Now that the weather is finally looking a bit better, it's a good time to talk about raising "heatlovers" from seed. Peppers - both sweet peppers (capsicums) and chilli peppers can definitely be classed as heatlovers and so can eggplants. These are all members of the same family - Solanacea (this family also includes tomatoes and potatoes). If you haven't already sown your chillies, peppers and eggplants for the coming season, it isn't too late, but get them sown soon - you can sow from August through to the end of December in most areas of New Zealand.
Eggplants, chilli peppers and sweet peppers don't need light to germinate, but they do need heat. The key to getting your seeds growing well to produce healthy seedlings with lots of get up and go is to get them started in a warm environment. This year I tried using a heat pad for the first time, and my little pepper seeds were so delighted! Up they popped as quick as a wink, even though the weather outside was cold and windy and yukky. The best thing I ever bought, that heat pad! The seedlings were then kept inside for a while and then moved out to the tunnel house for a little more protection from the horrible spring winds. They are just about ready to go out in the garden now.
If you don't have a heat pad, then the hot water cupboard is a great alternative - remember that the seeds don't need light to germinate. Sow your seeds into quality seed raising mix, moisten, and then cover the tray or container with plastic food wrap or a plastic cover to prevent drying out. Leave in the hot water cupboard until the seeds have germinated, at which point they will need to be moved to a position where they can get plenty of light. Pot up when they are about 2cm tall, and keep in a light, warm environment.
Chillies, peppers and eggplants all need similar growing conditions, although eggplants need a longer growing season. Plants can be planted outside in pots or straight into the garden when there is no longer any chance of frost. Choose a sunny, warm position, sheltered position and space plants 100-150cm apart. Stake your plants for extra support. When the plants are about 30cm tall, you can pinch out the growing tips to increase branching.
Make sure you water regularly, particularly in hot weather as these plants are thirsty! The first flowers will appear when the plants are quite small. When flowering begins, your plants will benefit from weekly feeding with a liquid feed with tomato fertiliser.
For eggplants, each plant will produce up to five fruits, depending on variety and the weather - pick your eggplants when they have reached full size and the skin is shiny. You can harvest your chillies when they are green, or leave them longer to turn red. Likewise, sweet peppers can be harvested when they are green, or you can leave them longer to ripen to red/purple/yellow (depending on the variety you chose). At the end of the season, when you have a wonderful harvest of chillies, you can preserve them for use throughout the rest of the year by drying them - traditionally chillies have been air dried by threading them onto a string but they can also be dried in a dehydrator - read more about drying chillies here. However, if I have plenty of chillies and peppers this season (fingers crossed), I am going to try out the following recipe for...
...Spicy Roasted Red Pepper Jam...
1 - 1.5kg Sweet Red Peppers, straight from your garden!
500g Chilli Peppers - use a mixture of types from mild to hot (not all scorchingly hot or the jam will be inedible)
4.5 C Sugar
2 C White Vinegar
1/2 C Cider Vinegar
1 C Lemon Juice (or you can substitute more Cider Vinegar if lemon juice is unavailable)
2 Apples, peeled (reserve peels)
2 t Salt
1/4 t citric acid (optional)
Wash peppers. Place in roasting pan and roast at 190 C until skins brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, place peppers in a plastic bag or a plastic container and allow to steam until cooled. Once cooled, remove skins and seeds from peppers (wear gloves for chilli peppers).
While the peppers cool, combine sugar, vinegars, lemon juice and salt in large saucepan. Bring to a boil.
In the bowl of food a processor, combine peeled apple pieces and peeled peppers. Process until the peppers are a smooth paste. Add to sugar/vinegar mixture.
As the mixture boils, stir to prevent burning on the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat to a gentle boil and add apple peels - the pectin in them will help set the jam. Remove any foam that forms on the surface of the jam.
After 30 minutes, remove the apple peels. Continue to cook until thick (about 10 minutes more). Test for setting point by dribbling a little hot jam onto a cold plate. When it has cooled, run your finger through the jam - if the surface crinkles and the jam doesn't run back together, then it has reached setting point. Bottle into hot sterilised jars. Check seals when cool and refrigerate any that haven't sealed properly for immediate use.
Store in a cool, dry place. Use within a year