Chilli pepper plants make a great addition to an edible garden in summer. Here’s how to grow chilli peppers, jalapeño, capsicum and sweet peppers from seed.
Long before I had an edible garden, I bought a Mexican chilli plant and grew it in a container. I don’t recall when I bought it or how I cared for it – that was long before I started edible gardening.
Fast forward to December 2018, a very difficult year in my life, and one day, I stepped out into the neglected courtyard where a handful of sad herbs and chilli plants resided and saw dead plants all around me. I pruned the chilli plant, cut back the jalapeño down to 1 cm, gave them water (and nothing else) and somehow, they showed signs of life and produced fruit that summer. That was the catalyst that got me started into edible gardening.
Then about a year ago, I noticed some new growth in that container. Was it weeds or new chilli plants? This novice gardener had no idea. It turned out that the plant dropped a ripe chilli, the seeds germinated and seedlings appeared.
I decided to keep the continuity and grow more chilli plants from seed. I’m currently growing several varieties which include Mexican chilli, Jalapeño, Tabasco (often labelled as ornamental), Habanero, Hungarian Black Chilli, Sweet Peppers and Capsicum Purple Beauty. The following information applies to all types though it may only state the word chilli.
How to Grow Chilli Peppers
Chillis are part of the solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. They thrive in full sun and produce more fruit when exposed to heat and direct sunlight. They can easily be grown in containers, and do best in pots with a minimum of 30cm in diameter.
For temperate climate such as Sydney, start sowing the seeds in spring when the temperature is consistently warm as they need heat to germinate. Chilli seeds can be sown direct or raised as seedlings. Choose a position that is in full sun with well drained soil. Sow the seed in moist, seed raising mix at a depth of 5mm. Germination takes place any time between 7 and 21 days depending on how warm the temperature gets. If you’re planting in raised bed or in open soil, space the plants 80cm apart with a row spacing of 100cm. If you’re raising seedlings, wait until the second set of true leaves appear before transplanting into their permanent location. Chilli plant grow to a height of approximately 50-80cm but that can vary depending on the genus.
Chilli Plant Care
Chilli plants are easy to care for. They simply need to be watered evenly and consistently though they can tolerate inconsistent watering. In fact, if you water less, it puts the plant under mild water stress and you end up with chillis that are hotter. Make sure you mulch well to retain moisture and stop evaporation. If you’ve planted in good soil that’s rich in nutrients, they need very little ongoing care. Like all plants that are grown for their fruit or roots, don’t feed them too much nitrogen as you’ll end up with more leaves and less fruit. I usually give them a fortnightly liquid fertiliser feed once they start to flower. When the plants start to fruit, pick it regularly to encourage more growth.
Chillis are prone to some garden pests and diseases such as bacterial leaf spot, aphids, white fly and slugs. Ants seem to love hiding in the flowers but overall, they’re a low maintenance plant.
Harvesting & Seed Saving
The fruit of the chilli plant starts off green, though depending on the variety I have seen other colours including pale yellow. As it reaches maturity, it turns bright red. This is true for the Mexican Chilli, Sweet Peppers and Jalapeños though the latter are best picked when they turn a glossy green colour.
Capsicum Purple Beauty starts off green and turns a dark purple colour when it’s mature. Sweet peppers can go anything from green to yellow, orange and red.
To harvest, simply make a clean cut with secateurs and pick the chillis often to encourage more growth. If you leave the chillis too long on the plant, they start to shrivel and dry.
If you’re into seed saving, and I recommend you save seeds from plants you’ve grown and have been acclimatised to your garden, use a knife to split the chilli lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and leave them to dry on kitchen paper on a counter out of direct sunlight. Be very careful when handing chillis and their seeds. It’s best to wear gloves and make sure you don’t touch your face, eyes, mouth or any other body part or you’ll be crying for hours. Even mild jalapeños sting!
Overwintering Chilli Peppers
Depending in your climate, you can keep chilli plants over winter and get a head start on the next season. My part of Sydney doesn’t get frosts and as I mentioned earlier, I have had the same chilli plants in containers for a number of years.
As the cooler months approach, the plants start to look very sickly. The leaves curl and drop, rust spots may develop and fruit production slows down and eventually stops. This is the time I prune the plant, removing diseased leaves and dry branches and put my potted chilli plants against a west-facing wall which gets the afternoon sun. During winter, the plant shuts down and aside from the occasional watering if it hadn’t rained for a while, I simply leave it alone.
Just before the start of spring, I carefully take the plant out of its container and rejuvenate the soil by adding compost, blood and bone and top up with new soil. The plant is then ready for summer.
Tips for Growing Chilli
- Chillis need a lot of sunshine and warmth. Start sowing seeds when the temperature is constantly warm or they will be very slow to germinate.
- Keep the soil moist and evenly watered. Don’t overwater as it is known to affect the flavour: the more water, the less heat
- If your chillis develop stretch marks or white lines through the skin, these are signs of water stress. They’re still perfectly fine to eat.
- IMPORTANT: If you’re growing different varieties of chillis, keep them a good distance apart as they can cross pollinate. My sweet peppers cross pollinated with purple capsicum and I grew the hybrid you see in the photo above.
Culinary Uses of Chilli
There are so many uses for chillis in the kitchen, adding flavour, heat and spice to dishes of various cuisines. They can be dried in a dehydrator or in a low oven, crushed and stored in jars, infused in oil, turned into chilli jam. As I don’t have a dehydrator, I store Mexican chillis in the fridge in an open container where they slowly dry to a crumbly texture. I then break them up, seeds and skin, and store them in a glass jar until use.
Jalapeños are best used fresh. Try making jalapeño poppers by splitting them open lengthwise, removing the seeds and filling them with a mixture of cream cheese, smoked paprika, garlic and putting them under the grill.
Chilli in Cocktails
Chillis and jalapeños have a lot of applications in cocktails. They add heat, spice as well as visual appeal to drinks. They can be used to make a chilli syrup that adds a kick of heat to a mixed drink. Try infusing chillis either whole or with the seeds scraped out in vodka to brighten up a vodka and soda drink. They pair well when infused with tequila as in this a Tequila Highball or the Agave Y Amor Cocktail with capsicum juice. Jalapeños can be muddled to make Jalapeño Mezcal Margarita and they can be use as a cocktail garnish as in this Day of the Dead cocktail.
CHILLI GROWING GUIDE AT A GLANCE
For temperate climate (Sydney, Australia)
- Sowing Season: spring, summer
- Sowing Method: sow direct or raise seedlings
- Position: full sun
- Seed Preparation: nil
- Soil: well drained soil
- Sowing Depth: 5mm
- Plant Spacing: 50cm
- Row Spacing: 100cm
- Plant Height: 50-80cm (varies)
- Germination: 7-21 days
- Time to Maturity/Harvest: 75 days
- Water Requirements: water evenly
- Fertiliser Requirements: not too high in nitrogen
- Companion Planting: alliums, basil, parsley, dill, chives, oregano
- Ones to Avoid: fennel, brassicas
- Succession Planting: yearly if not overwintering
Want to Know More?
You’ll find more information on how to grow peppers, which varieties to try, how to pair it with food and spirits, and how to use peppers in cocktails including a full recipe in my 260+ page digital book GROW YOUR OWN COCKTAIL GARDEN available now.