Chillies and capsicums have their pride of place in my summer vegetable garden every year. They are very easy to grow, relatively disease resistant and taste great. Nothing beats picking your own fresh peppers for salads and sandwiches. Chillies are a wonderful addition to Indian and Asian curries, as well as Mexican cuisine. Both capsicums and chillies can be very expensive in supermarkets and greengrocers, so they are a valuable addition to the home garden.
Traditionally, chillies and capsicums can be planted outside in New Zealand by Labour Weekend, which is a long weekend with a public holiday falling on the Monday after the weekend. Labour Weekend usually falls towards the end of October. This year, Labour Weekend starts on 21 October. While it’s natural to want a head start on the season, my advice is to not be in a rush to plant out seedlings. There is often a dramatic difference between day and night time temperatures at this time of the year and the weather can still be quite temperamental. Young seedlings are particularly tender. Once they’ve been hit by a sudden cold snap or exposed to consistently low temperatures, they never really recover. It’s therefore a good idea to wait until the beginning of November to plant chilli and capsicum seedlings into your garden, when temperatures are warmer.
Sowing chillies and capsicums from seed
It’s too early to think about planting chillies and capsicums outdoors. However, I wanted to write a guide to growing chillies and capsicums now because it’s not too late to start sowing them from seed. In fact, the timing is perfect. It takes about eight weeks from the time of the germination of a chilli or capsicum seed to produce a plant that is large enough to transplant outside. It’s really easy to grow chillies and capsicums from seed and it allows you to grow unusual varieties which aren’t found in garden centres.
Chillies and capsicums can be started from seed indoors in July and August. In the past, I have started chilli and capsicum seedlings as late as September, but they will produce a crop later in the season, in March and April. For a continuous supply of chillies and capsicums from January through to April, successive sowings are recommended. Chilli and capsicum seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in plastic punnets filled with seed raising mix from Gardn Gro (http://gardngro.co.nz/). I like Gardn Gro’s seed raising mix as it is very fine in texture, enabling seeds to push through the mixture easily as they rise to the surface. I place the punnets inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water twice daily. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment.
How to care for chilli and capsicum seedlings
For new gardeners, those who don’t wish to start their chilli and capsicum seedlings from seed or if you’ve simply left it too late, plants are available for sale in nurseries from September onwards. Palmers stock a great range of chilli and capsicum seedlings. Awapuni also sell high quality, large grade capsicums and chillies delivered direct to your door. If you order 7 or more bundles of seedlings, delivery is free. To order plants from Awapuni, visit https://awapuni.co.nz/.
Take care to keep plants undercover until early October as chillies and capsicums are frost sensitive. The weather can be temperamental in spring and the nights are often still quite cool. From then on, start “hardening them off”. This is the process of exposing plants to the outdoors incrementally, for example, for two hours in the middle of the day for the first week, increasing to four hours per day for the next week. Continue to bring the plants indoors at night. By the third week of October, it should be safe to leave plants outdoors overnight.
Chilli and capsicum varieties
Popular chilli varieties that perform well in New Zealand include Cayenne, Jalapeno and Sweet Banana. Egmont Seeds stock all of these varieties or you can buy plants from garden centres throughout the country every spring. I grow these classic varieties every summer and they yield an abundance of chillies without fail. For something a little different, try growing the Italian varieties Lombardo, Topepo Rosso and Calabrese from Franchi Seeds. Franchi is a range of magnificent heirloom seeds imported from Italy and supplied in New Zealand by Italian Seeds Pronto, owned by my friend Gillian Hurley Gordon. Last summer, I grew Lombardo and Calabrese with great success. Lombardo is an extremely productive long, sweet lime green chilli which is perfect for frying. Calabrese produces small round hot red peppers. This summer, I’m looking forward to sowing Topepo Rosso for the first time. For the months of September and October, Italian Seeds Pronto has Lombardo and Topepo Rosso peppers on special for just $5. This is great value as there are tons of seeds in the packet so you will be able to share or swap with friends, as well as have lots spare for future seasons.
The most reliable and traditional capsicum variety in New Zealand is Californian Wonder (Egmont Seeds). Californian Wonder resembles the shape of capsicums found at the supermarket and is a firm favourite in the garden each summer. I also highly recommend Corno Rosso (Franchi Seeds), which has performed splendidly in previous years. Corno Rosso turns red when ripe and is sweet in taste. It is ideal for stuffing, frying and grilling.
To order seeds from the Egmont Seeds range, visit http://www.egmontseeds.co.nz/.
To find stockists for Franchi Seeds or to order Franchi Seeds directly from Italian Seeds Pronto, visit http://www.italianseedspronto.co.nz/. Those living overseas can source the wonderful Franchi range through their own local distributor online (for the UK see Seeds of Italy’s website http://www.seedsofitaly.com/ and for the US see Seeds From Italy’s website http://www.growitalian.com/) or find stockists in your home country.
How to care for chilli and capsicum plants
Chillies and capsicums need at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting chilli and capsicum seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. I highly recommend Gardn Gro’s Wonder Nuggets, which are 100% organic and function as an excellent fertiliser: http://gardngro.co.nz/shop/Fertilisers/Wonder+Nuggets+8kg.html. Rake the ground so that it is nice and level. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life. As capsicum fruits can be heavy and weigh plants down, some support is recommended. It is a good idea to stake and tie capsicum and chilli seedlings at the time of planting to avoid injury to the roots of your plants later on.
Chillies and capsicums can also be grown in containers. It’s actually my personal preference to grow chillies and capsicums in large black pots, as I’ve never managed to grow them successfully in the ground. My theory is that containers are ideal for such heat-loving plants. The temperature in a pot is warmer than soil in the ground, which can still be quite cool in late October and early November, when seedlings are traditionally planted. Black also radiates the heat. Be sure to use a high quality potting mix and use fresh mixture each summer. Gardn Gro’s Premium Potting Mix is ideal as it contains a slow release fertiliser which lasts for 8-9 months, a wetting agent and trichoderma disease protection. To purchase this amazing product online, visit http://gardngro.co.nz/shop/Growing+Mixes/Premium+Potting+Mix+15L.html.
Be sure to water plants generously every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In November and December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Liquid feed chillies and capsicums weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit.
Did you know that chillies and capsicums are self-pollinating? Bush movement from the wind is sufficient for pollination. Bees are therefore not important for the pollination of chillies and capsicums, nor is it necessary to pollinate them by hand.
Harvesting your chillies and capsicums
Chillies and capsicums need a lot of sunshine in order to turn red (or whichever other colour they are supposed to be, such as orange, purple or yellow). Be patient. They will eventually change colour. Always remove fruit with a pair of scissors or secateurs rather than pulling them off the plant.
Chillies can be frozen and used free-flow in cooking. There’s no need to defrost them beforehand. Simply remove chillies from your freezer and throw them into whatever dishes you are preparing in the kitchen. Enjoy!