Exploding Cucumber on Vine

Exploding Cucumbers! (Cyclanthera explodens)

I don’t normally bother too much with Latin names, but it is important here as there are two plants that are known by the name ‘exploding cucumber’, one, Cyclanthera explodens, the edible one which we will look at today, then there is the poisonous one, which you definitely shouldn’t eat, also know as the squirting cucumber, Latin name Ecballium elaterium. The first one fires its seeds out dry like shrapnel, the second one squirts them out in a gooey stream like a, well, like say a water pistol.

Exploding Cucumber on Vine

Exploding Cucumber on Vine

Both of these are dangerous in their own way. The first one is poisonous and inedible but the edible one I have been growing comes with a health warning which I must admit I didn’t pay much heed to. I thought it might be a bit of a sales gimmick. Not so, I was poking around in a bowl of these which had been sat on the side for a couple of days and BAM! there was a pop, and one of them ripped itself open and threw seeds across the room, probably 3 or 4m.

These are another example of my addiction to growing odd things, not just odd chillies, but odd cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs etc. etc. I always seek out the unusual, and always shun vegetables with names like ‘Bountymore’ ‘Harvest King’, ‘Moneymaker’ and the like, mostly these are going to be prolific, quick, but correspondingly bland.

The seeds came from realseeds.co.uk They are weird flat things with rough edges. I started them in late March (in the southern UK), they germinated well and grew quite quickly in the greenhouse. I needed the space so I planted them outside in a sheltered spot thinking it might be a bit too early for them, but no, they flourished.

Exploding Cucumber - Cyclanthera explodens

Exploding Cucumber – Cyclanthera explodens

 

Very quickly they spread, more than I thought they would. In fact I have had to cut them back quite ruthlessly, otherwise the two plants would take over the garden. They have probably spread about 10 feet in every direction, and there is still quite a lot of growing time left (as of 6th August). They were starting to strangle some beans, some ‘normal’ cucumbers, a tomato plant and a big rocoto chilli, and they are marching through some crocosmia to a flower bed.

That said, this isn’t really a complaining, they are a food plant, and a bountiful one, so it is my fault for not giving them enough space to flourish properly. Next year I will do better.

Bowl of Exploding Cucumbers

Bowl of Exploding Cucumbers

For those that fancy a go at these, I would say that in their habit, they are more like mouse melons (cuca melons, Mexican gherkins, etc. etc. the ones James Wong loves to grow), so treat them the same. I think they are a bit more edible though, you pick them young, and chop them in two or 3 pieces straight into salads. I find mouse melons a little tough and sharp if you don’t get them early. These are quite happy outdoors once they have been given a warm start, in fact you would be mad to let them take over your greenhouse unless you had unlimited space.

WARNING (and this is no joke). If you leave them to grow to their full size (about 3cm, or just over an inch), then they can and will explode black seeds at you from a long way off, and so fast that you won’t see them and they will get in your eyes. So the warning I took with a pinch of salt definitely stands. Pick them quick and do it wearing glasses or goggles.

Exploding Cucumbers

Exploding Cucumbers

Sliced Cajun Belle Pepper

Cajun Belle

One of the varieties I have grown for the first time this year is Cajun Belle. I wanted a frying pepper, something that I could stuff or chop fairly freely into my cooking that gave a bit of heat, but also acted as a substitute for heat free bell peppers.

Cajun Belle Peppers

Cajun Belle Peppers

I sampled a few the other day, but today I did the first big pick off of 3 plants. I didn’t pick all of them, only the red ones and a few green. I’d say that currently there is an average of 25 full grown pods on each plant. That is pretty prolific as I’m going to get at least the same again before the year is out. Generally they are 6-8 cm long and 4 cm across so these are really heavy croppers. They look just like mini sweet peppers but quite thin walled and heat-wise they are probably about 3-4000 SHU.

The plants are generally upright and only about 60cm tall, so they are heavily laden with fruit by the time of the first pick and some of the stems need separate support.

Cajun Belle Green

Cajun Belle Green

So my verdict is these are a real winner if this is the type of chilli you want.

  • Quick and easy germination
  • heavy cropper
  • Seed to fruit (green) in 17 weeks (in average greenhouse conditions)
  • Tasty and with a bit of heat
  • Thin walled so the can be easily stuffed

The seeds came from Nicky’s Nursery I would dispute some of the stats on the description there, 61 days to fruit from seed is a bit of a tall order for any chilli. From ‘planting out’ as they say in the USA, maybe, but from seed, I don’t think so, that would have meant picking at the beginning of May for me, which I have never done with any chilli or pepper plant. That said, Cajun Belle is really prolific and I would definitely recommend them, and I will be growing them again next year.

Cajun Belle Chilli Open

Cajun Belle Chilli Open

Piri Piri

My Giant Piri Piri Plant

I have a soft spot for my Piri Piri plants.  I don’t grow everything every year, I  rotate other plants around and If I have a freezer full of something I might miss a year. It gives me a chance to try new varieties and keeps me interested but I will always have my Piri Piri. Partly this is because they are just the best for overwintering, and partly because they crop so amazingly in the second year.

Nobody sells the seed, my seeds come from my mother’s ‘mother plant’. She first collected the seeds about 20 years ago from a garden in Portugal, and has kept them growing ever since, she has a plant about 15 years old, though I have to say it is a bit ropy now. Because she keeps this one growing, and doesn’t grow anything else so the seed she collects is always true. If anyone wants seeds for a plant like mine I can give them some of hers.

As far as I’m concerned this is THE Piri Piri. There are lots of other chillies that look slightly different all over Africa (chillies were taken to Africa from South America by the Portuguese) that are given this name, but that is simply the name they give to a small hot red chilli, so while the name is the same, the chilli might vary. This is made worse by the fact that where chillies are grown for Piri Piri sauce, they tend to choose something that is quick growing and prolific, then brand it with the Piri Piri name afterwards.

Anyway, back to my plant, the one below is now 5ft (1.5m) tall, and it will get bigger by the end of this year. It is a second year overwintered plant, last year it got to about 4ft (1.2m).

Piri Piri Plant

My 5ft Piri Piri Plant

 

These are great for overwintering. They are much more tolerant to cold temperatures than most capsicums, they will die back to stems, but this spent a few months last winter in a cool greenhouse with temperatures down to 0°c on a couple of nights. Last winter was a very mild one though (South Devon). Normally I wouldn’t expect plants to survive in the greenhouse, and nothing else that I left in there did.

Also, if frost hits in the autumn this one will survive where others don’t. According to my experiments nothing else will out-survive it apart from the tepin or Chiltepin, which are even more hardy, but pretty useless as a fruiting plant. This one pays dividends everywhere.

Piri Piri Flower

Piri Piri Flower

After winter it lays dormant for longer compared to other types. When I keep other plants they tend to start shooting out very soon after midwinter, and by early February they are shooting nicely. Not with this Piri Piri; maybe because the stems are quite woody, and it is a slow growing plant anyway,  you have to have faith and wait a bit longer, but it will catch up and still fruit earlier than first-year plants.

the chillies you pick will be pretty hot, I recon about 80-100,000 SHU, and off a big plant like this one I am expecting hundreds of them. They will be used for everything, dried, powdered, sauced and pickled.

Piri Piri Green

Piri Piri Green

 

Piri Piri

Piri Piri

 

 

Jak Pestovat Chilli

Growing Chillies Book is now published in Czech language

 

Dobrá zpráva pro milovníky chilli. ‘Jak Pestovat Chilli’ Nyní v českých knižních obchodech.

I’m not sure if there are ever any readers of these pages who are speakers, or indeed readers, of Czech, but if you are then Growing Chillies Book, or should I say ‘Jak Pestovat Chilli’ is in a bookshop near you! Of course this is a bit of a catch 22, if you can read this, you may not need a Czech translation, but if you do, you can link to the details here –  www.pestujchilli.cz You can order it online or buy it through bookshops.

I will be visiting Czech Republic for the weekend of 5th & 6th September to do some book signing and talk at a chilli festival there; more details to follow soon.

Jak Pestovat Chilli

Growing Chillies Book, now translated into Czech

Hoverfly laying eggs on a chilli plant

Hoverflies, Predators of Greenfly

The most commonly talked about predator of greenfly is ladybirds, you can buy them online, or collect them from around the garden, often on stinging nettles, which are themselves riddled with greenfly.

Just as effective, and just as common, if not more so, are hoverflies. The flies themselves usually feed off of plant nectar, but the larvae of many hoverfly species feed on greenfly along with other aphids, thrips and any other small insect they can get their teeth into.

I have a few more greenfly than usual in the greenhouse this year, but today I noticed that the battle has turned against them. I have left the doors wide open in the last few days in the hope that some predators might come in, even at night, which means I risk moths coming in, and that means caterpillars. Sometimes the line between good and bad is a fine one.

I discovered a new way of finding greenfly, just watch where the hover flies go. I have never watched them this closely before.

Update – For a bit more on greenfly detection have a look at this later blog entry.

Hoverfly laying eggs on a chilli plant

Hoverfly on chilli plant

This chappy (chappess actually) hovered around the plants from shoot to shoot, only stopping at the ones which had greenfly in the tips.Here you can see her sucking on a leaf, maybe one that is covered with the sweet sticky dew that the greenfly exude, this is also the stuff that ants love. I couldn’t get a picture of her next move, which was to reach in with her back end and lay an egg among the greenfly. One egg laid, then on to the next shoot. Only the shoots with a greenfly benefited from an egg, so hopefully in a day or two a tiny larvae will emerge on each and start munching. They grow quite quickly so in a few days I will have a picture of one. Watch this space.

Greenfly on Chilli Flower

Hidden Greenfly Damage

Most people know the common reasons why we shouldn’t let greenfly run amok over our chilli plants, they suck it dry of sap and nutrients and they spread disease. One other big problem with greenfly is that they ruin fruit. Malformed fruit is a fairly common problem on chillies and other factors come into play such as environmental conditions, genetics, and diseases, but problems resulting from greenfly damage are often not credited as such because they occur long after the greenfly have gone.

 

Greenfly on Chilli Flower

Greenfly on chilli flower

The above picture shows how they enjoy getting their beaks into the soft flesh of a flower, often the flowers and new shoots are the first parts of a plant to be attacked because they are the most tender and succulent. Once this flower opens they will get inside and feed of the reproductive parts of the plant and the tiny chilli before it has even developed. This results in scar tissue from where they pierced the flesh and the outcome is a chilli that is split, or misshaped. You can see this in the picture below.

Greenfly damaged Chilihuacle Negro Chilli

Greenfly damaged Chilihuacle Negro Chilli

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the Chilhuacle Negro is an odd chilli anyway, the skin is always matt coloured and leathery, even when it is fully ripe (when it turns brown) and it is never smooth and round, but you can see here that secondary fruits have formed close to the calyx (where it joins the stem). On the right hand one these aren’t even closed, they are split open and you can see inside. Whilst still edible, this will probably start to rot before it ripens, and if you were a commercial farmer it certainly wouldn’t be of a quality that you could sell.

The answer to this problem is that as soon as you see evidence of greenfly, usually the feathery white skins on the leaves below, check your flowers. It is difficult to get at the greenfly inside and crush them without damaging the flowers, so you can use an organic spray, but I think it is best to nip off the flowers while they are young so the plant doesn’t waste its resources growing useless fruit. It will soon grow more flowers,usually they produce many more flowers than fruit anyway, and it ensures you get rid of your greenfly and leave the plant producing a healthy crop.

I have had more problems than usual with greenfly this year, but as documented in a previous blog, by far the worst affected have been the Chilhuacle Negros, these fruits must have come from the first flowers be hit, before I even saw them, and I have picked a few fruits like this now. You can never be too diligent!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Order of Greenfly

I have long been fascinated by the way greenfly will populate one type of chilli plant but not another, and while chilli plants are generally a tasty target, greenfly are happy to dig into one variety while another variety next door goes unscathed, at least for a while.

Some years I get very little in the way of greenfly, other years, like this one they are more of a challenge but even though they are pest, I still find them strangely fascinating. Their breeding cycle is weird, some are born with wings, some without, and some are even born pregnant.

So I have been observing their progress recently. A few weeks ago i noticed a few on my Chilhuacle negro plants, but not any of the others. Now they have spread a bit, firstly to bhut jolokias, but not Carolina reapers, then to some cajun belles, then to some aji, and yet the pimiento de Padron in-between remain untouched.

An entomologist once told me that that they tend to stick to one variety if they can and so in my greenhouse I dispensed with keeping plants of the same variety next to each other, now I alternate them, so that if one plant is infected with greenfly then they are less likely to jump onto the neighbours. Apparently they just get used to the sap of one plant, and their young will prefer to stay there. They still managed to spread from one chilhuacle to another, but it took a while, the fact that they were spread out bought me some time to squash them.

Anyone done any serious experimentation on this?

Slug Eating Chilli

How to REALLY Control Slugs – Drink the Beer yourself, and take the Battle to them

Firstly lets deal with the notion that slugs are just slimy things that whilst annoying to the gardener and not very pleasant, they are otherwise quite innocent.

1/ They will eat the rotting flesh of their dead brothers and sisters, then crawl all over your vegetables

2/ Many of them will eat dog and cat faeces and then they crawl all over your vegetables

Is this what you want?

Now I’m not squeamish about creepy crawlies, but for these reasons alone I don’t touch slugs, well not the big fat ones anyway. There area number of different species and pretty much all of the ones you find in the garden will have a go at your plants and vegetables, but some more than others. Actually the ones that do the most damage on the tender shoots of your peas and beans are more likely to be Common Keeled slugs, or Yellow slugs. The Common Keeled slug is a difficult one to control as it spends most of its life in the soil, and can attack seedlings before they have even emerged into the daylight, you also find them under plant pots where the squeeze into the drain holes during the daytime.

The nasty one is the big fat orangey brown Spanish slug, these are a relatively new invader from overseas, they are drought tolerant, lay twice the number of eggs as native slugs and are voracious eaters of anything and everything, including dog poo and dead animals. They are taking over from our native slugs and are quite a disgusting and unwanted addition to your garden.

You will read about all sorts of ways of controlling and trapping slugs, and you can spend an awful lot of time and money on it too, nasty pellets, eco-friendly pellets, copper bands, plastic traps; the list goes on. All of these take time to set up and inspect, and according to my experience none of them really work. The reason they proliferate is twofold, firstly the people that manufacture things like beer traps and copper bands want to sell you something, and secondly people that offer advice want to do so without causing offence, so they offer tame alternatives to the real way of controlling slugs and snails, which is to hunt them down and kill them, mercilessly, by whatever means you have at hand.

So my slug and snail regime is as follows; I use Nemaslug in the spring, as soon as the soil warms up, (slugs don’t come out until the temperature reaches 6°C). You buy this from online retailers or garden centres and water it all over the garden on a warm moist night. This definitely swings the battle in my favour, and hopefully staves off the population explosion until after the spring rains and into periods of dry soil when slugs lie low anyway. Nemaslug is of particular benefit in the exposed soil of vegetable patches where the damage is done by the soil dwelling Common Keeled slug. The slug that leaving you wondering where they came from and where they go to when the sun comes up. They are the ones that will get your early seedlings and also attack root vegetables and newly germinating seeds underground.

Slug Eating Chilli

Slug Eating Chilli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Nemaslug there is no substitute for the nightly massacre. This goes for snails as well as slugs, (Nemaslug doesn’t work on snails). I go out an hour after dusk and slash or smash every slug or snail in sight. This is free, and actually takes less time than spreading pellets, or filling beer traps. If you drink the beer you would otherwise waste in their traps then this can help with any guilt that may build up during the slaughter. The death toll can run into the hundreds if you don’t keep on top of it.

If you keep this up you will soon get on top of them, and then from time to time on dry evenings you won’t find any, and you can ease off slightly on your nightly binges.

For some further info on slugs, and a handy identification guide, have a look at www.slugwatch.co.uk 

Salsa Macha

Salsa Macha – Filling, Indulgent and not too Healthy

Salsa Macha Web

Salsa Macha

It is cold outside, Friday night is only hours away, and we need to kick it off with something a bit filling, satisfying and indulgent.

I can’t think of a recipe with such a fatty list of ingredients, (although I’ve seen a lot worse on the ingredients list of dips picked off the supermarket shelves), and worse still it is easy to polish off an awful lot of this stuff in a very short space of time. But hey-ho, this is an extremely versatile cooking sauce, dip or marinade; akin to satay sauce, but with a spicy and smoky taste. Traditionally it is heavy on chipotles, but I find that using a large proportion of the widely available chipotle morita is too overpoweringly smoky and gives it a burnt flavour. So I usually use less of them, or milder home-smoked chillies, as well as guajillo powder.

 

150g crunchy peanut butter

3 chipotle moritas (probably more if you have smoked the chillies yourself and they are less intense)

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped.

100ml olive oil

2 tbsp brown sugar

2 tbsp sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

2 tsp guajillo chilli powder

1 tsp sesame oil

 

This is almost a cheat’s recipe, as it uses peanut butter to dispense with the need to blend nuts into the sauce, but this doesn’t seem to affect the flavour and it makes the recipe so simple I am more likely to use it.

Soak the chipotles in a small amount of hot water for about 20 minutes, then take them from the water and chop them finely. Or you can grind them into a powder if you have a spice or coffee grinder.

In a small saucepan mix all the ingredients together and bring to the boil, simmer it for a minute or two whilst stirring constantly. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool, as it cools the sauce will thicken.

This is a rich and tasty dip when served with corn chips or pitta breads. It is also a great thing to pour over barbecued meat, as you would chicken satay, but to my mind the extra smoked chilli gives it the edge.

Aji Chilli Flower November

When will my chilli plants die?

I had set aside this morning to do a little bit of pruning on a handful of plants that I would like to over-winter. In my growing chillies book there is a section on keeping plants over the winter, what temperatures to keep them at, how to prune them and when. But it isn’t an exact science, and very dependent upon autumn temperatures, where you live and where you keep your plants.

Anyway, despite the fact that we are only 5 weeks away from Christmas, the plants I want to keep, which are still in a greenhouse, in south Devon, are all still healthy and don’t yet need any pruning. Having said that, the ones I am keeping are mostly ones that I know will do well, or that I know are worth investing a bit of time and warmth in. So I have a some aji plants, a nice big piri piri, and a whopping great moruga scorpion. There are a few others which have a bit of fruit to ripen, but things like jalapeno, most of my habaneros, pimiento de padron and a few others have mostly been consigned to the compost bin.

So my thoughts turned to which plants would die first if I left them as they are. Which are the most frost tolerant? And some people might be interested in an experiment we conducted at the chilli farm many years ago. With the help of the weather we achieved some fairly accurate and interesting results. In a polytunnel containing 100 varieties we didn’t do the usual autumn cleanup, which is the way it should be done, good garden hygiene, stop the spread of disease, bla bla bla; instead we left the plants in situ, and while the temperature dropped over successive days we observed the results. This was the first cold snap of the year, so to begin with all the plants still had most of their leaves.

As the temperature inside the tunnel dropped towards freezing the first plants to succumb were the tropical ones, Capsicum chinense the habaneros and scotch bonnets, they will lose all their leaves in a single night at 1 or 2°c.

The next night the temperature dropped lower, and hit zero for the first time. At this point the ones to go are the bigger Capsicum annuum big peppers and jalapenos, especially the newer more highly bred ones.

Another day went by and overnight the temperature had reached -1°c. Now looking along the beds it was really evident which ones were survivors and which ones had suffered, but the leafless plants were interspersed with quite a few that still retained their leaves. These were mostly the Capsicum baccatum, tougher leaves and stems, originating from Andean areas where frost tolerance would be an advantage. But also the piri piri, tabasco, and strangely the Prairie Fire were still lookiing good, so the Capsicum frutescens display a lot of frost hardiness too.

Yet another day, and another degree or two of frost, and the only survivor was the tepin, a scrubby bunch of twigs, tiny tough leaves, and a very poor fruiter, but this truly wild chilli out-lived the rest; in fact this very plant lived on for four more years, until a very cold winter brought temperatures of -10°c, and that was the end of it.

So what is to be learned from this? Whatever the ‘rules’ about plant pruning and overwinter temperatures there will always be exceptions. My favourite is the piri piri, always the most loved chillies in my collection. I have said this before, but my mother has the ‘mother plant’ it is the only one she keeps now, so the seed never crosses with anything else, and I always kick off more than I need every spring. There are a lot of varieties under the piri piri banner; this is a Portuguese one, from an old ladies garden, and about midsized as they go, up to about an inch long, and they are solid bullets.

Piri Piri in a Raised Bed, November

Piri Piri in a Raised Bed, November

This picture of Piri Piri plants was taken on 12th November. It sits in a fairly sheltered south facing raised bed, which most importantly gives it good drainage so its roots aren’t sitting in claggy wet soil. The mild autumn temperatures this year do the rest, and it still flourishes albeit slowly, with ripe fruit, new fruit, and flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Greenhouse Piri Piri Chilli

Piri Piri in the Greenhouse, November

This plant is the same variety, but inside a greenhouse, it is still going great guns, and might even survive the whole winter at this rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aji Chilli Flower November

Aji Chilli Flower, November

I’m always interested to know what the real survivors are in the chilli world, so if you have any anecdotes or experiences, post them underneath for others to see.