The Pros and Cons of Where to Grow Chillies in the UK

We have tried it everywhere: chillies indoors… chillies outdoors… chillies in pots… in the ground… even a hanging basket. In the kids’ flower patch… on their bedroom windowsills… in a milk bottle… greenhouse… polytunnel… grow room. You name it, we’ve tried it…well, not on a spaceship but we hear chillies do very well up there!

During late Spring in the UK we all do the dance of the chilli plants: in and out of the greenhouse, attempting to harden off whilst not melting the plants in sub zero night temperatures. Location is key and conditions seem to change on an hourly basis. The forecast fluctuates between nights of minus two and days of 25 degrees.

Where’s a plant to go?!

So, exactly where are we growing our chillies?

No straight forward answer, sorry!

Each location has general pros and cons. In addition to those, each location also depends on unique factors to do with one’s own set up. For example: Greenhouses … is your greenhouse heated? Is it in full sun all day? Is it under a massive oak tree (see final photo)? Does it have a cat that likes to chew your plants, then sit on them? Will you be planting in the ground or in pots? Does the neighbour use pesticides right next to the door? All these variables ALSO need to be factored in when considering if a greenhouse is best for your chillies.

So, first let us consider what chilli plants prefer for optimum growth & yield in terms of:

  1. Light;
  2. Temperature;
  3. Humidity;
  4. Nutrition and pH;
  5. Support/protection/space;
  6. Pollination.

And then think of how to provide these at each general location. By no means definitive but here’s a visual to help compare…

At the Birdhouse, our outdoor growing season for chillies is limited to mid May to mid October. This is just not long enough for many of the chilli vareties we love to grow and so we extend by using lighter, warmer, safer places for our plants at either end of the season: namely the house early on and greenhouse & polytunnel in Autumn.

So here we go, this is how we do it…

Light:

In the house for Germination: We germinate in a transparent propagator. Light is not a required element for actual germination of chilli seeds – although one of our hacks to get tricky seeds to germinate is to fluctuate light exposure on the seeds. We place our propagator right next to a window. The emergent seedlings are then tight little plants, not the leggy beasts created by some in a darkened airing cupboard.

Birdhouse Seedling Headquarters is set up in a spare room of the house. Our light kit comprises two items: a low-tech south facing sunny windowsill and a high-tech full spectrum grow light. The great outdoors is just too darn dark to even consider in January.

Under Grow lights for seedlings: As soon as a seedling starts to show strong green cotyledon we move them to a paper pot under the a blue spectrum grow light for 16 hours a day. As they grow true leaves & eventually show roots from the bottom they progress to 9cm square pots under the grow light or on the windowsill. At this stage roatation is crucial as we only have one grow light and limited windowsill space. The plants will bend towards the sunlight so moving them around encourages them to bend the other way, strengthening their stems.

On the Windowsill for established seedlings: Space becomes limited as plants get bigger. Certain plants prefer to grow under the grow lights, Chinense types, especially. Others can cope on a sunny windowsill as long as they are turned to allow equal access to the light. In the UK the days are lengthening nicely in April.

Into the Greenhouse for growing plants: Once the plants are developing well they move to the greenhouse. Our greenhouse is next to a big oak tree but receives sun from 11am until sunset.

Young plants move up to the greenhouse. Protect leaves from direct sun as the raised UV light levels can damage them. Bubblewrap early on acts both as an insulator and light shade.
Paint-on shading can help protect leaves from scorching later on.

Spill out into the polytunnel to avoid overcrowding: the hardier types move out to the polytunnel when more space is needed. There are good light levels in there with the added bonus of built-in UV protection.

Planting outside: it is worth taking your time to harden the chillies off. This is for a number of reasons but, in terms of light, sunburn is an ugly thing that reduces photosynthesis. Just 10 mins in direct sun can scorch the leaves permanently. Make use of dappled shade, partially cloudy days or only put your plants in direct sun at the beginning or the end of the day. A week of this and they’ll be tough enough. Careful with the watering, droplets on leaves magnify the sun’s rays and will leave burnt patches.

Sunburned chilli leaf

Back into the Greenhouse for the last few pods: All outdoor light levels are subject to the time of year so that means that when Autumn approaches productivity drops off. We wait for the remaining fruit to ripen and then compost everything. No need for light there.

Temperature

Dans la Maison pour le Germination: Chillies like it hot. At germination stage we keep our seeds in a heated propagator between 25-36 degrees. This makes for pretty good germination rates. The propagator is heated at the base. We place our Chinense seeds down there and the others nearer the cooler top area.

Heated propagator keeps the germinating seeds at a constant high temperature

Tourjours dans la maison pour les Petit Babies: Seedlings are kept on heat mats in our grow room, under the warm grow light. This really boosts their growth and stops the external temperature fluctuations affecting them too much. At this stage constant temperature stresses them least. We water from the base with warm water. They stay in the house until space runs out: windowsills, dining table, anywhere that keeps them out of the icy blasts of a British Spring.

A la Serre: Then it is off to the heated greenhouse. Our chillies are kept warmer than our children (probably better fed too, ha!) We only move them out of the house if we can keep the greenhouse at a minimum of 10 degrees at night. On the odd night it gets colder we feel like very bad parents indeed.

A heater with a thermostat is your friend here. Ours is placed under the staging as direct hot air can cause the leaves to wilt and ultimately die off. Our greenhouse is set on a raised pad of concrete slabs. These store warmth during the day to release at night. Every little helps.

Bubblewrap, an electric heater and a warm stone floor all help keep the heat in and warm the plants at night

Et les plantes adultes: As a rule, at flowering and fruiting stage, we do not like our greenhouse to drop below 10 degrees at night or head above 35 degrees during the day. Flower drop, leaf wilt and less fruit setting is the result of temperatures outside of this range. A healthy difference between day and night temperatures is welcome though. Most chilli plants seem to do better with a bit of a break from high heat.

The more hardy chilli types…pubescens in our case, are sent off to the polytunnel as soon as outside night temperatures are hovering near to 10. We did this at the end of April in 2020.

Light a candle, place a terracotta pot on feet over the top. The terracotta absorbs and radiates the heat and keeps the temperature up far better than a naked flame. Safer too!

In May, there can sometimes be a cold snap, at a time when you least suspect it. Not great for an unheated polytunnel so we have a paraffin heater and candles under terracotta pots to keep the cold at bay. These strategies have meant that our brave San Pedro Rojos and Turbo Pubes have recently survived a week of zero nights in the tunnel. Huzzah!

Just look at the pubescens now

As Summer approaches, our priority moves towards cooling down, not heating up. A fan, ventilation through doors and windows and some shading will be options then. We generally leave the door wide open all Summer long. It still gets steamy in there but the air flow is better. This is our first Summer witha polytunnel but we fully expect to just roll up both doors and leave them there!

A la fin: As the evenings cool off we shut the greenhouse and polytunnel doors and only open up again during sunny days. Just long enough to keep those last few plants going to harvest their final fruit. Any plants still fruiting outside can be brought back inside to ripen off the last pods.

Humidity

Initially in the house: When germinating our seeds we pay special attention to the humidity of their environment. We soak seeds to give them an initial hit of moisture. We lay them onto an almost dripping paper towel inside a plastic takeaway container – no expense spared here! And spray. We click down three of the four corners down. This keeps the moisture in and around the seed but gives a little air flow. We regularly spray as the water evaporates.

As the seedlings mature, they are placed into paper pots of warmed, damp soil. They are watered from the base and misted if need be. The grow light and fan can be drying so we have spray bottles at the ready. Seedlings can rapidly deteriorate when dehydrated and many never recover. Keep it moist!

Chinense varieties do like humidity a little higher whereas the other are fine at moderate levels. Indoors, a regular misting will allow you to tailor humidity to each plant.

Humidity for older plants: Once the plants are in the greenhouse and they are watered from the base and the humidity levels are high during the day. Perfect for the Chinenses. The polytunnel gets a real humidity hit early morning as that is when the sun is first on it. We open the doors up mid morning to get air flowing through. Better for the Baccatums.

Outdoors, the wind and the sun can really dry chilli plants out. A good drink in the morning will help plants stay hydrated all day. Annuums will be fine in this environment. Pubescens have hairy leaves to collect their very own ‘cloud’ around their leaves. Humidity sorted.

Nutrition and pH.

At each stage of growth the nutrition levels need to be right for the plant. Growing in any sort of container means essential nutrients have to be added by you. They won’t appear magically.

In containers: Too much feed can be detrimental so don’t think more is better. Minerals can build up in soil and cause all sorts of trouble. Follow the instructions on the back of the bottle and make sure you give the plants plenty of water in between feeds. If in doubt, give less. Don’t forget to consider the existing nutritional value the soil you are using. Homemade compost and shop bought multipurpose can be surprisingly rich. Check the pH of your growing medium. An optimal range would be 6.0-6.8. Slightly acidic.

Open Ground: If you are planting out into your garden, or even into open beds within a greenhouse or polytunnel it is wise to prepare the ground with a basic feed first and then top up as is needed. We like to add Birdhouse compost to ‘feed’ the soil, a sprinkle of blood, fish and bone mix. And, this year, a banana compost, hopefully to support good strong, drought resistant plants. Our local soil is chalky, well above pH 7.0, often closer to 8.0. Far too alkaline for chillies really. This can be corrected with an addition of sulphur in early Spring. Then we use Chilli Focus weekly to keep those chillies focussed!

Soil will need to be revitalised if you plant in the same place each year. A thick top mulch and a sprinkle of Sulphur dust in the Autumn will mean beds are ready for action the following Spring.

Support/Protection/Space

Each chilli plant will need to be given enough space to be its best self. This is actually one of our (many) chilli failings. Too many plants, crowded in together. We’re trying really hard this year to pot up into the biggest pots possible – incrementally of course. A larger pot footprint then gives each plant more breathing room to do its own thing. Already the size and balance of the plants looks far healthier this year.

Some plants really do require support: stakes, frames, string, wires, whatever. There is nothing more heart breaking than a full branch of chillies being snapped off. A cane in the right place at the right time will help plants stand up strong. This is particularly important for chillies planted in the ground with little else around them.

And then protection…depending on where you have chosen your chillies’ final growing place, you may need to fend off unwanted visitors (strong sunshine initially, wind, birds, greenfly, slugs & snails, weeds, diseases, pets, frost and children) This is especially true when planting outside.

In a greenhouse the greenfly is omnipresent…ready to pop out thrips at an alarming rate. It is up to you how you choose to deal with them. We are squishers here. Ladybird farmers too. And later in the season, we encourage as many hoverflies as possible. And if all that fails, a night or two out in the open for an infected plant will generally clear the greenfly off and stop other plants being infected. Other folk try neem, Bug Off and soapy water. Up to you but be warned. You will have a greenfly in a greenhouse. Fact.

And eventually, back to the original question of where we grow our chillies?

Given the UK climate, growing undercover gives an extended season. Warm and light seems just right. We like to grow in pots as Birdhouse soil is be predominantly chalk, with an extra sprinkle of flint. For more infomation about our potting soil mix check out our previous blog post:

The Quest to Find the Best Soil

Here is where we will be growing our chillies at the Birdhouse this year:

The Birdhouse growing space

Where will you grow yours?

Results of topping chilli plants

It was March 28th when the Big Snip occurred. The tops of the seedlings were unceremoniously chopped off and they have been nursing their wounds ever since. All in the hope that new side shoots would appear and make bushier, sturdier and more productive plants.

That was two weeks ago…what do the plants look like now?

Here they are, in all their glory: tight plants with side shoots a plenty. A bit awkward, in the teenage phase if you will, but their small leaves will soon catch up with their big leaves and all will be bushy and well.

What’s next?

The plants need to have a good space around each of them. They are currently wedged together on windowsill trays and under a grow light in our study. Not ideal. There are now some critical issues:

  1. Shortage of compost: many plants need potting on but compost is in short supply. We are reusing last year’s spent compost, mixed with extra perlite and garden compost. No grit this year as it is too expensive and difficult to get hold of.
  2. Over crowding: by not potting on yet we have larger plants in smaller pots, with less gap between each plant. Light, air flow and good space is what each plant needs to grow to its full size potential. All those new side shoots will grow leggy if they are over crowded.
  3. Pot bound root ball: yet again roots are starting to be seen from the bottom of pots. If they are not potted on the roots poking out will wither and the ones inside will become pot bound.
  4. Space indoors is running out: an entire room has been taken over by chillies. This is not practical anymore.

Solutions are coming.

A 900L bag of compost is on the way (there are also tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, beans to consider you know). A 3m x 2m poly tunnel is ordered, staging is being prepared. Perhaps within this week our plants will be heading out into the great outdoors (heated poly tunnel).

Guide to Topping Chilli Plants

Do you want bushy chilli plants? Strong & sturdy, multi stemmed, eventually laden with fruit?

Early Red Primavera Habanero from 2019. Topped in April to encourage extra branching and more fruit. Ripe from in late July.

Well of course you do! But maybe your plant are not quite there yet. If not, then look no further than The Birdhouse Miracle Cure!

How do we achieve the ideal chilli plant?

Some plants are just born this way but others need more help. Some will just do their thing regardless of how you tend them but there is nothing wrong with encouraging them in the right direction.

By applying The not-yet-patented Birdhouse Miracle Cure – otherwise known as topping – we can encourage side shoots and bushy growth which lead to strong, multi stemmed, hopefully super fruity plants later on.

In addition to resulting in a good strong, bushy plant, topping will nip out any very early flower buds from the single growing shoot. These buds often drop and do not set fruit. Even plants that do set early fruit can be negatively affected and fail to produce any more flowers. Topping may well avoid flower abscission entirely.

Is there some sort of science that can convince me topping works?

Plants have hormones. These hormones make different parts of the plant act in certain ways. In this instance, we are messing around with the growth hormones, auxins and gibberellins.

These hormones work together in the top growth shoot of a chilli seedling, causing cell elongation and increased cell division resulting in a rapidly growing shoot.

By removing the lead growing shoot we are sending the hormone concentration out to other areas it can be effective, namely the leaf axils where buds can develop. The hope is that each axil will produce axillary buds that eventually turn into extra branches. Thus creating a bushy plant with many growing shoots rather than a single stem.

In previous years topping has largely been very successful. And so we repeat the process this year. However, what occasionally happens is that just one of the axils produces an axillary shoot and that in turn just becomes a new single lead shoot, rather than a larger number of new side shoots. Resulting in a lop sided and unstable plant. Not bushier, not extra flowers or fruit. Just top again!

2019’s results can be seen here

But HOW do we top the plants!?

Patience. Start by selecting appropriate candidates for treatment. Look for plants that are all or most of the following:

Oooh, perfect to whip its top off
  • Tall;
  • Leggy (not necessarily that same as tall) Leggy means ‘larger than desirable gaps between leafs sets’;
  • Single stemmed – best to treat them before they have split to the classic Y ;
  • No side shoots naturally forming;
  • Have 4 or more pairs of true leaves.

Annuum plants are often perfect for topping treatment at this stage in the season. They can take an early top and maybe even another in a couple of weeks. A second top may be necessary if one new axillary shoot becomes dominant.

Annuum chilli plants ready to top

Chinense types are usually a bit slower to grow to start with. They stay shorter too. Good results come from topping but make sure they have enough true leaves before attempting. Keeping in mind that Chinense take longer to produce ripe fruit you don’t want to top too late either.

Chinense type chilli plants ready to top

Baccatum are often sprawling, branched plants. An early top could help them to produce even more branches.

Baccatum chillies ready to top

Rocoto chillies have branched plants. Catch them before they split to the first Y and topping can help reduce the spindly nature of their initial growth.

Rocoto chilli plants ready to top

Come on now, how do we DO this thing?

OK, like this.

  1. Put on your brave pants, this could get scary;
  2. Gather the tools: clean, sharp scissors in one hand (we like embroidery scissors or tiny snips for bonsai work);
  3. Take the selected victim in the other hand;
  4. Carefully position the scissors to snip out the growing shoot, leaving behind at least four good true leaves.
  5. And breathe out. Honestly, within a week, probably five days, new buds of side shoots will have appeared in the crooks of the remaining leaves.

Are there any reasons not to treat the plants this way?

Topping will check the production of flower buds as the plant will concentrate on producing more growing spikes. Too late in the season and you risk not achieving fully grown and ripe chillies.

Some plants natural form side shoots, grow short and bushy, are covered in fruit anyway. No need to top. Let them get on with the job themselves.

Slow growing chillies – often Chinense types – do not need further excuses to take longer to flower and fruit. Consider if the extra fruit you might gain is worth the longer wait or even the risk of the first frosts arriving before your chillies are ripe!

Any cut is a possible introduction of infection to the plant. Ensure scissor are clean and each plant is checked for signs of disease.

Discarded growth shoots

And there we have it, a seemingly crazy attack on our precious babies, all in aid of more hot pods at the end of the season.

Good luck!

How and when to pot on chilli seedlings

Here we go again. The seeds have germinated, true leaves are growing. All seems well. And then, suddenly it dawned on us that these precious babies might need a bit more than a teeny tiny pot and seed compost. What next?

Reporting, ready to POT ON, Sir!

Have a look

A seedling that is ready to pot on for the first time will be showing certain key signs:

  1. It will actually be growing. Smaller leaves becoming bigger leaves. The plant will be getting taller. New leaves green up. Plants just sitting there, existing with two seed leaves, sulking, are not ready for a bigger pot yet.
  2. The water is being used up quickly in the first pot. Another sign the plant is growing well and using what you give it.
  3. Maybe a root or two are poking out of the bottom. Chillies like to be potted on incrementally. Not straight into a whopping great 20L pot. The surest sign they’re ready to move home is little white roots peeking out underneath.

Get prepared

The seedlings will wait a couple of extra days whilst you prepare their new home. Get the next size pot in from the cold shed/garage/backdoor step/unheated greenhouse. Bring in any soil that is going to used and let it warm up. Prepare your work station, table coverings, labels, pens, dibber, watering can, chilli feed, trays, capillary matting. It’s like preparing for the arrival of a new baby. Get all the kit sorted in advance. We all have our preferences but make sure you’ve got all your fave tools to hand. We like a teaspoon and a chopstick at this stage.

Your pot of choice will depend on your preference and circumstance. We have been collecting and reusing 9cm square pots at this stage for some years now. These suit us for many reasons: they come to us via purchases at a favourite nursery (West Kington Nurseries name check)… friends and family give them to us…they fit together with no spaces… they fit well on the trays we use on our window sills in the Winter months… easy to stack and store… easy to keep clean… good to write on with chalk pens for labels… discourages roots from going round and round…durable and last for a number of years. Some of our pots are easily seven years old, if not older. Virtually family.

Pick a pot that works for you.

Ahh, but what type of soil?

A free draining soil mix will suit chilli babies

Much has been written about soil type. Lots of advice is out there. Last season we spent many hours researching, sourcing, combining, mixing and using a very special Birdhouse Mix. It all seemed very important at the time. You can read our 2019 soil post here:

https://birdhousechillies.com/2019/02/06/the-quest-to-find-the-best-soil/

But this year, we are doing things a little differently. We have saved and are reusing the Birdhouse Mix soil from pots last year. *Gasp* I hear you all draw breath. It is not the done thing according the the Wise Growing Elders. And it is certain that some of you will just plain disagree with our actions. No problem, we all garden our own way. However, in this day & age of recycle, reuse and reduce, it surely makes sense to reuse the soil we so lovingly created. So we are.

If we’re not convincing enough then why not listen to Alys Fowler, gardening extraordinaire.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/18/how-to-reuse-old-compost-alys-fowler

So how to ensure the old compost is put to good use…and is actually good for our chillies?

Check the texture. Is it good and friable (best word EVER)? Rub through any clumps as if making pastry. The baby chilli roots need air around them and need to be able to push through the soil to spread out. Fluff the soil up nicely for them.

Check the content. Are there pests, seeds, twigs, berries, fungus, or other microbes that could cause harm to the new plants? If so, discard. Pick out any old roots. Our soil store is directly under a gargantuan Holm Oak tree. Great volumes of waxy leaves fall into the soil. They too have to be picked out. Grrr!

Check your intentions. Do you intend on feeding your plants? (Yes!) A liquid feed is perfect for reused compost. If not then you may need to add a general fertiliser or want to consider a more nutritious soil to start with.

Check any supplements. Some people add water retention beads. You may want to add grit, perlite or vermiculite (or cat litter, Alys). Good drainage is best for chillies. Our soil mix has plenty of grit, sand and perlite already so we just added a 10% of peat free multi-purpose compost, just to add bulk and a touch of all round nutrients for the next few weeks. We also add a layer of horticultural grit at the bottom of each pot to avoid the roots sitting in anything too wet.

Are we ready to pot now?

Potting on and on and on

And now you can pot on. This is how we do it:

  1. Select your first seedling, check which variety it is and label its new 9cm square pot. We use chalk pen.
  2. Put a layer of horticultural grit in the bottom of the pot, followed by a layer of lightly damp, warmed soil.
  3. Our seedlings are in newspaper pots. Then can just be popped on top of the soil layer.
  4. Back fill around the pot. If the seedling is leggy then top the soil up until just under the seed leaves. Gently not to damage the stem as that could cause weakness later on.
  5. Pick up the pot and gently knock it on a surface to settle down the soil without compacting it. Top up if need be.
  6. Place the pot on a tray lined with capillary matting.
  7. Water with a weak feed. Warm water, from the base.

Presenting the Class of 2020 in their new pots

Of course a chilli head’s work is never done. Here are the rest of the Class of 2020. Chinense on the right, gradually putting on bulk. On the left are the late germinators. Mostly Annuums so they should be fine. All too little for new pots yet.

Not quite ready to pot on.

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.