Chilli plants are not annuals. They are in fact short-lived perennials, so if you can successfully overwinter your plants you get fresh chillies much earlier the next season than growing each year from seed.
In the winter months, a plant reacts to the lower temperatures and light levels and effectively shuts down new growth phases, so pretty much so that all signs of life disappear. It can look like the plant has died. However, the plant is just protecting itself from the cold and reduces its need for light and food. Once the weather improves in the spring, the hibernation period will reverse and the plant will sprout new growth.
Some varieties overwinter much better than others. From experience, we have found that chillies 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. If you get a poor crop of say “Habaneros” when you grow them from seed in the first year, you will usually get a much better crop in year 2, so it is worth persevering!
Selecting stock to overwinter
We have never had much success overwintering annual varieties such as Cayenne or Jalapenos…(or anything that grows tall on a single stem). However, these are easy to grow from seed anyway.
1) Pick a good example. It’s the end of the season. Everything in the tunnels is dying off. So be selective. Pick a good looking plant which seems to be surviving better than others. A chilli plant with good healthy stems and signs of new growth rather than blackened or diseased plants.
If the plant is in a very large pot, you may want to consider repotting with some new compost into a slightly smaller pot. Soil can get very cold! Bengal Naga in a pot, ready for overwintering!
2) Pick off any remaining pods. These probably won’t ripen now. It is almost December. In fact, you have a better chance of ripening any green pods indoors on a sunny windowsill (or use banana trick)
3) So the next step is to give the chilli plant a good haircut. It looks rather cruel when you have finished but it is done so that the chilli plant can concentrate on its roots rather than trying to grow new pods on old stems or maintain foliage. Before you cut anything, look for signs of new growth at the bottom of the stems.
4) The next stage is to cut back the old stems. Don’t cut right back 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. Try to preserve these, so the chilli plant has two directions to sprout from as it develops new leaves.
5) Once you have finished cutting back the stems, your chilli plant will resemble something like this. Remove any old leaves which may have dropped during the pruning process.
6) The next stage is to add organic material and to give the plant a final watering. In the winter you still need to water your plants but a lot less than in the summer. Once every 2-3 weeks will be enough (depending where you are keeping them)
7) We will be overwintering our chilli plants in our inner tent in the polytunnel, so the next stage is to cover the pot with some bubble wrap insulation. This gives the root ball some added protection against frosts. Make sure to bubble wrap underneath the pot too.
8) To protect against sharp frosts, we keep our overwintering chilli plant in an inner tent constructed of bubble wrap sheets which are inside our main tunnel. We raise the plants up.
We don’t want them on the ground and cover any exposed metal shelving with capillary matting. On a really cold day, we heat the inner tent using a plant pot heater.
Just make sure to keep it well away from the bubble wrap. If you can, we would recommend overwintering your chilli plant INDOORS. We simply do not have space!
9) Finally, on a really cold night (or day depending on the temperature), we will also use fleecing to give an added level of protection to the stems. If frost gets into the stems, that is usually pretty terminal for any chilli plant.
However, we do not recommend covering the plants entirely with fleece throughout the winter. This can lead to rot, diseases and also not give the plant the chance to adapt to conditions.
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