Keeping Chillies over winter
Chillies make very attractive house plants.
Chilli peppers are perennial plants that come from the hot, sunny tropics where they grow continuously. In Britain, weather permitting, they usually flourish during the British summer – especially when grown in a tunnel or greenhouse, but they begin to flag as winter approaches and the weather turns gray and cold. At this point, most sensible gardeners discard their plants and start new ones from seed the following year.
With some attention and care, however, it is possible to take advantage of the chilli’s perennial nature and maintain the plants through the winter. Though it’s a fiddly project that can be time consuming, chilliheads may find it challenging enough to brighten up the dull winter months.
For those of you who want to give overwintering a try, we have put together a few suggestions:
• Use plants already in pots
Any attempts at overwintering chillies should be done with plants already growing in pots – they can be moved intact to their winter quarters without having their roots disturbed. In contrast, plants grown in the ground have to be dug and potted, and the root damage they will certainly suffer may reduce their chances of survival.
Freezing temperatures kill chillies, so the plants must be overwintered in a frost-free environment. Keeping them in an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel won’t work, so don’t even think about it. The temperature, however, doesn’t have to be overly warm since the plants need only to survive, not thrive. As a general rule of thumb, any environment warm enough for humans will be fine for chillies, making the inside of your home one of the best places for your plants.
Light levels are naturally low during the winter, and they are even more so inside your house. To compensate for this dreadful state of affairs, put the plants in the sunniest location you can find, such as a south-facing window or, even better, a conservatory.
In nature chilli plants are basically woody shrubs and don't need pruning to survive the winter. However, for convenience, prune the plants to fit the space they have been allocated. Be sure to prune modestly and avoid the temptation of pruning down to the base. If the branches start to turn brown and die at the tips, cut them back to where they are green.
Because the chillies will grow slowly, if at all, during their winter sojourn, they won’t need to be fertilised.
Since the overwintered plants aren’t growing much, watering should be infrequent – do it just enough to keep the compost barely moist, but neither too dry nor too wet. Too much water will take a long time to dry out, which is not good for the roots. To prevent the water from dribbling all over the place, be sure to put a dish or plate under each of the pots.
Aphids, aka greenflies, are the scourge of chillies, and many homes have a resident population hidden away in the nooks and crannies. They will eventually find their way to your plants, so be sure to check periodically for any infestation. At the first signs, wash or spray the plants to keep their numbers under control. If your house is like ours, you will need to clean up your plants every three or four weeks.
• Dropping leaves
The plants will drop most of their leaves in response to the low temperatures and light levels of the winter. But don’t be alarmed – this is a natural response to the environment, and there is nothing you can do about it except be patient.
Though the leaves are likely to fall off, the chillies on the plant probably won't. They can be left on the plant, and picked off when you want to use them during the winter, but all fruit should be picked off before the start of the next season.
In the spring
In late March, as the outside light levels begin to increase, repot each plant using a multipurpose, preferably peat-free, compost. Remove the plant from the pot they are in, and remove 3 to 5cm of compost from around the root ball. Using the original pot – or a bigger one if you want – put fresh compost in the bottom. Then place the root ball in the centre, and fill the space between it and the pot with more compost. Then water to help settle the compost.
If your plants are destined for an unheated greenhouse or tunnel, wait until the weather warms up before transferring them from the house: mid-April in southern England will do, later up north. When exposed to more warmth and light, the plants will burst into activity and produce new leaves. As the leaves appear and the weather gets warmer, increase the frequency of watering. After a month or so, start fertilisng on a regular basis. And away you go.
And don’t forget, if you fail, we sell chilli seeds, plug plants and full size plants through the post.
Two good chilli houseplants: Stumpy (left) and NuMex Twilight (right).
© Michael Michaud