Sunday, 30 June 2013

Hydroponics are go!

Having a clean out of the freezer reveals all sorts of hidden goodies, including, in this case, four large bags of assorted chillies. What better way to use them than in a volcanic sauce.  It was very much a 'use up what's to hand' sauce so there aren't many ingredients, other than an onion, some garlic, cider vinegar and of course the chillies, which naturally makes it incredibly hot.  To counter some acidity from the vinegar, I added plenty of honey and some lime juice to take the edge off the sugar. The resulting sauce is sweet but with a zingy edge and has enough heat to keep your mouth burning for a while.  Being a mixture of chillies (habaneros, inferno, cayenne, hungarian hot wax plus a few others), the burn is all over the mouth and doesn't relent for a while.

I've yet to design the label for this sauce but it's already been christened 'Honey Trap'

What happens when half a kilo of chillies ends up in just five bottles...
Having completed the chilli house recently, my eye was on the next big project - a venture into hydroponic growing.  I'd spent some time doing some research and wanted a very simple system that I could make on a shoestring budget with minimal running costs.  That counted out aeroponics and NFT systems. I opted for a flood and drain (or ebb and flow) system based on the comprehensive instructions available from

The principle is simple, when a submerged pump in the lower chamber switches on, it pumps nutrient enriched water into the upper box which is filled with an inert growing medium. When the chamber is flooded, the plant's roots are submerged and it can take on the water and feed it needs.  When the pump switches off, the water drains back into the reservoir, drawing fresh air down onto the roots.  This cycle is repeated anything from 3 to 6 times a day to ensure a steady stream of water, nutrients and oxygen reaches the roots, resulting in increased growth and less risk of disease or rotting from waterlogged plants.

Firstly I selected two large plastic boxes that would stack easily.  The bottom one (the reservoir) has been sprayed black to make it light-tight and then silver so that the sun doesn't overheat the water and nutrient mix.

Drilling a hole through the base of the growing box and into the lid of the res. This is for the overflow.
The overflow has a small hole drilled in the base to ensure minimal water is left in the top container
A mesh is fixed to the top of the overflow so the growing medium doesn't spill down it.
The submerged pump sits in the res and is attached via a hose to the top box
The custom-made screen that fits over the inlet hose to prevent blockage.
Filling with substrate.  I'd positioned the overflow badly but that's something to consider for Mk. II
Test running the system - you can see the water pooling between the clay pebbles.
The system in place and planted up. The hole in the res is so the levels can be checked and be topped up. 
So, now the system is completed, what's the operation like?  The tiny micro-pump in the res is capable of filling the top chamber in just two and a half minutes, much quicker than required (it has to run for 15 minutes because that's the smallest increments on the timer).  Once the timer switches the pump off, the whole chamber drains out in just two minutes.  This rapid drain ensures plenty of fresh air is sucked down onto the roots.

I planted the unit with a Peach Habanero and a Magnum Orange Habanero after carefully washing the soil out of their rootball. I have similar sized plants from the same seed stock growing in soil so it will be interesting to compare the results. The system has only be running for a day so far but, as yet, nothing's died and nothing has broken. Expect regular progress reports.

Away from the Heath-Robinson creations, there's stilll plenty of work to be done in the garden.  It was time to pot on the third wave of replacement seedings which had been growing well in the chilli-house.

This is a mixture of Scotch Bonnets (for making more 'Sunburn' Sauce), Habaneros and Dorset Nagas.

Squat Frog Habaneros and Dorset Nagas
Scotch Bonnets and Squat Frogs
Meanwhile, there's been progress on the Chilli Challenge - the mystery seeds are growing rapidly with some fine-looking specimens in the running...

Claudio & Diana's chillies
The two chillies above were both planted at the same time and kept side by side - it just goes to show how much luck plays a part.

Neil's chillies
Neil's chillies have been growing so tall that he's had to pinch the tops out to restrict their height.  Pinching out promotes more growth lower down and results with a sturdier, bushier plant that's less spindly and has more fruit-bearing branches.

If there are any more competitors out there with update photos, please send them in, we'd love to see how everyone is getting on.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The heat is on...

Well we've finally seen some sunshine and the chilli house is working well, keeping the plants warm even on the overcast days.  Problem is it's working almost too well with the temperatures rocketing up to the high 30s .  This has resulted in some scorching on the delicate seedlings which are placed nearer the top of the house. 

Scorched Scotch Bonnet
I'll have to keep a closer eye on the weather but with all of the weather forecasts being so inaccurate, it's easy to get caught out when a day starts dull and then perks up by midday.

The garden is thriving, with the mass of ferns loving the rain showers and humid days. The veggies are slowly progressing but without prolonged sunshine I've got my doubts as to how many tomatoes we'll see this year.

Paper Lantern Habanero
However, the chillies are looking impressive, a Paper Lantern Hab managed to outgrow its new pot in only a fortnight, I've now transplanted it into one of the two Chilligrows to see how it fares there.

One other aspect of the garden is also thriving - the aphids.  It's become a daily routine checking for these little blighters, squashing them and hosing them off.  I've tried another method as well, a vicious concoction of crushed chillies, garlic and soap, left to steep in warm water and then diluted for use. This is sprayed onto the affected leaves and should (in theory) deter the pests.  I'm not sure about the aphids bit it's certainly deters me - the smell is quite vile and the chilli fumes catch the back of the throat. I'll keep you posted as to the success of this pungent potion.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Potting On

The seedlings on the windowsills have been doing well and it was time to pot them. This was the second batch of seedlings, planted to replace the plants I lost back at Easter. I'd planted multiple seeds into small pots and used a large amount of vermiculite in the mix. The seedlings had developed fantastic root systems, helped along by the open light mix of the compost.  I gently separated them and planted them into their own pots with a compost mix containing Perlite to help keep the air and moisture into the soil.

The root systems on these little seedlings are really impressive.

The scotch Bonnet seedlings all potted on into the obligatory plastic cups.
The new chilli house is working well and even on an overcast and rainy day is at a comfortable 20 c. I'll have to add some shelving onto the back wall to take some of the smaller pots and maximise the use of the space.

The new chilli house is packed full
Having tried my had at chilli burgers a while back and been a bit disappointed by the lack of spice, I decided to try again with a little more kick in the new batch.

The recipe was simple, a kilo of lean minced beef, half a dozen garlic cloves, salt, pepper and four of the largest red Habaneros I could find.  All blitzed and mixed, it made 8 burgers (I treated myself to a Lakeland Burger Press) and we cooked them over a good old-fashioned charcoal barbecue.

The huge Habs ready to go into the burgers
The Habanero burgers were a big hit.
The burgers were spot on for heat, having enough chilli in them to get the lips tingling and with a bit of lasting burn but without being too hot for those not used to the heat.

We popped into Cheltenham food festival the other day to sample all the fantastic produce on display.  I love food festivals, trying all the samples and talking to the actual producers of the food makes a pleasant change from the supermarket shop.

The haul of chilli produces from Cheltenham Food Festival
I took the opportunity to restock with Upton Cheyney's fantastic Chipotle sauce and we got some more of the Chilli Peanut butter from Fire Foods, having used most of the last jar to make a superb satay sauce for chicken.

I do realise that I have quite a few chilli sauces now, perhaps it's about time I started using some up before buying any more...

There are a few unusual hazards to growing chillies but I never thought cats would be one.  However, this is the sight that greeted me this morning when I went into the garden. One of the many cats in the neighbourhood (all of whom treat our garden fence as a highway) had jumped onto the roof of the small chilli house and gone straight through. Somebody needs to cut down on the Whiskas.
Time for a new roof
Fixing the roof with a sturdier sheet of polycarbonate wasn't too hard, the same can't be said for the poor Friar's Hat chilli that was underneath it at the time - a rather extreme case of pinching out.

The battered Friar's Hat

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Bring on the summer

The second and third wave of chillies are now progressing well.  The sporadic sunlight is a bit of a hinderance but I'm hoping that I might get a late crop from some of the more mature plants.  

Some superhots on the windowsill
To help this along I also bought a few established seedlings from the local garden nurseries. I'd prefer to grow all my plants from seeds, not only for the satisfaction but also because it provides a wider range of chillies. The garden centres have traditionally only stocked a few of the more common varieties, such as Jalapenos and Hungarian Wax.

However, Dundry Nurseries in Cheltenham had an impressive selection of plants including some unusual varieties.  I picked up a Lemon Drop, a couple of Friar's Hats (as mine didn't make it through the winter), a Fatalii and a Naga Jolokia.

A real mixture of second and third wave seedlings with some of the shop-bought plants.
More surprising was the selection available at the normally pedestrian local Homebase.  In a "Death by Chilli" triple pack, I got a (fairly common) Scotch Bonnet, a more unusual Golden Cayenne and best of all, a Paper Lantern Hab. All for the discount price of £4.  Whilst I'm usually suspicious of buying from the big chain superstores because of their habit of forcing plants to fruit early, I've kept the chillies sheltered in the growhouse and they seem to be thriving.

Potting on the Red Scotch Bonnet
The overwintered De Arbol and Scorpions are repotted. 
The overwintered Scorpion, ready to be transplanted to a Chilligrow,
With more plants to be moved off the windowsills I decided to construct a third growhouse in the garden, this time somewhere that has more than a few hour's sun. So I set to work with paper and pen and soon had the the plans of what would become a gargantuan chillihouse.

Ready to begin
The house is built on stilts to keep it away from the cold ground and give it more sun in the late evening.
Yes, it really is that big.  This is a smaller version than the original, I reduced the size whilst making it so it didn't overshadow the neighbourhood.

The (almost) finished house. Clad in 6mm twinwall polycarbonate, it should retain the sun's warmth into the evening.
The door on the front and roof are temporary as I'll soon be replacing them with some clear perspex doors that are prettier and will allow me to see the plants. However, in the meantime the twinwall polycarb will at least keep the plants snug and warm during this week of unsettled weather.

I'll post up some photos of the finished house as soon as I can.

In other news, the Chilli Challenge is hotting up with Neil giving us a sneak peak of his entries (see the previous blog for other competitors' entries).  I'm reliably informed that they're kept under 24 hour armed guard to ensure that no-one attempts to nobble them (Not saying that he's competitive but he's already building a trophy cabinet).

They're certainly looking very impressive and I suspect that once again, this is down in part to Neil's secret weapon of a range in the kitchen which keeps the room (and his fledgling seedlings) in wrapped balmy tropical heat.

Neil's prized wedding chillies

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Long time, no see

Well it's fair to say that there hasn't been an update to this blog for a while. 

There are lots of excuses I could trot out but the long and the short of it is that there hasn't been much to report.

Way back in March I admired my chilli seedlings, spoke encouraging words to them, patted them gently and then deserted them for close on a month. 

Upon my return from the somewhat sunnier climes of India, (complete with a bag of local chillies) I found the horticultural equivalent of a massacre. Over half of my precious seedlings had died. Even my mature plants, carefully overwintered had taken a beating. The scotch bonnets and nagas were infested with greenfly and despite root-to-root resuscitation eventually joined the compost-heap in the sky. 

Some of the surviving superhots

Some of the overwintered chillies in the hothouse
Why this is, I don't honestly know. The plants had been sprayed several times with organic pesticide but after a brief respites, the greenfly returned. The traditional remedy of spraying with soapy water only produced squeaky-clean aphids so finally I turned to a more rudimentary and brutal solution. I simply took the plants outside and blasted with a hosepipe on a fine spray. As unscientific as this drastic remedy might be, it not only removed the live aphids but also removed dying or dead leaves and cleared off the sticky residue that aphids leave behind which can inhibit photosynthesis. 

This is by no means a permanent solution and will require close scrutiny but it's eco-friendly and seems to have done the plants no lasting damage 

Meantime, to replace the missing plants I've initiated a second round of planting. Plenty of Scotch Bonnets, Dorset Nagas and assorted Habs have been sown and are progressing well on the (occasionally) sunny windowsill. Due to the late planting and the potentially iffy summer weather it's debatable if they'll fruit well this year but if I can overwinter them with more success this year then I'll have a headstart next season.

Replacement Scotch Bonnets
A second batch of superhots and Scotch Bonnets
Making the most of the sunshine

In other news, we recently visited the Eastnor Castle Chilli Festival and a good time was had by all. Despite the unexpectedly long queues (bought on by the unexpectedly good weather) we had plenty of time to peruse the chilli-ware stalls, sample the Indian and Mexican food on offer and even visit a slightly peculiar cookery demonstration (It was certainly an education learning how 'authentic Mexican cooking' uses soy sauce!)

That aside, there was plenty to attract the visitor, chilli-head or otherwise. The music was lively and fun, the food and drink was both plentiful and delicious and Clifton Chilli Club's Chilli Eating Contest was equally entertaining, hard-fought and wincingly brutal.

We did sample products from nearly all the chilli exhibitors on display and, by and large, were impressed. However, with so many small companies jumping on the chilli bandwagon, it's becoming harder to tell their products apart. 

It's not hard to make a chilli sauce and too many people are settling for a generic product with no unique selling point. Upton Cheyney use lots of home-grown ingredients in their delicious sauces and even smoke their own chipotles (still the best chipotle sauce I've ever tasted). Mr Vickies has the amazing Indian spices to define their brand. Grim Reaper foods have matched up their scorching sauces and chocolates with slick marketing and branding. Fat Man Chilli was impressive with the chillies in the sauce carefully matched to the alcoholic spirit used. There are plenty more to mention but all to many producers settling for a naga-laden hot sauce with no character or real flavour. Lets see some real originality in the flavour combinations.

Rant over.
Our modest haul from Eastnor Chilli Fest.  All of these products are fantastic and come highly recommended
Back in September we launched our chilli challenge at our wedding and I've received a few photos from participants.  Looks like some very successful growing, despite the odd weather.  Please keep the photos coming, I'm excited to see how everyone is getting on.
Claudio & Diana's

Lisa & Andy's (the ones on the right) 
Emma & James'