Bringing your chile plants indoors for the winter
It’s that time of year again, when I look outside at all those wonderful chile pods that have yet to ripen on the plants, and watch the weather report looking for the big freezes. I can’t save all of them, but I am able to keep a small supply of fresh pods coming throughout the winter months by bringing a select few plants indoors.
While chiles are generally grown in the United States as annuals, the plants really are perennials. You can keep them alive for many years if you wish. The biggest advantage for home growers is that you are starting in the spring with a fully mature plant that can start producing again as soon as it is warm enough for flower set.
Until I achieve my dream of a giant greenhouse, I’m limited to two windowsills that get enough light for some small pepper plants. I also have to be able to move them and shut the blinds at night, so I can’t go for big pots or giant plants. My solution is to go with the long, self-watering window planter boxes, and selected chile plants that grow no taller than 18 inches.
When I choose which plants to transplant, I look for good, healthy specimens, free of any insect or disease problems. One day in advance I give it a good spraying with water to knock off any bugs that might be on it, making sure to get the underside of the leaves as well. Then I spray it down with insecticidal soap to kill off anything that might have withstood the water spray.
On moving day, I fill the planter about half full of a good quality organic potting soil (Whitney Farms is my usual brand) and add a small amount of organic vegetable fertilizer. Since the plants are going to be growing a lot slower during the winter, there is little need to feed them a lot.
To move the plant, I dig out about 6 inches in each direction, then I try and lift the whole root ball at once and place it into the planter. Of course, it rarely works out so well, and I end up with a loose jumble of roots and soil. This isn’t really a problem as the plants always seem to recover.
Once the plant is out of the ground, I quickly place it on top of the soil, so that the soil line on the root ball is about half an inch lower than the final soil level in the pot. This is the point where I remove any weeds that I see from the root ball. Then I fill the pot the rest of the way with the potting mix.
If you have a lot of prized houseplants you might want to figure out some way to quarantine the new arrivals for a few days. In my case, I have three case and sensitive houseplants don’t have a chance. I just bring in the planters and set them on their perch in the sunny windows. Most cats will leave your chiles alone after chomping into a nice little Thai Hot. Even my chile head cat doesn’t like the hotter chiles straight up.
As I said before, you want to be careful about how much you feed your plants over the winter. Unless you are providing artificial light and heating your house above 70, they aren’t going to be using up the food very quickly. You do want to keep an eye on the soil moisture though. The indoor air can get mighty dry when it drops below freezing outside.
My biggest problem during the winter has been leaf drop. There just isn’t enough sun each day to keep the plants totally happy. They will start dropping some or even most of their leaves. While you don’t really want this, it is perfectly normal. Even if they lose all their leaves, don’t give up all hope till the spring, they might still come back.