Chili Plants: How to Overcome Winter Overcome Obstacles

Chili plants, a specific variety of the pepper species, are part of the Solanaceae family, commonly referred to as nightshades. Although these plants are naturally perennials, they are often cultivated as annuals.

An annual plant’s life completes a full cycle of seed-to-seed in a single year. Biennials do so in two years, and perennials go from planted seed to fruit and seed in over two years. Chilies are perennials that grow and provide a crop in the first year and several years thereafter.

What is the Difference between Pepper Plants and Chili Plants?

All chilies are peppers, but not all peppers are chilies. Peppers include sweet (green bell peppers) and hot peppers (chili peppers). Chili plants generally refer to the hotter pepper varieties, excluding bell or sweet pepper. 

All pepper plants (including chili) are part of the Solanaceae family, including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants (aubergines). All peppers are part of the Capsicum genus.

Knowing plant families is important because each family has related soil-borne diseases and shouldn’t be planted sequentially in the same garden bed. 

For instance, you shouldn’t plant tomatoes in a bed (or pot) that had potatoes the previous year, especially if the potatoes had some challenges. The same goes for eggplants and chili plants (pepper plants).

The Capsicum genus includes C. annuum, C. chinense, and C. frutescens.

Capsicum annuum

This species includes chili, bell, paprika, and cayenne peppers. Some hybrids include:

  • ‘Basket of Fire’
  • ‘Black Pearl
  • ‘Buena Mulata’
  • ‘Calico’
  • ‘California Wonder
  • ‘Early Jalapeno’
  • ‘Mad Hatter’
  • ‘Purple Flash’
  • ‘Sweet orange’
  • ‘Sweet Sunset’

Capsicum chinense

The species is responsible for some of the hottest chili peppers you can grow and includes:

  •  Adjuno
  • Ghost pepper
  • Carolina Reaper
  • Congo pepper
  • Jamaican Hot
  • Madame Jeanette
  • Red Dominica
  • Red Savina habanero
  • Scotch Bonnet
  • Trinidad Scorpion

Capsicum frutescens

This species of chili plant, also known as the tabasco pepper or bird’s eye pepper, grows as a shrub extending to six feet tall. Hybrids include:

  • Bird’s Eye
  • Hawaiian Pepper
  • Kambuzi Pepper
  • Malagueta Pepper
  • Piri Piri
  • Tabasco
  • Thai Pepper

Capsicum pubescens

Every family has one, the cousin that breaks the rules. This is the only family member with epidermis hairs on the foliage. Capsicum pubescens, also known as the ‘tree pepper,’ is the strangest domesticated pepper plant, producing chili seed pods thick-walled and juicy with black seeds and purple flower buds.

The species is home to some of the only known cold-resistant pepper varieties. Some plants maintain a low and wide structure with small leaves, while others can grow quite tall.

Overwintering Chillies

Some varieties overwinter much better than others. From experience, we have found that chilies from the genus of Baccutum, Chinese, Frutescens and Pubescens survive winter much better than annual varieties.

Simply put, we have had better success overwintering hotter varieties than the milder ones. With proper care, all peppers can be grown as multi-year crops if you take the precautions I share in this post. Generally, crop yields improve with time, and the first-year crop poorly reflects the plant’s potential. It’s worth persevering!

Growing Chillies

Chili plants are native to warmer climates, and they are warm-season plants. Anything below 55°F (10°C) will cause them not to form fruit. 

Chilli plant seeds germinate when soil temperatures are between 80 and 95°F (21 – 35°C) and won’t germinate below 55°F (10°C). The ideal soil temperature is 85°F (29°C), which will cause seedlings to emerge after a week to ten days.

Planting your chili plants in pots is the best option for beating the winter frost. If you live in a warmer climate (USDA Hardiness Zones 9 – 11), raise your beds to help the soil warm up faster and drain better.

Sow seeds indoors in flats, cell packs, or peat pots about ten weeks before the anticipated transplanting, knowing that transplanting can only be done when the soil has warmed (about two weeks after the last frost). 

Use an inert growing medium (sand, pumice, perlite, vermiculite) to plant about a quarter of an inch deep seeds. Keep plants indoors in a sunny location where daytime temperatures are about 70°F (21°C)) and nighttime temperatures are above 65°F (18°C). 

Pepper plants don’t need light to germinate; light will boost seedling growth and health. The nightshade family (Solanaceae) are day-light-neutral plants and don’t need darkness to flower.

How Much Light Do Chilli Plant Seedlings Need?

Ideally, you want a heating mat and artificial light to boost initial growth. Ample light (16 hours) boosts photosynthesis, boosting root system health and dense foliage. Insufficient light causes plants to grow spindly internodes (leggy) as they reach for the sun. This can cause transplant risks.

Don’t be in a rush to transplant outside. Cold temperatures can weaken plants, and they may never fully recover. Harden your plants by reducing water, light, and temperatures systematically. 

Unlike tomatoes and potatoes in the same family, pepper plants don’t have pubescent (hair on the leaves), and leaves are protected by a wax layer that develops in response to light levels.

If you’re planting your chili plants outdoors, wait for the soil to be above 55°F (10°C) minimally. This is generally about two to three weeks after the last frost when the weather has settled. Plant chili plants about 18 inches apart, in rows two to three feet apart or closer (15 inches) in raised beds.

A pepper plant prefers full sun and soil that drains well. If your soil is heavy clay, add compost to aerate it. I advise home gardeners to plant their pepper plants in a container. 

It lets you move it indoors, making overwintering pepper plants much easier. Overwintering peppers should be protected from frost.

Harvest Chilli Plants

Most cultivars’ first fruits begin to mature in 60-90 days after transplanting. Hot peppers can ripen before harvesting, although Jalapenos can be picked green. Use secateurs to harvest fruit, leaving about an inch of stem on the fruit.

Fruit doesn’t ripen simultaneously, so harvest every seven to ten days. Green fruit will ripen if stored above 50°F (10°C).

Overwintering Chillies – Plant Selection

I haven’t had much success overwintering peppers that grow tall on a single stem, like Cayenne or Jalapenos. However, these are easy to grow from seed anyway. For other busy varieties, here are five steps to follow:

picture of pruning-back-damage-in-chilli-plant

Step 1 – Choose well 

Select healthy plants from your crops of chill plants. Be selective, and avoid weaker plants.  Pick robust-looking plants that survive better than others, with a healthy main stem and signs of new growth, rather than diseased plants.

You want a plant with some resilience. Consider repotting the plant using fresh compost into a slightly larger pot if it is in a pot. Don’t go for a large pot; these tend to lose soil temperature faster.

Step 2 – Harvest Remaining Chilli Seed Pods

Harvest any remaining chili seed pods. If the chili fruit isn’t yet ripe, pair unripe fruit with a ripe banana. The ripe banana releases ethylene that triggers unripe fruit to ripen. 

Step 3 – Prune Excess Foliage

Prune the chili plants by removing side branches, leaving nodes intact. Pruning stimulates root development. If you want your chili plants to grow taller, don’t prune the apex, as this is the meristem (growth point) from which chili plants grow vertically.

However, if the chili plants are already as high as you would like, feel free to cut the main stem back, but don’t return to the new growth. Leave an inch or so above any new leaves. Continue around the rest of the plant.

Try to preserve any “V” shaped sections so the chili plants have maximum growth in the next growing season.

After cutting back the stems, your chili plants resemble this. Remove any old leaves which may have dropped during the pruning process.

picture of ripe-chillies-that--have-been-picked
picture of pruned-chilli-plant
picture of where-to-prune-a-chilli-plant

picture of chilli-plant-budding-after-pruning
Picture of pruning-a-chilli-plant

Step 4 – Begin Feeding for Next Year

The next stage is to add organic material and give the plant a final watering. You still need to water your plants in the winter but much less than in the summer. Once every 2-3 weeks will be enough (depending on where you are keeping them)

picture of chilli-plant-pot-wrapped-in-bubblewrap

Step 5 – Provide Protection

If possible, you should be overwintering our chili plants indoors. Cover the pot with bubble wrap insulation if you use an unheated area, like a garage. This gives the chili plants some added protection against frosts. Make sure to bubble wrap underneath the pot too.

To protect against sharp frosts, keep your overwintering chili plants off the floor, especially if the floor is tiles or concrete and the room is unheated.

Finally, on a really cold night (or day, depending on the temperature), we will also use fleecing to give the stems an added level of protection. If frost gets into the stems, that is usually catastrophic for chili plants. However, we do not recommend covering the plants entirely with fleece throughout the winter. This can lead to rot and diseases and not allow the plant to adapt to conditions.

picture of chilli-plant-bench-wrapped-for-winter

Using Pots for Overwintering Peppers

A single chili plant can be a prolific producer, especially from its second year on, so growing them in pots and bringing them indoors in winter.  

picture of chilli-plant-wrapped-for-winter

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