Time to shed some light on the chillies

It’s that time of year where the sun is lovely & warm and the nights are not too chilly. We’re racing towards longest day: action stations everyone.

The Birdhouse greenhouse is brimming with leafy specimen. No longer a cocooned sanctuary from the Night King but a claustrophobic bubble isolating the chilli babies from the real world. Time for the babies to grow UP and for the bubble wrap to come DOWN. It has served its insulating purpose well but now it is shading a little too much; stopping the auto ventilation window doing its thing; trapping pollinators and taking up precious ceiling height. Roll it up for next year.

Suddenly, the whole space is flooded with clear light. Wonderful.

The light issue continues…

A quick stock take reveals that we are seriously running out of space. How this has happened is beyond us but it seems to be a phenomenon known well to Chilliheads across the land. Each season we go through a number of cullings. Precious plants are sorted into ‘keepers’ and ‘the rest’. And yet, despite this harsh practice, there still seem to be more pots than ever before.

We sorted at chitting/germination point. Some seeds just didn’t look right and didn’t get potted up into wee paper pots. The compost heap was the destination for these leggy seedlings. The next couple of rounds of sorting happened at potting on stages. Weedy plants, non-thrivers or just varieties where we had too many plants were all thinned out.

The thinnings will populate our local school Summer Fete’s plant stall. They have been potted into non-conformist pots that we do not wish to keep for re-use; kept outside in temperatures of nearly zero; unceremoniously plonked into multi-purpose compost and barely kept alive on a lean diet of fresh air and rain water. They are, however, tall and flowering away, so all is good. They should sell well!

And now, we should be at the point where the perfect number of plants has been achieved. And how many do we have? 110 to be exact. We couldn’t possibly manage with less that that number of plants.

110 plants and counting

But hang on a mo, there STILL doesn’t seem to be space for them all in the greenhouse. We are having to utilise the floor for trays of plants. This is not ideal as the light levels are lower down there. Rotation of plants is tricky but absolutely necessary. On top of the overcrowding issue, lots are yet to go into their final (bigger) resting pots. So after all that sorting there are still too many plants.

Family, neighbours and friends beware, you will have to adopt some chilli babies…Momma’s about to get mean.

Meanwhile, in happier news, some of the bigger, earlier fruiters are just getting on with their thing. Golden Greek Pepperoncini is smothered with flower and fruit. Oh, and the roots are out the bottom again. Time to reach for the soldering iron and make some holes in the bottom of those flower buckets because potting on is in the diary for the weekend AGAIN.

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!

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.

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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

Feeding time at the zoo

It’s time to give these little chilli seedlings a bit of what they fancy. They have been potted on into seed compost and are settling in admirably. The seed leaves are opening, they are a good green colour and generally they look healthy. The seed compost has no nutrients in it though.

Seven day old seedlings looking healthy after moving into their newspaper pots.

In the future we’d like to have a go at producing a homemade, maybe organic, specialist chilli feed. Using local ingredients. Perhaps with a seaweed enrichment? But not just yet.

Seemingly THE recommended chilli food is Chilli Focus. Containing ‘A precise formulation for optimal performance of chillies and peppers in pots, grow bags or the open ground.’ We used it all last season and the chilli plants and crop were spectacular. It turns out that Chilli Focus is ‘Made with care in the UK’, and ‘enriched with organic complex plant acids and pure concentrated extracts of kelp’ and comes in a 5 litre bottle, ‘enough for 1,000 litres of feed’.

With added Kelp extract

Err, sounds pretty good to us. Homemade fertiliser can wait for further research on a rainy (or snowy, check the forecast!) day.

The seedlings have been given a gentle dilute feed of 5mls per litre. This will be given once a week for now. Once the plants start to flower it will increase to 10mls per litre and then twice weekly when they set fruit.

New Year Resolutions

Despite lack of posts, chillies did grow at The Birdhouse. Actually they grew in the greenhouse at The Birdhouse. So big and so strong they were bursting out all over the place. Neighbours, friends and family and indeed actual strangers were gifted copious bags of multicoloured, mega Scovilled goodies.

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We spent the Summer tasting, cooking, preserving, researching, stalking and fermenting chillies. Hits of the season were the JalapeƱos. Wow, what a flavour and a heat that everyone can enjoy. The plants were tall (the height of our small greenhouse really), prolific, early too.

Big Bomb were also pretty darn good. Loads of fruit, great colour, sweet heat and plenty of chillies on each plants. Easy to prepare. The plants were a manageable size. Quite upright and strong. Surplus chillies were pickled to be stuffed at our leisure, like homemade Peppadews.

The surprise hit was the Scotch Bonnet. Only four plants germinated. Not promising. They sulked at every stage of the growing process. Hid at the back of the greenhouse for a month. But then, once they got going, they were truly excellent. Stunning shiny scarlet baubles, wonderfully fruity flavour and vast quantities of crisp chillies. Hot hot hot. Made a phenomenal hot pepper sauce with them. Nom. We cooked up a a similar sauce with Aji Lemon and Bulgarian Carrot too. One red, one orange and one zingy lemon yellow. Definitely worth the effort.

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And so to this year. What will 2019 bring to The Birdhouse? Here come the New Year Resolutions…

  1. Start the growing process a little earlier. Order seeds asap and then chit. Don’t give up on seeds that take longer than a few days to germinate. Some can take WEEKS! Consistent temperature, good air circulation and perhaps a bit of scarification on the hotter seeds as they were the harder to kick start.
  2. New varieties this year to include milder chillies, ones that are noted for their individual flavour and types suited to cooler climes. As well as a few faves. Don’t waste time on tiny chillies, pretty chillies, chillies that are mind blowingly hot.
  3. Make sure the height of the staging in the greenhouse is not too high. Chilli plants were generally much taller than expected and so were squashed up against the roof. Any chillies growing outside need structure to support them.
  4. Don’t be afraid to give plants away. Too many plants lead to pests and diseases spreading quickly.
  5. Sort a watering technique/system that works simply. Especially during the Summer hols when we are away. Maybe ventilation too. Oh, and an adequate heater for the early months.

And there we have it. Izzy whizzy, let’s get bizzy.

Going potty

Discussion around the arrangements for the plants when they are in their final growing pots. It seems that potting on into pots of increasing size is recommended. Not just dumping a teeny tiny seedling into a 30cm pot and leaving it to get on with things.

Our seedlings are currently in 6cm peat free fibre pots. These will then be planted straight in to 9cm square plastic pots. We already have a million of these so it makes sense to reuse them. They also fit neatly onto the windowsill trays we have. The next pot sizes are more difficult. In the interest in reducing plastic use we will be comparing non-plastic solutions with a bulk buy of large plastic pots to use every year.

First thoughts bring terracotta to mind. It seems a lovely, old fashioned option, reminisce of Peter Rabbit and friends. However, our greenhouse staging is super wobbly aluminium trestle style benches. The staging might not be able to take the weight of 20 30cm terracotta pots filled with compost, chilli plant and watered every day. What about grow bags? Or potato sacks? Or troughs? And does each type of chilli need such a large pot? More research need.

Research ensues.

We settle on secondhand, black plastic pots. Eek, not so PC these days but still very much out there in the market place. This is with a view to the pots being used year on year. Single use plastics are out of here. Reusing what already exists and cannot be recycled Hardwearing, easy to clean, uniform size and shape, good drainage but with excellent water retention qualities. One issue we have found with the fibre pots is that the water just evaporated right out of the sides of the pots, especially in the sun.

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20L pots found on ebay, being sold on from a plant nursery. Not purchased yet as we are visiting a nursery at the weekend. They may have pots to spare…or may not. Worth waiting to see. The chillies can hang out in the smaller pots for a few more days, no peeking roots out of the bottoms yet.