Chillies are a favourite amongst many kitchen gardeners and, rightly so! They provide some of the most complex assortment of flavours. It, therefore, comes as a surprise to first-time growers that they start to die when the temperature dips. These tropical climate plants do not frosty winters, but we can do a few things to help them along.
This is a guide for first-time growers on the types of chillies, their natural growth habit and overwintering conditions.
Chilli basics for beginners
You walk past the herb section and the multicoloured peppers catch your eye. It is a wonderful, little invariably making its way into the cart. Unfortunately, what follows the high of those reddening peppers is often tears as the plant starts to die back in Autumn. Surprised? Most new gardeners are. Chillies can be a perennial (multi-year) crop in their natural habitat, so why not mine? The short answer: They do not like the cold.
It should not come as a surprise as their native habitat is nice and toasty. This is the key to overwintering your chillies. Sure, almost all can be resown from seed and potted on for a new crop each year, but with some effort, you can save your plant for an early crop.
Capsicum species can take on a range of shapes and colours. They will change colour as the fruit ripens.
Long, short, hot or mild
You can write a book on the various types, shapes and colours of hot peppers that have traversed the earth. Many sport weird and wacky names, but most fall within the five species listed below. Knowing the species will give you an idea of how to tailor your growing environment.
Capsicum annuum- It is a perennial (origin: South America) but is grown as an annual in Europe.
- Examples: Bell pepper, Jalapeno (the j is pronounced with an h), serene, cayenne, poblano, banana
- Growing Temp: 20-30 C, most will stop actively growing below 16C. Stick to a 20 +/- 2 C temperature and you will see consistent growth.
Capsicum baccatum- origin: South/Central America
- Examples: Ají Limón pepper, sugar rush cultivars (berry-like) and peppadews. Take a very long time to ripen but are prolific.
- Growth Temp: 20-30C, not dropping below 15C
Capsicum chinensis- origin: South America/Amazon/Caribbean
- Examples: Habanero, Scotch Bonett pepper, Ghost pepper. Some of the hottest peppers in the world.
- Growing temp: 30C with 70% humidity, no colder than 23C
Capsicum frutescens- origin: South/Central America
- Examples: African Birdseye pepper (peri-peri pepper), tabasco pepper
- Growth Temp: See C. annuum above
Capsicum pubescens- A vining plant that cannot cross-pollinate. It takes long to germinate and prefers cool growing. origin: Peru, Bolivia
- Example: Rocoto pepper
- Growing temp: 15C day, below 8C night
This should give you a quick guide as to what sort of pepper you picked up. In most cases, while you will be able to overwinter a plant, it will likely stop growing and producing flowers (as pollination rarely occurs below 14C).
Chillies in flower.
If you have a healthy chilli, there is no reason why you should not try to keep it going during winter. Most may simply opt to purchase a new seedling come spring or sow seeds (this gives you vigorous new growth and spicy produce). Overwintering is fairly easy if you have a protected greenhouse or sunny terrarium setup, just follow these easy steps:
When daytime temperature drops lower than 14C:
- Remove any remaining fruit.
- Prune the chillies to 1/3 of their original size at the point where the branches split.
- Store in a warm location, making sure nighttime temperatures stay above 14C, but no lower than 10C.
- Waterless, but do not let the medium dry out completely.
- Keep in a sunny area.
- Ventilate regularly. Preferably on sunny days.
You can extend the growing season by moving the plants to a covered greenhouse or cold frame. Just note that pruning is essential to reduce stress on the plant during winter. If you keep a watchful eye on your watering and ventilation, you should not have mould and fungal problems. For additional advice on treating winter fungal infections see here.
A pruned two-year old chilli, ready for winter storage. Some prune right back to the main stalk.