Begone Fiendish Frosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long may it last.

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!

Why are the chilli plants a bit pale?

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

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

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

First temperature…

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

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

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

Now light…

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

And then feed…

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

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

The plan…

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