Back in March, I challenged the members of my local gardening club to a chilli challenge.
All were given a packet of Chilli ‘Numex Twilight’, my favourite chilli for windowsill growing – it’s a manageable size for indoor growing, and at its peak you end up with a rainbow of decorative chillies that will get the admiration of anyone visiting the house.
I set two classes for the challenge – most number of chillies on one plant, and the healthiest looking chilli plant. To level the playing field I provided everyone with a stash of 2 litre pots and the plants had to be grown in these. Other than this they had free reign on compost choice, fertiliser and training (staking, pinching out, etc).
Last Saturday I joined everyone at the local village hall for the end of season flower and produce show. I had been looking forward to seeing how everyone got on, but on Friday evening it suddenly hit me that I’d potentially given myself a really big task. “Why on earth did I choose most number of chillies as a category!?” I had visions of me being there all day, constantly losing count and starting again.
So as I sheepishly entered the hall I was relieved to see ten plants for judging with varied crops of chillies on them.
All the plants had chillies that I would easily recognise as Numex Twilight, but it was interesting to see the variation in habit and size. One reached well over 3½ foot while another wasn’t much more than 18inches high. Most had the small leaves expected of the variety while one or two had large leaves rivalling sweet pepper plants.
Lowest chilli count was 1 (an easy job for me!). Yet I awarded this plant third place in the healthiest plant category – lush foliage with plenty of life left in it for cropping through winter.
The heaviest cropping plant had 203 fruits on it, although none of them had yet ripened. The plant looked so healthy too, that I also gave it 1st place in the second category.
Judging was carried out in the morning, I then returned for the open show in the afternoon, bringing with me my best Numex Twilight plant to show the rainbow of colours that everyone could expect from their plants. Winners announced, I was called on to read out the raffle winners, many of whom went home with Thompson & Morgan seeds for sowing next season. Winners of the chilli categories received seeds of my 10 favourite Thompson & Morgan chillies plus a book on chillies kindly donated by another member.
I received many a compliment for my chilli plant (admittedly grown in larger pot, but fed just once back in June).Returning home I decided to make a feature of it in the kitchen. Setting it alongside my chilli chain – a mix of chillies picked from my plants, all strung together with a needle and thread (the needle goes through the stalks so the fruit is undamaged). These are then hung to dry out ready for a long life of varied uses in the kitchen.
I hope you are all doing as well with your plants. I’d love to see how you are getting on, post your photos on the Thompson & Morgan Facebook page.
Some like it hot, but others not! Thompson & Morgan Pepper Meter makes it easy to find chili heat.
The Scoville scale has been the standard measure of chili heat for over a hundred years, but a rating of 750,000 or 1million+ SHU doesn’t mean much to the average gardener, other than its likely to blow your socks off! Looking to simplify things and give customers a better informed choice, Thompson & Morgan has rated all pepper varieties in its range on a simple 0-10 scale, from Cool & Sweet right up to Explosive!
The UK is fast becoming a nation of hot heads when it comes to greenhouse and windowsill growing. Driven by changing taste buds and a desire for more exotic cuisine, Thompson & Morgan has noticed a steady rise in the number of gardeners trying their hand at growing chilies and peppers in the last 10 years. Easy to grow and providing a bountiful supply of fruits for fresh use, freezing and drying, they are becoming a common site in UK kitchens and greenhouses.
Chilies are the perfect companion plants for growing alongside greenhouse tomatoes, thriving under the same conditions and feeding regime. And for those without the luxury of a greenhouse there are many varieties that remain compact for indoor growing while still producing hundreds of fruits per plant, making them a very worthwhile addition to a sunny windowsill. Many varieties can also be grown outside in a sunny spot to great success.
T&M Horticultural Director Paul Hansord said: “For some growers it’s all about the kudos of growing the hottest varieties they can get their hands on – often far too hot to eat! But many gardeners are looking for a better culinary experience to suit their tastes – not many people really want to add the world’s hottest chili varieties to their dishes. Our Pepper Meter allows customers to make a quick informed decision on the varieties to grow to suit their tastes, helping them get it right from the word go.”
Display cards explaining the new Pepper Meter will hang alongside the Thompson & Morgan chili offering at garden centres in 2016, and vibrant redesigned packets will each clearly show the variety’s heat rating for quick and easy selection.
Having looked at how to keep your chilli plants cool during summer extremes in my last update, I thought I’d flip the focus this time and look at ways of packing extra heat into your chillies.
All chilli varieties fall within their own heat range on the Scoville Heat Scale. If you are new to the scale, the ratings simply represent the number of drops of water needed to dilute the heat of the chilli until you can no longer feel the heat in your mouth. Luckily plant scientists have done this for us so we don’t need to find out the hard way!
Some growers often report a lack of heat in their chillies after harvest, despite growing some of the hotter strains. Fortunately, there are a few simple tricks you can employ to ensure your chillies top out at the high end of their Scoville range.
A lack of heat is often down to treating the plants too well during the growing season – the heat in a chilli is the plant’s defence mechanism against environmental stress (drought and excessive sunshine/heat) and hungry animals munching on the plants in the wild – interestingly only mammals are affected by the heat in chillies, birds and reptiles can eat them with no ill effect.
Give your chilli plants too much comfort during the growing season and they think there is no need to pack their fruits with heat (sorry to anthropomorphise, I try not to do this when it comes to plants and animals but sometimes it can’t be helped!).
So, to increase the heat and produce fiery chillies the answer is simple – a bit of harsh treatment and tricking them into thinking they are under animal attack.
The first tip to hotter chillies is to allow a good drying period before each watering, even letting the plants wilt for half a day or so before giving them a good drink. I did this earlier in the week, As you can see, having let the plants droop, they soon picked up after a good watering. Don’t do this too many times as it will eventually weaken the plant and have a negative effect, but 3 or 4 times through the season should get the results you want without long term damage to the plant.
Secondly, make the plant feel it is under attack from a hungry herbivore – once a week scrunch a few leaves by hand, even snap the odd side stem, and the plant will think it is being eaten and pack extra heat into its fruit to prevent future attacks.
Thirdly, pump up the heat. Grow two of the same chilli variety in your greenhouse, one at floor level and one as high up on shelving as possible where temperatures will be higher (hot air rises). You’ll notice on eating that the chillies picked from the plant on the floor will be cooler to taste than those picked from the plants on high. Similarly grow one on a windowsill and another in the garden – the garden plant will produce cooler chillies than the one grown in the warmth of the house.
And finally, there is the cheat’s way. I’ve never tried this but I’ve heard that by adding a hot chilli sauce like Tabasco to your watering can, you will transfer the heat to your chillies. You can even try this with sweet peppers and tomatoes and turn them hot. I’d love someone to give this a go on their tomatoes and let me know the results!
The sunshine is here at last – but don’t let conservatory and greenhouse chillies frazzle in the excessive heat. Temperatures hit 48C in my south-facing conservatory yesterday and I’m expecting even higher temperatures today. Luckily I had the foresight to move my chillies outside onto the patio before I left for work, where a fresh breeze kept them cooler in the summer sunshine. I’ve done the same today and given them a good drink to get them through the day.
If you can’t move your plants outside during peaks of hot weather, make sure to water them heavily in the morning during hot spells – check them again in the evening for dryness. In a greenhouse you can ‘dampen down’ to raise humidity and lower temperatures, this simply means wetting all surfaces – floors, glass, benching etc.
This isn’t practical in a conservatory. But you can do a couple of things to cool things down and raise the humidity. Firstly, spray foliage with a fine mist of water to keep them cool. You can also sit your pots on a tray of damp gravel or clay pebbles (hydroleca) this will create a humid micro climate around you plants, reducing the risk of leaf frazzle during the midday sun.
With the sun out, I’m bringing a touch of Spain to my dinner tonight. My first lot of padron peppers are ready to pick tonight, so I’ll be making a classic tapas dish to eat alfresco this evening – padrons lightly fried in olive oil, sprinkled in salt and eaten hole (minus the stalks!) – Simple but delicious!
As we reach midsummer (where has the season gone!) chillies really take off, particularly in a warm conservatory like mine.
The plants’ frameworks are nicely developed now and many of the varieties I’m growing are now starting to flower – in the case of ‘Padron’ I’ve already got the first fruits and I could be picking them this weekend (that early start in February really paid off!).
It’ll soon be time to start feeding them – more on that with my next update.
For now I want to show you the importance of potting on. Pot size really matters when it comes to growing sizable plants – the bigger the plants the more fruit you’ll get. As you can see from the photo, the two Habaneros look nothing like one another, despite being sown on the same day and being grown on in the same location in the same compost. The only difference is pot size.
The smaller plant remains in a one litre pot while the other was potted on into a 5litre container, the results speak for themselves. If you’ve still got chillies in small pots – think about moving them on. I recommend a 2 litre pot as a minimum for a decent manageable plant, but if you can go for a 5 or 10 litre pot, you’ll be surprised at just what you will achieve with your plants before autumn sets in.
My chilli seedlings have been ticking along nicely in the conservatory, and until the weekend I’d paid them little attention other than keeping them watered. Daytime temperatures in my south-facing sun trap have suited them well, even if cooler night temperatures have kept them in check. Increased sunshine and warmer temperatures in the past week or so have evened out the fluctuations, meaning growth rates have really stepped up.
The plants have been in their root trainers for around 6-7 weeks now, meaning there will be little goodness left in the compost to support continued growth. With roots showing through the drainage holes, and the compost drying out quickly in the increased heat of the conservatory, Saturday morning was spent getting my sturdy seedlings potted on for the next stage of growth.
Root trainers make for really easy potting on – the plastic strips open like a book to reveal perfectly formed root balls that are easily handled will little risk of damage. I transferred each plant to its own 15cm pot, loosely filled with multi-purpose compost. It’s a simple process but there are some tips to follow to get the best results:
Top tips for potting on chillies:
- Water seedlings before potting on. I actually go one further and add a little liquid feed, as it will be a while before new roots stretch out to make use of the new pot compost.
- Spend time breaking up the lumps and bumps in the compost to encourage unhindered root development and good drainage.
- Use new or clean pots – re-using unwashed pots can allow pests and diseases to carry over.
- Fill all your pots before working with your seedlings makes for an efficient process.
- Write all your labels before you start – if you do this after potting on, the chances are you’ll get your varieties mixed up.
- Set chilli plants deep in their pots, burying the stems up to the first leaves. Like tomato plants they will generate new roots on the buried stem, bring better stability and nutrient uptake. Just make sure the lowest leaves are not sitting on the compost surface.
- Despite watering your seedlings before potting on, give them a complete drenching in their new pots too, to help settle them in.
- Plants may droop slightly after potting, but they should be back to full health within 24 hours.
Now my plants have space to breath, and a good amount of fresh compost around them, I swear they have noticeably come on in the few days since I potted them on. By the time I come to set them into their final containers in late May I should have some cracking plants to show off to you. Already I’m impressed with their shapes and habit – early winners for me include the habeneros and scotch bonnets in the Tropical Heat mix and the purple tinged foliage of Pot Black – I can’t wait to see the black fruits on this one!
I have to admit a slight hiccup with my chilli growing this year! On sowing day I was short on plant labels. Rather than label each Root Trainer, I thought it easier to list them on pieces of paper – one list for each tray. Yes you’ve guessed it – one of the lists has gone missing! While I can confidently label all the plants from tray 1, the same can’t be said of tray 2. I know the eight varieties in the mix, I just don’t know which is which. I was really annoyed at myself for this silly mistake, but I’m actually looking forward to growing the plants ‘blind’ and identifying them once they start to produce identifiable fruits later in the season.
Between now and the final potting up I’m going to research all the T&M varieties to place them on the Schoville heat rating scale. I’ll let you know my findings as soon as I have them.