Chillies over winter
Are you concerned about keeping your chillies alive throughout the winter?
It is possible and something worth doing. By keeping your chillies alive you will have an advantage the following year. You will not have to just depend on chillies you have grown from seeds during spring.
Do make the common mistake that most people make. A lot of people mistakenly believe that chillies are seasonal and will die off during winter. This idea is incorrect – with the right management it is definitely possible to keep your chillies producing for years.
Not only is it worthwhile to see your chillies burst back to life in spring, it also means you can anticipate picking chillies far earlier compared to chillies grown from seed.
Why preserve your chillies over winter?
If you can keep your chillies alive over winter you will have a substantial head start over any chillies you grow from seed. The key advantage will be the root system will already be large and developed. This means they will normally produce much higher yields of pods, and for longer in following years. This is beneficial for chilli varieties such as naga or habanero that can have a very short fruiting season in their first years.
An additional reason is that it can be a challenge and provide you with some good entertainment in the dead of winter when there is little else to do in the garden. Chilli heads can be impatient and waiting for your chillies to grow in spring from seeds can be frustrating. So by keeping them alive you’ll have the advantage of getting some good early growth in.
What to do with your chillies over winter?
Much like when an animal hibernates, a chilli plant acts almost the same. The chilli plant responds to the lower temperatures and shorter days this effectively shuts down all growth stages, so much so that all signs of life can disappear. Your chilli plant may look like it has died. Please understand that this process helps your chilli plant protect itself over winter. Once winter is over and weather conditions improve your chillies should sprout new growth.
The above behaviour is how chillies react in warmer climates such as Asia and South America however the colder winters experience in Europe and North America will more often than not kill the chillies. To ensure your chillies survive the colder winter and come back to life next spring stronger than ever there are a few extra steps you will need to take.
How to protect your chillies in harsh winter conditions.
Don’t expect all your chillies to make it through the winter. Assuming that space is limited, not everyone has the luxury of a greenhouse or conservatory so a sunny window sill could be your best option. If so choose your best looking, healthiest chillies to preserve. As a rule it is best to consider chillies that take longer to fruit such as habaneros.
When summer is coming to an end give each plant a careful check over looking out for any signs of disease or pests. If you find either separate out the good chillies from the bad to avoid any further infestations. Only attempt to hibernate your strongest looking chillies as weaker chillies will have a far lower survival rate. When night time temperatures fall (to around 10 degrees) you should start thinking about preparing your chillies for the winter.
Be sure to remove any chillies from your chillies as you do not want to waste any! If the chillies have unripe fruit then you can try and ripen them off the plant.
Pruning. Having just spent a year looking after and nurturing your chillies it can seem particularly cruel to cut them back so severely. However to increase the chance of survival it is best to give your chillies a good pruning as winter starts. Trim back each plant so you only leave about 10-15cm of the main stem. This sounds very tough however it ensures your chilli plant will not waste energy trying to maintain foliage or fruit instead saving it for its battle for survival over winter.
Repotting. After trimming back your chillies it can be a good idea to remove them from the pot, shake off the root ball slightly and repot using some fresh compost. This will help the plant grow back healthier in the spring. If your chillies are in large pots (bigger than 30cm) you can also trim back the roots slightly and pot into a smaller pot to help concentrate the energy.
As you will have learned already chillies like heat. You will increase their chances of survival massively if you move the chillies inside a greenhouse (if they are not in one already). This will help keep the roots warm and protect them from frost. In fact if you can move them inside the house as the average temperature will be much higher. A sunny windowsill is perfect.
As is the case during the summer it is best to avoid over watering your chillies in winter. Remember that because of the lower temperatures it will take much longer for them to use the water you give them. As a result water much less frequently than in the summer to avoid mould building up. Check them once a week and only water if necessary, maybe as little as every 2-3 weeks.
Be patient. When its spring it can take a few weeks before the chillies spring back into life and new growth forms. However when they do they will already have a nice big strong root structure formed that will enable them to fruit long before any chillies you are starting from seed.