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

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.

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 

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

Samsung Galaxy S3 picture of Jalapeno slice.

My Amazing Smartphone Macro Camera

I have long been a fan of my smartphone camera, I remember when I first got it I was amazed by the quality of the pictures generally, but didn’t realise how brilliant the macro setting is.

Smartphone MAcro Yellow Chilli Slice

Samsung Galaxy S3 Macro Chilli Picture

This picture and the one below are back-lit, but the camera is hand-held, such amazing detail. You can pick out the plant cells around the inside of the chilli and see the light shining through the vascular tubes.

Samsung Galaxy S3 picture of Jalapeno slice.

Samsung Galaxy S3 macro picture of Jalapeno slice.

My first and still my most appealing macro picture taken with my phone is quite an old one, and it did such a good job of illustrating how caterpillars munch away on chilli plants that I used it in my book. Again handheld, Samsung Galaxy S3, and with a moving target too.

Caterpillar eating chilli plant

Caterpillar Eating a Chilli Plant, taken with Samsung Galaxy S3 on Macro setting. From the book ‘Growing Chillies’

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.


A Heated Raised Bed

Something for nothing and cheating the seasons are two things that always excite me, so plans for an outdoor growing space heated by the sun have been in the back of my mind for a long time.

Back in the autumn I came across one of those small solar powered pond fountains, which is basically a small aquarium type pump coupled with a solar panel, all waterproof. The idea is simple, the brighter the sun, the faster the pump, the higher the fountain.

The plan was to use this pump, not for a fountain, but to push water round a solar water heating panel, then through the raised bed to warm it.

I constructed the bed from decking boards and fence posts, it is roughly 6ft x 3ft and the posts stand high enough to support protective netting. I part filled the bed with surrounding topsoil, then a mixture of worm compost and seaweed. Above this I laid a coil of hose pipe, threading each end through holes drilled through one of the boards.



Then the bed was filled with more soil /compost mix, and finally topped off with a layer of coir compost to try and deter slugs a little bit (this is actually the main reason for creating a raised bed, the more barriers the better).


Then I created a small reservoir in an old plastic tub to hold the water pump.


The final piece to the jigsaw was a coil of black hose, the type used in irrigation circuits, this was fastened to a black painted piece of thick plywood using cable ties and appropriately placed holes drilled through the wood, (much care needed, drills and hosepipes do not mix well). Once everything is tickety-boo this irrigation panel will be framed and covered with a piece of perspex, or even just clingfilm, to help trap heat inside.


The finished bed

So far everything is functioning as planned. The pump is pumping when the sun is out and you can tell by the temperature difference between the in-pipe and the out-pipe of the solar heater that it is doing it’s job. It isn’t fantastic at the moment, but I know from previous experience that enclosing the heating pipe will make a big difference.

A word on air locks; the pump is quite small and though it should pump 160 litres per hour, I think it probably circulates much less due to the resistance of the pipes, but this isn’t a bad thing as a slow rate is best to warm the water on its journey round the solar loop. I had to prime the circuit by connecting it up to a hose pipe on mains pressure to blow out the air to start with, but now it looks like the pump is capable of pushing small air bubbles out into the reservoir bucket. I am monitoring this as I based my plan on an internet person’s experience of heating his swimming pool with a small solar pump like mine. He had problems with air locks, but his was a much bigger and more complicated circuit.

Why not use a solar syphon? A solar syphon is a very exact arrangement of pipes, like a sideways ladder that warms water, and as the heated water rises in the vertical tubes it pushes warm water out of the top and so draws cool water into the bottom. I have made these before, and whilst these are good for warming a tank of water, you would still need a pump to push the heated water around the bed, as there is not enough pressure generated from a solar syphon to force water through a few metres of pipe. This project is a simpler setup, with less components.

The idea of all of this is to cheat the seasons, like all chilli growers, and vegetable growers in general, even professional ones I, find that the spring months particularly are a time when there is always a need for more warm growing space than you can get your hands on, especially at night time. So my hope is that at that critical time, March and April, this bed will act as a heat sink and sit a few degrees higher than surrounding soil, and the warm sunny spring days, which are inevitably followed by a cold night will help to warm the bed to a point where spring vegetables get a head start. Lets hope for some good results. I will plot some temperatures over the next few weeks and see what a difference it makes. Time will tell.

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?