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?

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.

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.

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 jalapeño and poblano). Without rushing for LED lighting and pinching out the tops just yet what can be done?

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

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

First temperature…

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

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

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

Now light…

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

And then feed…

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

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

The plan…

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