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?

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.

Sliced Poona Kheera Cucumber

Poona Kheera

Sliced Poona Kheera Cucumber

Sliced Poon Kheera Cucumber – This looks a little over ripe, but the seeds are soft and edible, and it is super juicy

A quick post to sate my enthusiasm for something quite humdrum.

I find myself getting excited about a lot of unusual vegetables these days, so here is another ramble about new favourite veg of mine. It is called Poona Kheera and it is an Indian cucumber.

I had few cucumbers rambling around the greenhouse earlier in the year but they were past their best and I thought I would try something different, even though it was quite late in the season. So when I ordered some weird herb seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue I bought some Poona Kheera seeds too.

I’m really really impressed; tasty to the point at which you might confuse them with a ‘not quite sweet enough’ honeydew melon, and really quick growing. The seeds were planted in the middle of July, and after a pretty cool and unimpressive August, the first ones were picked on 10th September, so less than 8 weeks from seed to fruit, pretty amazing.

We chop these into triangles and eat them on their own, more flavoursome even than more traditional varieties, and prolific too.

There you go.

The Poona Kheera Indian cucumber

The Poona Kheera Indian cucumber

Chillies – So what’s with dfferent varieties of the same thing?

Chilli growers hear and talk a lot about different varieties. There are, after all, only 5 main species of chilli and many thousands of varieties within each. But that’s not what I am talking about today. Today I’m dealing with different types of the same chilli, and is it worth paying extra for new and exciting ones, or alternatively spending time seeking out the traditional old ones?

Firstly, I will say that, as a former commercial grower, I think a lot about things like increased yield per plant, uniformity of fruit, and ripening time. But shouldn’t we all? It isn’t necessarily a bad thing; even somebody who only has a single plant in their window would still like to see it produce better, bigger, hotter, quicker or tastier.

So when we go online at the start of the year to shop and dream, we are hit with lots of information. But is the sales patter all true? Phrases like ‘heavy cropper’, ‘bumper yield’, ‘continuous fruiting’ draw us into paying a bit more for a newly developed variety. Conversely, we are also told that looking backwards to old ‘heirloom’ varieties will give us a better flavour, the way things used to be. So is backwards the way forward?

To digress a little, let’s thing about the supermarket tomato. We all know that with tomatoes, what the shops feed us is bigger, quicker and juicier, thinner skinned, but rarely tastier than the ones we grow at home. Tomatoes are grown in such bulk that the growers’ choice of variety has become so influenced by commercial gain that flavour has definitely been sacrificed.

But are chillies affected in the same way? I’m not so sure. Even in areas where they are grown in bulk for a commercial market, increased productivity doesn’t usually lead to a reduction in flavour. Big peppers are different, and they suffer as tomatoes do, but not so much hot chillies.

All these thoughts were prompted by my comparison of two Jalapeno plants last year. They were grown side by side, one was bought as a seedling from a garden centre, grown for an anonymous market at minimum cost. The other grown by me from seed, the variety is ‘Chichimeca’. The results of a comparison are obvious. They both get the same amount of light and plant food, and enjoy the same temperatures, (which were great last summer).

Jalapeno Comparison
This picture has the first few chillies off of the two bushes, the basic Jalapenos are at the top and at the bottom is my favourite variety, Chichimeca.

From an industry insiders point of view, let me explain why the plants the garden centre supply are inferior. This is down to seed price, and the unfortunate fact that the grower of the seedling is so far removed from the eater of the chillies that they have no vested interest in growing something that will be big and bountiful, and this is such a tiny part of the garden centre’s income (compared to the cafe, imported tat, Christmas decorations, BBQs etc. etc.) that they aren’t too bothered either. Basic Jalapeno seed (probably Jalapeno M) will probably cost the wholesale plant grower about fifty quid for 20,000 seeds, so the seed part of their overhead is minimal. New varieties, like Chichimeca might cost them up to a few pence per seed, and suddenly that would have a knock on effect of the price of the seedling they sell to the garden centre, and therein lies the problem. Most garden centres are price-led, so the results aren’t as important.

You will see another illustration of the difference in seed price if you go to a specialist seed seller online. You might find somewhere that sells a wide range of chilli seeds, possibly a range so huge that making your choice becomes a daunting process. These guys will undoubtedly have a few really cheap ‘loss leaders’ they might even give these packets away for free if you buy enough of something else. But is it worth filling your greenhouse with these plants?

I think there are a few varieties where it is worth paying more for something better, greenhouse and window sill space is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted, and our time is valuable too, so we want to make our space as productive as possible, and preferably without too much effort.

So here are a few varieties where you can really benefit greatly by shopping around to find something a bit better.

Jalapeno – Steer clear of anything advertises simply as Jalapeno, Jalapeno M, or Early Jalapeno. These are older varieties, less prolific, and no uniformity of size, which means many will be undersized and lacking in heat where the seeds and placenta inside haven’t formed properly. Instead go for Chichimeca, Ixtapa, Summer Heat, Mucho Nacho, Tula or Mitla.

Orange Habanero – Instead of the standard variety, go for Chichen Itza; it is earlier to ripen, more prolific and bigger.

Serrano – The standard version is slow to grow, and with very few fruits per plant, instead go for ‘Senor Serrano’ They are Longer, more uniform, quicker and hugely prolific.

Ancho/Poblano – The standard plants can be quite rambling and often only the first few off the plant are full size. Instead try the ‘San Martin Hybrid’ it is bigger, more prolific and stronger more compact plants. Beware of hybrid Poblanos that claim huge oversized fruits. There are some crossed with sweet peppers to give a huge fruit, but they start to lose their distinctive flavour if they are bred too big.

And here are some where you can pick up a bargain that is still prolific and worthwhile.

• Hungarian Hot Wax
• Long Slim Cayenne
• Santa Fe

Fungus Gnats (or Sciarid Flies)

I have never really had a problem with these before, occasionally I have seen them in chilli plants that are overwintered indoors, or other house plants. But mostly they tend to stick to indoor plants with old neglected soil.

For those that don’t know about them, they are a tiny black fly that hangs around the soil in a pot, you often don’t see them until you water it and they all fly up in a panic. Their even tinier grubs will be living in the soil, feeding on algae, rotting organic matter, and according to some experts but not others, the roots of your plant.

This year, however, I seem to have been inundated with them in the greenhouse. I think this is most likely due to the very mild winter. Where I live in South Devon we only had a couple of very light frosts, and the greenhouse never went below zero, hence poor sterilization of the soil. I had a couple of chilli plants out there which developed fungus gnats in their pots but I wasn’t too worried, normally they would die and be discarded before spring. I also had a bag of compost left over from the previous year which had a few in. I didn’t want to use it for potting so I dug it into the beds in the greenhouse. I foolishly thought the flies wouldn’t survive in natural soil because other bugs would kill them off. This was wrong, and before I knew it the beds were crawling, along with some other pots.

I am a big fan of biological controls, Nemaslug etc. and I urge people to use them whenever I can, but it is only recently that I have seen a control for Fungus Gnats. In my Growing Chillies book I deal with Fungus Gnats, but don’t mention a biological control for them as, at the time, there didn’t seem to be one available, hence this update. I have always used the old fashioned method of sticking a piece of potato in the soil which attracts the grubs and can later be discarded. Luckily now there is a biological control widely available, it is inexpensive, easy to use and very effective. It is microscopic nematode worms that infect the fly grubs. It comes as a light powdery substance in a small sealed tray. Dilute it in a watering can and water it into the soil of infected pots. It seems to me that the results are obvious within just a day or two. I suppose the grubs are infected almost immediately and the adults don’t live more than a day or two, so their life cycle is immediately halted.

This will be my first port of call in future, I might even order it as a matter of course every spring when I order my Nemaslug, you can get them shipped together from ‘all good purveyors biological controls’ I use www.greengardener.co.uk 

Do Horticultural Shows Need to Modernise?

I live in a village which holds an annual horticultural show, the likes of which you see in villages and towns all over the UK. Many years ago I used to participate, but when I became a professional grower I wasn’t allowed to compete any longer. Twelve years has passed and as I am now ‘retired’ from professional chilli growing I am eligible to compete again so recently one of the village elders gave me the application booklet, apparently these days they are struggling for participants. Why is this I wonder? With the boom in ‘grow your own’ that can’t have eluded anybody you would have thought there would be lots of eager takers.

Now I am probably not a typical veg grower, I lean towards the unusual, challenging or bizarre. I obviously grow lots of chillies and I don’t have huge amounts of space, so I mostly steer clear of potatoes and the bigger root vegetables. Even so I would say that from what I hear from my humble list of followers, and what I glean from the press, those that have recently taken to veg growing, and in particular younger growers are a little more Thai basil than turnip.

On my local show list there are 32 classes in the vegetable section, and I am currently growing , even if you count chillies as 1, 24 different vegetables or herbs and yet the overlap between the two is only 4, not including the ‘Any other vegetable’ and ‘Any other fruit’ classes. They have runner beans, I grow dwarf french beans, They have turnips, parsnips and beetroot, I have asparagus peas, mouse melons and aubergines. They have marrow, I have squash.

I know of another local show which, when some new organisers took over the reigns, did amend their class list slightly to reflect changes in taste, but this didn’t go down well with the traditionalists. If you have grown prize turnips for decades you might be slightly miffed if your category is culled to make way for’ Hot Pepper’ or ‘Ornamental gourd or squash’. I am interested to know whether anyone has opinions on this, and if so how should horticultural shows reflect changing trends? Some of them go back hundreds of years, with cherished cups presented in memorial to past members, so tradition stands in the way of modernisation. I am inclined to kick things off with an offer of a new cup to my local show for ‘Tropical or Oriental Vegetable’ or some such thing, but would that preclude me from winning it? I’m not too worried.

 

Light Levels, Lux and a Bright Sunny Window

For a change, the first part of today was clear, bright and sunny, and I was tinkering with a small chilli bonsai tree which currently lives in a little plastic Ikea mini greenhouse inside our patio doors.

It is doing ok, and this is by far the brightest place inside the house for a plant to spend the winter. But it’s situation led me to muse over how much light it was getting in it’s little greenhouse, in a window, in a house.

I wrote a paragraph or two in my Growing Chillies book on the subject of light levels and how brightness deteriorates very rapidly as you move away from a window, and how the human eye is so effective at compensating for this we don’t really know how cosiderable the change is. For a plant this can be the difference between life and death.

As an aside, a recent TV program on ‘The Body Clock’ had the presenter, Terry Wogan, playing around with a light meter to prove that to get a healthy dose of good quality light we need to be outside. A comfortable armchair by the window wasn’t enough to keep Terry’s body clock on the straight and narrow.

So today my inquisitive nature let me to reach for my light meter again. At this point I should say that my light meter is not as good as Terry Wogan’s. He had the bees knees I am sure, whereas I am stuck with my smartphone. But even though the Apps you can get to read light levels aren’t deemed accurate enough for real scientific study, they are still in the right ballpark, and enough for a little layman’s experiment.

I started by aligning my phone to the sun with the patio doors open, so there was nothing obscuring the view at all, the maxumum reading was about 80-85,000 lux. Lux is the unit of measurement for light. Great, that is pretty bright, a very sunny summer day might give you 120,000.

Then, without moving the phone, I closed the doors so that now the reading was taken from behind a double glazed window. The reading dropped to 38,000, less than half.

Then I moved to my little bonsai chilli plant, in it’s own little greenhouse, which added another thin layer of perspex to obscure the light. There the level dropped to 25,000 lux. Even though this little greenhouse sits not 8 inches from the outdoors, the light it receives is cut by more than 1/3rd. A quick trip out to my big single glazed glass greenhouse revealed a reading of 70,000.

How will this reduced light affect this plant and others that may be less lucky still? The first thing to remember is that this is very much a finger in the air experiment. I’m not going to win an honorary doctorate for my plant research here. Sunlight comprises of many of different types of light across the spectrum, infra red, through the visible colours to ultra violet and plants don’t need all of this, parts of spectral light are neessary and other parts aren’t. Sometimes glass is made to filter out some kinds of light but not others, and window glazing might do just that, so maybe it is filtering or reflecting some wavelengths of light but not others.

But what this experiment does illustrate is that the principle of light, regardless of it’s nature, diminishing rapidly with interference, is easy to prove. If you move further back into the room, away from the window and out of diret sunlight, the lux levels diminish into the hundreds very quickly, and a north facing window, even though it appeared bright, was less than 100 lux.

In summary my bonsai chilli is probably happy where it is, even though this spot isn’t perfect. At least it’s own personal greenhouse means tha cat can’t sit on it and on sunny days the light is adequate. But anywhere else in the house, and this goes for summer as well as winter, it probably isn’t going to do very well. It would reach for light and go straggly, the leaves will be pale green and it won’t get all the nourishment it needs from sunlight.

So the moral of this story is, and it particularly applies to chillies because they need high light levels, keep them right next to a south facing window, outdoors, or in a greenhouse if you can.

If you have a smartphone, try this experiment yourself. There are dedicated free light meter apps, or I have one called ‘GPS Status’ (Android) which does all sorts of gps stuff as well as light readings. The readings are exactly the same as ‘LuxMeter’, which implies they use the same internal module to take the readings.

Interesting, or not?

French Beans

Beans, Beans and More Beans

Well, so much for chillies, this post is all about helping me come to terms with my amazement at my bean plants.

I have grown beans before, a lot of them. I’m not keen on traditional runner beans, I find them all a bit tough and stringy and not a very versatile food to work with. But I have grown a lot of dwarf bean varieties, mainly the non climbing ones, sometimes some outside climbing ones, and normally with good results.

This year, however, I have, for the first time grown climbing beans inside the greenhouse, specifically Suttons ‘Blue Lake’ Climbing French Bean, and wow, what results.

They are still producing, more slowly at this time of year, (the clocks change in two days), but don’t think I have ever grown a food plant quite so prolific.

They were sown in early May, and soon planted out in the greenhouse bed, I was strict, and limited myselfl to 4 plants because of space, although in the end they did overwhelm a bit too much.

By early July they were producing, just a few each day at first, but quickly they got going and my half heated attempts at logging the weight of what was picked has told me that they have so far produced over 45lbs from 4 plants! Averaging roughly half a pound each and every day from mid July to late October.

Now who can possibly eat all this stuff? My wife was bowled over by the firsst couple of picks, there weren’t that many, and were treated as a delicacy, steamed and buttered, which prompted the comment
‘You can grow as many of these as you like, I could eat them every day.’
Roll on 7 days of exclusive bean eating and her response changed, didn’t want to see another bean, ever.

1680g of French Beans

Now, for me, one of the greatest joys of vegetable growing, next to eating them quick, seeing tiny seeds turn to dinner making machines, and getting stuff for free, is giving them away. So of the 45lbs of beans produced so far, most have been consumed by friends and neighbours. As mentioned previously, I do like something for free, so hopefully the favours will be returned with favours, odd jobs, party invites and wine, but the main pleasure is going a small way to feeding the masses for nothing, and seeing them happy too.

The techy stuff – germinate them in pots, somewhere warm, indoors in late March or early April, or later in the greenhouse.

Plant them out about a foot apart in a greenhouse bed. They will get big, bushy and rambling. They grew to the roof and along so put them at the back end where they won’t cast shadow over the rest of your doings.

I kept them well watered, especially on hot days, and fed them with tomato feed, along with most of my other stuff.

Pick them young, when they are about 5 inches long and before the beans inside start to fill out. Pick them frequently! At least every other day, to keep them producing.

Towards the end of the season pull of the bigger old leaves as they yellow to allow light in to combat mould.

Incidentally, I got into the habit of eating them raw, freshly picked, and they are very tasty, but apparently all ’round’ beans, as opposed to flat runner beans, are poisonous when eaten raw (remember the rules about cooking kidney beans thoroughly). Well Phaseolus vulgaris, the french bean, haricot bean, flageolet beans etc. etc. all have the same trait, as the beans develop they become more poisonous, untill the heat of cooking breaks the poison down. I had no problem, but go easy on eating them raw, especially if the bens have formed.

Pimiento de Padron

Pimiento de Padron, Growing, Picking, Cooking and Eating

I mentioned these in my book, but really they merit a bit more of a shout as they are quite a different thing to grow than your average chilli and well worth trying. In fact they are very addictive to anyone who has tried them. They originate from Spain, where they are popularly eaten as tapas.

There are two fundamental differences between these and pretty much any other chilli you might grow.

1/ They are cooked and eaten whole, and not just individually but by the plateful. They might be a bit hot, or maybe not, but they aren’t really eaten for the pain, just as a tasty snack. Eat everything except the stalk.

2/ They are picked immature and therefore they are quick and easy to grow, and they will continue cropping all season as the plant will keep on producing new fruit quicker than if they were left on the plant to mature.

With regard to cultivating them, they should be treated just as you would any other chilli, but bear in mind that they want to grow big, and I mean up to 5ft tall given the right growing conditions, so put them in a huge pot, or in a greenhouse bed.

If you can get a couple of plants to this size then they will give you a frying pan full every couple of days, but maybe grow 3 or 4 plants just in case. They can go outside in a god summer, like the one we have just had in the UK, but really they need to be in a greenhouse, conservatory or polytunnel.

Picking them – They are picked immature, this means while they are still soft and green, up to about 2 inches long, but don’t be afraid to picke them smaller. If you leave them on the plant they wil grow to about 3 or 4 inches long and get pretty hot, and eventually turn red. The idea is not to let them do this, or the plant will produce less while it puts it’s energies into filling out the bigger fruit.

Cooking them – Toss them around in a hot pan with some olive oil, faff around with them a bit so they don’t get too burnt on one side, but it is fine for them to blacken a bit, that is the idea. A sprinkle of salt is optional, but helps to bring out the flavour. Once they are done, (maybe a bit more than in the photo below). they are ready to eat, but don’t burn yourself by diving in too early.

Tradition says that one in 30 is a hot one. This isn’t a completely random thing though, and you can predict the heat to a certain extent. The heat in a chilli develops when the seeds and placenta, to which the seeds are attached, starts to form. This is where the nack is to picking them. Once they start to become nice and shiny, and become slightly firm, and crunch when you squeeze them, they will have some heat. When they are small and leathery, they won’t. The trick is to pick them at or around this time, you wil soon get the hang of it. In cooler conditions and going into the autumn they will not fill out as quickly, and you might end up with some small ones that are quite hot.

You should get hundreds off of one large bush in a season, so don’t be afraid to keep feeding them, there is no harm in always feeding them whenever you water them. Use liquid chilli plant food or tomato plant food. If the leaves start to turn pale then step up the feeding and you should get a good few months out of them.

You can buy the seeds from a number of the bigger seed merchants, but I have always used the Italian Franchi seeds, you get a lot in a packet.