Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heat up the winter with chilies

Peppers can thrive indoors with the right strategy

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Chili peppers, like herbs and heirloom tomatoes, have a special capacity to engage gardeners.

Chilies are amazingly beautiful, endlessly varied and intrinsically linked to human culture. They are attention-seekers! And chili peppers are, of course, hot.

Indeed, it's hard to pass by a pot of spicy peppers and not sizzle, just a little, at the thought of braving a bite. After all, who hasn't had a chili-pepper encounter, for better or worse?

There is such opportunity in growing hot peppers. They fit right into the trend towards edible landscaping and work so well in pots or garden beds. Most varieties can easily be started from seed, and there's a pepper to suit just about every taste and culinary desire, from the extreme-heat junkie to the home-grown salsa gardener.

There are even "fake" hot peppers; that is, selections that mimic the look of the ultra-hot types, but pack zero heat. Among the hundreds of chili varieties available, most could pass as strictly ornamental, with abundant eye-catching fruits and frequently showy foliage. Esthetically inclined gardeners will appreciate the variegated types and a dizzying array of fruit shapes, sizes and colour combos. It's hard to get bored growing hot peppers!

In northern climates, pepper plants are typically grown for the summer season, then left to succumb to the perils of frost. However, many types of chilies behave more like warm-climate perennials, given the opportunity. As a result, chili peppers can flourish as house plants.

Aside from the beauty and convenience of having home-grown chilies at one's disposal, a significant advantage of keeping peppers indoors is the head start gained the following spring. Hot-pepper plants take many months to mature from seed (particularly the very hot types), and this delay is avoided when plants are saved season to season.

Hot peppers require year-round warmth and lots of direct sunlight. During the summer months, watering should be deep and frequent, accompanied by regular application of an organic tomato and veggie fertilizer. Through the winter, watering and feeding are reduced by half. The best strategy is to container-grow them in summer, allowing for an easy transition come fall. However, garden plants can also be saved, provided you give them a couple of weeks to settle into pots before shifting to their indoor location.

Chilies thrive in containers between 20 to 30 centimetres in size, allowing for a productive plant that has a relatively small footprint. Containers must have adequate drainage and capacity for aeration, especially once plants are indoors, so self-watering and glazed ceramic pots are not recommended. As with all gardening projects, success is significantly determined by the quality of the soil: Chili-pepper perfection starts with a loose potting mix, generously amended with compost.

Variety selection plays an important role in determining easy care indoors. Chilies possessing small, upward-facing fruits are the best choice. Some excellent examples include Summer Fire, Chinese Pepper, Thai Pepper and Mexican Tepin Chilies.

Small-fruited chilies most easily support year-round fruiting and tend to have a compact, shrubby growth habit that remains densely foliated right through the low-light months. These plants can last three to five years, developing a bonsai-style look in their containers.

Larger, often enticing varieties such as the extreme-heat-packing Trinidad Moruga Scorpion can also be wintered indoors -- but expect leaf drop and the absence of new chilies between November and March. It is worth noting that potted varieties marketed as ornamental are indeed inedible, but only due to the significant amount of pesticides used in commercial production of these plants. When raised chemical-free from the start, these varieties are tasty, often fiery beauties!

When planning to bring hot peppers indoors, timing is key. Cool fall nights throttle back plant metabolism, setting up stress if plants are suddenly thrust into the warmer, drier indoor environment (recall the all-too-common panic to get patio pots indoors as the first frost warning is announced).

The ideal scenario is to start getting peppers used to the indoor setting by first moving them to a slightly shady location outdoors for a week, then shifting them to the brightest window available indoors -- all as early in September as possible. If plants do experience a solid stretch of cool fall weather (including a combination of warm days and cool nights), be aware that leaf drop is probable once plants are indoors. However, success is still possible, with plants requiring a longer transition period to return to glory. The deal-breaker is frost, as peppers will not recover from any degree of freezing.

The project of wintering plants indoors tends to have two streams: simple maintenance of a worthwhile variety, or productive, active growth. Variables such as exposure to cool weather, method of summer growing and variety will often influence how full and healthy a plant looks once indoors.

When it comes to pepper plants, the amount of available light is an additional dynamic. Basically, the more light the better. For small-fruiting types, a bright south or east window typically supports fruiting 12 months of the year. For larger plants, or those chilies with dangling, downward-facing fruits, a full-spectrum grow light will stimulate winter productivity. Otherwise, these plants tend to take a pause through the short daylight months and pick up speed come March.

Unfortunately, no discussion of indoor growing can escape the topic of pests. Peppers are prone to aphids, which will congregate in the upper leaves and on fruits. Spider mites are another common concern indoors, due to the drying effect of forced-air heating in combination with low winter humidity.

The trick here is to give plants a vigorous rinse under fast-flowing fresh water on a monthly basis (minimum). With this method, both aphids and mites can be avoided altogether. Although plant chores are rarely performed with ideal frequency, a simple strategy is to mark plant-rinsing dates on the calendar and check these off as completed. It takes only a few minutes and the results are impressive.

Additional pest-prevention strategies include using a compost-rich soil, avoiding chemical fertilizers, tidying up any plant debris that falls around the soil or container and reducing direct exposure to forced-air heat vents. If pests arrive despite these measures, any of the low-toxicity insecticides are effective against aphids and mites.

Hot peppers are attractive, functional, funky plants that get noticed. And with a little planning, you can keep the summer heat burning this winter with a pot of spicy chili peppers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 F2

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