Some gardeners like it cool, and their vege pots and plots are full of crispy iceberg lettuce, cucumber vines and tomatoes. Others like it properly, scorchingly, madly hot. But the hottest chillies can be tricky little devils to grow. We asked Clint Meyer, chilli obsessive and founder of multi award-winning Fire Dragon Chillies, to share his hard-earned hardcore capsaicin advice.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON
Tough decision time.
Do you want to start with a robust, but slightly more chill chilli? Then go for a jalapeno or cayenne. These are classics that you’ll be able to work into meals and sauces without too much drama. Other good options here are any of the habanero or scotch bonnet family, Meyer says.
But there is another path. A more difficult, dangerous path. “For the gardeners that want to blow people’s heads off, then you’d grow something like Ghosts, Scorpions, Brainstrains, Primos or Reapers.”
But be warned. The superhots – anything over one million scoville units – can take at least six months from sowing the seed to picking what Meyer calls “fruits of FIRE”. About now (early October) is the latest you can really plant and expect to get a crop.
(Fire Dragon sells a great selection of seeds, he adds, ranging from not-too-hot all the way up to very insanely hot).
Aotearoa has a good climate for growing chillies, Meyer says, especially in the top half. And there’s no need to carve up the lawn (or hack off your landlord) by planting in the ground.
“I started out with about 25 plants in pots in my backyard back in 2005. They grow well in pots and the bigger the pot, the bigger they will grow. I would use a good organic potting mix with a bit of compost at the bottom. Water every couple of days but don't over water them, and feed a bit when flowering.”
Is it cheating to buy a seedling from a garden centre? Meyer’s a purist – he’s never done it. But he’s heard that plants can not infrequently end up being something totally different, due to wrong labels or cross-pollination.
“If it is your only option, then go for it, as having some chillies is better than no chillies, but check your local farmers markets as well. I would buy seeds off a reputable grower because I also saw a lot of people getting burnt (not the burn they were looking for!) last season with seeds bought online etc. There are plenty of people trading between themselves these days and there are a lot of strains in NZ now which is pretty exciting with all the colours, flavours, tastes and differing capsaicin content plus all the new crazy hybrids around! Always buy your seeds from inside NZ only as it is illegal to import chilli seeds into the country now without all the proper testing paperwork etc.”
Aphids – tiny sucking insects that target the softest stems and new leaves – are the enemy. “They can infest and destroy your plants quite quickly if left unchecked,” Meyer says. “I companion plant with flowers like marigold, borage and phacelia lacy, and herbs like garlic chives and basil, which seems to help. I also spray with an organic homemade seaweed spray when plants are young and and that keeps pests at bay. I try to get a balance of insects with my plants rather than nuke them all with pesticides!”
(If you do want the nuclear option, we’ve had satisfying, immediate success with Yates Nature’s Way Natrasoap Vegie Insect Gun).
Chilli seeds are fussy as. You definitely can’t just chuck them at a bit of dirt and cross your fingers. Meyer says common mistakes are planting them too deep, or giving too much or too little water.
“They need to be kept warm indoors to get them going before planting or moving outside,” Meyer says. “Start with a good organic seed raising mix or potting mix. Don't bury seeds too deep in the soil, aim for 1/2cm-1cm so just below the surface. Try to keep at around 28 degrees and keep soil moist but not soaked and DO NOT let the soil dry out at this stage! They don't need light as this point and be patient cause chillies can pop up anywhere from one week up to two months! Most superhots will take two to six weeks to pop up so don't give up if you don't see anything for a month!”
When you’ve got six leaves on a seedling – that’s two sets of proper leaves, plus the weeny baby set they get initially – you’re ready to plant out.
If you’re growing in pots, you’re going to need a big ‘un, somewhere in the 10-20L region. If you’re wanting the plants to end up in a greenhouse or vege garden, put them into smaller 10cm pots first, until they’ve hardened up enough to withstand the odd slug.
And one last all-caps warning from the chilli guru:
“DO NOT plant outdoors until last chance of frost has past! Chillies do not like frosts or excessive cold rain or hail!”
Pick your chillies green if you’re wanting a bit less heat, Meyer says. Otherwise, wait for them to blaze red or yellow – or some will turn an ominous purple – before harvest. As to how to harness the burn? You can eat them fresh, of course, but dehydrating or freezing are both quick easy ways to deal with a glut. You could follow Meyer’s lead and make your own amazing hot sauce. Or you can present a tasting platter of your superhot finest to your mates once they’re a couple of beers down.
Photos: Getty; Fire Dragon Chillies