Keeping chilli seedlings under a grow light

We’ve got a light! Just one mind you… but it may multiply. Let’s see if it makes a difference to last year’s au naturel efforts. We have the Phlizon 1200W LED Full Spectrum grow light. Father Christmas did a lot of research and selected this magnificent glowing product. Good work Saint Nick!

Phlizon 1200W is currently strung up with a Heath Robinson style pulley & rope system between bookcase and curtain rail. Dangling 24 inches from the seed leaves of the chilli babies, it gently whirrs in the corner of the room and the seedlings gaze lovingly up at it.

The Dove from Above: Phlizon 1200W,

Why do we need lights?

When us chilli growin’ Brits want to make full use of the heat and light of our limited Summer months, we have to start planting way back in January – especially with those tricky Chinense types. The UK climate certainly presents some challenges when starting this early. Long, dark nights and cold, grey days are certainly not the perfect environment for chillies.

To replicate what a chilli likes, we use a number of techniques that hopefully give our plants a good start in life. One of these techniques is to use a grow light: replacing or supplementing the seemingly absent sun with an artificial source of light. This instantly deals with the lack of daylight hours in a drab Hampshire Winter.

It’s not just replacing like for like either, an artificial sun can be much, much more. You can tailor the wavelength range of lights to suit the particular phase of growing your plants are in. Briefly, green plants (including chillies) need a range of solar radiation (light) of wavelength 450-700nm to grow to their potential. This is known as Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) and happens to correspond to the spectrum the human eye can register.

Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) range that stimulates plant growth corresponds with the spectrum visible to the human eye

For early growth and strong roots the plants need a wavelength range of 450-495nm. This is the blue light range. Imagine a chilli plant in the wild, early in the growing season (Spring and early Summer) sunlight is naturally more in this range.

Later on, during the flowering and fruiting stage at the end of Summer, early Autumn, sunlight has a more red tone, 680-750nm. We can replicate this by switching to the BLOOM light range. Red tones increase flowering and photosynthesis rate.

When producing chilli plants under artificial light we can replicate and enhance what Mother Nature tells us to do.

What types of lights are available?

Fluorescent lighting

This is a good cheap start-up option. Bulbs are readily available in stores and online. The bulbs and units are relatively small and can be fitted well into grow tents. They don’t get super hot and so no need for fans or large distances between light and plants.

High Intensity Discharge lights: Metal Halides (blue spectrum) and High Pressure Sodium (red light)

These are a serious bit of kit. Probably a bit too full on for a home grower like us but something to aspire to if things scale up.

The lights produce a significant amount of heat, which can be a good thing for chillies but will also come with additional tasks and risks. Extra watering, fanning to keep cooler air circulating and greater space to keep the light further away from the young plants are all necessary. The results can be damaging if you get this type of lighting wrong.

So we opted for LEDs…

OK, not cheap to buy a unit but cheap to run. Yes, you have to wade through vast quantities of overseas sellers and their Amazon reviews but once installed they are simple to use, safe for beginners and not too bulky. Better for the environment with low electricity required to run them, long bulb life and minimal heat output.

The Phlizon 1200W is a full spectrum unit which has a VEG switch (to turn on blue and white lights), a BLOOM switch (red and white) and both switches can be used together. Not sure if we will end up using the BLOOM phase light option as the plants will be in the greenhouse by then. Mr Birdhouse is hoping to use the blue phase for his tomatoes, squashes and cucumbers so the chillies may never experience the rosy glow of the red bloom light. Perhaps separate lights for each phase would have been better?

How much light?

We’ve covered why we use additional lighting and what types of lighting are available. Now to think about how much light is required.

Chillies originated in places where there are longer hours of daylight. Perhaps they still remember this and will grow rapidly if this is replicated? 12-16 hours of light seems to be a pretty good amount. Too much of a good thing can be bad for them though so remember to switch the lights off. Keep to your routine and they will reward you with strong growth. A plug timer will help with this (next month’s purchase). A ratio of 16:8 hours on:off seems to be just about right for our growing chillies.

Potting on chitted chilli seeds

Having soaked our chilli seeds in tea; chitted them on warm, damp kitchen paper until they germinated; and sung sweetly to them… it is now time to plant them in some actual soil and let them do their thing.

The beginning of the new year is a cold, dark and lonely time for a seedling in the UK. We look after our chilli babies the best we can to stop them being affected by the January Blues.

So what exactly do we do?

Paper pots

Careful preparation is the name of the game. We make newspaper pots using a wooden pot maker. Each germinated seed gets popped into a warmed paper pot for the next stage of its journey

These pots are perfect for us because…

  • they are free,
  • made from recycled materials,
  • can be potted directly into a bigger pot, with minimal root disturbance
  • can be composted at the end of the season
  • No labelling mix-ups, just write on the outside of the pot.

Ok, so they take time to make and are a little flimsy. They can dry out quickly, especially on a heated surface or in direct sunlight but we love them and they work for us.

Paper pot production goes into overdrive as we attempt to keep up with the number of seeds that are germinating. 50 is our goal today, must get rolling!

Seed compost

The seedlings need very little to start of with as they are still being fed from the endosperm (food stash from within the seed). Use a dedicated seed compost as it is low nutrients, good drainage, small particles. All good for little roots trying to develop.

A couple of teaspoons of seed compost fill each pot. Don’t forget to write the variety on the outside BEFORE you water

Warmth

Gently warm the paper pots filled with seed compost BEFORE the seedlings are put in the soil. This means there is no shock to the system and they should continue to grow as if nothing has changed.

We place our pots on plastic windowsill trays. Lined with capillary matting. These tray conveniently rest on top of our radiators. Soil stays warm. Chillies LOVE it!

In addition to keeping the pots warm we use warm water when giving the seedlings a drink. Water from the base every few days. Careful not to overwater as waterlogged soil can check growth. Keep an eye on the outside pots as they will dry out quicker than the inner ones.

Warming nicely

Light

Make sure the seedlings get as much natural light as possible. We started in January last year, grew under only natural light and had a pretty amazing harvest. We just had to rotate a lot. The light keeps the plants from getting too leggy in the early days. Consider a set of grow lights. We are about to embark on this journey with our first set of lights: The Phlizon 1200W. More will be said about this at a later date.

Feed

After a week or so, once the seed leaves are unfurled and looking a good strong green, we start to feed a weak solution of Chilli Focus. Not too much, or the roots can burn, just enough to keep the wolves at bay. 5mls to litre of warm water should do it.

Start to feed after each seedling has

And there you have it, a simple but tested way of looking after your precious babies at this early stage of the game.

Early Summer chilli plant progress report

Having sown most seeds in January it is just lovely to watch the plants flourish and fruit. We pickled our first jar of jalapeños last night and they are nearly finished already. That’s how it should be.

Everything is looking pretty fresh and green, despite recent erratic weather patterns. Lots of flowers on display and plenty of young pods. All protected, populated and pollinated by a veritable army of ladybirds partnered with a daily fly by from the hoverfly squadron. A few Annuums are dropping flowers, a few are giving up flowering now they’ve produced a pod or two but on the whole all is well in the Birdhouse greenhouse (and now surrounding area).

Time for an update on each plant.

The Originals…in order of flowering

Golden Greek Pepperoncini

These have been very quick to mature, flower, fruit and ripen. The chillies are ripening to a vibrant orange The first round of chillies have been picked and ripened in the fruit bowl. They are almost glowing orange. The next flush of chillies are still on the plant, ripening in the sun. This is a slower process and includes a chocolate brown stage. Not sure where the ‘golden’ comes from, maybe another stage of ripening?

They are planted in 10L flower buckets from our local Co-op. Each plant is about 60cm high and will hopefully still keep flowering and fruiting. Tasty little chilli with very little heat, even with the seeds left in. We used them to freshen up a guacamole and ended up adding a hotter chilli for heat too.

Sweet Banana – is this really a chilli?

They really do look like bananas. They have as much heat as a banana too. Not that they are meant to be spicy really. The plants are outside in 10L pots. The first pods have been removed to encourage further flowering. Not much second round flower action yet.

Jalapeno – an oldie but a goodie

Known to endure cooler temperatures better than lots of other types of chillies, our Jalapenos are situated outside the greenhouse and have been for some time. They are currently on the second batch of pickings. And are now in a brief interlude before fulfilling their potential in 10L buckets – we hope.

Poblano – a dark beauty

Another early to fruit type. The trouble with leaving the very first few flowers on is that once they set and start to grow no more flowers are produced. The first couple of fruit from each plant have been picked and a new round grown and picked already.

Contrary to many chillies’ tastes, the Poblano plants do not like the heat and are quick to wilt in protest if they are even a little dry or above 20 degrees. The first Poblano fruit to set was scorched through the greenhouse glass. They too are now growing outside and seem much happier. The nighttime temperatures are well above 5 degrees these days so no real problem there. It would be nice to think they plants would grow bigger and more tree like. They are in 10L pots so have space to bulk up. The pods could bulk up too.

Padron – get that frying pan hot and ready!

The Padrons have been growing, flowering, fruiting and repeating for some time now. They were the first plants to move outside and the first into the 10L buckets. They are looking really settled, no sign of flower drop and are casually leaning on the outside of the greenhouse, just hanging out, doing their thing. Best pan fried with a crush of sea salt, perfect with paella.

Espelette type -a favourite in the house so far

We are loving these plants. Tall and covered in the largest white flowers. They have stunning heart shaped leaves. The first few fruit have been picked already to encourage the plants to produce more flowers. No ripe pods yet.

They are planted into 5L pots and are heading towards a metre in height already. Might pop them in the 10Ls and feed them up a bit to encourage roots as well and fruits. Can’t wait to see how they end up. We’re hoping to dry and grind these into a tasty paprika.

Guajilo – bigger fruit than expected

The plants were amongst the first to flower and fruit. Again, the first fruit have been removed to encourage further flowering. These chillies can be eaten green and so it is fine to keep picking. One surplus plant has been planted out into our eldest daughter’s garden. It seems to be loving life there. Most of the greenhouse plants are nearing a metre high and are in 7.5L pots.

Cherry Bomb – da bomb!

The Bombs are certainly da bomb! There are currently residing in 5L pots and are a whopping 75cm full of flower and fruit. Their flowers are white and profuse. Not too many of them have dropped. They just seem to get taller and taller.

Last year we grew Big Bomb and their final pots were only 3L. Aiming for a bigger crop this year as the whole family love these sweetie chillies. Can’t wait for them to ripen so we can get pickling.

Aleppo – Nigella’s fave

A speedy deliverer. And yet, not as good as anticipated. The plants are smallish, 30cm in 2L pots. Roots are only just peeking through the bottom so they have not been potted up. Flowering has slowed now 3-5 fruit have set on each plant. The fruit is turning black in the sun, it would be great to see some red showing through soon. Might try potting on to 3L to see if that gives them a new lease of life.

Cow Horn – crazy curls

These plants were super quick to mature to the point of flower and fruit. We have picked one round of crazy curled pods already. Again, this strategy is to encourage further growth and flowering. At the moment there are very few flowers. It seems after 3-5 fruit have set no more buds come along. Hopefully some will grow now the first fruit have been removed.

It was so exciting to see the first flowers this year that it was just too heart wrenching to remove them. Perhaps next year we will be brave enough to pick off the first few buds to allow the plants to mature before concentrating on pod production.

Rocoto – home grown

So pleased that we decided to plant these home produced seeds. The plants behave in such a different way. They are hairy sprawlers with flowers all over. There are far more pods than you think. They are sitting in 3L pots at the moment. The will be planted into larger boxes that currently have first early potatoes in them. Dry weather = slow potatoes. Not long now my purple beauties! The plants could really rocket once they are in their new homes.

Habanero Primero Red – first of the Chinenses

What an excellent plant. They are in 3L pots (although they may be potted on on today as more soil/root while we are away will be better for them) 30cm high but also 30cm wide. They are sprawling, branched and laden with flower and fruit. Must give them a little blood, fish and bone in the compost mix to keep the whole plant going. Lots of Potassium is all very well but there are plenty of growing days left in the season, it not all about the fruit quite yet. Looking forward to tasting these when they are ripe.

Scotch Bonnets – or are they?

So, these prized plants are not what we thought they were. Our 2018 Scotch Bonnet were just the best: so glossy, nail polish perfect scarlet, fragrant and hot. Right up our street!

There were no plans to repeat any of the same plants from 2018 to 2019 but on the 7th of January we gave in and ordered a solitary pack of Red Scotch Bonnet seeds from the South Devon Chilli Farm. We had already placed an order with them. Extra P&P was paid but we didn’t care. We were thrilled to think that after nearly a full year of growing we would, yet again, have these wonderful fruit in our lives. Hands were rubbed in anticipation.

Not to be! Look at those flowers: Baccatum if ever there has been one. Look at those pods: Bishops Crown, that’s what they are! Fuming doesn’t even begin to describe it! Funny, checking records, these seeds germinated in five days, whereas all our other Chinense types took nearly twice that. The signs were there but we missed them. Should have ordered another pack of SBs from elsewhere at that point. Note to selves: always source two pack of Scotch Bonnets, from two different sources!

Being true chilli heads, we are keen to see what the Bishops Crown brings to the party. Mild is what the forum says. Hurumph is what we say. They’re in 5L pots, about 75cm tall, branched and they have about 10% flower drop.

Bubblegum 7 -such different flowers

The plants are showing chinense characteristics: determinate plants with branches covered in lime flowers. These flowers have very stubby little petals. Fruit looks like it is setting. In 3L pots but will soon be into a final 5L.

A kindly neighbour took pity on me and gifted two 7 Pot Yellow plants. These are just about showing clusters of buds. Perhaps they will have the same diddy petals?

Tobago Seasoning – only just figured out that ‘seasoning’ means ‘not hot’

Growing well. They were chitted 10 days later than everything else so are therefore forgiven for being 10 days or so behind. Flowers are popping out all along the stems. Nice. The first few pods are longer and thinner than I had imaged but no worries.

Trinidad Perfume – slowly does it

A true Chinense type, slow growing, almost to the point you think something is wrong, maybe you offending these plants somehow? But no, eventually the buds appear and then a flower or two open. And that’s where we’re at. The new growth is pale, lime green. Nothing wrong though, it’s just the way they are.

These plants are really only just getting going. They are still in 3L pots, and may stay there for the season as there are no roots showing through the holes. The plants are just approaching 50cm tall.

Madame Jeanette – pretty lady!

She lives in 5L pots and she is really putting out those flowers. No pods yet but it won’t be long. No flower drop. One of the five plants has speckled variegated leaves. Very pretty indeed.

Serrano – freebie seeds

Residing in 3L pots, approximately 60cm tall, the Serranos are casually doing their thing. The seeds were sent as a freebie and so far they are doing A OK. We have three plants, one is really tall, dark and hairy. One is very bushy, covered in flowers and little fruit. And the other is nowhere near as advanced in height or maturity. It just goes to show how each plant is a little different.

Mustard Habanero – the sole survivor

Hang on in there Colonel Mustard, you can do it! At the chitting/germination stage these seeds were left without water too long and dried up. Only a couple survived. They then got their roots enmeshed with the capillary matting they were resting on. And then there was one. Only in a 2L pot and 25cm tall it could have done without me dropping another plant on top of it (it’s crowded in the greenhouse these days!) It’s been a rocky road but he’s surviving – just.

Lots of tiny buds dotted along its remaining stems. Interested to see the pale purple, yellow, white and mustard fruit stages.

Orange Habanero – must grow more of these next year

Another victim of the roots/capillary matting issue. Only one survivor. Covered in flowers and we cannot wait to taste that wonderful fruity fragrant heat. Bring on the pods!

The New Collection…

Err where did these all come from?!

Birds Eye – perfect for The Birdhouse, surely?

It would have been just plain rude to offload surplus plants onto a neighbour without reciprocating and adopting a few extra chilli babies. Birds Eye is one such adoptee. Planted a little later than our chillies it is yet to reach flowering stage but the teeny tiny buds are already visible in clusters a top the good green foliage. It is currently 50cm in a 3L pot.

Kashmiri – classic choice

Another gift from our neighbour. Looking good in its 3L pot. Lots of small leaves. Ready to bust out some buds any minute now.

Ring of Fire – quick to flower

Given that this was a gifted chilli, sown a month or so later than our early chillies, it is already smothered in white flowers. 50cm in 3L pot. You go girl!

Carolina Reaper -of course we’ve got one

We’ve had a bit of crinkling on new growth, perhaps aphids, perhaps stress, who knows! Tiny buds formed and ready to grow, grow, grow. Leaves are a slight pale colour. 3L pot and about 25cm tall. Expecting each ‘branch’ to elongate and fill with flowers pretty soon.

Bhut Jolokia – super hot!

Healthy, glossy leaves. Strong growth spikes, filled with small buds. All good. 25cm in 3L pot.

Naga Morich – completes the set of super hots

A lovely pale green plants with lots of potential. Ready to pop out a load of buds. POW! 3L pot, 25cm tall.

Dedo de Mocha – one from my mother

My mother is a very good plantswoman, her allotment thrives and we all eat well from her hard work. However, when it comes to chillies she has got the kiss of death. I received five sorry-looking Dedo de Moca plants from her. Planted in soggy, multipurpose compost, Their four leaves were streaked yellow from malnutrition and they sulked. Oh, how they sulked.

This was months ago and they have finally perked up. From Internet research I see they are Baccatum and meant to branch, potentially reaching four foot and be prolific. We shall see. Given their rude start in life they may not fulfil that potential.

They are showing signs of good flowers and healthy green growth though. They were topped so are bushing out slightly. The flowers should be lovely looking, maybe with green or ochre spots. 2L pots for now but will attempt to get them into something larger.

Gogorez – what even is this?

Another inherited pepper plant from my mother. Is it a chilli? Did the pack of seeds come free with a magazine? Has she labelled it correctly? Have I labelled it correctly? Ah, Google. It is a sweet pepper with a climbing habit. Might send it outside to climb up the shed then! No room in the greenhouse for your types Signor Gogorez.

Machu Pichu – a garden centre rescue

When visiting our local garden centre Machu Pichu potted chillies were being sold for £4 each. They were tempting – as all chilli plants are. We left them behind. A couple of weeks passed and we returned (more potting grit required). There they were, on the bargain shelf, looking decidedly sorry for themselves. £1 each said the label. We decided to risk three. When we got to the till the lovely lady offered us a further discount of ’50p for all three’ as they were looking so rough. Crispy, dirty leaves. Sodden compost and virtually no new growth nodes. We’ll take them!

They’ve all been topped and one is showing signs of growing well. The others are surviving but I’m just letting them doing their own thing. Hopefully they’re dealing with the roots first and once that is under control they can start to take on leaves and maybe even flower. I know they say stress can be good for chilli production but we’re not holding our breath.

Another quick Google and we find out they are large chillies, medium in heat, smokey, fruity and chestnut brown in final colour. 70-90 days until chilli time. An OK promise for 50p.

And there we have it…

The full compliment of Birdhouse chillies in all their glory. A further update will ensue at harvest time.

Potting on the seedlings

A lot has happened since things kicked off this year. Our seeds were hot housed in the steamy propagator in the hope that germination would be quicker, more consistent and we would be a bit more successful with the chinense types. And things have indeed gone well. Hundreds of seeds germinated, hundreds of paper pots were made and now it is time to pot on the strongest of the plants to a more substantial home.

Paper pots
Germinated chilli seeds in their forever paper pots. Some seedlings just showing their leaves

How do we know it is time to pot on?

The seedlings are starting to show roots through the bottom of their paper pots. Many have two or more sets of leaves. The sun is shining in the UK and is forecast to be so for at least a couple more days. Perfect for a bit of window sunbathing to help the chillies settle in to their new pots. All good signs.

Seedlings ready to pot on

Using the specially formulated potting compost mix, the plants are tucked into 9cm square black pots. A layer of grit is put in the bottom and the paper pots are not removed, just buried within the new pot. Minimal root disturbance and the plants hopefully don’t feel swamped by the new pot.

Hey presto, 151 seedlings are potted on, fed and watered and basking in the sun.

Sunbathing in their new pots

Capsicum pubescens

Capsicum pubescens is a late entry to the heated propagator. Whilst using the last of our homegrown Rocoto chillies it was impossible to just throw the seeds away. So, they were introduced to the chitting pod. Having sworn we would get going earlier with the seeds this year, to allow the longest growing period possible, a quick diary check reveals that these seeds are starting off at pretty much the same time as last year. So much for planning.

Alberto Locato Rocoto

Four days later the roots have emerged. Much quicker than the chinense types and almost as quick as the speedy annuums.

chitted-rocoto-chillies
Chitted Rocoto seeds

And why did we bother with these seeds? Well, it turns out we’ve got a bit of a crush on these squishy fellas. There are far less varieties of Capsicum pubescens available on the market and you would certainly never see them in a UK food store to buy. The chilli fruit are all pretty similar with thick walls, juicy flesh and matt black seeds. With a round shape: some are a little more apple shaped, others lemony and some occasionally cheeked like bell peppers. Heat levels are medium to hot and they have a punchy fresh fruit flavour. They come in a range of -green-yellow-red but not purple or white. So far.

Capsicum pubescens are the smaller group of the five domesticated species of chilli. They are further away from others genetically. They trace back to pre-Incan times in Peru. In fact it is thought that the chilli remains found in the Guitarrero caves 10,000 years ago was a pubescens type. Historically significant as the chilli in question was found alongside evidence of campfires, grinding stones and human bones. It seems chillies were considered pretty valuable food stuffs. Not much has changed in 10,000 years then.

At The Birdhouse, we only grew one plant of this type last year: the high shine red Alberto Rocoto Locato. Gifted to us by my mother. It was easy to spot in the greenhouse as the plant grew differently to the others. For one, it had tiny white hairs on its leaves. Secondly, once it had got going, it split into two branches about 30cm up. It then sprawled out sideways and needed support from other plants. It snapped easily if knocked. It had bright violet flowers, with dusty white stamen. The chillies were late to set and took a long time to ripen to glossy red, maybe a 100 days or more. It matured about sometime similar to the Scotch Bonnets and they supposedly take 120 days. The plant was prolific despite being in a smallish 2.5 L pot. Whilst it was fed well it could probably have done with more root space.

Striking purple flowers

A quick bit of research tells us that these chillies are a fan of cooler nights, although still happy basking during the day. They are far more tolerant to lower temperatures generally. Although not frost tolerant. This bodes well for a UK climate and the need for a longish growing season. They are also long lived perennials, living up to 15 years. They can be climbers or tree formations. I think we might have a few Winter inmates this year. Let the pubescens journey begin.

The last seeds, promise

And still the chilli seeds arrive. A brief trip to Potato Day (100s of varieties of seed potato at 20p a spud) resulted in us buying not just potatoes but additional chilli seeds too. A repeat from last year, ‘Tobago Seasoning’. We had zero success in germinating this variety but we’re having another go. So far the Chinense types are responding well so fingers crossed. Tobago Seasoning are now hanging out in the propagator after their tea bath.

Thomas Etty Tobago Seasoning chilli seeds

Then, a surprise, 26 days after they were ordered, more chilli seeds turn up in the post: 7 Pot Bubblegum and Poblano. Woo Hoo! They got dunked into a cuppa and they will be introduced to the germinating station the next day. The Bubblegum seeds have a neon pink tinge to them and the Poblano seeds are the biggest chilli seeds EVER!

A free pack of Numex Christmas was also in the package. Perhaps more ornamental than culinary? They have small multicoloured chillies, thin skinned and are on the hot end of the scale. Ones to sell as pretty plants.

We are going to need a second greenhouse. Seriously.

Learning some lessons

An update, with added advice to self for next year:

The sprouted seedlings have been transferred to their paper pots, 135 of them so far. Thank goodness for grandparents and all their newspapers. The seed soil was cold and waterlogged (it is January after all) The pots were filled and warmed gently on the radiator.

Paper pots are quick to make and take less paper than you would think. Hopefully the pots will be soft enough for the first roots to break through meaning there will be no need to disturb the seedlings when potting on the next time.

 

Do not let the moisture in the chitting pods evaporate completely or the roots shrivel and dry. This has happened to Habanero Primavero Red. Hopefully some of the remaining seeds will germinate as we have no more in the packet. Not buying any more.

Also, don’t leave the sprouted seedlings too long in the chitting pods as their roots  become intertwined with the capillary matting. Some of the roots have snapped in the transferring process. Not sure whether they will survive or not but they will sulk for at least a week, no doubt. Maybe a vermiculite mix to germinate in would be best next year?