April - Is Over wintering worth the hassle?

I think so, particularly if you live in a country like the UK where the growing season is relatively short. Not only can you continue to pick some fresh Chile pods from your plants during the depressing winter months, slow growing plants such as the Habaneros will get a significant head start for the following year. In my experience many of the Chinense species when successfully over wintered seem to explode in to life in year two and often produce much more, bigger and hotter pods.

Here in the UK where we have relatively long, cold & dark winters extending from late October and sometimes into April, over wintered plants need to be trimmed back in the Autumn and kept either in a heated greenhouse or brought indoors to give them the best chances of survival. As well as the plunging temperatures, I find that poor light levels can be a real problem. Some plants tend to shed most (if not all) of their leaves and your once bushy healthy specimens seem to turn into sticks almost overnight! Those plants that retain most of their leaves often get infested with greenfly and whitefly, which seem to come out of nowhere adding further to over wintering woes. To tackle the problem of leaf drop, some Chile growers use artificial lighting with great success. This is an area of research that will be high on my list of priorities later in the year after just witnessing the decimation in the Chile house!!

On the bright side, at least if over wintering is unsuccessful, it frees up some space to grow fresh plants and try new varieties the following year. When you see the seedlings emerge the pain is soon forgotten.

With a number of my seedlings now having several sets of true leaves, it will soon be time for potting on. I'll be reporting on this endeavour shortly. I've also been sent some more seeds from a couple of my very kind Chile friends. Although it's nearly May, I can't resist planting up one more trays of seedlings.

April - Over wintering Disappointment

It's a good job the Naga success has cheered me up. April always seems to be a 'tidying up the garden sort of month' and one of the worst jobs is throwing away last years Chile plants that failed to make in through the winter. This is always a job I hate. They may look like sticks but you always hope that when the spring sun returns, new leaves will suddenly spring up on last year's prized plants as they magically return from the dead. This year most of my sticks have remained sticks. A quick incision of the stem reveals little signs of life with once green stems not brown and wooden.

Despite the name of the most common Chile species annuum (meaning annual), Chile plants are in fact perennials and can grow happily for several years before they eventually lose their vigour if protected over the cold winter months. However 'over wintering' as its known can be a very fickle & challenging affair particularly in Northern climates where over the long winter months temperatures regularly fall below zero and light levels decrease.

Some Chile species definitely over winter better than others. In my experience, many of the pubescens species (like Rocoto/Manzano) whose natural habitat is the cool mountain regions of the Peruvian Andes over winter well. Tepin, an annuum, also seems to have some tolerance to cooler (not freezing) temperatures. On the other hand I've again had very little success over wintering many of the ornamental annuum varieties like Purple Prince and Prairie Fire. Members of the sub tropical Chinese species are also very fickle and need much more care with success often hit and miss. Last year I successfully over wintered Chocolate Habanero, Jamaican Red Hot and Fatalii. This year they died despite been kept in the same place indoors. However a Habanero Red Savina, Habanero White Bullet and Yellow Jellybean plant also kept in the same room have all made it through the this winter unscathed. It's a strange and frustrating hobby Chile growing!!

April - Naga Morich Success!

I love this variety and am lucky enough to have saved viable seed for this very rare and scintillatingly hot pepper. In recent weeks the variety (which was virtually unheard of last year outside of the Chillis Galore forum) has achieved almost mythical status after two Chile growers in Dorset submitted there version of the Naga Morich - the Dorset Naga to heat testing laboratories in American and was found to be almost 60% hotter than the current Guinness Book of Records holder - the Habanero Red Savina.

There is a problem however. Not only are seeds almost impossible to come by (the Dorset growers won't part with them for obvious reasons) they are very tricky to germinate. Last year I achieved germination percentages of less than 30 per cent (and even those took six to seven weeks! This year my saved seed has proved a little more successful. 40 seeds were planted on the 12th March in a heated propagator, although it wasn't until the 17th April when I moved them to the Chile house that signs of life emerged when 9 seedlings suddenly appeared. More are starting to germinate on a regular basis and the running total stands at 24 even if they are still very small. I'm so proud!!

April - Germination Progress

April has been a relatively quite month in the Chile garden. After planting most seeds indoors in early March, aside from regularly checking the soil to make sure it hasn't dried out, I've more of less just let the seeds (and seedlings) get on with it. After all I have the rest of the garden to tidy up, a herb rockery to replant and some vegetables patches to dig over.

Germination went more as less as I expected with most of the five domesticated species (particularly the annuums) germinating in just over a week. Some of the more challenging chinense & wild species which normally require slightly higher soil temperatures and long germination times have taken a little longer although after 4 weeks I have at least 2 or 3 seedlings out of 6 seeds I planted for most varieties.

The extremely rare Capsicum Galapagonense and Capsicum Flexuosum, which I knew would be a challenge, have proved to be just that. Both are proving elusive so far. In hindsight I should have pre soaked the seeds overnight to soften the outer casing in an attempt to speed up germination. I'll give them a few more weeks yet though before I admit defeat. The equally (if not more) tricky Naga Morich have taken me by surprise though - but more on that later.

When seeds germinate, light becomes critical. As soon as the majority of my seeds germinated, I moved them off the electric blanket and onto nearby windowsills or into the Chile house. You will see just how light dependent seedlings are when you return from work and find all your little darlings on the kitchen windowsill frantically leaning towards the light outside. If you find your seedlings leaning too much or becoming tall and spindly, you know they are not getting enough light and you should move them to a brighter location. Don't worry if your seedlings are already tall and spindly. They can be rescued later by replanting up to the top set of leaves.

One of the drawbacks of mass planting seeds in large seed trays and germinating them in warm places where natural light levels are low (like an airing cupboard), is that it is always a fine balancing act on deciding when to move a half germinated tray into the light. You may have a few days leeway but it you leave it too long the seedlings that have germinated will soon become pale and very leggy - not a good start! If you do mass plant, plant up varieties of the same species (i.e. a tray of Annuums and a tray of Chinense), which have similar germination times. If you are lucky you may fine rough germination times on the back of the seed packet.

The temperatures outside here in Darlington, in the North East of England are still a little cold although the sun on occasions has proved quite intense during the day. The max/min thermometer in the Chile house has seen daytime temperatures ranging from as cold as -3oC to as high as 45oC within a 24-hour period.

In days of bright sun, I have opened the greenhouse vents a little to prevent the temperature climbing too high. I've tried to keep the temperature range between 65 - 90of - perfect for Chile growing. I also remove the plastic propagator covers during the day, as good airflow around seedlings is important for healthy growth. Remember that seedlings are delicate little things. Do not place them in strong drafts or in direct sunlight. You want to grow your seedlings gently not cook them!

March - Germinating Seeds

Well today is the 19th March and I'm finally off and running!! I must admit Im a little slow off the mark this year. You should aim to start your seeds around 6 weeks before the last frost in your area. If you haven't started your seeds by now don't worry. In 2004, I didn't start some seeds until June and still had lots of tasty chiles before the year was out.

To germinate, Chile seeds need a number of things. A bottom heat source, moisture and a light/air rich soil are perhaps the most important. Click here for further information.

To achieve these aims, this year I have again used my faithful 'chileman soil mix' which comprises of 3 parts seed compost, 1 part sandy loam soil, 1 part Perlite and 1 part Vermiculite. I also added warm water to heat up the mix and provide some moisture.

I must also confess to being a bit lazy this year and have succumb to the temptation of trying some 'ready made' peat free pockets from the local garden centre. I've never used these before and all you have to do is add water! These should be an interesting 'experiment', well that's my excuse!!

A couple of cheap propagators and an old electric blanket complete the set up.

thechilemans class of 2006

This winter after swamping the house and my fiancés art studio with over wintered plants, I promised her I would go easy this year and have decided to limited myself to only 50 or so new varieties (so far!). A full list of what I hope to grow (assuming they germinate) can be found here.

My 'themes' for this year are:

collection themeWild species - unlike the common varieties which are fairly easy to grow, many of the rare wild species are supposed to be hard to germinate. I like a challenge!!

collection theme 2Tasty peppers - after all chiles are grown to be eaten. I've got plenty of new recipes I want to try this year particularly blisteringly hot ones to feed to my mates who 'can handle anything'

collection theme 3Unusual Pods & Beautiful flowers - as well as being great to eat, some chile varieties are simply stunning and make great gifts and house plants.

Preparation and Cleaning - Today I've had my marigolds on and have been doing one of the more depressing jobs - cleaning!!. I've scrubbed the planting bench, bleached old seed trays and cleaned the Chilehouse with Jeyes fluid to kill off any nasty diseases and pathogens which might be lurking there. There's nothing more depressing than seeing your little seedlings being wiped out by fungal diseases or hibernating slugs.

Jan/Feb - Selecting your seeds

Probably the hardest part of growing chiles is deciding which varieties to grow. There are literally thousands of varieties to choose from and trying to narrow down the list to only a few varieties to grow is an absolute nightmare. I want to grow them all - if only I had 1000 acres of prime land! For inspiration, you may want to have a look through the chileman database. The drop down lists will help you to narrow down your search.

When purchasing seeds, make sure you use a recommended seed supplier. Buying seeds from 'Bob' off Ebay might seem like a good idea at the time but it will prove costly if your cheap seeds don't germinate or even worse, you waste time growing something completely different to what you though you were buying.

Check out the chile forums and the pod pals sections for further information on who to buy from.

The chilemans growing dairy for 2006

After a long, dark, cold and depressing winter, my favourite time of the year is finally here again the chile growing season!! This season, I've decided to keep a diary in the hope of inspiring others to grow these fantastic plants and also provide some high level guidance to new and inexperienced growers. More detailed information on growing chile peppers can be found in the guides section.

I grow most of my plants in containers and plant pots in the chilehouse. When the weather gets a bit warmer, I'll also be planting some in the vegetable garden, in window boxes and anywhere else my fiancé lets me get away with.

Chiles are from the same family as the potato, tomato and eggplant and most varieties are an absolute doddle to grow (even in freezing North East of England!).

You don't need a greenhouse or even a garden to grow chiles. All your plants require is a warm spot, well drained soil, the occasional light sprinkling of fertiliser and a little loving care. Here are some of the chile plants I grew last year:
2005 collection

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