Begone Fiendish Frosts

UK frosts are a damnable thing…dominating our lives for weeks on end, with never the same frost twice. Omnipresent during the darker months. No way a chilli plant is growing out there…not a snowball’s chance in Hell.

In early Spring, just when the birds are a-nesting, Jack Frost STILL manages to sneak up on you at the most unexpected times. You assume he’s gone, but then, BOO, there he is again! In the air, on the ground, feathered across the windows, wiping out blossom and melting soft new growth left, right and centre. He’s a real pain in the backside.

Luckily things start to change: the mercury creeping up the thermometer gives us a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. This cold WILL NOT last forever, we CAN do this.

Some nights are mild, then back to cool, then a few nights are colder. Watch out for the occasional late season sub zero arctic blaster though. No predictability leaves us doing the dance of a thousand plants, in and out we go. In the hope to harden off but not kill off.

Suddenly, ta-dah, there are no more frosts and all is forgotten (and forgiven). We go forward to salad days.

In our corner of Hampshire, the second week of May is scheduled as the last frost this year- pah, as if it is that easy to predict! Still, it does seem the worst is over and we can finally get on with the task of growing some chillies. And growing they are….

All plants are in the greenhouse or outside. Feeding and watering when the leaves look droopy. A twice daily check for aphids and an invitation to a ladybird or two over for dinner if any ‘phids are found.

Buds aplenty, some flowers are open, a few chillies have set and most plants look pretty happy with life.

Long may it last.

Tangy Prawn and Coconut Curry

It’s a bank holiday weekend and we are cooking on an Aga. Life is pretty good. So, what to cook? OK, how about something with chilli? Sure thing!

It’s Aga time!

Gather and prepare the ingredients before you start as the cooking of this dish is fast and furious. Make your chilli and spice selection. Will it be chilli powder, fresh chilli, chilli paste, chilli flakes, chilli sauce, homemade spice mix, fermented chilli paste. In the ingredient list below is our choice. Go with whatever flavours suit your mood, palette and heat tolerance. The choice is all yours!

Choose wisely.
  • sunflower oil
  • 2 red onions, sliced
  • a spoonful of gochujang (such an amazing, yummy product, adding depth and umami to dishes like this)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
  • a chilli of your choice, sliced
  • small handful of garam masala (we ground our own for this recipe with coriander seed, cumin, fennel seed, white peppercorn, lots of cardamon, cloves and cinnamon)
  • a finger of fresh turmeric, finely grated
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped roughly
  • 2 tsp of runny honey
  • a handful of desiccated cocount
  • a can of coconut milk
  • bunch of coriander, chopped
  • a whole lot of prawns (100 g per person)
  • green pepper, sliced
  • pak choi, leaves and stems chopped
  • a lime for squeezing

Now you’re ready to cook up one tasty prawn dish.

  • Heat a wide pan, big enough to fit the entire dish in it. We opted for a 30cm almond Le Creuset shallow casserole, needs must and all that.
  • Add the sunflower oil and onion. Fry until the onions start to take on a little colour.
  • Add ginger, garlic, chilli and turmeric. Fry for 30 seconds. Don’t let the garlic burn now. That’s why we tend to slice garlic, not crush. Less chance of burning.
  • Add garam masala, gochujang, honey and tomatoes. Allow it all to smoosh together.
  • Now for the coconut. Chuck in the dessicated stuff and let it absorb the liquid from the tomatoes. Then give the can of coconut milk a good shake and tip it in. You might need to scrap the more solid part out if the can is cold.
  • Let the sauce come up to a bubble and thicken slightly.
  • Thrown in the peppers, pan choi stalks and the prawns.
  • When the prawns are pink, stir the pan choi leaves in and serve.
  • Add a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of coriander leaves.
Ready to be served on a bed of spicy noodles. Just squeeze on some lime and garnish with coriander sprinkles.

Topping for a second time

We’ve learned a lot from the first topping…

Different varieties of chilli like topping in different degrees. Some just don’t seem to understand what to do and others get it right first time.

A good example of a slow learner is Poblano. At the initial topping, Poblano was topped carefully to leave four true leaves. All seemed well. However, each of the plants has grown just one (or maybe two) new branch from the leaf node. This has then become the main growing stem again. It’s like the Auxin only made it down as far as that node and stopped there. Result: minimal branching, one main growing point AGAIN.

Topped Poblano, falling back into its old habits: one growth spike, minimal branching.

The best in class when it comes to branching out has got to be the Chinense group. Again, they were topped to leave four true leaves. This was difficult as they were tightly packed. Every single node has sprouted a new branch. Result: lush, dense plants with plenty of growing branches to bear lots of fruit.

Just look at all those new shoots. The Chinenses may be slow to grow but when they do it is ALL GOOD.

Espelette seems to know what to do with itself once its top has been whipped off. The difference is obvious looking at plants that have and haven’t been topped. Well done Espelette. We salute you.

Left: topped plant with branching at every leaf node. Right: taller plant, no branching, beginning to show a Y at the top. Flower buds.

Overall, topping HAS resulted in the chilli plants growing extra branches, lower down, before they form the Y. It has delayed flower formation and therefore flower drop or fruit developing too soon. Sometimes chillies forget to produce more flowers if they have an early fruit or two.

The Demon Scissor Snipper has been back. A second topping has occurred. Any plant that had not yet formed a Y has had its new branches topped too. Mwwwhhhhhaaaaarrr!

Why? In aid of even bushier plants, with more flowers, less chance of branch snapping and plants that topple over. And of course, many more chillies!

Pinching out, plants, progress and potting on.

The last few weeks have been busy. Spring has finally sprung in Hampshire. The garden is waking up and our Family and other Animals are demanding attention. The chillies have been quietly doing their thing on the window sill. After a sunshine-tastic Easter Bank Holiday it is time for a progress report.

Potting on…

Roots were starting to appear at the bottom of the smaller pots. A sure sign it is time to pot on. Not too big too soon or the plants will spend all their time growing new roots to fill the massive pot and forget to grow up top.

The same mix of soil was used. Seemed to work well for the first round of pots so why change it? No need for staking any plants yet. This time last year the Jalapeños and Big Bombs were already needing a small stake to stop them flopping over. Topping has helped the plant stability.

86 plants potted on. Very satisfying.

As a result of topping…

The plants have responded well to their growing tip being pinched out. Some plants were showing signs of branching anyway but others, less natural spreaders, have really bunched up and sent out side shoots galore. Excellent work. Although none of the topped plants have flower buds they all have many, many more growth points, rather than one leading spike.

A comparison of topped and not topped plants show significant differences (significant to us, anyway) Topping has slowed flower development, created more leaves, bushier and shorter plants. The non-topped plants are destined to be sold at a Summer Fete. They are tall, flowering plants with big leaves. They should do well in their new homes.

The late-to-be-sown Rocoto plants have just been topped. They are rapid growers and have a good number of true leaves. Snip snip snip. Time to bush out.

Last year the solo Rocoto plant we grew was a real pain in the greenhouse. Sprawling and brittle, it decided it needed other plants to support it. This made moving them around almost impossible. It was definitely worth the hassle (as is clear from the last minute seed planting) but there is nothing wrong with attempting to keep them more compact this year.

Rocoto chilli plants freshly topped.

Moving up to the greenhouse…

The plants been up in our heated, bubble wrapped greenhouse for nearly a week and the results are good. All round light, controlled temperature and gentle air flow has really allowed the plants to flourish. We’ve been trying to keep the temperature above 15 degrees at night, so far no problem, despite outdoor temperatures hovering around zero. Temperatures during the day are less than perfect. It can often be well over 35 degrees in there, with window and door open. We’ve attempted some strategic placing of the hotter types on the South side and the ones that are less tolerant of high temperatures on the North side or somewhat under the shelving. Generally all the plants have added a couple of extra sets of leaves and are looking tip top.

There are a selection of plants that will be gifted to friends and family. These are not necessarily going to be potted on or placed in prime location though, just kept ticking along. They will be left in their first pots or potted on into odds and sods pots. A good chance to clear out any unwanted pots. These are in the cold frame, covered over at night and will be fleeced if a cheeky frost makes a surprise appearance.

Potted on ready to sell at the school Summer Fete.

All the Trinidad Perfume plants are showing good growth but have odd looking central new leaves. Pale and crinkly. Investigations and results will follow.

Trinidad Perfume plants showing signs of nutrient deficiency. Time to investigate.

Time to consider the feeding regime again. Should we increase the Chilli Focus mix to 10mls per litre? Should we go to twice a week or stick with once a week? Is an Epsom Salt spray needed again? And what about banana tea?


How and when to top your chilli plants?

Our chilli plants are progressing nicely. Lighting has been au natural so they are not the deep, dark, dense green & glossy beasts that some people have lurking beneath their grow lights. Maybe Father Christmas will bring us lights this year, who knows. Until such time, we have our lovely honest plants that have germinated and grown in a UK Winter. As a result, they have slightly petite leaves, longer stem spaces between pairs of leaves and a grassier green colour.

It is time to top.

What does that mean?

You might call topping, pinching out, top pruning or even FIMming (Google that for an explanation). The Chelsea Chop works on the same idea too. They are all pretty much the same thing. Snipping off the growing shoot at the top of an immature chilli plant, before it has split to a Y or produce flower buds.

You can tell if the plants might benefit from a topping if they are leggy. Look at the space between each set of true leaves. Is it bigger than you would like? Does the plant bend a little too much? Are you worried you might snap the plant when you move it around? If yes to these questions then your plant is ready to take its top off.

Why? What are the benefits:

More fruit: the removal of the main apex growing shoot sends the key plant growth hormone, auxin, down the stem to encourage many more growing shoots to develop further down the plant. The result is more growing branches, more flowers and ultimately more fruit. Yay! Better order that chest freezer now.

More compact plants: naturally grown plants can be a little leggy at this time of the year. This can be dealt with in a few ways. When repotting they can be buried up to their seed leaves, encouraging more roots to grow and reducing the height of the plant. Topping also deals with a plant that is undesirably tall early in the season. Don’t be scared now, it will all work out fine.

More stable plants: another benefit to reducing the height of the plant and sending it out sideways will become apparent later the season. Some chilli plants (jalapeño, guajilo, padron to name a few) could reach up to 2 metres tall. By encouraging a bushy style plant you will avoid plants that can be blown over in the wind, or knocked over if they are dry. Single tall stems can be easily snapped, especially ones that have larger fruit. Multi stems not so much. All that hard work could end up for nothing. You might find there is less need for staking too.

Are there any negative effects?

Delayed flowers and fruit: so of course, by topping the lead growth shoot you are delaying the onset of flowers and fruit, essentially checking the plant. If you have a short growing season and are only interested in a smallish crop then go right ahead, let the chilli plant grow as it wants, with little interference, and you’ll be harvesting your chillies a week or two before us toppers. Although, you might find that those early flowers do not hang around to set fruit as the plant is too immature to support them.

Less side shoots: Hmm, maybe. If you have a chilli plant that likes to bush out and make side shoots all on its own then cutting off some of the plant will leave less leaf joins to sprout new shoots. Don’t top if you have all the space in the world. A side shoot variety (padron for example) will just get on with things itself. As long as you are prepared to stake and support as the fruit sets and enlarges.

Does this work for every type of chilli?

The topping principal totally works on any chilli. But, with naturally small, bushy plants, or plants that send out side shoots you might choose not to bother. Our Chinense types are half the height of the larger Annuums at the moment. No need to do anything with them just yet, maybe not at all. They take a lot longer to get on with things. Bactuum types are often spindly and branched anyway. Topping could help keep them more sturdy.

Top left: Trinidad Perfume (Cap. chinense), bottom left: Aleppo (Cap. annuum)

How to top?

Well now, if you are a You Tube kinda chillihead then settle down to watch Veronica Flores explain all things topping. You’ll be rushing off for your tiny scissors in no time at all.

  1. Wait until the plant has between 3-5 sets of true leaves.
  2. Find a nice sharp pair of scissors.
  3. Take a deep breath.
  4. Snip out the main growing shoot. Leaving one or two pairs of true leaves, depending on how brave you are.
  5. Sit back and watch the side shoots grow.
  6. The side shoots can also be topped later on in the season if they are leggy.

Five days later and our plants are already showing sign of side shoots.

Do be warned: topping is addictive.

Why are the chilli plants a bit pale?

A south facing windowsill in March is no longer enough for the chillies in our lives. The leaves are a little limey in colour (especially the chinense types) and some of the plants just a bit leggy (especially the jalapeño and poblano). Without rushing for LED lighting and pinching out the tops just yet what can be done?

The key questions are would they do better in a warmer place? How can they get the most natural light? Do they need feeding more?

A bit of background information to give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with.

First temperature…

The chilli seedlings are currently in the house. You would hope that the house is a good temperature for the chillies to thrive. Monitoring with a maximum and minimum thermometer reveals that during the day, in particular cloudy days, the temperature can drop to as low as 17 degrees. At night an overnight low of…the same. Our house is pretty consistent.

In comparison, the heated greenhouse temperature has been all over the place. Sometimes 13 degrees at night, sometimes down to 5 degrees. It was zero outside but still, rather chilly for chillies! Sometimes 35 during the day. We have the smaller chilli plants in the greenhouse already. Although they are growing, they are no where near as advanced as the house ones. This is really the only other location we could consider putting the house plants. Perhaps quite yet.

Ideal chilli growing temperature range is 27-31 degrees. Well that is a hell of a lot hotter than these little babies have been getting. Time to raise our game and temperature. Off to turn the central heating on and research heating cables.

Now light…

Our two south facing windowsills can take five trays of twelve plants each but we have fifteen trays. The trays are on rotation to allow a fair share of being closest to the window and are lined up on a big table as close to the light as possible. It is March and we receive 12 hours of sunlight on a good day. However, on a double drip rainy day it can be really dingy. Clearly not enough light for those at the back of the class.

And then feed…

The plants are currently given a weak solution of Chilli Focus (5ml per litre) The bottle says they can be given 10mls per litre as the plants mature…perhaps it is time? Or maybe a nitrogen feed would be more suitable at this point and then switch back to the potash feed when flowers start to form. Or maybe Epsom salts might do the trick? Yes, a quick Google reveals that no harm can come from an Epsom salt spraying and a lot of good could be done.

Epsom salts are magnesium sulphate. Good for boosting chlorophyll production, uptake of nutrients and the ability to produce flowers and fruit. Best administered in a foliar spray it seems you can do no wrong with a misting of Espom Salts Wonder Spray (1 tsp per litre of warm water to aid dissolving).

The plan…

  1. The weather is turning from deluge of rain & 50 mph winds to cold and clear with some night time frosts. Until those frosts have passed we will have to stick it out in the house. It’s just not warm enough in the greenhouse.
  2. Keeping the central heating on in the house during the coldest days. The plants already come in off the window sills when the curtains are drawn.
  3. Moving the taller anuum type chillies nearer the windows to avoid any further legginess. The others will still be in the light. Turn the plants to encourage strong stems.
  4. An Espom salt spray will hopefully give a chlorophyll boost. Maybe that will compensate for the lack of prime window spots. We’ll continue with the Chilli Focus for now but…stop the press…a new click hole of banana compost has opened up. We get through a lot of bananas so this could be a good way to use the skins. We’ll report back.

True leaves

Time for an update on the 20 varieties of chilli we have growing here at The Birdhouse in sunny and blustery Hampshire, England.

A quick reminder of the seedlings’ journey so far…

The seeds were soaked in tea and left to chit in a humid propagator. Once the seeds had rooted & shooted they were put into small newspaper pots. They were kept fed and watered until their roots peeked out the bottom of the pots. Potted on into 9cm square pots. No science behind the square pot choice. We just have lots of them. They fit & balance well on our windowsill trays. And there we are, the story so far.

Chilli varieties with varying numbers of true leaves. Showing days since germination…

And if we do it all again next year?

We have not used heaters, reflectors, heated pads, lights or anything else too specialist…yet. Next year we might consider providing extra lighting once the seeds are germinated and potted up. A quick social media peek at specialist chillihead groups soon reveal the types of plant that can be grown under specialist UV lights with a little extra heat. Short, dark, glossy beasts that are poised to surge up when the frosts are finally over. Something to aim for.