Scotland's Larder: Sheena Horner from Galloway Chillies

Sheena Horner of Galloway Chillies tells us how she ended up growing her own chilli plant business in Dumfries and Galloway.

Published 1st Jun 2021
Updated 1 st Jun 2021

Sheena Horner started her chilli growing business near Wigtown because she loved spicy food and she couldn't get the hot stuff she wanted locally.

She grew up on her family's farm in Dumfries and Galloway, where they kept beef cattle and bred game pheasants.

Dumfries and Galloway

Despite having left the farm as a teenager, she said, "one way or another I have always worked in the rural community."

Sheena returned to the area in her thirties having worked for The Department of Agriculture, inspecting farms and then as a wildlife adviser for Natural England.

She admits that, "I am happiest when out and about involved with livestock," so her current base, right next door to a dairy farm in the countryside, is an ideal location.

The main challenge of running her rural business in the South West of Scotland, "is that we are miles away from anywhere," she said.

Galloway Chillies
Sheena can say whether a chilli has been grown in the UK, by its unique scent Picture: Coulson & Tennant

Sheena admits to being a chilli anorak, who can detect whether one has been grown in the UK by its unique scent.

She explains, "I'm the crazy lady going round, sniffing chillies in the supermarket."

Reuse recycle

She started growing some chillies for her own personal use and she said, " I discovered I was actually quite good at it, and basically the whole thing has snowballed from there."

Her garden, aka Chilli HQ, has a collection of polytunnels and greenhouses, however she has been banned by her husband Neil, from acquiring any more.

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She is very proud of the fact that she has never actually bought a single greenhouse new.

Although one tunnel was purchased when she sheltered from the rain at the Highland Show, she said, "by the time the rain has stopped, I had bought it.

"Now I'm a dab hand at dismantling them. I have got it down to a fine art without breaking panes, I love it because it is all about recycling."

Sheena with one of the 20 varieties of mint that she grows. Picture: Rebecca Dawes

She also reuses plastic tubs from farms which would otherwise go in to landfill. "it is giving them a longer shelf life instead of them being thrown away." 

Wrap up warm, it is a bit chilly

Sheena explains, that "the name, chilli, is completely daft, as the plants absolutely hate the cold."

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What they need are warm conditions but Sheena explains: "the worst thing you can actually do is over-water them, they just need a little water and then they will be happy."

Sheena currently grows around 30 different types, but she said, "I'm like a kid in a sweetie shop when the seed catalogues drop through the door."

She explains that there are over 2500 different ones.

Galloway Chillies
Just a few of the varieties that she grows Picture: Coulson & Tennant

Minty Fresh

Over the past few years she has diversified into growing hardy herbs and now stocks around 20 varieties of mint.

The idea initially was to grow different mints specifically for the artisan gin market, however she said, "the pandemic happened, so that got knocked on the head."

galloway chillies
Just one of the varieties of mint that she grows.

Although she has made her own chilli based products in the past, just now Sheena is concentrating her efforts into growing chilli plants to sell, although she has limited stock available at the moment.

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This year has seen her growing ornamental plants, which customers can grow at home on windowsills but which have the added benefit that you can also eat them.

Grow your own

The seeds are planted in January.

Sheena said, "you need patience to germinate them. It can take up to 20 plus days to pop their heads out of the soil and need to be kept at a constant 25 -28 degrees for that time."

She has temperature controlled propagators for the job, and all her seeds are mollycoddled until the danger of a late frost has past.

Until they are properly hardened off, "you are always checking the temperature in the evening or getting a heater out," she said.

Galloway Chillies
Chillies. Picture: Coulson & Tennant

She describes herself like a mother hen, constantly tending them and will bring some of the varieties back into her house if there is a sudden cold snap.

So that means, "no holidays. They are too precious, because they take so long to grow. It's not like you can quickly put another batch in. If you have lost them, then they are gone." 

Roll up, roll up

Fortunately her husband Neil is also skilled at looking after the chillies and the couple normally spend their weekends attending food festivals and fairs.

They would normally have a stand at the Highland Show.

She said, "it is a good way to market the business. I like selling direct to the public, it is a great way to get feedback.

"People will be open and honest with you and I basically get to run a chilli clinic and people will ask me about their plants."

Galloway Chillies
Galloway Chillies Picture: Coulson & Tennant

Attending the Highland Show as an exhibitor not as a visitor was quite a big leap, but she explained, "I'm in my element when I'm talking about chillies."

The Name Game

Sheena grows Jalapenos, and Orange Habanero, which look slightly like a scotch bonnet but she said, "it has a much nicer flavour, with a fruitiness to it as well, as a bit of heat."

One of her favourites is Lemon Drop, which she said, "does exactly what it says on the tin, it has a citrus flavour and I really like a slice of this chilli in my favourite and locally made, Hills and Harbour gin."

Galloway Chillies Lemon Drop
Lemon Drop Chillies. Picture: Coulson & Tennant

Another popular variety is Fairylights, which has multi coloured fruits like Christmas lights. The fruits all start off as one colour but then they gradually change.

Loco, another variety, starts off green, before turning purple and then it goes to red. Sheena said, "it looks good in a display."

Chillies are planted annually in the UK, Sheena explains: "the hotter they are the longer they take to germinate."

They are just like other seeds, they need a light covering of soil but more crucially they need light and heat.

She chuckles, "They are in no rush to appear until they know it is going to be warm enough."

Health benefits

Sheena explains, "chillies are very good for you, as they boost your metabolism."

She was discussing this with a friend one evening and they both agreed there should be a product with Burns in the name, as Robert Burns lived in Dumfries and Galloway, where her business is based.

She said, "that is how we invented the hot toddy jam which we called Chilli Burns."

It is a local product made from Bladnoch malt whisky, honey and Lemon Drop chillies which gives it that citrus flavour.

It came second in the Speciality section of the Jelly Division of the World Hot Sauce Awards in Louisiana in 2015.

At the minute, she has put her production of Chilli Burns and other award winning products on hold.

Changing world

The reason is that Sheena has outgrown her own kitchen production set up and is in the process of up-scaling and working along with a charity, The Crossroads Community Hub.

It is a community project and development trust set up by a group of local people in East Ayrshire which provides new opportunities for everyone, and hopefully will be able to take over production duties.

Sheena Horner
The environment is close to Sheena's heart

Sheena also had planned to work with local farmers to utilise food gluts to develop some new products, but "all this happened just before the pandemic, which has been incredibly frustrating.

"Although it has been a good opportunity to reflect on our business."

"People are keener than ever to know where their food is coming from, and there is an appetite to support local producers.

"There is a price difference, but now people realise you get what you pay for."

The environment impact is also important, so she has converted to using Dalefoot compost, made from sheep wool and bracken, and because she was so impressed by the results she is now a stockist.

She also uses coir pots because they biodegrade so you can plant them in the ground with the herbs.

Sheena Horner
Banana Mint Another of the mint varieties that she grow

However one eco idea which was less successful, was switching to wooden labels, she said, "it doesn't matter what type of pen I use or marker the writing fades, so we are looking for something different."

The couple have three dogs for company, and she says "the dogs wisely don't go near the chillies."

Sheena also explains that in hot countries, "chillies are often grown around crops to deter elephants."

Hot stuff

Sheena has supplied some of her wares to The Three Chimneys on Skye, and chef Mark Greenaway also used some on the Channel 4 TV show, Sunday Brunch.

She also works part time as the regional food group coordinator, for both Dumfries and Galloway and Ayrshire, and this second role has been a lifesaver for her.

It is funded by Scotland Food and Drink and the regional authority and she is tasked with building relationships to promote the region, food, drink businesses to boost the economy.

She said, "finding out what food is produced and stories behind those companies and getting people to use more local produce, is exciting.

"We just need to get people knowing what is available on their doorstep."

Galloway Chillies
Chillies. Picture: Coulson & Tennant

Sheena is passionate about spreading the word about chillies and loves to gives talks about them.

She will happily explain about the Scoville scale, a measurement of chilli heat, from the very lowest which are bell peppers to the world's hottest which is The Carolina Reaper, which measures at over 2 Million Scoville Heat units.

Sheena said, "I love heat, but I know where my heat tolerance is."

She does grow a former world record holder called, The Dorset Naga. She said, "It is a nice chilli, but it has a horrendous kick."

Sheena is very much looking forward to things getting back to normal and hopefully a very hot summer in more ways than one.

Sheena Horner, Galloway Chillies. Picture: David Moses

Galloway chillies

• READ MORE: Scotland's larder: Liz Crossley-Davies from The Star Rock Shop in Kirriemuir

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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