Northumberland chilli grower likes it hot

PUBLISHED: 15:38 16 March 2011 | UPDATED: 11:02 09 October 2012

The North East of England isn't the first place that springs to mind when you think of growing chillies. Well, think again…Words by Linda Viney, Pictures by Dan May and Linda Viney

Are you a chilli fiend? If so then why not grow your own chillies this year? Too far North, too cold you may think. With this in mind I went to visit Dan May who has a chilli farm at Haltwhistle, believed to be the only one this far North in the country.

His love of these flavoursome ingredients began 14 years ago when, as a travel photographer, his work took him to South and Central America as well as Europe, and developed his interest in regional foods.

I began trying to emulate the dishes I had enjoyed but I couldnt buy the varieties of chillies I needed, so decided to grow my own. I set up a polytunnel and against the elements they produced chillies in abundance, Dan told me.

Thankfully there are many reputable seed companies offering seed now but now I use mainly my own seeds. I hadnt realised when I started how prolific they were, and I was learning all the time as I had no horticultural training.

Dan then had to decide what to do with all the chillies hed grown, as after freezing them and preserving them there were still far too many for his family and friends.

So he made sauces and took 200 jars to a North East farmers market - and sold out.

This was the beginnings of his company Trees Cant Dance - the name originating from the folklore of the Americas where trees are firmly rooted to the ground.

The business has now expanded and they now produce a wide range of sauces and marinades. Dan works hard often waking in the early hours with new ideas. Initially there was just Dan and he couldnt have been more surprised and delighted when his first main customer was Fortnum and Mason. He now supplies Sainsburys and Tesco as well as many other outlets.

But back to growing chillies for yourself. First you have to decide how mild or hot you want them, then choose a relatively easy variety to start with: Ring of Fire which is a hot cayenne variety, Cherry Bomb which is juicy, fruity and medium hot and Hungarian Hot Wax a mild to medium all rounder are all good suggestions.

One of Dans favourites is the yellow long thin fleshed Fatallia. It has an amazing aroma, fragrant and with a wow, he said.

He suggests trying Nickys Nursery for seed, telephone 01843 600972 or visit, though any good garden centre will have a selection and you an also trawl through the garden catalogues.

You should also try to emulate the conditions they grow in for some thrive in a tropical climate whilst others favour a warm arid environment.

Dans tips are:

Sow it from now until May, though the earlier you start the better, as you give the chillies time to ripen in the long daylight hours of the warm summer months, and theyll be ready in time to spice up your summer barbeques.

Start by filling a multi-cell seed tray with any good multipurpose compost. Firm down and moisten with water.

Place a seed in each cell and lightly cover with compost or vermiculite and moisten again. Dont compress the compost at this stage as you dont want to damage the fragile first shoots. It is still too cold (even in the south of England) to attempt starting them outside.

Either place a clear lid or cover with cling film to create a greenhouse effect, place them in an airing cupboard or anywhere suitably warm to germinate.

They need temperatures of around 25 degrees to encourage swift germination.

Check seeds daily and keep damp but not wet

After two to four weeks seedlings should appear and it is now they need sunlight, so move them to a warm place with plenty of daylight, like a windowsill over a radiator. You still need to keep the compost moist, but this time from below using capillary matting.

Once a second set of leaves appear you transplant them to their own 7cm pot. Now you can boost the crop by feeding once a week with diluted tomato fertilizer.

When the plants reach 12cm - 15 cm move them into a 12 cm pot or place three into a 30 cm pot. Once the plants reach 20 cm give them some support, then at 30cm pinch out the top shoots to encourage bushy growth.

When the warm weather comes they can be placed outside, ideally by a south facing wall with shelter and sun. Tropical varieties like the Habaneros should however remain on a windowsill or in a greenhouse.

You can now move them into yet another larger pot. Stay vigilant, as chilli plants are a favourite of whitefly and greenfly.

Chillies are viewed as annuals but their fruit yield increases in the second and third years. At the end of the growing season cut back to leave the stem and a few strong healthy branches. Place on a warm windowsill and check for pests. Give an occasional feed and your plant will reward you with producing growth and fruit earlier than the ones grown from seed.
For Dan his business is far removed from his days as a travel photographer, but he is now able to reap the benefits of his travels and still enjoy the food of the countries he visited.

He is now working with the University of Northumberland to find out about the health benefits of chillies as it is believed they stimulate mental performance and help to aid weight loss

As his business has expanded he is spending more time developing it, leaving the growing to his staff. He is always on the lookout for people to grow chillies for him, so if you have the time and space why not think about it.

Contact Dan on 01434 322455 or email

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