Taking my Chilli Seedlings outside. South Africa has a wonderful diverse climate. From north to south and east to west and everything in between, growing climates vary. Climatic conditions vary from Mediterranean to temperate to sub-tropical to even desert climate. Most of our country enjoys a long extended grow season that ranges from October to May. Some parts of the country a little longer. Altitudes range from sea level to somewhere between 2,000 and 3,300m. Temperatures vary around the countries with winter lows averaging at -7C in the coldest spots and summer peaks recorded in some areas as high as 48C. So around 30-32C is a reasonable average in summer. Rainfall too varies around the country with very arid regions and areas of high rainfall. We have a rainy season in the Cape that ranges from June/July to August/September (although there is a terrible drought in the Cape at the moment) and a rainy season that ranges from August/September to April/May in the highveldt. So our country is pretty diverse with many pockets of isolated unique micro climates that pretty much relate to where you are living. We grow in a valley near a large dam in Gauteg, so we are blessed with sunny, extremely hot and humid days and very warm nights. Sun is brutal due to the high altitude and rain fall is typical highveldt thunderstorms that range from torrential downpours to hail storm and flash flooding. So climates in our country vary a lot!
Here are the lessons we have learned, but please bear in mind that these are our own experiences. The internet has a treasure trove of tips and ideas that may work better for you.
But before we get into the nitty gritty - some general timing guidelines on planting. You may have read our other articles on pre-soaking and germinating. In which case you will have noted the timeline for chilli growing. Our D-day is usually first week of October. This is when we aim to get our seedlings in the soil. This is generally when in Gauteng we have seen the last of the frost and night time temperatures have picked up above 10C. We do get cold snaps and it is advisable to check the weather forecast before planting out. First week of October, but may be later if the weather conditions are not good enough yet. Now for planting out the seedlings outside, we want seedlings that have a inimum of 4 - 6 leaves. Prior to planting out, seedlings must have been "Hardened Off" for at least one week to prepare the seedlings for full sun. The size of the seedlings at the time of planting will be determined by how long before October the seeds were germinated. We usually start our germination indoors around July/August time. Which means that seedlings will have a good two months of growing before planting out. All times given are guidelines and may vary based on your set up and your seasonal temperatures.
We all know that chillies are sun loving plants. This fact holds true for mature adult plants, but not for the tender seedlings. One of the most common mistakes made with chillies is taking them out into the full sun too quickly. Our South African sun is very harsh. Especially if chilli seedlings have been germinated indoors, they will be very delicate and will cook if exposed to our full sun immediately. So what is the answer?
Hardening Off. Once your seedlings have emerged they have two leaves. These first two leaves are called cotyledons. These two leaves come out of the seed and help the shoot and seedling detach from the seed coat. This set of first leaves is in fact not true leaves. The next set of leaves that follows is considered to be true leaves and these leaves will be able to bring about photosynthesis in the young seedling. Usually once the first set of true leaves has emerged, the cotyledons will drop off leaving the seedling with its first set of true leaves. There after, leaves will emerge in multiples of two. Once your seedling has a good 4 - 6 leaves it will still be very small, but should be ready for being introduces to natural light. Introduced is the key here and that is exactly what "Hardening Off" is all about. Your seedlings are young and tender and if introduced to the full strength of the sun will shrivel up and die. Over a period of about one week, slowly introduce your seedlings to the full sun. This is usually by finding a dappled area of sunlight where the direct light is filtered. Over this period of Hardening Off, start with dappled light and short periods of exposure and gradually work up to longer periods of exposure and more direct light.
It is very easy to get excited and impatient when growing chillies. Hardening Off is an important step in growing chillies and should not be left out. As we already mentioned, one of the most common reasons for seedlings dying is customers putting their seedlings into direct sunlight too soon.
Once chilli plants are mature, they generally crave sunlight - the more the better. So always choose a growing area that gets lots of sun away from tall buildings and trees that will cast shadows over your garden during the day.
Shade Netting. Shade Netting is a wonderful asset to have when growing chillies - any vegetable in fact. It not only gives your plants a little protection from our fierce African sun, but will also protect your plants from hail storms and torrential downpours, which we do get on the highveldt all too frequently. We recommend a 40% shade netting. Shade netting comes in a variety of colours to suit your liking. The colour is not important and is purely esthetic. If you can afford to get some shade netting for your plants, we would recommend you do. Plants do flourish better under a little shade netting in our experience. Shade netted enclosures will also help to keep unwanted mammals, birds and insects out of your garden and away from the prized chilli patch.
Watering is another critical factor to growing chillies. Fact is - chillies hate water logged roots and soggy soil. Damp, water logged roots will be a certain death to chillies. Either they will just wilt and die or they will get fungal/bacterial infections and die. The problem most growers have is in identifying underwatering and overwatering. Getting to know the watering requirements of your young plants can be tricky and can be influenced by various factors.
Temperature/Weather. Weather conditions vary depending on where in South Africa you are located. We have such diverse climates around the country, it is difficult to make a general comment on weather. You will know your climate in your area best and if not, check the weather forecast for upcoming weather. We find that on a regular summer weather pattern, we will water chillies twice a day - in the morning and evening. Hotter, peak periods will require extra watering. We avoid watering in the hottest part of the day as water droplets can act like magnifying glasses and burn the plants. So watering late morning for an extra cycle is recommended for very hot days. The soil should be wet on the surface and watering should have been sufficient to allow the moisture to penetrate deep into the soil. Watering should always be enough to just leave the soil damp, not water logged. But even this, we appreciate, can be tricky to gauge. So what is the solution?
We recommend the humble finger test. Dig your finger into the root zone around the stem of the plant. The soil should be moist to the touch, never water logged. Dry feeling soil will require watering.
One of the big issues with watering and a common mistake with watering chillies is overwatering. The problem is that chilli plants exhibit the same symptoms for dry plants and overwatered plants. Plants will display drooping, limp leaves. When growers see these symptoms they presume that the plant requires watering and water the plant. Unfortunately, plants that have too much water show the same symptoms, so watering them again will exasperate the issue and even be the death of the plant if roots are drowned. So how to differentiate between a plant that needs watering and one that has been overwatered?
Use the finger test. If a plant has drooping, limp leaves check the root zone with your finger. If the soil is wet, you know that the symptoms are not due to the plant being thirsty. In this instance, do not water again. On the other hand, if the soil is dry, you know the drooping, limp leaves are due to a lack of water - give the plant a good watering. A simple test to avoid disaster.
If you have accidentally watered a plant too much, ensure water can drain away from the plant and do not water until such time as the plant has recuperated and the soil has dried out.
Other factors that can affect watering of your plants:
Types of Soil. There are various types of soil. Each type of soil has its own properties. Sandy soils are loose and do not retain water very well. On the other side of the spectrum, clay based soils are very dense and do not allow water to drain. Chillies love rich loamy soils. These are silty soils with lots of organic matter that allow water to drain but also retain water nicely. Of all the soils, clay based soils are not suited for growing chillies. Chillies hate wet soggy roots and will be plagued with a plethora of issues, least of all dying if grown in soil that retains too much moisture. Soggy soils will give rise to bacterial issues and root zones will not develop properly, affecting the plant's growth above the ground.
Planting. How you plant your seedlings is important. Growers with limited space or those who do not have access to gardens will choose pot plants. Pot plants should be suited to the size of your chilli variety. Some varieties are small plants and others grow huge. Depending on what you are growing, you should look at anything from 10 - 20 litre pots. Large plants planted in smaller pots will result in root bound plants that will be stunted and watering will become almost impossible to control. Plant your chillies in the largest pot you can budget or accommodate. Watering will be easier to control as well as nutrient leaching that can occur with potted plants. Our first choice is always planting plants into the garden. If you have a garden to plant out in, we recommend you do so. Chillies do best when planted in raised beds or when planting the plants in raised soil. This allows for good root development and will allow heavy rains to run off and water to drain freely through the roots. Remember, Chillies hate soggy roots - so we want to encourage water to drain away from the roots, leaving just enough moisture captured by the roots to remain in the root zone. Planting chilli plants into flat soil can create pooling that your plants will not thank you for. It is highly recommended to raise your chillies off the ground when planting - especially in areas that get torrential downpours and thunderstorms in summer.
In areas of low summer rainfall, you can consider planting your plants in the troughs of your raised beds. We spoke earlier of planting your chilli plants in raised beds to aid excess water run off in areas of high summer rainfall. In this instance we are talking about planting the plants in the troughs. This is common practice in dry regions with low rainfall and will allow water run off the raised beds to collect in the troughs where the plants are growing. Covering the raised beds with plastic sheeting will further aid water to run off the raised beds towards the troughs/plants.
When planting out work the soil properly. The better prepaired and finer the soil that the plants are planted into, the better the roots will grow. Unprepared, crude and hard soil will result in the plant growing slower as its roots will need to work hard to exppand in the soil. Plants should be a good 40 - 60cm apart. Plant like plants together and closer, which hopefully will help them to polinate one another better. When planting lots of plants, make long raised rows and plant chillies into those. When there are multiple rows, keep each row a good 50cm apart. Remember when it comes to maneauvering around the garden you will need to walk down the rows without damaging the plants. 50cm should leave sufficient space between the rows. Also when planting your young seedlings choose to avoid the hottest time of the day. Do planting in the cool of the day before temps reach over say 25C. We do planting early mornings say 5:30am till about 10:00am and later afternoon once the sun has started to descend from the horizon. Always prep the hole to suit the plants root bowl and include a few fertilizer pellets to help the plant cope with the transplant stress. We like to add TurboGrow's Vulcanic Rock Dust and Talbourn's Seedling food into the bottom of the hole when plants are very small. For larger plants we swap out the Seedling Food for Atlantic's Bio Ocean pellets which are essentialy made from fish and kelp. You may want to use something else, but we find this works for us. Once planted, we always water immediately generously. When watering, try to avoid watering the leaves. So water carefully and gently around the base of the plant without unearthing the roots.
Companion Planting. This is not a rule or a textbook technique, but rather something we like to do as it works for us. When we grow our chillies we grow two seedlings together. We call this companion planting. We say two plants as more plants growing together will compete against each other too much, which will adversely affect the size and yield of plants. We grow our plants at high altitude in Gauteng. Summers get very hot and storms can be severe. The reason for our growing two plants together is that the plants will shelter and protect one another from heat, sun and storms. This may not be for you - but we grow a lot of our plants in twos as they do compliment one another in our harsh growing conditions. Also, we find that growing chillies in open fields without shade netting, companion planting will result in plants giving one another shade during the heat of the day. But as we say, this may not be for you. It is our personal preference to do so. Another factor is two plants from the same variety of chilli growing in close proximity will increase the chances of same variety pollination. More so than plants growing on their own.
Mulching. Mulching can be used effectively to suppress weeds and to limit water loss through evaporation. There are various types of mulch. Natural materials such as straw, paper and bark chips and plastic sheeting are all used for mulching. Covering the surface of the soil around the plant will slow loss of water through evaporation. Where growers use mulching, water retention in the soil will be greater and the soil will dry out slower, meaning watering will be less.
Irrigation. The type of irrigation you use also plays a part in your plants success. We have already pointed out that chilli plants do not like soggy soils. Overwatering is a very common issue with plants dying and succumbing to bacterial and fungal issues. Hands on watering with the watering can can give great control over your plants exposure to moisture. But if you are growing lots of plants, you may wish to look at a micro-mist sprinkler system. These irrigation systems are very convenient for watering lots of plants at the same time. These systems can also be hooked up to a watering computer that automates the watering cycle for you for when you are not there to do so. Sprinkler irrigation does have some disadvantages though. Chillies do not like being drenched. Sprinklers have a tendency to water the surface including the foliage of your plants. Overwatering can lead to a very humid environment for your plants and may very well give rise to fungal and bacterial infections in the foliage of your plants. This is to be avoided at all cost as fungal and bacterial outbreaks are rapid and devastating. Besides this issue, sprinklers are also not water wise as the watering is not focused around the plants. So water is wasted in areas where there are no plants. Better than using sprinklers, drip irrigation uses small drip nozzles at the base of the plants. This uses very little water and is very water wise as water is directed straight at the roots of the plants and will not cause fungal or bacterial issues with the plant's foliage. Even better than this and probably the best watering method is using a drip line. These are irrigation pipes that run underground and have drip zones in the ground. This uses minimal water and is not prone to evaporation. Most professional growers will couple drip lines with black sheeting over the soil to retain any moisture in the soil. This is undoubtedly the most water wise and effective way to water chilli plants without running the risks of infections.
Another potential issue that can arise from irrigation and automated watering is at times when it is raining. Most simple water computers will run a program that will water your chillies come sunshine or rain. When it is raining and your irrigation runs on top of that, it will be very wet in your garden. Again, your plants will not thank you for this. Most irrigation computers do come with an option to add a rain sensor. Budgets allowing, rain sensors will automatically override the watering when the soil is wet or the sensor detects rain drops. Alternatively a dash to the garden and switching off the timer may be required.
Other considerations. In areas of low summer rainfall, you may consider a soil additive available at bigger nurseries that will retain water in the soil. These come in the form of granules that are added to the soil where the plants are planted. These granules will soak up water and slowly release water to the roots as required during a dry spell. Having said this, this is not recommended for areas that have access to lots of water.
Ultimately, it takes time to understand the dynamics of any garden. The soil, the weather in your area and the physical properties of your soil that will determine the watering routine that you need to establish that is best for your plants. Having said all this, it is better to err on the side of underwatering your plants than overwatering your chilli plants. And the finger test is essential to establish what is going on under the surface. Monitor your plants and see for yourself over a period of time how your watering affects the soil and plants. Whether one watering every 24 hours is sufficient or if you need to water twice a day. Just remember that drooping, limp leaves do not always mean you have to water. Check the soil first. Also, on very hot days plants can look "pap" in the heat of the day. The soil may even be moist... and usually the plants will recover by late afternoon when the cooler part of the day kicks in. We have a very harsh sun and extremely hot daytime temperatures in South Africa, so consider the points about shade netting, the type of irrigation and mulching. These things can be big ticket items price wise and not in the budget, but there is always a work around.
If you have any further questions, please contact us. We are always here to help where we can.