As you might have picked up from my present grow list, 10 out of the 30 plants I plan to grow in 2013 are currently overwintering from the 2012 season. Contrary to popular belief (and contrary to misnomers like “capsicum annuum”), chilis are in fact perennial – some varieties can become four or five years old, others (like the pubescens varieties) can live up to 15 or even 20 years. And overwintering does have a couple of advantages compared to raising plants from seeds: you know what kind of pods you’ll be getting in the end plus the plants will start production far earlier, so you will come out with a bigger yield.
Overwintering pepper plants is fairly easy to do. Once the outdoor temperature drops to 5 degrees Celsius or below, cut them back to right above the first Y split. Remove all of the pods and most of the leaves except for a few small ones. Once you’re done with that, your plant will look something like this:
This cutback (along with the other steps that I will be explaining in the following) will cause the plant to switch into a semi-dormant mode, much like an animal in hibernation. All its biological functions will be slowed down. You could of course leave the plant as it is and just take it inside for overwintering. After all, in their natural habitats (tropical and subtropical regions) chilis tend to flower and produce all through the year. Problem is, though, that the amount of natural light available in places in the northern hemisphere won’t be enough to allow the plant to produce flowers and fruit. Instead, it will get leggy, and have its metabolism running on full throttle without it being able to reach the goal of its efforts. So if anything, this will wear out the plant, rather than help it to save its strength for a time when environmental conditions are right for production.
Before you bring your plants into the house, check the soil and the plants for bugs and insects. Remove all of them thoroughly before taking the plants inside, otherwise the pests will thrive and proliferate in the warm climate of your home, leaving you with a very unpleasant problem that’s going to be hard or even impossible to control.
Place the plants in a bright place, like a windowsill, and keep the temperature between 15 and 18 degrees Celsius. Water the plants scarcely (I use about half a glass of water per week and per plant). Mind you that due to the lack of foliage, very little water will evaporate through the leaves. Moreover, since all of the biological processes in the plant have slowed down, it will need much less water in order to support its basic vital functions. So if you water the plant too generously, moisture will accumulate in the soil, causing the roots to be attacked by mould and other fungus. The small leaves still on the plant are a good indication of when to water – once they start to go a bit flabby it’s about time to allow the plants to have a little drink.
The plants will continue to produce small leaves all through the semi-dormant period and you’re likely to see an increased output of foliage once daylight-duration goes up (from December 21st on). Just let that happen, it’s simply a sign of the fact that the plant is still alive and kicking. As the plant gets bushier and leafier, you can step up the watering accordingly. Once the outside temperature has risen above 5 degrees Celsius for good (usually around mid April over here in Berlin), you can take the plants outdoors again. Place them in a slightly bigger container than the one they were in and add some fresh soil and fertiliser. I use about 20% of earthworm castings mixed in with the soil. But don’t worry about that now – I will post some more on that topic once spring has arrived).
So as you see, overwintering chilis is fairly easy and does have quite some advantages. Try it, and you won’t be disappointed. In the 2012 season, I had an overwintered Jalapeno plant which was good in the first season but turned out to be an even more massive producer in the following one. So in order to give you an idea of how well overwintering works, here’s a pic of the kind of pods that this overwintered Jalapeno was putting out in its second year: