Growing your own chilli
Over the past two months I have written about some of the key aspects of chillies. These are a very popular plant is Australian gardens and are starting to get the same sort of following as the humble tomato. Indeed for many people they will be the catalyst to starting a vegetable or herb garden. At Renaissance Herbs we see this exotic plant as a mainstay of the local garden. Some will stay with the non-hot capsicum whilst others will experiment with different heat levels.
The simple capsicum is an under used vegetable in Australian cooking which is surprising due to the number of immigrants from countries where it is so widely used. Like so many vegetables we have come to accept that what we are offered in the supermarket is the best of each one. This is sad as the defining selection criterion foe a supermarket vegetable is not its flavour, not its health benefit nor its color or texture. It is the transportability, storability or stackability of the produce that has the greatest weight when selecting cultivars.
Nurseries have a much wider selection of cultivars as their choices are based on availability and ease of growth. Most good garden centres will have 5 or more cultivars to choose from. These will vary in color, shape, flavour and harvesting. In most cases one is not better than the other, just different. I recommend you grow several different ones as variety is the spice of life and food is the reason to live.
Again, the offering of chilli in the supermarket is abysmal. I recently surveyed all our local supermarkets: Woolworths. Coles, Aldi and IGA. Some had no chillies and at best they had 4 varieties: hot, medium, mild and sweet. There was no indication to variety, origin, flavour or use. If you want to grow your own there are hundreds to choose from. Tiny little bird chillies with upright fruit to huge elongated chillies that hang from the branches. The colors range from pure whit through green red, orange and yellow to shiny black although they will all eventually go red. The heat ranges form mild levels that will tingle the taste buds to extreme that will blow the mind and pain receptors.
I remember when the veggie section of the supermarket had one apple, one pear and one potato. Now they have several named cultivars of each (still nowhere near what is available) and the discerning buyer has their own favorites. Let’s hope that in the not too distant future we will have that level (or greater) of choice when it comes to chillies and capsicums.
The nursery and garden centre is a different issue. Companies like Renaissance Herbs has plenty of varieties to choose from. A search on the web will give lists in excess of 3000 varieties although there are very few suppliers with this range. Also, as chillies seed and cross fertilise easily many of the cultivars will be little different from one another. The main two criteria for chilli selection seem to be heat and appearance. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of work on flavour.
As I said above there are a multitude of chilli varieties and I would need a book or two to describe them all. However I have listed a few of the more common varieties in local garden centres. For most of us mild to medium heat adds a bit of heat and good chilli flavour without making the meal unpleasant. Extreme heat is in the level where the fruit should not be eaten raw and is primarily used for making chilli pastes, sauces and dips. Although all chillis ripen to red I have listed the color where they are normally harvested.
Chillies are easy to grow and will give several years of fruit if treated with some care. In the warmer climates which are free of winter frosts they will perform well in the ground. In the colder areas they should be grown in large pots. From mid sporing until late autumn they can be grown in part to full sun and require a good organic soil that drains well. Once the cold weather hits in autumn they will start to drop leaves and start to look a little sad. At this stage move the pots in close to the house or under glass to protect them from frosts. Give a good feed in mid spring and late summer. A 30% trim in late summer will keep them nice and compact.
Good luck with your chillis. Lets ensure we have a good range in each garden centre for the spring. Hopefully they will help draw new gardeners into our industry.