Chili Peppers in December — Growing Chilis Year-Round

Tabasco chilis and green tomatillos from our garden in 2018, second year on the same chili plants

The old article is below but I just wanted to add something today 12/09/2018 because this is actually an idea that works and I have the proof : ). I kept two Tabasco chili plants in the bedroom in front of the sunny south window, but in a cold house, all last winter (2016 to 2017). I just dug them out of the garden and put the associated soil and the plants in large clay pots and brought them inside. Over the winter they lost most of their leaves but were obviously still alive. I watered them very seldom. Twig tips died back but the larger portions of trunks and stems were still green.

Second year tabasco chili plants in the garden in August, covered in fruits.

This past spring I moved them out to the south side of the house on sunny warm spring days and sheltered them in the garage at night, and then in May when the garden warmed I transferred them into ground plantings. They had already begun to leaf out and recover. My doubt was whether they would fruit sooner than new plants from the nursery would, but they began blooming almost as quickly as they began to put out new leaves. In midsummer the peppers were chest high and I began to get ripe chilis in late August. From two plants I got about four pints of ripe chilis altogether, and I never bothered to pick the green ones. You can get too many Tabasco chilis when they produce like this.

I dried most of the fruits and ground them for dry Tabasco chili powder, but I do have a half pint frozen and a couple of pints that I pickled. For me that’s enough Tabascos for about thirty years. This fall I dug the plants again and I do have them in pots in the breezeway now, the colder part of the house, and I’m not really taking the best care of them. I’ll move them into the bedroom when it gets colder, but I think the extra dormancy helps rather than hurts. Plus, it’s just an experiment now. I have as much Tabasco chili powder as I will ever need : ). I’m curious whether the plants will live through a second winter of more careless care, and I’m trying an heirloom sweet pepper the same way. But yeah, this works. The chilis are very disease resistant and in their second year they produced like crazy.

Two pots of Tabasco chilis are doing fine so far. Eggplants expired when the house got down to 50 at night.

From here down, it’s the older article:

Don’t believe everything you read about growing chili peppers. The experts say you need to buy certified seeds, you can’t direct seed the plants in the garden and get fruit, and you have to plant them as annuals anywhere north of the tropics. There are work-arounds for all these things and I may be able to prove them all wrong this coming year. In 2011 I proved two out of three of them wrong. I’m still working on the third, the bit about only growing them as annuals.

dried ghost pepper

About three-fifty for ghost peppers to eat and all the seeds you will need for the garden. Or buy a packet of ten seeds for about two bucks, with no peppers included.

First, let me explode Myth One, that you need certified pepper seed to grow chilis. Chilis actually set seed true to type in almost all instances. Chilis grow well enough that nobody develops hybrid chili peppers. To get hybrids you have to venture into the more difficult sweet pepper or bell pepper zones, where seed certification often does count. To get chili pepper seed, all you need is a ripe chili pepper from the supermarket. Strip the seeds out, let them dry on a paper towel for a few weeks, and plant them. You don’t need to stratify the seeds, just give them a few weeks of dry dormancy and they’ll grow right away. Green chilis don’t contain mature seeds, so limit your seed harvest to the varieties sold as ripe fruits. Fresno, red Thai chili, and habanero all go to market as vine-ripened fruits and contain mature seeds. Even some heirloom sweet peppers are commonly available as ripe fruits, but that’s on next year’s planting list for me. I didn’t have enough garden space this past year to plant both types. Dried ripe chilis also provide living chili seeds and greatly expand the types available to the frugal gardener.

Cayenne peppers transplanted to the garden were ahead of the directly seeded Tabascos by about two weeks.

Myth Two is that chilis won’t produce if directly seeded in the garden. In northern climates, you can jump start chilis by planting in pots indoors in late February, but if you live in a cold house like I do there’s not much advantage to that. I saw no difference last year between the peppers I started indoors and those I direct-seeded outdoors in warm soil. All the peppers bloomed and set fruit at about the same time. Chilis would produce best if they reached the flowering stage before summer night temperatures hit 80 degrees. Really hot weather prevents fruit from setting, and temperatures in the 50’s also put the plants into a holding pattern. In most cases, northern gardens don’t produce chilis until late summer or fall, unless you’re equipped with a greenhouse or a warm sun room for that essential early start. My greenhouse tent that I built from a screen tent frame and a couple of rolls of plastic sheeting extended the season for chilis and eggplants by about a month. I got it through a hard freeze by lighting two oil lamps and letting them burn inside the tent for the night. Without heat, the tent wouldn’t keep the plants going when temps stayed mostly below freezing. That was when I moved a few indoors.

Plastic sheeting attached to a screenhouse frame got the plants through several killing frosts.

The most interesting thing about chilis in terms of home gardening is their potential as a perennial crop. That they can be grown only as annuals here is Myth Three. This is the tricky one. Like tomatoes, chilis originated in warm South American climates, and can’t tolerate freezing temperatures. In the north, we’ve learned to grow them as annuals, because that makes good commercial sense. The two main species of chilis, represented in my garden by the Fresno chili (fruit droops down) and the Thai chili (fruit raises up), both grow in their native climates as perennials that survive up to seven years and fruit continuously. You don’t need lots of chili peppers to provide all that you need. I’ll have fresh peppers into January, and with luck I’ll have an early crop next Spring when I transplant these container peppers back to the garden. I’ll still start a few new plants of my favorite types but I’m working towards that perennial crop, not the usual belated annual harvest.

Two oil lamps left burning in the greenhouse tent overnight protected the plants from temps in the mid-20’s.

This year I grew only two types of chilis, Tabasco and Cayenne. The Cayenne peppers ripened first and produced so abundantly I pickled five pints, enough for me for years, and I let the plants expire in the garden. I kept them going well after the first few frosts by tenting them with plastic drop cloth. The Tabasco types were slower to fruit, so at the end of the season I dug them up and transferred roots and garden soil into large pots. First I moved them to a makeshift greenhouse where they survived several frost nights and continued blooming and setting fruit. They are sitting in the house now, where they get some daily sunshine. As yet they are doing well and both leaves and fruits look healthy. The fruits are ripening normally on the plants.

12/27/17 Picked the tabasco fruits, got a pint. House dropped to 47 last night, outside -3. About as far as I can get these plants I think, but in a warm house, it’s still possible.

The tricky part of this is soon to come. No one I know here in the north grows chilis as perennials, except for a few considered only decorative. Last time I tried this, the plants expired when the serious winter cold hit. I heat the house a little more now and during the really bad cold snaps I will move them into the basement under gro-lights. Different types of chilis must have varying degrees of cold tolerance. Considering that Tabasco is a region in southern Mexico, these peppers probably have little tolerance for cold, so it will be tricky getting them to survive the winter. Even so, I should have fresh Tabasco chilis for the winter soups and stews. Most of the green peppers will ripen even if the plants fail. If the plants live, I’ll have peppers all summer instead of at the end of the season.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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