Growing capsicum (chilli) – the hit feeling

By Prof. Ross G. Cooper

Capsicum (chilli) is normally sown in rows in September-December in Zimbabwe and takes 7-12 days to germinate and 16-17 weeks to reach crop maturity. The return is so much greater from a few fruits that, if dried, will keep for years. The average depth to sow, distance apart in rows, distance between rows and approximate number of seeds per gram are 10mm, 45-60cm, 60cm and 150, respectively. September sowing is the end of the frost hazard and preparation for summer crops. In colder climates chillies grow better in greenhouses. Each plant, once thinned out, can be planted 1-2 feet apart in order to maximise the flower production and subsequent chilli fruit growth. Some people prefer to sow their chilli seeds in trays or small pots prior to transplanting them into beds. It is advisable to water them little and often rather than drenching them once a week. They like an organic compost enriched well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine. They can be grown for salad, sauce, condiment or pickling purposes. They are often eaten with braaied meat, sausages, borewors, biltong, mixed into stews, etc. Dried chillies can be ground into chilli powder. They are extremely hot and care should be taken not to rub one’s eyes accidently when handling chillies. Within the capsicum family the following varieties are commonly cultivated commercially or small-scale in a garden: Long Red Cayenne (long red thin pods, a favourite hot pepper, matures in 70 days); Sweet Neapolitan (3-lobed fruits, early production, flesh mild and sweet, mature in 2 months); Bullnose (very mild, red fruit of good size) and Red Chilli (small variety, extremely sharp taste, matures in 2.5-3 months). Another popular variety is Californian Wonder. Dried seeds can be sown in the next season.

Chillies are prone to fungal diseases and the best way to protect them against this is to provide enough ventilation at plant height and to make sure they go into the evening dry. The last watering should be at around 1630 hr. In cool summers chillies can be slow to mature and produce fruit, and when autumn arrives, the fruits are still forming and ripening. In very cold weather they do well if kept at 18°C in a greenhouse. The fruits can be picked and used green or left to ripen to red. 

To successfully germinate chilli seeds they need three essential factors: warmth at the right temperature to induce germination; moisture to soften up the seed covering and give nourishment; and air to encourage growth. Compost can be made in the back garden from dead leaves and mown lawn. It needs to be occasionally turned with a fork. If a grower owns poultry like chickens, rabbits or guinea-pigs, they can add their soiled litter to the compost heap, thus perfectly integrating them into an organic system of gardening. Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and is too rich to be used directly unless mixed into the compost heap. It acts as a powerful activator and straw helps bulk out and improve the compost texture. Other nutrients provided by compost include phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and trace elements like iron, zinc and boron. Crushed-up eggshells are a very rich source of calcium and also help disaggregate the soil. The seeds shouldn’t be sown too thickly and the instructions on the packet should be followed. Chillies can be sowed 1.5cm in depth given the wash off of surface soil by hosepipe water or rainfall. If you mix the seeds with fine sand you can get a more even sowing. They should be watered adequately once a day. Shade can be provided for the small seedlings using a hessian sack. Some growers prefer to transplant their tiny seedlings into fibre pots and when large enough the entire pot is planted directly into the soil so as not to disturb the roots. Sometimes the seed beds are afflicted by small flies, but these can either be sprayed or captured in oil poured into a small pot. In your vegetable garden you may sow and plant a variety of other vegetables for summer (September-October) including: globe artichoke, beans (dwarf, Lima and runner), beetroot, cabbage, carrots, celery, corn, cucumber, egg plant, herbs, leeks, lettuce, mustard, okra, onions (spring), parsley, parsnips, pumpkin, radish, rhubarb, spinach, squash, tomatoes, turnip and marrows. For the wet months (November-December) additional vegetables to chillies include: beans (dwarf, Lima and runner), beetroot, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chervil, chicory, corn, cress, cucumber, egg plant, herbs, leeks, lettuce, melons, mustard, okra, onions, parsnip, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, radish, rhubarb, spinach, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes and marrows. 

Chillies, by encouraging endorphin release, are said to stimulate the senses, create a warm feeling in one’s belly and aid digestion. Capsaicin is the irritant alkaloid that creates the sensation of heat. The hotter the summer, the hotter the fruits will be, especially if picked just after fully turning colour. One can experiment with different chilli varieties from the de Bresse, a medium hot variety with smallish fruits to a Cayenne variety with tiny but very hot fruits. Chillies, like peppers, are rich in vitamin A which helps the body to resist infection, promotes growth, lengthens life and helps to keep the eyes healthy. Some swear that they prevent a hangover! They should be consumed in moderation as too many should be avoided as they may irritate the mucosal lining of the gut. Why not try growing your own chillies in your back garden for personal consumption and maybe also for sale per kg.

About Prof. Ross G. Cooper

Background: the author was a keen vegetable grower from an early age having learnt the skills from his paternal Grandfather, watching his father and by being self-taught. In 2000, he successfully cultivated beds of chilli plants in the red soil of a garden in Vainona, Harare for personal consumption and for sale to private individuals and a takeaway restaurant.

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Images provides by Prof. Ross G. Cooper


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