Growing Royal Black chillies from seed
These are plants to get started as early as possible, January or February indoors or in a heated greenhouse – they need lots of light and some heat to get going and as they can be slow to germinate, the quicker you kick them into growth the better!
They vary tremendously in germination time: 21 to 28 days for habanero type chillies while the annums, like the Royal Blacks can appear in 7 days.
I sow mine in normal seed compost, about five seeds to a pot and cover with a tiny sprinkling of the same, before spraying with water, covering with a plastic bag and checking daily to see if they need another squirt. The idea is to stop the top surface from drying and crusting, rather than keeping it wet, as chillies can be a bit fussy about damp. They do like a lot of warmth: sitting on a light windowsill over a radiator is an ideal location for UK-based chilli seeds. Once they do germinate they desire a lot of light too, so you need to turn them daily to stop them becoming leggy as they reach for the sun.
I repot when they have their true leaves, and I do this by lifting each seedling with a little soil, on a household dining fork, this stops any root damage which can affect the plant’s development. They go into 10cm pots at this time, but stay on the windowsill.
Once they are ready to be potted on again, when the roots show through the pots, they go into 30 cm pots and are moved to the unheated greenhouse. This is their final pot size.
I never plant my chillies outside as I like to keep my plants for two years, just in case I don’t get a good germination on the subsequent year’s seed – in a second year they don’t produce as many chillies but as long as they don’t get a frost, they can be kept going. I’ve had a couple of years in the UK where my chilli seedlings haven’t survived to fruit, so keeping back a couple of the previous year’s plants works for me!
Once they start to flower I give them liquid manure with every other watering and hand pollinate with a small brush, moving the pollen from flower to flower and usually getting 50 – 80 tiny chillies per plant. They are black until they mature, at which time they become pillar box red and are medium hot to eat.
I bring my plants into the house to overwinter where they make lovely Christmas houseplants with their chillies still on.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
How do people feel about ugly allotments?
I have to say, it’s a real issue for me, and I know that’s unfair, but when I see that some people can manage to create an allotment that is both highly productive and still attractive, or even downright beautiful, and others just seem to create dumping grounds with the same space, soil and opportunities, I get very prejudiced against the ugly ones! Not because I think I'm some kind of style diva, but because it takes so little to make an allotment look good, and plants like nasturtiums which look amazing also have food value so it's not a food or frills scenario.
I’ve been trying to work out what might be the different mindsets that produce the two kinds of growing space and I think it could possibly be that those with pretty allotments think of their green space as an extension of their home, while those who have unattractive plots just view them as a factory for producing food. In other words, the lovely allotments are tenanted by Willy Wonka types while the unlovely ones are home to the kind of people who created Blake’s dark satanic mills! Perhaps it simply does come down to temperament. I would love to say that ugly plots are run by ugly-minded people and vice versa but one of the loveliest plots I know is run by a truly argumentative and unpleasant chap, while a really ugly plot is home to the sweetest lady you could ever hope to meet!
While I do think allotments have to be productive, it’s always been important to me that the plot looks good too – of course we’ve always been co-workers or plot managers until now so it’s also been part of the ‘job’ to make sure that the actual plot tenant or management committee saw that we were doing a good job, but plot 103 is our own plot at last, and I suppose I could make it as ugly as I liked. It certainly doesn’t look very pretty right now ….
Allotment strawberry beds – a slight rethink
We made the circles concentric. That’s the rethink. It actually kept me awake all night, worrying about the eccentric circles, because if the three tiers are centred then you can’t use the watering device and that seemed silly. If the circles were eccentric we got more planting space (because of the elder stump) but actually the benefit of the planter is, in part, the simple watering system, so yesterday I went back on my first thoughts and OH helped me centre the whole thing.
Then we went and gathered a barrow of manure from plot 201, and I dug up these three parsnips. OH said there weren’t any left in the raised bed, but I was pretty sure there were and sure enough, I was right! One problem with over-wintering vegetables is that if they lose their leaves in a frost, as parsnips are prone to do, you can easily fail to keep track of where they are in the ground.
We dug up one bed of strawberries and plonked them down on the barrow of manure to take back to plot 103. It’s not the right time to move strawberry plants but I want to give up at least half of plot 201 as soon as we can. We’ve had a great time managing the plot but now we have one of our own I don’t want to feel that we’re plot-hogging. We have the right to keep 201 until our crops are off, and we have lots of purple sprouting broccoli and kale still to harvest, but we could clear one side of the plot by the end of February so that new tenants could take it over, if we get the strawberries and currants out and onto the new plot.
Anyway, up came the strawberries and into the new planter they went. Summer strawberries will do best on the south facing side, while the north semi-circles will be largely given over to alpine strawberries and vegetables and herbs that make particularly good companions for strawberries such as summer savory, parsley, borage, radishes and summer lettuce.
Big allotment jobs – circular planter
Remember our big and admittedly, very beautiful, elder tree? The one we cut down because it was making around a fifth of plot 103 uncultivatable? Well we were left with a large stump, which we didn’t want to pull, because the roots covered a greater area than the canopy of the tree and also because elder trees sucker, so if you leave viable roots behind, they will sprout a new tree! Instead we chose to incinerate the stump: building several of our winter fires on top of it to kill it and destroy the root run so that the roots don’t sprout. Now we’re working around it.
This rather impressive metal strawberry planter was donated to me – I have to say I was rather dubious at the time, but now we’ve got the first level of tiering in place, I am convinced. The circular bed will rise for two more tiers, each one smaller and higher than the preceding one, and because we have the stump and some large roots to work around, we’ve chosen to create eccentric, rather than concentric circles.
It took five barrowloads of topsoil and compost and a bag of sand to fill just the bottom tier, which was a bit more than I'd expected to be honest (my arms are complaining about the barrows, while OH put his back out dragging a previously buried carpet from below the soil - the tree had grown right through it) but now I'm really happy with the results. Of course OH is declaring that he won't help fill the higher tiers under any circumstances, but when I remind him how much he likes strawberries he'll knuckle under!
It looks fabulous and will allow us to plant our strawberries under controlled conditions this year: apparently as well as a little fountain-type watering system which we have got, there is also a net basket affair that protects the crops from birds and I’m trying to find out how to get one of those, as it would seem pretty essential.
Many allotments are square and rectangular, for obvious reasons, but sometimes you have to work around some strange restrictions and these circle planters seem ideal for those who want something a little different but still highly productive. I’m definitely convinced! Once I’ve got ordering details sorted out I shall post them, as I know several people are interested in getting one of these clever beds.
Winter allotment harvest
If you have any luck at all, you are able to work on your allotment – but we aren’t. It’s gone from frozen to waterlogged in no time at all. In fact our local council sent round an email to all tenants who have email, saying there was no vehicular access to the site because of the muddy condition of the roads. We usually walk in anyway, but today it was more of a trudge, and after a hundred yards, we seemed to have most of the topsoil on the soles of our boots!
In addition to the mud, the low light conditions make germination unlikely. Unless you have substantial artificial, daylight-balanced, light, seeds just won’t do anything at present because the overcast skies make the amount of actual daylight negligible. Most seeds are triggered by increasing day length into giving up their dormancy (some are just perverse and require frost or fire or passing through the intestinal tract of a bird or animal, but none of those are regular European crops, fortunately) so not only is there nothing much for the allotment holder to do, there’s nothing much happening.
Today’s haul: some kale, some Brussels sprouts, the last of the cabbage, a leek and a couple of stems of purple sprouting broccoli. And the low light makes it look as if we were harvesting at dusk, but it was actually only three in the afternoon!
Allotment colour in winter
I took a quick trip around the allotments at the weekend to see what other people had in terms of winter colour because 103 is basically in shades of dead grass, nearly dead grass, and live grass ... along with a little burnt earth.
The first thing I found was this gloriously bright chard – not sure what variety it is as its much less upright than the usual kinds, and has a distinctive rosette shape, but it’s really impressive to look at in terms of colour.I suppose it could be an ordinary chard knocked flat by the weather?
And the next thing was a dwarf cornus – perhaps not the most useful plant in crop terms, but interesting for winter colour and form and very easy to grow and maintain. All you need to do is cut it hard back in early spring so that the new growth, each year, has the best possible colour, and it will continue to be vibrant for year after year.
My favourite would be a chaenomeles hedge though - that's what I'm planning for plot 103 anyway.
Parsnips: sowing, growing, storing, eating
I have immense success with parsnip germination, and I have no idea why – is it something to do with hand heat or skin acidity when I sow the seed (former seems doubtful as I make good pastry, so my hands are cold rather than hot, perhaps the latter though?) or what? In any case, I have around 90% success with station sown parsnips, which is where you pop two or three seeds into a dimple in the ground, rather than a row, and thin to a single plant. And the picture shows what I harvest. Not bad, eh?
One tip is to buy fresh seed every year, another is to wait until March to sow if you have even a trace of clay in your soil.
I hand weed my seedlings and water into bottles by each dimple, rather than with a hose, as that keeps the weed seeds from germinating. They are a loooong season plant, sowing in March for harvest from November, although we never lift a single parsnip until after the first frost, as that’s what makes them sweet.
Once the tops begin to die back parsnips are ready to harvest. I lift about half, trying to beat the ice (failed miserably this year) that makes them so difficult to dig up, and leave half in the ground. The ones I lift are washed, cut into rings and the core taken out if it’s woody, and blanched for three minutes before open freezing. Then I pile them into a huge zip top freezer bag and take out as many as I need to make:
• Parsnip rosti – grate from semi frozen with potato and/or sweet potato and a beaten egg and lots of seasoning. Make into cakes. Put on greased greaseproof in an ovenproof dish and cook for 45 minutes on 200c. Great for Sunday brunch
• Parsnip soup – simmer until tender in vegetable stock (with potatoes if liked) with the zest of an orange, garam masala to taste and a sprinkle each of cinnamon and paprika. Cool slightly, puree. Utterly delicious with a swirl of Greek yoghurt on top and a hunk of wholemeal bread.
What’s your favourite parsnip recipe?
New Year, New Allotment?
Well not exactly. But this is 103 when we took it over in June 2010, and while it’s sort of beautiful, it’s also a mess – a beautiful disaster in fact. It was teeming with wildlife (still is, if the large rat I saw on Sunday is anything to go by) and rich in biodiversity (just count the different grasses in that picture, if you can) but unproductive, unloved and deeply neglected. So what we have now feels very much like a new allotment.
This is 103 two days ago. The ‘path’ - which is just bits of broken paving that we have dug up during our efforts – circles the stump that was the elder tree in the middle of the plot. We have also cut down two other elders, both smaller than the one in the original photo, but kept one boundary elder. Both the oaks have gone, as have two of the three bay trees – the final bay is twelve feet tall and has a central (dead) trunk, nearly as big around as my waist … I have no idea how we’re going to work with that, but there’s something nesting in it (a wren?) and so we’re leaving it alone for a few months while we try to research bay tree rejuvenation.
On Sunday we put in two more rows of broad beans, lit a bonfire in the pampas grass after we’d spent ten minutes kicking it to remove any hibernating mammals, then another ten prising it apart with well-gloved hands to make sure any mammals had got the message. The only inhabitant seems to have been the rat, who wasn’t asleep, he or she was just cocky about out-waiting us and had to be persuaded to leave.
One of our transplanted raspberries has a bud, and the rhubarb (which is indestructible up to and including a ballistic missile) is throwing out big yellow crinkled leaves, so if we get some broad beans to germinate (and after seeing that rat, I rather doubt it) we’ll have at least three crops growing on #103 for the first time in who knows how many years?
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