production.

Beat your chilli plants up a bit

The heat you get from eating chillies is really the plant's defence system. The plant produces capsaicinoids which basically target the pain receptors in mammals causing a heat and pain sensation in the mouth. The more the plant feels under threat, the more capsaicinoids it is likely to produce so, if you like your chillies hot, then make your plants feel threatened by impersonating a hungry mammal and nipping them, shoving them and even taking off little pieces of the leaves now and again. For plants that will be growing indoors, they need a little bit of gentle shoving around to encourage the stem to thicken up the way it would if subjected to wind and rain outside.

Pests and diseases

Like all glasshouse plants, chillies will be subject to the usual suspect list of pests - aphids, whitefly and spider mite being the most common. Diseases can also be spread by sap-sucking insects like aphids. High humidity and poor air circulation will encourage botrytis and other fungal infections. Feed and water your chilli pepper plants regularly and this will allow the plants to fight off any attacks and, during the fruiting stages, regular watering will prevent the fruits from splitting. Good air circulation is vital for controlling pests and diseases.

Treat insect attacks as soon as you detect them. There are many insecticides on the market but we, at Gardenzine, prefer to promote organic methods. After all, why grow your own if you're going to cover your plants in chemicals? For aphids and other soft-bodied pests, organic insectides are readily available but most rely on entry through the skin of the insects so you need to make sure you target the aphids themselves and don't just spray the plant.

Biological control

Biological control is another good option and you can buy both adult ladybirds and ladybird larvae from a number of online sources. They will arrive in a little plastic container complete with cereal to feed them on their journey (our last batch of ladybirds arrived with a small handful of Cheerios!) You can release the ladybirds into the greenhouse straight away and they'll begin munching on aphids and other pests. Once they've done their job, let them out into the garden and they'll usually hang about, especially if you've bought them in as larvae.

Companion plants

For aphids and whitefly, you could plant some nasturtiums a short distance away from your chillies. The aphids should prefer the nasturtiums and go to them. Once you have trapped your aphids with the nasturtiums, you can either spray them with organic insecticide or release some ladybirds directly onto the nasturtiums.

Chillies like quite a high humidity so underplanting of some kind will be beneficial to them. Try basil and chives underneath your chillies as both are said to improve the flavour. Chilli plant roots are said to prevent root rot so you could grow an early crop of carrots amongst your chillies - the chillies will benefit from the increase in humidity and the carrots will benefit from a certain amount of root protection. Other plants to try are lettuce, radish, oregano and parsley, all of which are nice low-growing crops that will allow you to get the most out of your growing space and help out your chilli plants at the same time.

Chilli plant varieties

If you like your chillies mild try Pimiento, Anaheim, Paprika and Peppadew. For slightly hotter chillies, go with Jalapeno, Chipotle, Cayenne, Hungarian Wax and Birds Eye. For the really hot, blow your head off chillies, the ever-popular Scotch Bonnet springs to mind along with Habanero. The hottest of all chillies have names that give you a clue as their potency - Scorpions (different types), Devil's Tongue, Tiger Paw, Fatalii and Naga Viper. The hottest chilli in the world is Carolina Reaper with a scoville rating that averages 1.5 million units (Scotch Bonnet in comparison has a mere maximum of 350,000).

Harvesting and storage

Harvest chillies when they are green and use fresh for a milder taste or let them turn red on the plant to increase the heat. Drying chillies is really easy. Simply tie them up with string and hang them up in a warm, dry place. The intensity of your chillies will increase as they dry.


Chillies are great when they're stuffed with cream cheese as the cream cheese helps to reduce the unpleasant effects of the chilli allowing you to enjoy its sweetness without too much pain. Try stuffing chillies with cream cheese ,chopped onions and some cumin. Add some hard cheese on top and grill or bake until the cheese starts to bubble.

For truffles with a kick, melt dark and milk chocolate, grind chilli and cinnamon together and add to the melted chocolate. Heat up some double cream, add to the melted chocolate, refrigerate the mix for a couple of hours. Form into balls and roll them in whatever you like - icing sugar, cocoa powder, ground nuts or ground coconut.

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