We have noticed many people asking about when to start up chillies and seen many conflicting opinions. Simply put, peppers can be grown throughout the year in most parts of the Western Cape successfully if you ensure a few basic requirements.
There are 4 main species grown in South Africa and we will touch on them all and give examples of which varieties fall into which species.
Capsicum Annuum is generally speaking the easiest species to grow and since they can produce pods within 80 days after transplant, these varieties may be planted later in the season since there is no rush against the clock with them. There are a few exceptions though like the Poblano varieties which need a longer season than most to mature, thus many people rather use them when they are still green even though they taste better mature.
Another misconception is that Capsicum Annuum pass onto pepper heaven annually and need to be restarted every season. While this may be true in many parts of the world most of the Western Cape allows for Annuums to be grown over several years though we would recommend restarting your annuums every couple years to ensure maximum production.
Since Annuums are your first species to give ripe pods we start ours up indoors in July so that we can harden them off in the August sun and start getting pods by November followed by a second harvest in February and if you really lucky a third harvest in May.
In June when the cold sets in and the rains move in you might find your Annuums taking some strain and this is the time to just let the plant be. You may remove dead growth but do not prune the plants as that will pretty much be a death sentence and leave the plants to rest until the warmer weather sets in. If you grow in containers, the best thing to do is to move your peppers into the full winter sun as this will allow for continued (though slower) growth throughout the winter and give you a massive head start when spring returns.
As Spring slowly returns you can amend some compost with kelp meal and bonemeal and dig it in around the plant and under the root zone finishing off with 1 pinch of epsom salt at the root base. This will allow for a quick start to the season and ensure Jalapeno poppers by Christmas.
The Chinense need long grow seasons to not only produce pods but also to ensure success as extreme heat between December and February can lead to continuous bud drop and put you at risk of only getting pods to hold in March and not leaving enough time for all the pods to mature.
The best time to start a Chinense is in March/April so that the plant can take advantage of the last good weather to grow a hardened base stem and then be overwintered in the full winter sun. This allows for an established plant come spring and allows you to get buds earlier in the season when its cooler and fruit will then set and mature rapidly under that insane Jan/Feb sun leaving enough time for a second harvest by April and maturing with just enough time to spare to down a couple tequila shots.
In early spring feed the plants with amended compost just like you do with your Annuums and be extra careful to keep their stems and leaves dry as fungal diseases are the number one killer of Chinenses. It is important to stake the Chinense because they can carry heavy and without proper support the branches will snap.
The third most common species is the Capsicum Baccatum and includes the Sweet Piquante (incorrectly called Peppadew by most), the Brazilian Starfish, the Bishops Crown and one of our favourites the Aji Lemon.
The Baccatums are also very easy to grow and very forgiving of mistakes and bad soil. These fellas also grow massive and definitely need support through staking or growing up against a trellis. When planted against a trellis they can easily reach out to 3m high and as wide and will spoil you with 3 or more huge harvests if conditions allow.
We start Baccatums in June/July so that we can harden them off in the winter sun and have them ready for an extended long season. Baccatums grow like weeds and will quickly put out buds in the early spring allowing a harvest end of spring and another in the late summer to early Autumn. Now this is where Baccatum season really begins since they seem to love the colder weather and will give you a third harvest in May with pods maturing in July/August.
Baccatums can live for up to 10 years with minimal fuss outside throughout the year only requiring a good annual amended compost pedicure. Finally Baccatums also happen to be the tastiest of all pepper varieties and present you with the most culinary choices out of them all.
The Frutescens are most forgiving of hotter and humid conditions and grow under African skies as if they originate from Africa. The Frutescens are also pretty easy to grow once germinated which could be tricky at times and they will grow wild in almost any soil in any position in your garden.
Since they adapt so well to most environments in SA you only need to start them up once and leave them to do their thing for many years thus a recommended start up time is irrelevant. An annual amended compost treatment will go a long way to ensuring an almost continuous supply of fire crackers even in the winter.
Recently we have noticed more people start growing a fifth species the Capsicum Pubescens, which includes your Rocoto and Manzano.
The Pubescens will only reward you if they experience a cold winter and the best time to start them is in May. These giants can live for 15 years and will only reward you with pods if they are subject to the cold shoulder. They should also be grown in a semi shaded area in good healthy soil that allows for them to stretch their legs.
So what are the basic requirements to growing peppers throughout the year in the frost free parts of the Western Cape?
Simply put, peppers need a good loose soil that drains exceptionally well, they need adequate light and finally they need ideal temperatures. A good soil mix would be 60% nutrition (50% compost/10% worm castings), 30% drainage (perlite/river sand) and 10% water retention (coco coir or vermiculite). To this base mix you add your amendments like Kelp Meal and bonemeal at 250ml per 30dm base mix.
Since peppers only need adequate light and not full sun as many believe, light can easily be introduced artificially to allow for an almost continuous growth. The best light is filtered light through shade cloth or trees or by introducing artificial lights (6500k cool white/2500 to 3000 lumens per square foot) and finally ideal temperature which can also be manipulated.
Over 10 celsius average temperature peppers will continue to grow albeit slower than normal. The amount of time that average temperature is under 10 celsius in many parts of the Western Cape is not that much and thus using our winter sun to it’s fullest by moving plants around if in containers or by planting them in the correct position to start with that receives plenty winter sun.
So how do we germinate pepper seeds?
We presoak for 12 hours (Mild Camomile tea or diluted 3% h202), we sow seeds in either coco coir pellets, Eazyplugs or 50/50 coco coir and perlite mix with 10% worm castings, lightly water with still water and place in a germination dome or plastic container.
Close the dome and place on a heat mat or heat tile. Ideal germination temperature is from 19 Celsius to 29 Celsius however ours is digitally set at 25 Celsius. The dome should be aired daily and only if needed displaced water can be replaced with a syringe.
Once the seedlings are established you can upsize into a Styrofoam cup or small container using a soil mix as explained earlier without the amendments.
Finally when the plant looks like the specimen in the picture you can plant it into a permanent grow position. The ideal permanent grow position is deeper than it is wide and holds enough soil for the variety being grown to last a couple seasons with only annual top ups and amendments needed.
Article written by Tony Lague