Chillies grow very well in containers – but they do have some specific needs. To discover the ‘tricks of the trade’, I met up with (and filmed) professional chilli grower, Steve Waters.
Few other plants can match chillies for ‘flavour for space’ ratio. One plant will often give you a hundred chillies or more. So all but the most dedicated chilli eater can usually be self sufficient in chillies with just a few plants – something very achievable, even in a tiny growing space. Any surplus chillies can easily be dried or frozen, keeping you in supply all year.
A huge benefit of growing your own is the vast array of delicious varieties now available – you’ll discover a whole new world of flavour when compared to the ubiquitous, one dimensional ‘red’ and ‘green’ chillies sold by most supermarkets. Whether you are looking for amazing taste (try Aji Lemon, Fatali or Cherry Bomb), or fiery heat (try Bhut Jolokia) or something beautiful to brighten your balcony (try Twilight – pictured above – or Purple Princess), you will be spoilt for choice.
You do need a warm, sheltered spot – inside or outside – with at least six hours sun to grow chillies with any reliable success (they will be reluctant to fruit without). But with the right conditions, chillies can do brilliantly in containers.
Most chilli varieties are not difficult to grow – but they do have slightly different needs from most other edible crops. For example, the seeds need more warmth to germinate, and the plants benefit from drying out more between waterings. If you’re starting out, it’s also useful to know that some chilli varieties are a lot harder to grow than others. Some of the easiest and most reliable are recommended below.
Steve Waters (thank you Steve!), who runs the South Devon Chilli Farm, grows over 170 varieties of chilli, and harvests hundreds of kilos every day in season. He shares his tips and experience for you in the videos below:
Can you recommend four chillies for containers?
Steve recommends some reliable and tasty chillies for containers.
Steve’s top chillies for reliability and flavour in containers:
- Thai Hot or Demon Red, Twilight, Apache – small plants, ideal for a 1 litre pot on the window sill.
- Cherry bomb – produces heavy crop of large red chillies, great flavour, not too hot, one of the first to ripen.
- Ring of fire – productive, tasty chilli, great for cooking.
- Hungarian Hotwax – milder chilli but with excellent flavour, ideal for stuffing.
How to sow and germinate chillies
It’s not difficult to grow chillies from seed, but they do need warmth and good light. Steve offers his tips in this video:
Steve’s top sowing tips
- Sow your seeds in fine vermiculite or seed compost in three inch pots or use coir jiffy pellets.
- Chillies need warmth to germinate and good light to grow into healthy seedlings. Steve starts his chillies in mid January – but if you don’t have a heated propagator or a bright window sill (or LED grow lamp), it’s easier to start them at the end of March (small varieties like Thai Hot can be started even later).
- Water the growing medium well before sowing – then try to water as little as possible until germination. Excessive watering can wash the goodness out of the seed before it germinates.
- Some very hot chillies, like Bhut Jolokia, can benefit from soaking in water for 24 hours before sowing.
- A thermostatically controlled propagator (set at 25 – 30 0C / 77 – 860F) or a simple heated propagator makes germinating chillies easier and faster (but is not essential). If you don’t have a propagator , try to find a place with a warm, consistent temperature. Chilli seeds need warmth! (A “propagator” is the gardening term for a container with a transparent lid, designed for raising seeds).
- Place your propagator where it will not heat up too much in the sun – consistency of temperature is also important.
- Once germinated, chillies can be replanted at any level. So if you have tall, spindly seedlings, replant them with some of the stem under the soil. (This is a very handy tip).
- Chilli seedlings need good light to grow healthily. Many urban homes do not have bright light inside (neighbouring buildings and trees casting shade), particularly early in the season (February / March) when light levels are low. If you’re seedlings are struggling, you can either buy an LED grow light or simply wait and buy a plant later in the year (often a good option with chillies as you only need a few plants).
Where can you buy seeds and plants? Online is a good place to look first: a specialist chilli producer, like South Devon Chilli Farm, will often offer the best choice and the most expert advice. Or look for a chilli festival happening near you (more and more are springing up) where you’ll also be able to taste the different chillies.
How to water chillies in pots; what growing media to use?
How you water chillies will make a big difference to your growing success – and the right soil mix will help with this. Steve explains how in this video.
Steve’s top watering tips
- Drainage is important (chilli roots must have air). If you are prone to over water or if you’re using an automatic watering system, you can improve drainage by adding perlite (10 – 30%) or grit.
- Use a soil based compost – like ‘John Innes No.2’ if you can get it.
- When you have planted a chilli in a new pot, feel the weight of the pot before watering it. Try to remember this weight – and avoid watering again until the pot has come back down to just above the unwatered weight again.
- Chillies seem to do best with dry and wet cycles – so its best not to water them every day if possible.
- As chillies grow bigger, they like to be moved into progressively slightly larger pots. For example, move a seedling from a three inch pot into a half litre, then one litre, then three litre – rather than from a three inch pot to a three litre one.
How to Feed Chillies
Chillies are less hungry than tomatoes but will still need regular feeding once they have used the food in their compost (usually after about six weeks). Large, heavily fruiting chillies, like Cherry Bomb, need substantially more feeding than smaller varieties that produce small chillies.
Steve’s top feeding tips
- A high potassium or potash (K) feed is good for fruiting chillies (The potassium will help them fruit). You can make your own feed from comfrey leaves or use a tomato feed. If using tomato feed, use at slightly lower concentrations than suggested for tomatoes.
- After heavily harvesting, a balanced liquid feed (one with equal N, P and K – see the side of the bottle) can help it to recover, and put on new growth.
Many thanks to Steve for sharing his knowledge and experience – I hope they will help guide you to chilli growing success.
For more on growing chillies in containers, including the amazing diversity of chillies, there are more videos with Steve in the Masterclasses.
What’s your favourite favourite of chilli to grow in containers? I’d love to hear in the comments below.