Early chilli seed sowings
I am drinking Zabar’s house blend coffee (ground this morning) and eating an H&H sourdough bagel, though I am no longer in New York.
These are just some things I brought home. 13 bagels (you get one extra when you buy a dozen), some coffee beans, Russian Caravan tea (so easy to get there) chipotle chilli flakes and a jar of Rick’s Picks ‘The People’s Pickles’ for Nat. My suitcase weighed a lot.
It was a good holiday. I danced to Blondie at the Pyramid, sweated in a sauna on the corner of 66th and Broadway, drank in Jackson Pollok’s old haunt on University Place and ate pierogies in the east village. I was glad to get home though. I missed the allotment and the chickens missed me. Since I’ve got back it’s been so grey that there’s no distinction between the road and sky and then it’s been so cold that the sun felt compelled to come out. Now it is good digging weather.
That’s all I’ve been doing, pulling out the bootlace roots of bindweed and sieving through the soil for fragments of couch grass. It feels epic at this point, like it may not ever end, even after hours of work it is hard to see what you’ve achieved.
I pushed more broad bean seeds into the soil and cloched them in some hope of something green soon, something I planted rather than the weeds that are laughing at me.
Today though, I’m staying indoors to sow chillis. I am unusually reticent about sowing anything too early, particularly if you don’ t have a heat greenhouse to prop you up between now and spring, but I feel that chillis need that extra time. They are slow. They do not move fast in any sense in the early days, so the longer you give them the better. If you wait till the end of Feb or March and grow them outside you will grow something beautiful, but whether you get any ripe fruit is another thing.
I’m growing ‘Long Red Cayenne Slim’, which is just a good long hot chilli that always performs well and dries nicely. A ‘Hungarian Black’ – very pretty shiny black fruit, not particularly hot, but tasty and ‘Thai mound’ for when I want to blow our heads off.
My favourite, however, is Rocoto Red. It is very, very hot and fleshy and round like a child’s drawing. It is a Capsicum pubescens, rather than the more common annual Capscum annuum. It can live for a number of years if you can give it somewhere frost free for winter (mine comes into the kitchen).
It’s sometimes known as the tree chilli as it has a distinctly different habit to other chillis. The leaves are hairy and pale green, rounder in shape and the stems are strong and branching. The chillis look more like small round sweet peppers, but boy do they have a kick. I’ve managed to get a single plant to four years old, by which point it was so big I couldn’t bring it indoors and it succumbed to a winter’s night and blackened. However these chillis are more cold tolerant than others and don’t mind cooler summers. It’s perfectly happy outdoors all summer and fruits well whatever the weather.
I find it’s useful to mist the flowers in order to improve fruit set and these chillis are hungry you can’t feed enough in the growing season. These chillis are so fleshy that they never dry well. If there’s a bumper crop then I freeze them instead.
I’m going to sow them under heat on my windowsill propagator. They germinate at around 28 celsius and can take up to a month to germinate, so patience is necessary. I always make sure I keep the propagator lid on as I find that if the moisture dips, then germination is even slower. I keep them indoors for as long as I can to make sure that they are a decent size. They make nice house plants, so I dot them around the house and move them out once the weather is warm enough.
Alys Fowler is a writer and broadcaster