It is perfectly possible to grow peppers and chillies in the UK and what’s more, they make fantastic house plants, so you can bring them a little closer into your life. Though sweet peppers and chillies may taste like ‘chalk and cheese’ in terms of their heat strength, botanically speaking they are one and the same, the fruit of the Capsicum plant.
Over time, some have been bred for thick flesh and a mild flavour and others for their fiery hotness. Other qualities play a part too – you can get very long, thin pointed ones, like the ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ chilli, or tiny little birds eye chillies, no bigger than a little fingernail but no less spicy for that. Others have fantastically coloured leaved or fruit – ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ has fruits that turn from purple, through yellow, orange then red with fruit ripening in stages so you see all the colours at once. The variety ‘Fish’ has beautiful green and white variegated leaves and striped fruit.
We tend to think of hot chillies as an integral part of Indian and South East Asian food, but they were only introduced there by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. They in turn had it from Columbus who introduced the pepper to Europe from its home in Central America. By Victorian times, long lists of pepper varieties started to appear in seed catalogues and such is their enthusiastic following today that entire specialist seed companies exist to supply the hottest, rarest and most exotic types.
All sweet peppers and chillies need a long, hot growing season to produce fruit so unless you live in a warm part of the UK, it’s best to grow them indoors. Last year I got lucky because we had a fantastic summer and the ‘Ring of Fire’ chilli grown outside here at Hampton Court Palace gave a huge crop from August to November. However, in October we dug some of them up and put them in pots, gave them a trim (taking off about half of the foliage) and kept them in a heated glasshouse and they came into flower in April. They have a generous head start on the ones sown this year, so I am looking forward to an early harvest.
Pots of plants
Otherwise, I have had successful crops of chillies in an 8 inch pot on a south facing windowsill, but get them started as early as February – they need warmth to germinate and plenty of light to grow well. Keep potting on the young plants as they grow until early June, when you can decide either to chance it outside, or keep them indoors. A compromise would be to put them outside in a large pot, which can be brought back inside in the autumn as the weather gets colder. Generally, the compact, smaller fruited peppers make the best houseplants, such as chillies ‘Prairie Fire’ and ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ or sweet pepper ‘Gourmet’. The larger sweet peppers produce much fewer fruit per plant and take up more space, so are better either outside if you can find a sheltered and sunny spot or in a polytunnel.
To ensure a constant supply, it’s easy to dry and store your crop. One chilli plant can be very prolific and supply all your culinary needs (unless you are a severe chilli addict – then I’d suggest growing one of the extra hot types so you need less per dish). Once the fruit ripens, they can be picked and strung onto a length of cotton with a needle, which makes an attractive edible kitchen decoration. They should dry in a few weeks and then they will store almost indefinitely.
My only further advice would be this: some chillies can be excruciatingly hot (and the hottest part is actually the white pith) so approach with caution…and keep some cooling yoghurt close by!