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Chillies

Chillies

Chillies can be polarising: there are people who sweat at the thought of a hot sauce, and other’s who feel like no meal is complete without that characteristic burn. Chillies don’t have to be ludicrously hot though: you can choose a mild chilli that adds flavour to a dish without making it uncomfortable to eat, so that you make the most of their unique flavour profile even if you have chilli fear.

Mild not wild

If you’re shy of the heat, start by growing mild varieties. Those at the bottom end of the Scoville scale include Anaheim, Fresno, Paprika, Sundews (similar to the trademarked Peppadews), Sweet Heat, Black Hungarian, Mad Hatter and Starfish. Local seed companies have a good range of mild peppers (and hot ones!), so have a look on their racks in your local garden centre. Summer is also a good time to buy chilli plants to grow on in your garden, and there is an increasing variety every year.

Anaheim

Anaheim is an heirloom chilli from California that was developed over a century ago and is now one of the most popular chillies in the States. The plant grows up to 1.2m in height and produces a huge harvest of fruit. The fruit is mild, and even at the hot end of its range is only as spicy as a mild jalapeño. Like jalapeños, it is perfect for stuffing or for blistering on a braai, after which it can be added to a salsa, made into a sauce, or even used as a side dish next to a piece of meat.

Paprika

That delicious, almost sweet, some-times smoky red powder that you put into stews, egg dishes and on potato salad actually comes from a very mild chilli, and you can grow it yourself. With a SHU rating of between 500 and 1000, the paprika chilli is palatable to even the most sensitive, and it is absolute- ly delicious in cooked foods of many varieties as well as a raw snack. The fruit looks hotter than it is, with a bright red colour and the traditional chilli shape, although it can be quite fat and grows to over 20cm long. The plants are medium in size, growing to 90cm high and 50cm wide.

Sweet Heat 

Delicious cooked or raw, Sweet Heat has a very mild heat of around 350 SHU, and a flavour that is sweet and smoky. It is perfect for grilling or smoking, or even for snacking on raw. The compact plants only grow to 30cm high and wide so are nicely suited for planting in pots. The fruit matures quickly and grows to a shape more like that of a sweet or bell pepper, about 7 – 10cm long and quite wide.

Black Hungarian

This beautiful dark pepper, which has brinjal-black glossy skin, is similar in shape to a Jalapeño and 10cm in length. Even the flesh is more black than red, and it has a great flavour with only a mild heat. The plant itself is also pretty, with glossy green leaves with purple veins and lovely dark purple flowers. The fruit, which can reach 10 000 SHU when fully mature and deep red but is only around 1500 SHU while still black, is often eaten raw in salads or salsa.

Mad Hatter

Despite the fairly threatening name, Mad Hatter is very mild at between 500 – 1000 SHU. The taste is sweet and fruity with citrus, almost florals tones. This is a pepper you will love to use in the kitchen, and which your friends will ask for, to use in their own cooking. It’s such a great plant that it actually won an ‘All American Selections’ award in 2018. It can be used raw or cooked, as a popper or salsa or salad.

Kathy Varney’s tips on patio chillies

Kathy Varney from Ball Straathof grows good-looking chillies in pots, and they are great for the kitchen or patio. Here are some of her tips to get it right yourself.

Peppers are wonderful, aren’t they? These versatile fruits are packed with vitamins A and C and are suitable for a large assortment of recipes. They’re delicious eaten raw and come in a multitude of flavours, from sweet and juicy to fiery hot!

The reason I think they’re so great, though, is that they’re really good looking too! Plant capsicums on your patio for their ornamental value as much as their nutritional value, and enjoy watching the fruit colours change as they mature.

These days there are an assortment of mini and patio varieties to choose from, so you really don’t need a lot of space at all. Peppers, sweet or hot, love the sun. Don’t panic if they’re in semi-shade though – they’ll still grow, they just won’t produce as many fruits. Make sure you pot them up in well-draining soil in a pot of your choice. For the mini varieties, these pots can be quite small and placed on a windowsill or tabletop. There are some larger patio varieties that are still compact and controllable, but may require a bit of staking when mature. I would recommend a 30 – 35cm pot for these.

Pinching the plant back in the early growing stages will help your pepper bush out and produce more fruit. Water regularly to keep consistently damp, and adding some mulch is always a great idea for water retention and keeping the soil cooler. Remember, plants get hungry too, so fertilise regularly to promote better growth and for more flowers and fruit. Growing chillies in pots is as easy as that! Enjoy the multi-coloured fruits of your labour.

Look for patio chillies at your local retailer.

Chilli-growing tips

Chillies need a hot climate to really thrive, but since they will also grow in pots, anyone can grow them just about anywhere, even if they only have a balcony or a patio.

  • It takes around 80 – 120 days for chilli plants to mature, but it is well worth the effort as there are many different varieties you can grow from seed and only a few that you may find in seedlings. Hotter chillies may take up to 150 days to bear fruit. (Further on we share our tips for success with seeds.)
  • Find the warmest spot to grow your chillies, with the most sunlight you can get.
  • Frost is the only real problem with chillies, so make sure they are planted in the garden well after any possible frost.
  • Plant in compost-enriched soil and keep the soil watered well and moist, but not soggy. Chillies love water as much as they love sunshine. In containers, add compost to good potting soil and water retaining medium into the pot before planting. Don’t let the soil dry out. Make sure that in pots and in the garden, you have the best drainage, so your chillies are never waterlogged.
  • Keep weeding to prevent weeds from stealing water that your chillies need.
  • Be on the lookout for common chilli diseases, like mildew or rotting, as well as pests like aphids or red spider mites.
  • When your chilli plants get to around 15cm you can pinch out the growing tips to make the plants bushier. Remove any early flowers, which will otherwise use up the plant’s energy that could be better used in growing the bush.
  • Feed your growing chillies every 4 – 6 weeks with an organic 3.1.5 fertiliser or a specially formulated fruit and flowers fertiliser.

Growing chillies from seed

Chillies have a reputation for being difficult to grow from seed. They need heat to germinate, and the hotter the chilli, the longer the seeds take. Pre-germinating the seeds is a simple method that improves the germination rate.

First, check that you have fresh seed; chilli seeds don’t have a long shelf life. Dampen two paper towels and scatter the seeds on the one towel, then place the second one on top of the seeds, lightly pressing it down. Place the towels in a large zip-lock plastic bag or container, and seal.

Store the seed in its plastic container in a warm place for 2 – 5 days. The seeds need consistent warmth (30 – 35°C), which could be on a heating pad or a hot tray turned very low so that it doesn’t melt the plastic container. A sunny windowsill may also work, as could outdoors in a warm and sunny spot. Check the seeds after two days to see if they are swelling or sprouting.

Get ready for planting out the sprouted seeds by filling a seed tray, or small pots, with germinating mix, or make your own by combining 1/3 coarse river sand, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 sifted compost. Water well so that the mix is damp.

Seeds that have started sprouting on the damp paper towel produce a tiny shoot. They can be very carefully removed and planted. The tiny shoot is fragile and can snap off easily. Those that haven’t pre-germinated can stay in the zip-lock bag a bit longer.

When planting, it is important to get the depth right. Use a sharpened pencil and wrap a piece of masking tape around the pencil, 1 – 1.5cm from the tip of the pencil. To make the hole, push the pencil into the soil up to the masking tape.

Carefully drop the sprouted seed into the hole made by the pencil, with the shoot pointing down into the hole. Gently fill the hole and lightly firm down the soil. If you are planting a variety of chillies, make sure to label them.

Water the pot or seedling tray by swishing the water from the watering can or hose over the tray. Start watering away from the tray and also finish away from the tray, so that the large drops of water at the beginning or end of watering don’t displace the potting mix.

Keep the soil moist but not soggy, and also don’t let it dry out. Keep the pots or seedling trays in a sunny area, either outdoors or on windowsills indoors. 

Dried chillies

Unlike other fruits, chillies are left to dry on the plants before harvesting and storing. The climate needs to be very dry to do this, so timing is crucial should you wish to store your chillies for later use. They can be stored in airtight containers or the freezer for up to a year but have better flavour if used within 3 – 6 months. 

Bacon-wrapped Anaheim peppers

Bacon, peppers and cheese – we’re onto a winner here!

  • 1 block (225g) cream cheese, softened
  • 11/2 cups grated cheddar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 12 Anaheim peppers (or jalapeños)
  • 12 slices bacon, halved

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

In a large bowl, combine cream cheese, grated cheddar and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.

Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, then remove the seeds and veins with a spoon. Fill the cavities with the cheese mixture and wrap each half pepper with a halved slice of bacon.

Place on a greased baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes, until the bacon is crispy and the peppers are tender.

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