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Growing Super Hot Chillies

Introduction

This may seem like a lot to take in. Please do not let it put you off growing but rather be a more comprehensive and helpful guide to give you a better growing experience. Of course there are many ways of germinating and growing chillies and you don't have to do it this way, but I have mentioned what has worked best for me over the last 15 years of growing chilli plants.

Germination \ Growing from seed

First you need to decide if you are going to pre soak your seeds or not. Pre soaking can lead to quicker germination but is not necessary. There are various solutions to soak your seeds in. Some people swear by chamomile tea as it is meant to have antibacterial properties, some use plain water and I like to use a Hydrogen Peroxide mix. This is good as it can kill off certain diseases that may have been carried through the seed. Simply mix 1.5tsp of Hydrogen Peroxide into 250ml of water, place seeds in and stir, leave for 4-5mins and then rinse with plain water and sow your seeds.

Then you need to choose a medium to plant your seed in. You can plant the chilli seeds in seedling mix, coco peat, jiffy pellets or rock wool cubes. When you plant the seed, you only need to cover it with a thin layer.

Generally I say 1 – 1.5 times the size of the seed is how deep you should plant it. So with chillies 5mm to 1cm will be enough. If you are using rock wool or jiffy pots you will need to pre soak them in water (Rockwool needs to be PH adjusted). Then just pull off a small amount of that medium and place it on top of the hole which you just sowed the seed into. 

Seeds are best started indoors on a heat pad around June/ July. Most of the cheaper heat pads do not contain a thermostat, so you may need to buy a thermostat to plug your heat mat into. Chillies need above 20 degrees Celsius to germinate but prefer temperatures around 23 – 30 degrees Celsius. Night time temperatures can't fall to under 15 degrees Celsius. The superhot chillies require constant temperatures of 28 - 30 degrees Celsius for optimum germination success.  The ideal temperature is around 26-28 degrees and this needs to be constant (including night time temperature).

Heat pads without a thermostat generally raise the temperature 10 degrees above ambient room temperature. If you also keep them in a mini greenhouse this will keep the moisture, humidity and heat in. If you don’t want to buy these then you can try putting it in a warm spot like on top of an old fridge or Aquarium and surround it with glad wrap or a cut up coke bottle). It is good to have a vent open or lift the lid once a day to prevent stale air once they have sprouted. You can use Jiffy pellets (peat based), cutilene rockwool cubes (made with melted spun rock) or seedling potting mix. With humidity it can be common for your growing medium to start growing green algae. I haven't found this to affect germination but can look a bit unsightly. I have heard of sprinkling cinnamon powder to prevent this or you can also by a fungal spray to prevent any other fungus growing or damping off from occuring. The only other way of stopping it is to cover the growing medium with something as light and water is what causes it. This can be a bit hard though since you need your seedlings to come up!

 Seeds are meant to be moist but not soaking and the medium you have chosen should never be allowed to dry out or become water logged. If they are too wet they can rot and break off at the stem (dampening off). Misting with a spray bottle works quite well and keeping the lid on your mini greenhouse will help also.

 You should also try to use pure water like rain water as the chlorine in tap water can prevent germination.

 Most seeds should sprout by 2 weeks but some of the chinense varieties can take up to 6 weeks. Please be patient and don't throw them out too soon. You will also need to feed them with liquid nutrients that you can get from us (Chilli Focus) or another type from a hydroponic shop if it is not in soil. Chilli seeds do not need light to germinate but once they do they will need light to grow

Once they have their first few sets of true leaves (not the first two that come up, they are called cotyledons and are not the real leaves) you will need to pot them up (start with a small pot and work your way up). You can grow them hydroponically or put them into soil. If growing hydroponically you must not use any soil, so it is best to start them in coco, coir, jiffy pellets or rockwool cubes.

Once they sprout you will need to raise them under fluorescent grow lights or if you are moving them outside don't use direct sunlight or else they will burn. If you don't have sufficient light then your seedlings will become leggy, pale and weak.

Start with having the light about 10cm away from the top of the seedling and then raise it as the seedling grows. Seedlings need 18 hours of light a day, so it is best to put it on a timer. At night time the plant starts using all the nutrients and energy that it has gathered during the day, so it is best to give them a rest time.

You will also need to open the vents gradually to allow fresh air in.  You can have your setup in a little cupboard or tent with the light hanging inside so the light rays don't spread out too far. It would also be a good idea to put a little circulating fan and another one pulling out the old air and excess heat.

Hydroponics

Hydroponics is a highly successful way of growing chillies. You seem to get bigger plants, grown quicker and less likely to be attacked by pests or soil borne diseases. Also because you are able to feed them exactly what they need the plants look a lot healthier also.

There are many different systems and methods you can use including flood and drain, bato systems, drip and aquaponics. You can also grow in different mediums such as expanded clay balls, perlite, a mix of perlite and vermiculite, coco or coir.

Water needs to be tested for PH and EC (Electrical conductivity). PH for chillies should be around 5.8 - 6.3.You can test this with a simple home test where you add drops of solution to a vial containing your tank water (cheap and easy) or to get an accurate reading you can use a PH meter (can range from $30-$200). Rain water is the best water to use and contains no EC. EC is measured with an EC meter that you can get from a hydroponic store. If you are using tap water it already has EC in it which means you can't add as many nutrients as when you use rain water. If you can't collect rain water another idea for good water is to sit it in the sun for a day or two before adding to your tank to get rid of the chlorine.

When you start your seeds and seedlings off you only need a low reading just under 1 for the EC. Once it starts to grow then you gradually increase the EC rating also. A medium EC would be about 1.5 and when your plant is fruiting it can be as high as 2.2 (only go to about 1.8 in summer though).

When you plant your seedling into your hydroponic system you will use a "Grow" formula. When they start flowering you need to swap over to a "Bloom" formula.

Your water/nutrient tank should be dumped at least every fortnight to prevent salt build ups. You should test your tank every couple of days and add nutrients if they need it or add PH up or down if the PH is moving outside the optimal range. If you have a recycling system, the water dropping back in should cause enough splashing to provide CO2 to your water and stopping it from becoming stagnant. If it is a run to waste you may need to add an air stone or two to provide movement and oxygen to the water.

Water should come on at intervals during the day and once at night rather than being left on full time. You can set up your timers to come on once every two or three hours for 15 minutes at a time. This all depends on the medium you are using so please seek specialist advice from a hydroponic expert.

Hydroponics can be done outside in spring/summer with natural light from the sun or you can do it in a sealed room with lights (I prefer HPS). There are different light options to choose from including Metal Hallide, LED & HPS.

Please note that PH & EC meters need to be regularly calibrated for good accurate results.

 A great hydroponic shop SOR in W.A is http://www.growroom.com.au/contact/ 

 Pests

 You also need to be aware of insects.

Slaters love to chew the stems, so if you can’t surround your pot with something or keep it away from slaters you may need to put down a deterrent such as slater dust.

The same goes with slugs and snails especially at seedling stage. Try using a pot that has the bottom cut out to surround your seedling or a soft drink bottle with the bottom cut out and the lid off. You can also buy copper tape to put around your pots. This will stop snails and slugs from feeding on your plants as they can't cross the tape because the copper gives them a shock and they back away.

Caterpillars, worms and larvae do major damage to pods. They get inside and lay their eggs, damaging the pod and making them useless. They can also cause holes throughout and some varieties can overwinter in the plant and soil. You need to eradicate them as soon as possible and remove all affected pods. Dipel can be used as an insecticide or you can pick them off by hand.

You also need to check the underside of chilli plant leaves for aphids. They also love to hang around fresh new growth and flowers. If you find any, you can spray them with a natural pyrethrum, Confidor (highly recommended) or with a garlic and chilli spray. Check after a few days and if they are still there repeat the process.

Other biological and safer ways are available, check out http://www.biologicalservices.com.au/  for some natural predators to solve your unwanted pest problems. I have had great success with Hypoapsis A & M for fungus gnats (they love to hang aroundl wet conditions and coco) and Aphelinus A and Aphidius C for Aphids. If you can get them settled before the problem arises rather than wait until the problem is out of control, then you will have a much greater success with using these biological bugs.

Aphids suck the sap out of your leaves and can really make the plants suffer as well as dropping their leaves. They can be a clear to green colour and once they have been sprayed or killed will turn into brown mummies. When you have severe infestations you may also spot small, white, rectangular shapes. This is actually caused from the aphids shedding their skin. Lady bugs are also natural predators and ants are the culprits of giving these monsters a ride to your plants. The aphids actually hitch hike on the back of ants. So if you have an aphid problem and also spot an ant problem make sure to get rid of them too!

Thrips are another damaging pest. You can find a variety of sprays in your local garden centre or Bunnings.

 Viruses & Diseases

 Fungal problems can occur from overwatering and humid conditions. It is best to water your plants in the morning to avoid your plants staying wet overnight. If they need an extra drink in the evening it is recommended to water them directly at the base of the plant rather than overhead watering and splashing on the leaves.

Fungal problems can also be air borne and can spread very easily. It is important that when you see an affected plant that you immediately quarantine it until you find out what is wrong and treat it or burn and destroy it before it spreads to your other plants.

Diseases can start from infected seed, touching plants that are already infected, smokers who do not wash their hands with soap and water before touching their plants, carried in by shoes from other areas or car tyres, or can be already dormant in other plants in your garden or your soil. You can soak your seeds for 5mins in a Hydrogen Peroxide solution (1 cup water: 1.5 tsp HP) and then rinse and sow.

When germinating seeds it is important to have sterile conditions and use fresh potting mix (not bags that have been left open for months or years). Also when you are potting your plants make sure you sterilise the pots if they have been used before as well as any tools. You can use household bleach or even pool chlorine. Make sure you soak for a minimum of 3 hours.

Sun & Watering

Most chillies and especially the superhot chillies do best in morning sun only. If you are getting temperatures around 36 degrees and higher and your plants are in the full sun for more than six hours or receiving the afternoon sun it is recommended to put up some shade cloth to prevent burning on the fruit and leaves as well as preventing flower drop.

Ornamental chilli plants like to be kept in areas which receive a large amount of light for optimum colours and also like to have a liquid feed (fertiliser such as Chilli Focus, Miracle Grow or a seaweed solution) every 1 – 2 weeks.

Chillies don’t necessarily need watering every day (depending on if they are in pots or the ground and what the weather is like). If the top couple of centimetres of soil is dry but underneath is damp then they are fine. They don't like to have "wet feet" so don't sit them in a tray of water.

Chilli plants can also very hardy. If you haven't given them enough water and the leaves are wilting, just give them a good soaking and within an hour or two they will perk back up. You don't want to do this too often but once the plant has fruit on it and you water stress them then it also makes the chillies hotter. If you do this when they just have flowers then they will drop them. If you need to water in the middle of the day make sure you don't water the leaves. If you do then the droplets of water can act as magnifying glasses and burn the leaves.

Flowers , Fertiliser and Fruit (pods)

I have a lot of questions about the superhots dropping their flowers or not producing fruit. The main reason is that people have their plants in full or afternoon sun. Other reasons could be too much or not enough nutrients or the flowers not pollinating properly.

Here are some tips to prevent this:

Chillies are self pollinators so they do not need bees to pollinate their flowers. However sometimes they may need a hand. You can help by giving your plants a gentle shake in the afternoon (when pollen is at its most) or by using a cotton bud tip or your fingertip and rubbing it on the inside of each flower helping it to reach the stigma.

Excessive nutrients and nutrient deficiencies are the next most likely.

Potassium is the most helpful nutrient. If you do not have enough potassium then the flowers will not develop to full size. It is also a reason for small harvests. Phosphorus is also needed in higher doses during blooming.

Calcium is another. A deficiency in calcium can also prevent uptake of other nutrients even if they are present. Calcium also affects flower setting and could be a reason for aborted flowers.

Excessive Boron can give similar symptoms to Calcium deficiencies. Also if you have too much potassium then it makes it hard for the plant to take up the boron. Boron is important in seed production as well as pollination.

Manganese is another nutrient that helps with pollen germination and can be immobile in high PH soils.

It is good to use a fertiliser which contains the macro and micro nutrients. You can try a slow release like NPK Blue.

If your chillies are in pots you can buy tablets from Bunnings by Manutec called Bloom Boost. They are tablets that you push into the side of your pots that feed the root zone which contain 8:8:12 (NPK- Nitrogen, Phosophorus and Potassium) as well as trace elements. The company claims that they can last up to 2 months and prevents over feeding.

If you think your plants are getting enough of the major elements but are missing the trace elements then Manutec also sell a box of soluble trace elements. This is particularly useful in sandy soils or where organic fertilisers are used.

Brunnings brand Potash Power is an advanced sulphate of Potash formula that can be fed to your chilli plants either dry or in a soluble application. Not only will it help with flowering and fruit production but will also increase resisitance to stress and disease. Use this if your plants are showing scorching around the edges of the leaves, dull grey leaves and weak flower stalks or there is insufficient flowers.

Seasol is good to use once a fortnight to promote healthy roots and help in stressful conditions. If you spray it on the leaves of your chilli plants it also changes the PH of the leaf surface which helps prevent fungal problems. I also like to use Seasol when potting on as it reduces stress and makes the plant stronger.

Yates Uplift is also good during seedling growth stages. I noticed my 10cm seedlings almost double in size overnight and also have a nice shade of green and standing quite erect.

You can also see good results from Miracle Grow or Thrive.

If you are ever stuck and not sure what to feed or how to look after your chillies, then you can basically do the same thing as you would for tomatoes or capsicums as they are very similar in their needs.

Never fertilise in the middle of the day or when you are expecting temperatures 35 degrees or more as this will burn your plants and do more harm than good. Best time is early morning or in the late afternoon/early evening. Applying nutrients to the leaves (foiliar feeding) is more effective than feeding through the roots. Smaller droplets are also absorbed better than large droplets, so rather than drenching try using a spray bottle. Uptake is quicker and much more efficient.

If you think you have ever over fertilised your plants immediately flush your plants with PH adjusted water.

Preparing your soil

We have a diverse range of soil and climate conditions in Australia.

If you have sandy soil then nutrients leach out very quickly. You can prepare your soil with blood and Bone and Dynamic lifter as well as using Zeolites to help hold in nutrients and soil wetting agents to prevent run off. It is also a good idea to mulch your garden beds and pots with either a type of straw or mulch. Sugar cane mulch and bales of a high nitrogen straw can be helpful.

Clay soils are the opposite to sandy soils and need drainage added to it as they hold too much water. You can try mixing sand in.

If your soil isn't right how about building a raised garden bed and adding your own soil to it?

 Growing seed the following year

If you intend on saving your own seed for planting the following year please be aware that if you do not isolate your plants or have them about 2km's apart from each other, that it is very likely that they could cross and not produce the same fruit the following year. For consistent results and same characteristics in your plants each year, you need to use isolated seed. You can buy isolated seeds from us at Wildfire Chilli. We use specially built isolation cages which are surrounded with a pollen and insect proof material.

The only time a different result may happen is when a plant may produce a different colour pod. This happened with about 3% of our Trinidad Scorpion Butch T's in 2011 and also 1 plant out of 100 in 2010 from different seed stock with some plants actually producing yellow pods. This is not from a cross but is a natural variation and now a new variety. Yellow is the most recessive gene so it isn't a surprise that this is the alternative colour that came out. You feel kind of special when you find something like this happen. This is how they discovered the Red Savina (in a field of orange Habaneros) and the Yellow Bhut Jolokia (from seed stock of the red Bhut Jolokia from NMSU Chile Pepper Institute).

More Information

Most garden centres and hydroponic stores should be able to help you with your gardening questions. If not do a quick google search and you should be able to narrow down your problems. There are also various garden, plant and hydroponic forums which you can be a part of and ask others questions and share your growing experiences. You can also find a good range of books and magazines out there such as The Complete Chile Pepper Book by Dave DeWitt and Dr. Paul Bosland, What's Wrong with my plant (narrows down your problems by choosing the different symptoms) Maximum Yield (hydroponics magazine, free at most stores) and Practical Hydroponics.

I have only lightly touched on each of these subjects so this guide is just a start for beginners. You may need to do some extra research for the best growing experience but I have tried to cover most of the subjects here. Growing is a very rewarding hobby and you continually learn things every season as well as encountering new problems.

It is fun to try different ways of growing also. The most success I have had is with hydroponic systems and self watering veggie pots. I like hydroponics because you don't need to guess as much as to what nutrients your plants are missing, you have least pests and diseases due to eliminating soil where most of them start, It is hard to over water or underwater, you can set it up to be automatic with only needing to check on it once or twice a week, you save back breaking digging and weeding and the plants grow much quicker! I can get fruit 30+ days quicker in a hydroponic system than growing in soil or pots. Then again each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, just choose something that suits your lifestyle, climate and budget.

When people ask me why I grow so many chillies and can't possibly use all the fruit I respond by saying that I'd rather grow them than flowers. Not only do different varieties actually produce different flowers (chinense can be white flowers with blue anthers, baccatum white flowers with yellow spots, some annumms can produce purple flowers etc.) but they also produce amazing pods of different colours, shapes, textures and sizes. Leaves are also interesting as they can be big oval shapes, small oval shapes, long as well as variegated (green with splashes of white or purple) and even hairy! They look just as good as flowers, are edible, have great health benefits and are relatively easy to grow.

Happy Growing!

Wildfire Chilli

 http://www.wildfirechilli.com.au