Sunday, 29 December 2013

A new season

It's that time of year again, time to start thinking about the new season and what to plant.
The hotter varieties, such as Habanneros can be quite slow growing and therefore benefit from a longer season. 

With the addition of the new grow room and a heated propagator it's the perfect excuse to make an early start to the season.  I've chosen a variety of sees this year to give me a crop for all occasions.

1. Chocolate Habanero - Very hot and full of flavour, I first grew these a few years back and although the plants flourished, they bore no fruit (except for the plants that I gave away). Determined not to be beaten, I'm given them a second try.

2. Yellow Seven Pot Habanero. This year's volcanic choice. Superhot and flavoursome, I'm looking forward to growing these gnarly pods.

3. Pimentos de Padron. I collected these seeds from our family that we visited in Galicia in northern Spain earlier this year, within just a few miles of the town of Padron itself. These randomly spicy tapas peppers are delicious when fried in olive oil and liberally scattered in salt.

4. Black Tongued Scorpion. A new one for me, these chillies resemble black scotch bonnets but with less heat. How could I possibly resist a chilli with a name like a death metal band.

5. Joe's Long Cayenne. This is our chilli challenge for this year so I felt it prudent to plant a few extra seeds for those who join the challenge late.

For planting I used a mixture of a sifted potting compost and plenty of vermiculite. Hopefully this light mix should promote good healthy roots and make the seedlings easy to pot on into a hydroponic system should I choose to do so. Here the planted seed trays are floated in water to dampen the compost. Using this technique rather than watering the compost is less likely to over-compact it.

Once soaked the trays were topped with vermiculite and placed in the heated propagator. This propagator isn't thermostat controlled I've added a thermometer so I can keep track on the temperature. For germination 25-28 C is ideal, once the seeds start sprouting then the temperature can be dropped a little. 

The heater in the chilli room is working well, rigged up to a thermostat it's keeping a steady temperature as shown by this maximum and minimum thermometer which has barely wavered in the month it's been running.

Despite the relatively low temperatures and the limited artificial light, the chillies that I've overwintered are not only coping but positively thriving. The Aji Lemon Drop that grew so prolifically during the summer has refused to stop and despite the severe haircut I gave it, is throwing out new growth already. I've cut back on the hours of light they're receiving to ensure that they're not too monstrous by the time spring comes. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Final Harvest

Summer is officially at an end, the clocks have changed, the leaves are falling, the first frost has been seen and it's time to bed the chillies in for winter.

As you may have seen from the previous post I've been busy finishing off the chilli cave to house the plants through the colder months, it was now time to give them a severe pruning and rehouse them.

Before this could take place I had to harvest all of the remaining fruit, ripe or otherwise.

The Chilligrow plants before their haircut...
...and after a short back and sides.
It was time to call an end to the hydroponic experiment. Despite having produced an impressive amount of fruit, "the Gurgler" had stopped working properly in recent weeks with the water not draining fully back into the reservoir.  I suspected that this was because the roots had grow so vigourously that they were blocking the outlet for the pump.  Upon pulling up the plants, my suspicions were confirmed with the most impressive root growth I've seen on a chilli this year.  Next year I'll use a modified system with the plants growing in root pouches to contain the roots and stop them fouling the flood inlet and outlet.

The results from the Gurgler - a Peach Habanero and an Orange Magnum Habanero with impressive roots.
Since I have several Orange Habs already overwintering I haven't bothered trying to rescue that plant but the Peach Hab has been potted on into compost to see if it survives the winter.

The chillies in their new home
The Chilligrows and assorted pots basking in the CFL lights
Some of the plants in Root Pouches.  These have performed well this year and I'll certainly be using them again.
The collected chillies from the harvest over half-filled a large shopping bag.  Not up to commercial grower standards but more than respectable for my little setup.

Some of the final harvest, ready for sorting.
Many of the chillies were still green when picked so they're now on windowsills waiting for the winter sun to ripen them up before they're chopped and frozen or strung up to dry.

This year was all about testing different habaneros for the best flavour.  I grew Magnum Orange, Fatalii, Peach and Squat Frog varieties, alongside the milder Scotch Bonnets and the much, much hotter Trinidad Scorpion.

The hotter chillies - L to R: Trinidad Scorpion, Yellow Scotch Bonnet, Fruit Burst Hab, Orange Magnum Hab, Squat Frog, Fatalli and Peach Hab
Once everything has ripened as best possible, I'll start the sauce making process.  It'll be trial and error matching each variety up to an appropriate flavour so expect plenty of culinary experimentation and no shortage of burnt mouths.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Chilli Cave

In the UK chillies are usually grown as annual plants and discarded at the end of each season. However, in their native habitats they are perennials and over the course of years can grow to the size of small trees. With careful nurturing, chillies can make it through the unpredictable UK winters and into the next spring.

The advantage is that the plants will be fully developed in plenty of time for flowering and fruiting and therefore have a longer season and, hopefully, be more productive.

This is particularly useful for the slower-growing superhot varieties such as Habaneros, Nagas and Scorpions, some of which are only hitting their peak just before the first frosts arrive.

In order to prepare the plant for overwintering you need to put the plant into a dormant state.  This can be achieved by cutting back the majority of the growth, just leaving 6 inches or so of main and a few side stems. Cut back on the feeding and watering and leave in a sunny spot with a temperature of around 10-15 degrees centigrade. 

There are more than a few people out there who can offer far better advice than I can so I'll let them do the talking;

Clifton Chilli Club has a great video here.

And chilli-master Matt Simpson offers his sage advice here.

Before I was able to overwinter my most valuable plants, I needed somewhere to store them.  Without enough windowsill space, I had to resort to artificial lights.  I've got a couple of 125W CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) units which although not bright enough to grow a plant throughout the season, are certainly capable of overwintering one.  If I could find a suitably frost-free spot then I would be ready for the winter.

The garden shed was the perfect size but was a little damp and draughty so I would need to seal and insulate before I could install the necessary benches and lights. Thus began the most over-engineered project I've ever undertaken in the name of hot sauce...

Floor is sealed with membrane paint and the underlay is added.
Laminate flooring going down. 
The floor is finished.
New rafters for the ceiling and the first of the plywood panels go up.
The existing light is above the new ceiling so a fluorescent fitting is added to the ceiling.
Meanwhile, battens are screwed to the outside walls, and MDF panels are fixed over Rockwool insulation. 
Cramming insulation into all the gaps that might let in a draught.
The end wall is completed.
Plenty of insulation is added into the ceiling space and last panels screwed into place.
Side wall panelled and yet more insulation going in. 
Finished boxing in the window.  This will have a reflective blind over to keep the light in at night. 
One coat of white paint over everything. Another to follow.
Reflective film is added to the walls.  The diamond pattern on this material helps scatter the light, preventing 'hotspots'.
The blind is added over the window. This can be easily removed in the spring when the room can revert to being a tool shed.
Benches were made from some spare worktops and some scrap 2x4 lumber.  To test their strength I jumped up and down on them - if they can cope with me then the chillies will be a breeze.

The grow lights were then attached to chains, fixed to the ceiling with cup hooks.  This is a quick & easy way of altering their heights to adjust to the growth of the plants.  because CFL lamps don't produce much heat, the bulbs can be placed very close to plants if needs be.

The finished room.  The shelving in the middle will hold the propagators with some additional fluorescent strip lights.
 So the room ready to use.  I need to check the temperatures with a maximum/minimum thermometer to determine how much heating is needed, if any. Humidity may be an issue when the plants start growing in spring but by then it may be mild enough to allow an air vent or fan to be fitted without fear of freezing the plants.

Next step - relocating the chillies...

Friday, 25 October 2013

First Harvest

The time had arrived for the first harvest.  Picking the ripe pods will encourage the others to ripen faster and will avoid the risks of the fruit dropping off or rotting on the plant.

Scotch Bonnets
Trinidad Scorpions
Capa Conic
I took the opportunity to prune the plants whilst I harvested.  The canopy of some of the plants had got so dense that, with the damp weather, some of the plants had developed spots of mould on the flower heads.  I cut back these areas to allow more air to move around the plants an let some sunlight reach the  unripe fruit.

Some of the pods from this year's initial harvest, neatly sorted by type.
Golden Cayenne - This plant has been fantastic this year with plenty of large, healthy fruit.

Scotch Bonnets - the yellow ones are destined for Sunburn sauce.
L to R; Orange Magnum Habs, Fruit Burst Hab & Peach Hab
Paper Lantern Habanero - all off one plant and there are plenty more still to ripen.
The thinner, longer varieties were strung onto thread and hung to dry over a radiator. These will be grown to powder for storing and eventually adding to sauces and meals. The varieties with thicker flesh, such as Scotch Bonnets, Habs and the Scorpions were cut in half, packed in bags and frozen for blitzing and using in sauces later in the year.

L to R; Ring of Fire, Paper Lantern, Superchilli & Lemon Drop,  Golden Cayenne and a selection of green chillies.
There's more to pick this weekend, the only concern is when I'll find time to make the sauces I've got planned.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Not long left...

...before harvest time.

Some welcome Autumn sun is helping the chillies ripen and I suspect that we only have a few weeks left before the November frosts put an end to the growing season.

Looking like a good harvest this year
There's plenty of unripe fruit on the plants and a good number now turing red (or in some cases yellow). The Chilligrows are once again proving their worth with the plants growing at tremendous rates (despite or because of the brutal pruning they received recently).

The Chilligrow chillies looking promising

Trinidad Scorpion
I've not yet tasted a Trinidad Scorpion and am somewhat wary about doing so.  I've got two of these plants in the Chiligrow and although both have produced some fruit, I'll probably only retain one for next year (assuming it survives the winter).

Friar's Hat
The Friar's Hat has yet to ripen any fruit but there are plenty of the odd-shaped fruit on the three plants.  When they ripen, these fruit are reserved for the Frisky-Friar Jam that I made a couple of years back.  A tangy sweet jam, not too hot but perfect with cheese and crackers.

Peach Habanero in the 'Gurgler'  Flood and Drain hydroponic uni
I already have plans to redesign the 'Gurgler' Flood and Drain system that I built this year.  I'd like to use it with the plants in Root-Pouches so you get the benefit of the airflow from the flood and drain and also the air - pruning from the root pouches.

An amazing crop of Paper Lantern Habaneros
The Paper Lantern habanero is just incredible with the branches sagging under the weight of all the fruit.  With these chillies rated 350,000 to 450,000 Scovilles, I'll have plenty available for hot sauce production.

Scotch Bonnet grown in a Root Pouch
I love Scotch Bonnet Chillies, not only do they have an amazing fruity taste but the heat level is such that you can use them in everyday cooking or blow your head off if you prefer.  I love Caribbean food and these are the staple chilli for Jerk Seasoning. For one of the tastiest curries you'll find, try this Levi Roots recipe (but don't be a wimp, put the whole chilli in, seeds and all).

I've got a number of Scotch Bonnets on the go this year, including a yellow version for making my 'Sunburn' sauce, a fruity, medium hot sauce using Mango and Papaya.  Hopefully I'll have enough fruit to keep up with demand for this popular sauce.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Chilli Contest

In September 2012, at our wedding, my wife Marina and I distributed secret chilli seeds for our inaugural Chilli Challenge.

The competition was to grow the most impressive chilli plant by the time of our first anniversary. The entrants would be judged of the size, health and fruitfulness of their chilli plant.

Unbeknown to our entrants, the seeds we had chosen where Peter Pepper seeds, often known as Chilli-Willys, famed for their unusual and often pornographic fruit.

So with seeds distributed, rules laid down and entrants raring to go, we sat back to await the calls of "Are my chillies supposed to look like this?"

The Cornish Contingent - Emma and James' plants basking in the southern sunshine

Still with flowers on so more fruit to come.

The Yorkshire Chilli Growers - Pam and Jack 

Plenty of fruit on these healthy plants

Neil's unconventional method of planting two-up in a seed tray seems to be paying off.

And the all-important fruit

The Gloucester Growers - Claudio and Diana's plants

And plenty of suitably odd-shaped fruit

 James and Nancy  - Plenty of plants but need a little longer to get to full height.

A hamper of goodies was assembled for the winers, including South Devon Chilli Chocolate, Tracklements Chilli Jam, Sweet Chilli Sauce and plenty of delicious nibbles.

Judging took place on the 28th of September and the results are as follows...

Grand Champion Chilli Challenge 2013:  Neil Saunders

Tallest Plant: Claudio & Diana Martinez

Most suggestive chilli: Lisa Lavery

Congratulations to all who took part, a fantastic effort, particularly considering the number of non-gardeners who participated.

Next year's seeds are now ready for distribution.  The contest is to grow Joe's Long Cayenne plants and the rules are simple - longest single chilli wins!  The Joe's Long produces pods that are capable of reaching lengths in excess of a foot so impressive entries are expected.