Chillies are from the same family as tomatoes, and green peppers. So the climatic requirements are similar. They are part of the scientific group called Capsicum frutescens L. The common pepper or green pepper is from the family Capsicum Annuum L. So you can see they are very closely related. One of the main advantages of hot chillies is that they can be dried and stored for long periods. So small scale farmers are not dependent on selling perishable fruit immediately. With the right varieties there is diverse markets to enter and all are quite profitable.
In order to sell the dried chilli fruit, they must be harvested when the climate is dry. So once the fruit is mature, they need to dry out on the plant before harvesting. You cannot harvest the pods or fruit while they are ready to eat like normal peppers. It is a subtle difference but a very important one as it limits production to certain areas. So in summer rainfall areas the chillies must be harvested very early winter or late autumn when the rainy season is over. So growing chillies for drying in the Western Cape will be very difficult as the fruit will not dry out completely.
Basic production of hot chillies
Chillies are grown on a wide range of soil types. A good drained sandy loam to loam soil with a pH of 5.5 – 7.0 and which is deeper than 400 mm is ideal. Nematodes are a problem and will kill the chilli plant if present. So if you know you have nematodes you must apply a fumigant. Unfortunately they do not come cheap.
Soil moisture requirements
The water requirement pattern for chillies is very similar to that of tomatoes. Commercial crops must have water during the whole growing season. If the plants are stressed out due to insufficient water, yields will be reduced. So it is important to keep the soil moist (not water logged or very wet) during the whole growing season.
To keep soil moisture to the correct level for optimum chilli production, the following guideline can be used if you have nobody to consult to:
- Week 1-2: 10-15 mm water 2-3 times a week. Make sure the soil does not get dry. If it does get dry irrigatate more often. If it gets water logged reduce the amount applied each time.
- Week 3-5: Irrigate 1-2 times a week
- Week 6-8: Apply about 35-40 mm water weekly.
- Week +8: Apply about 25-35 mm water weekly.
It is possible to farm chillies without irrigation but expect much lower yields.
The best fertilizer recommendations are done with a soil analysis but not a lot of people have them done. If you don’t have a recommendation based on a soil analysis the following guideline should be adequate:
- 50 kg N/ha
- 4 kg P/ha
- 50 kg K/ha
This is a very basic recommendation and is based on the assumption that the chilli plant removes ±7 kg N/ton, ±0.5 kg P/ton and ±7 kg K/ton chillies produced.
Calculating fertilizer requirements is discussed in a separate article.
It is crucial for the small scale farmer to add compost or kraal manure into the soil. At least 20-30 m³/ha must be worked in with at least 600 kg/ha superphosphate. 150-200 kg KNO3 (potassium nitrate) can also be added. If you dont have organic material such as kraal manure or compost, use 1 ton 2:3:2 (22) or even 2:3:4 (30). Note: you can never add too little compost or organic matter to the soil. It will be converted to usable nitrogen by bacteria. Just remember not to apply too much compost 14 days before planting as in week 3-4 there will be a nitrogen deficiency in the soil. The bacteria needs time to convert the organic material into plant nitrogen.
Top dressing will be applied after about 3-4 weeks. There are various fertilizers that can be used. Most of them have nitrogen in as it is quickly used up by the plant and needs to be replenished. KNO3 and CaNO3 are the most popular top dressing fertilizers. The nitrogen is immediately available to the plant so reaction to top dressing is within a week or two.
Sowing and seedbeds
Sowing time depends on the production area. In warmer frost free regions start sowing from the end of January to the end of February, while in areas where frost is a problem, sowing starts from July to August.
Cover the soil in which the seed is planted with either large leaves or plastic. The covering or mulch will prevent frost killing the seeds. As soon as frost risk is over and seedlings are tall enough they can be transplanted into the field.
If possible, seedbeds should be fumigated. If a fumigant is not possible a fire can be made over the section of soil where the seeds will be sown and setting it alight. Work the ashes into the soil, it will do no harm.
The best soils are loamy with sandy feel to it. Sow the chilli seed in small rows 150 mm apart. Three beds of 1 x 10 mm will provide enough seedlings for one ha and 180 to 230 grams seed should be enough. Chilli seed lose their germination power quickly so farmers must make sure that seed is not older than 18 months. Always store seed in a cool dry place.
Transplanting and spacing chilli seedlings
Seedlings should be ready in 5-7 weeks after sowing. Select and use only the best seedlings and handle them very carefully. Never prune seedlings. Any pruning done at this stage will spread diseases. Transplant in late afternoon and apply the same treatment as recommended for tomatoes. Spacing varies according to available implements (applicable to commercial farmers)
Optimum spacing is 600 – 750 mm between the rows and 350 – 450 mm in the row.
Chillies must not be included in a crop rotation system with potatoes, tomatoes, brinjals (eggplant), gooseberries and tobacco.
The small scale farmer is most likely not in a position to buy tractors and expensive implements. In any case, whatever hand tools can create a smooth surface must be purchased.
When preparing the soil for cultivation, a few principles must be remembered:
- the seedbed must be even
- the seedbed must have a fine texture. Remove all clods in the seedbed.
To establish a fine and even seedbed, it is necessary to apply water to the plot thoroughly. This action must take place ±14 days before planting. Allow the soil to dry out until it is moist but not wet. Apply the fertilizer and work it into the soil by tuning the soil around with a fork so that the fertilizer is well mixed. About a week before planting, apply water to the soil and wait for the soil to dry out until moist. Use a rake to prepare a fine and level seedbed by removing the big clods and fill up the uneven patches with new soil.
A rotovator is the ideal implement to work compost and fertilizer into the soil.
Pest and disease control will be the same for tomatoes and peppers.