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Growing and choosing chillies

PUBLISHED: 13:49 18 December 2013 | UPDATED: 13:56 18 December 2013

Chillies great and small - there is a dazzling range to choose from

Chillies great and small - there is a dazzling range to choose from

Archant

When it comes to growing chillies there is a world of choice – from mild or fruity to the tastebud melting Dorset Naga. Michael Michaud, creator of the aforementioned record breaking chilli, gives us a master class on choosing and growing

Chillies are tomato relatives grown mainly for their heat-laden fruit. Both on-line and paper catalogues list hundreds of varieties, so deciding which ones to grow is like untangling a jumbled ball of string. Where do you start? Fortunately, there is some order in the chaos. Varieties can be divided into more or less distinct categories that make them easier to choose.

Reader Offer

Sea Spring Seeds at West Bexington have put together a special Reader Offer for Dorset magazine to get you started with 30% off the usual RRP for the three packets of seeds. There are three options to choose from: a very hot option; a medium to hot and an ornamental edibles collection. To get your discount simply got to seaspringseeds.co.uk and type in Special Offer in the search box and these three options with the discount will come up or call 01308 897898.

Choose Your Heat Level

Due to their genetic makeup some varieties of chillies are naturally hotter than others. Heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). To put the Scoville measurements in context, varieties that fall between 5,000 and 40,000 SHU are hot enough to suit the culinary needs of most Brits.

One of the mildest is Apricot, which at 700 SHU, produces an amount of heat that is barely detectable. Super Chile is a hotter option that comes in at 36,000 SHU, and though a bit spicy, it is one of the best chillies for curries and stews where you need some kick.Cranking up the heat a little more is the small-fruited Rooster Spur that measures an astonishing 175,000 SHU. A little bit goes a long way with this variety, mash the fruit into a pulp and add to Thai-style salads and relishes. At the top of the range are the Dorset Naga and Bhut Jolokia, both of which can exceed a mouth numbing 1 million SHU – varieties this hot give you free entry to the extreme world of heat geeks and eating competitions!

Culinary Types

Chillies fall broadly into two culinary types. There are the familiar spice-type chillies that have small, thin-fleshed fruit valued for their heat. They include the cayennes and habaneros that are usually added to a dish in such small quantities that their physical presence goes unnoticed.

In contrast are the mild vegetable-type chillies that have larger fruit with thicker flesh. They add bulk to a dish and are used in much the same way as sweet peppers – the fruit can be stuffed, chopped up for salads or added to stews. Well worth trying are the dark, heart-shaped poblanos popular in Mexican cooking; the sausage-shaped jalapeños that can be sliced and used as pizza toppings; and the variety Hungarian Hot Wax is useful for gently spicing up a tomato sauce.

All Chillies Great and Small

Before you get growing you need to consider the plant’s shape and size. At the lower end are the short varieties. Perfectly suited to the confined quarters of cold frames, plastic greenhouses and window sills, these diminutive types include Stumpy (compact plants about 17cm tall) and Prairie Fire (semi-spreading plants that grow about 21 cm high).

At the upper end of the scale are the tall, gangling varieties that need plenty of space to grow. Be warned they can dominate a small greenhouse or tunnel, so be sure you have plenty of room before taking them on. To reach their full potential they need to be grown either in large containers or in the ground; be sure to give the plants enough support to stop them from falling over. Joe’s Long Cayenne and Mulato Isleno are both large varieties that grow well over a metre tall.

The Time Factor

Impatient gardeners who can’t wait for their first harvest should opt for quick growing varieties that produce their fruit early. Two varieties to consider are the ever-dependable Super Chile and Apache, both of which have been around for years. When given enough warmth, plants started from seed in late winter or early spring should be ready for picking in July. Because of their speed, they are even worth trying outdoors in Dorset, though the first harvest will be somewhat delayed.

The slowest chillies to mature are the so-called habanero types. They include some of the hottest chillies in the world such as the Orange Habanero, Scotch Bonnet and Dorset Naga. They need a long growing season, and to produce a decent crop before the autumn sets in, plants must be grown inside a tunnel or greenhouse. Even then, harvesting will begin weeks later than it does with the earliest maturing varieties.

When it comes to chillies, diversity is the name of the game. Though there are hundreds of varieties available to gardeners to choose from, simply grow the ones that suit both your culinary and gardening needs.

Chilli Factoids

Chillies are tropical and sub-tropical plants that need plenty of warmth and light at all stages of their life cycle.

Both chillies and sweet peppers belong to the genus Capsicum and are closely related.

Chillies originated in the New World and found their way to England by the sixteenth century.

While heat levels in chillies are influenced mostly by genetics, they are also affected by growing conditions and age of the fruit.

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The Hot One

These superhot chillies are late maturing and will need to be grown in a greenhouse or polytunnel where they can get extra heat.

Dorset Naga

The scorching heat of the fruit is combined with a distinctive fruity aroma, making this a truly exceptional chilli. The wrinkled, wedge-shaped fruit ripen from green to red and can be up to 30 x 50mm in size, but may be smaller when the plants are grown in pots. The plants are tall and ungainly, and when grown in the ground or very large pot can reach a height of 1.5m or more. Grown in smaller pots, however, their height can be considerably reduced.

Approximate heat level: 544,000–1,221,000 SHU

Orange Habanero

A combination of beauty and the beast: it is brutishly hot while being seductively fruity. The fruit are thin-fleshed, measure 30 x 50mm and change from green to a stunning salmon orange as they ripen. The medium-sized plants are incredibly productive, and have a tidy growth habit making them ideal for growing in pots or grow bags. Orange Habanero lends a distinctive flavour to any dish to which it is added, and it is highly ranked for making a top-of-the-league sweet chilli sauce.

Approximate heat level: 249,000 SHU

Rooster Spur

We have been growing Rooster Spur on and off since the early 1990s and have always been impressed by its productivity - we have harvested over 2000 mature fruit from a single plant. The fruit are very small (measuring about 4.5 x 20mm) and very hot. They turn from green to red as they ripen. The plants have a short, bushy growth habit so are perfectly adapted to containers, performing well in both smaller and larger pots: the plants just get bigger and bear more fruit as the pot gets larger.

Approximate heat level: 179,000 SHU

Special offer £6.65 for all three (RRP £9.50)

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Medium to Hot

This selection includes a vegetable-type chilli, a cayenne and a hot and fruity number for gourmands.

Hungarian Hot Wax (low medium)

The fruit of this vegetable-type chilli start yellow, then turn orange before ripening to a red. They have a medium-thick flesh and measure about 3–4cm wide and 13–14cm long. The heat level can be rather variable, but is generally not overwhelmingly high. The variety is early, productive and dependable. Though we don’t recommend growing chillies outdoors, this is one of the varieties can cope. The medium-sized plants do well in containers as long as they are given some support. In the kitchen this chilli is an all-rounder that can be stuffed, fried or added to salads.

Approximate heat level: 6,000 SHU

Joe’s Long Cayenne (medium)

The pointed fruit of this chilli often grow more than 30cm in length. They turn from green to bright red as they mature, and their thin flesh make them ideal for drying. The plants are tall and gangly, and better suited to growing in the ground rather than a container.

Approximate heat level: 22,000 SHU

Lemon Drop (hot)

This is a specialty chilli that will be much appreciated by gourmands who like some flavour with their heat. The attractive, bright yellow fruit are about 70mm long and very hot, with a sparkling, citrus-like flavour. The tall, straggly plants are modest producers and need support to stay upright.

Approximate heat level: 56,000 SHU

Special offer £4.20 for all three (RRP £6.00)

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Edible Ornamental

These colourful chillies not only look lovely but also provide fruit that packs a punch.

NuMex Twilight (medium hot)

An outstandingly beautiful chilli with upright, cone-shaped fruit measuring about 10 x 25mm. The fruit start purple then change to yellow, orange and eventually red as they ripen. The plants display fruit at all stages of ripeness, creating a vibrant mix of colours. The fruit are hot and thin-fleshed, and can be dried or frozen for winter stews and curries. The bushy plants are ideal as an ‘edible ornamental’ grown in a pot and kept in a conservatory or on a sunny windowsill in the house.

Approximate heat level: 30,000 SHU

Fairy Lights (medium hot)

The plants have purple-tinged leaves matched by bright purple flowers that develop into small, cone-shaped fruit measuring about 12 x 25mm. These put on a dramatic display of colours as they turn from luminescent purple to orange then red. The fruit are not only attractive, they are also hot. The plants grow upright, and will stand unsupported both in containers and in the ground.

Approximate heat level: 47,000 SHU

Sparkler (hot)

A result of an accidental cross in our tunnels, these very attractive, compact plants produce elongated, pointed fruit that are 30–35mm in length. The fruit are remarkably hot and grow upright above the foliage, changing from pastel yellow to orange to red as they mature. Though somewhat late to ripen, Sparkler has the potential to yield masses of fruit, and is ideal for growing in both small and large pots.

Approximate heat level: 160,000 SHU

Special offer £4.20 for all three (RRP £6.00)

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The Dorset Naga Chilli Challenge

How many chillies can you grow on one Dorset Naga plant? Last year we harvested 2,407 red chillies and 116 green chillies from one plant we nicknamed ‘Nigel’ which was grown in 160 litre pot. Could you beat this? Visit seaspringseeds.co.uk and click on Chilli Challenge to find out more and see our video which includes tips on growing a record breaking Dorset Naga.

About Michael Michaud

Michael and Joy Michaud run Sea Spring Seeds, a Dorset-based company specialising in the production and sale of vegetable seeds and chilli plants. They also breed chillies and have developed several new varieties, including the world’s hottest chilli the Dorset Naga. For more details visit their website seaspringseeds.co.uk.

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