Overwintering Chilli Plants – Some practical examples

The overwintering of chilli plants, in temperate areas anyway, is probably the most variable and uncertain part of chilli growing. The most detailed advice is, at best, to be taken with a pinch of salt as there are so many more variables to think about when you compare overwintering with, say, germination. How warm is the autumn? how cold is the winter? where are they kept? what variety? How long are the daylight hours?

So rather than dispensing general advice, which I, and many others have done before, I will illustrate some practical examples of what has happened to some of my experimental plants this winter. For a little bit about what happened to some of my plants back in the autumn you can link to the blog entry ‘When Will My Chilli Plants Die?’.

Where I live near the coast of  south Devon in the UK, we have had what is, so far, undoubtedly the mildest winter ever, so I still have a few plants that would not normally survive. This is as good as it gets, and things haven’t been great, so this illustrates the general advice that you should bring any plants that you want to keep into the house where they stand a very good chance of survival. The hardier of my plants were busy fruiting in my greenhouse until Christmas. Up until that point we had only two mornings when there was frost on the ground, and even then the greenhouse temperature only dropped to 3c. Often temperatures were 15 or 16°C and not far of that at night times. It was really really dull and wet though, so I wasn’t hopeful for some plants that I left outside.

Through January temperatures were still warm, and it is only in the last couple of weeks that we have had consistently lower temperatures, but still the greenhouse hasn’t dropped to lower than 1°C.

Despite the warm early winter I am still not surprised to see that most of the plants I tried to overwinter in the greenhouse or outside are looking doomed. There are a few which will survive, but 4 months of short days and just a couple of months of cool temperatures have still mounted up so that only the real hardy ones will live on.

 

Rocoto, overwintered in cool greenhouse

Rocoto, overwintered in cool greenhouse, pretty good.

I had little doubt that this rocoto would survive, they are pretty hardy and this one wasn’t pruned back till January, and at the end of February it is still looking nice and green. It is in a smallish pot in the greenhouse.

 

 

 

 

Rocoto overwintered in vegetable patch. Very dead!

This rocoto, above, wasn’t as lucky. It was very much an experiment, it grew well outside in a vegetable patch protected by climbing beans all around, but the wet soil and a battering by the wind means it is unlikely to shoot out again this year.

 

Rocoto overwintered outdoors in pot,

Rocoto overwintered outdoors in pot.

This 3rd rocoto was overwintered outside the greenhouse in a large pot, it is looking pretty good, the stems all nice and green, the soil drains easily and I hope it will shoot out in the spring. I will move it into a greenhouse to give it a kick start.

Rocotos are generally one of the safest bets when it comes to overwintering. The others that do well are the baccatums, ajis, and some of these have done OK in the greenhouse.

 

Aji in greenhouse

Aji. overwintered in greenhouse

Aji. overwintered in greenhouse

The botton aji limon is looking green and healthy, but the one above is dead at the main stem, so I am not hopeful for this one, I think the main stem will rot down and cause the plant to die.

Piri piri, overwintered, good and healthy.

Piri piri, overwintered, good and healthy.

Finally, this is one of my old faithful piri piri plants. This is its second winter, it will stand colder than anything thrown at it so far and I am confident it will do well again this year. The stems are still green up to about 1m high and I have only pruned the straggly small stems to keep it in shape. It is in a big pot, which keeps the roots insulated against sudden drops in temperature, and it is under glass.

I started off hanging on to other plants, either to see which was the first to go, or to test out some new ones. I have never overwintered Carolina reaper before, so I tried that. In the house is OK, but a couple in the greenhouse died back quite quickly. Likewise various annuums they didn’t do well in the greenhouse either and are already in the bin. I wouldn’t normally try keeping these anyway, things like jalapenos don’t perform as well in their second year as newly seeded ones, but as October and November were so mild I hung onto a few.

This last one was an annuum that I did secretly hope would survive, as it would have been great to see it shoot out early. It is a pimento de Padron, and was nearly 2m high in a greenhouse bed, but I’m not sure if it will grow again, watch this space.

Pimiento de Padron overwintered in a greenhouse bed

Pimiento de Padron overwintered in a greenhouse bed

 

Barra do Ribiero

This is a new one for me, this year is the first time I have grown it, but I’m really pleased. It is a Capsicum baccatum from Brazil so I assume it originates from the area of the same name. In appearance the plant looks very much like the more common aji limo/limon varieties with long bendy tough stems and small leaves. In a reasonable sized pot the plant grows to about 45cm high, and at least that in width once the fruit starts to weigh down the stems.

Barra do Ribiero, Brazillian chilli pepper

The taste is similar to an aji limon, sharp and citrussy, but the difference with this one is that the fruit is very fleshy and juicy, more reminiscent of a miniature rocoto. Although the whole thing is pretty hot, I’d say about 40,ooo SHU, you can easily slice off a piece of flesh for juicy munch without getting any heat at all. For this reason I think it is going to make a delicious sauce, the flesh should break down easily and you can control the heat by taking out the bitty seeds.

On top of this, Barra do Ribiero is beautiful to look at, each one is a firm and glossy heart shape. they start yellow, then go through a part purple stage before ripening to red. The first few I picked in early September, but the bulk weren’t ready till the end of that month,

Barra do Ribiero bowl 4 web

This was an easy one to grow, like most Capsicum baccatum varieties it is tough and resilient, I’d say it will toddle on into the winter in my greenhouse, still producing slowly, and should overwinter well. The seeds germinated easily, they came from Nicky’s Nursery. I have a good crop from 4 plants, and I’m going to have a go at everything with them, some I have dried, slicing them open first. Some I have frozen, and some I will make sauce with.

Barra do Ribiero Sliced close web

Aji Chilli Flower November

When will my chilli plants die?

I had set aside this morning to do a little bit of pruning on a handful of plants that I would like to over-winter. In my growing chillies book there is a section on keeping plants over the winter, what temperatures to keep them at, how to prune them and when. But it isn’t an exact science, and very dependent upon autumn temperatures, where you live and where you keep your plants.

Anyway, despite the fact that we are only 5 weeks away from Christmas, the plants I want to keep, which are still in a greenhouse, in south Devon, are all still healthy and don’t yet need any pruning. Having said that, the ones I am keeping are mostly ones that I know will do well, or that I know are worth investing a bit of time and warmth in. So I have a some aji plants, a nice big piri piri, and a whopping great moruga scorpion. There are a few others which have a bit of fruit to ripen, but things like jalapeno, most of my habaneros, pimiento de padron and a few others have mostly been consigned to the compost bin.

So my thoughts turned to which plants would die first if I left them as they are. Which are the most frost tolerant? And some people might be interested in an experiment we conducted at the chilli farm many years ago. With the help of the weather we achieved some fairly accurate and interesting results. In a polytunnel containing 100 varieties we didn’t do the usual autumn cleanup, which is the way it should be done, good garden hygiene, stop the spread of disease, bla bla bla; instead we left the plants in situ, and while the temperature dropped over successive days we observed the results. This was the first cold snap of the year, so to begin with all the plants still had most of their leaves.

As the temperature inside the tunnel dropped towards freezing the first plants to succumb were the tropical ones, Capsicum chinense the habaneros and scotch bonnets, they will lose all their leaves in a single night at 1 or 2°c.

The next night the temperature dropped lower, and hit zero for the first time. At this point the ones to go are the bigger Capsicum annuum big peppers and jalapenos, especially the newer more highly bred ones.

Another day went by and overnight the temperature had reached -1°c. Now looking along the beds it was really evident which ones were survivors and which ones had suffered, but the leafless plants were interspersed with quite a few that still retained their leaves. These were mostly the Capsicum baccatum, tougher leaves and stems, originating from Andean areas where frost tolerance would be an advantage. But also the piri piri, tabasco, and strangely the Prairie Fire were still lookiing good, so the Capsicum frutescens display a lot of frost hardiness too.

Yet another day, and another degree or two of frost, and the only survivor was the tepin, a scrubby bunch of twigs, tiny tough leaves, and a very poor fruiter, but this truly wild chilli out-lived the rest; in fact this very plant lived on for four more years, until a very cold winter brought temperatures of -10°c, and that was the end of it.

So what is to be learned from this? Whatever the ‘rules’ about plant pruning and overwinter temperatures there will always be exceptions. My favourite is the piri piri, always the most loved chillies in my collection. I have said this before, but my mother has the ‘mother plant’ it is the only one she keeps now, so the seed never crosses with anything else, and I always kick off more than I need every spring. There are a lot of varieties under the piri piri banner; this is a Portuguese one, from an old ladies garden, and about midsized as they go, up to about an inch long, and they are solid bullets.

Piri Piri in a Raised Bed, November

Piri Piri in a Raised Bed, November

This picture of Piri Piri plants was taken on 12th November. It sits in a fairly sheltered south facing raised bed, which most importantly gives it good drainage so its roots aren’t sitting in claggy wet soil. The mild autumn temperatures this year do the rest, and it still flourishes albeit slowly, with ripe fruit, new fruit, and flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Greenhouse Piri Piri Chilli

Piri Piri in the Greenhouse, November

This plant is the same variety, but inside a greenhouse, it is still going great guns, and might even survive the whole winter at this rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aji Chilli Flower November

Aji Chilli Flower, November

I’m always interested to know what the real survivors are in the chilli world, so if you have any anecdotes or experiences, post them underneath for others to see.