Caramba! In our cooking and in our gardens, we're going crazy for chilli peppers. You can buy chilli pods fresh or dried, in the form of paste or powder — but it's much more fun to watch the carnival-coloured fruits change from lime and yellow to bright orange and scarlet as summer progresses, on your patio or terrace — and then have your own harvest.
Chilli afficionados get all het up about the heat of each variety — it's measured by the number of units on the Scoville scale — so that while a sweet pepper is zero, a jalapeño will measure an eye-watering 3,000 and a habañero scores a searing 500,000 units.
However, for many of us, the decorative addition to the late summer garden is what counts, and pepper plants, whether spicy or sweet, are both highly colourful and hugely ornamental.
Chichester's West Dean Gardens is preparing for its three-day chilli fiesta, where you can samba and salsa, taste till your tongue sizzles and even pitch your tent, making it the horticultural world's equivalent of Glastonbury. Gardens supervisor Sarah Wain grows more than 250 varieties there. "Every time I water the plants, they're a joy to look at," she says. "The fruits are full of colour and the shiny skins reflect light. They also pretty much look after themselves and during this hot summer they thought it was Christmas every day."
Wain is considered the UK's chilli plant expert and this summer, in West Dean's glasshouses, has been conducting a trial of compact patio varieties for the RHS, from which the best will be selected and given the Award of Garden Merit. Hot contenders include her favourite, Riot, which she describes as having masses of skinny upright pods in glorious lacquered scarlet, all over a small bushy plant: "Six pots of those down a dining table would look fantastic."
© Gap photos/ Elke Borkowski and Heather Edwards
Wain says peppers are easier to grow than tomatoes, provided they have heat and light. "If you leave them out in the cold and wet, they will get stressed and drop their flowers. Large-fruited plants will need staking, or they'll act like sails on windy days and your plants will be ripped to shreds."
You can buy chilli pepper plants ripe for the picking right now in garden centres, market stalls and supermarkets, but for the best choice, Wain recommends growing from seed early in the year, then settling them in a mix of multi-purpose and loam compost. "When the plants are young, I start with a seaweed feed, then move on to a balanced fertiliser. Then the moment the flower appears, I use a high-potash, tomato-type feed.
"Avoid botrytis — grey mould — by watering the plants early in the morning rather than late in the day, and don't water the foliage."
If you know the right varieties to grow, such as Riot, you will get an abundance of fruits, explains Wain. "Hungarian Hot Wax is a good all-purpose variety and it looks wonderful, with conical pendant chillis 10cms long. It fruits early, and never fails. You can stuff it, roast it, use it in canapés, dips and salsas. Demon Red, Medusa and Sparkler all produce a mass of little pointed chillis all over the plant."
However, IF you can't take the heat — any heat — yet love the tiny firecracker peppers that make stunning containers and hanging baskets, grow Suttons' revolutionary new Sweet Sunshine which produces masses of small, fiery-looking peppers that, contrarily, have no heat at all, but taste, scattered over salads, sweet as a nut.