I bought a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and a coffee plant (Coffea arabica) earlier this year. I’m hoping, in time, to be able to produce infinitesimally small amounts of low quality hot beverages with which to underwhelm my friends and family. In the meantime, the coffee needs to come in for the winter and I’ll probably bring the camellia in too, although in time it should become large enough to overwinter successfully outside in its pot. Planting it in the ground here isn’t feasible as our soil is alkaline (pH 7.5) and camellias need acid soil. But potted in ericaceous compost, it should exist quite happily and produce leaves for green tea and salads for many years to come.
The list of plants needing winter attention is growing as my plant collection becomes more extensive and unusual, so this year I’m not convinced it’s all going to fit. Time to clear greenhouse benches and indoor windowsills, squeeze plants onto trays and cross my fingers as chillies, tea, coffee, lemongrass, lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander, yacon, cucamelons and inca berries all come in for the winter…
My overwintering regime comes from a mixture of experience, good advice from fellow growers and intuition (aka. guesswork). Once the pots are in I’ll be treating them with nematodes as I had real problems with fungus gnats in the house last year (the annoying little black flies which buzz around the compost and can multiply disturbingly in just a few days) and using nematodes completely cleared them up. I’ve been sent a free trial pack of nematodes from the Green Gardener which can be stored in the fridge in their sealed packet for a few weeks until needed and then simply watered in the specified concentrations onto moist compost. I’ll be using them in the next few days and will report back on how successful they are this year. Here’s to a fly-free winter and lots of happy hibernating plants ready to burst into life early next spring 🙂
My 39 chilli plants will not, alas, all fit in the house, so the challenge has been to decide which are keepers and which will be feeding Compo (the compost heap). I’ve saved lots of seed that I will be able to sow next January and I’ve been sent an amazing array of exciting varieties by a reader of my blog who grows an extensive range and has been very generous in our seed swap. There is now no hope for me – I’m a confirmed chilli addict. Thirteen varieties this year and I suspect it will only get worse in 2017…
As well as saving seeds, the kitchen has turned into a pickling factory with shallots, red onions and chillies disappearing into jars, to reappear in a few weeks to jazz up pizzas, sandwiches and salads.
Cucamelons and Yacon
I’ve tried to overwinter cucamelon (Melothria scabra) tubers a couple of times and never been successful. They’ve been left them in pots in the unheated greenhouse and brought in as dried tubers, but each winter rot has set in. This time I’m going to attempt to keep them in their pots, dry on a windowsill alongside the yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and see what happens…
The lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) overwintered well last year and then I lost nearly all my plants by putting them out in the unheated greenhouse too early. Second year plants definitely grow more strongly (providing they’re kept warm), whereas first year plants don’t really have long enough to develop and multiply. So I’m intending to learn from my mistake and keep them indoors next spring until the frosts have well and truly finished.
I’ve had the same lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) plant for 5 years. It dies back in winter in the unheated greenhouse and reappears in spring, usually just after I’ve given up hope – I should know better by now. This year I repotted it and put it outside during the summer. It rewarded me by producing more leaves than we could use. It is such a lovely plant. Unlike lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has a similarly enticing scent, I find lemon verbena transfers its sherberty aroma more successfully to hot and cold drinks, cakes and spicy curries.
This year I’ve dried the remaining leaves for tea over winter and I’m going to have another go at propagating from cuttings next year (something at which I have an embarrassingly bad track record).
A new herb for us this year, I’ve been impressed with the easy of use and clean taste of our Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata). I love the more traditional coriander (Coriandrum sativum), but the necessity of repeated sowings to cater for the speed at which it bolts is an extra job in a busy summer schedule. If the Vietnamese coriander overwinters successfully, it will allow a continuous supply of tasty leaves for cooking throughout the summer and autumn months and will have earned its place in the herb container garden.
A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the three worst crops of 2016 – inca berries (Physalis peruviana) being one. I had an extremely helpful comment about the perennial nature of the plant and therefore the possibility of overwintering it. I have tried growing physalis for 4 years now, with very minimal harvests, so had already discounted new plants in 2017. However, I’m going to try bringing a couple of plants indoors to see if they produce higher yields in their second year. If not, they’re history – at least until I move on to warmer climes.
I’d love to know if anyone else is growing tea or coffee, and what the verdict is. And does anyone else contemplate paying their friends and relatives to overwinter plants on their windowsills due to a mismatch between plant collection ambitions and house size? Or is that just me?! Do leave me a comment below to let me know what other overwintering activities are going on this autumn…
Earlier this year I brought my overwintered chillies out of the spare room and sowed a range of new seeds in the hope that I would be knee-deep in chillies by the end of the summer. I’ve been pleased with the results of what has ended up as a collection of 39 plants with 17 different varieties.
Our Favourite Chillies
We’ve enjoyed endless suppers of ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ chillies stuffed with cream cheese. Despite ‘Hot’ in the title, HHW is actually a mild 2000-8000 on the Scoville heat scale. I sowed an entire seed packet because the seeds were out of date and was amused and surprised when they all germinated. Even after selling many of them at the school fete plant stall I have had enough HHW chillies to dine royally throughout the summer.
‘Purple Gusto’ has been another favourite, with good production rates and a spicy Scoville rating of around 10,000. The fruits mature to a beautiful deep purple, creating an attractive display.
‘Cayenne’ did well as usual and produced lots of long, spicy fruits (30,000-50,000 SHU) and I also grew ‘Cheyenne’ which at first I thought might be the same variety with a different spelling, but actually turns out to be a fatter chilli which matures to an attractive orange colour and has a SHU of around 40,000.
‘Cayenne’ and ‘Cheyenne’
Another favourite which overwintered successfully and has produced a good crop is ‘Aji Crystal’ which has a spicy citrus tang and scores around 50,000 SHU.
I’ve grown ‘Apache’ for years – it was the first chilli I grew from seed and I love the spicy fruit (70,000-80,000 SHU) which mature to a vibrant red. I only have one ‘Apache’ this year, rescued from a nursery where it was in a sorry state and retailing for an attractive 50p. I refused cake with my cup of tea and bought the chilli and a couple of its spicy neighbours instead.
Several varieties have been disappointing this year including some of my favourites – ‘Numex Twilight’ (30,000-50,000 SHU) with its tiny upright multi-coloured fruit, ‘Jalapeno’ (2,500-5,000 SHU) normally a prolific fruiter and the sultry heirloom ‘Hungarian Black’ (around 5,000 SHU). None of these have been heavy croppers this year and seem to have taken a long while to recover from their winter hibernation.
My tree chillies ‘Alberto’s Locoto’ have also been disappointing so far, with lush foliage and a branching habit, but no flowers at all until the past couple of weeks. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong – maybe they need feeding more than other varieties – my feeding regime has been rather haphazard this year. They are recommended to be particularly suitable as perennials, so if I can be bothered with the palaver of spare room chillies again this winter maybe they’ll do better for me next year.
New Chillies on the Block
Some of my new chillies new this year were ‘Almapaprika’, ‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’, ‘Joe’s Super Long’ (its chillies are currently super non-existent), ‘Piri Piri’, ‘Habanero Red, ‘Habanero Big Sun’ and ‘Prairie Fire’. ‘Prairie Fire’ (70,000-80,000 SHU) has lovely little upright fruits which start the softest cream and then mature through yellow, orange and purple to red.
‘Almapaprika’ is another Hungarian heirloom variety which has unusually shaped rounded cherry fruits and is very mild (1-1,000 SHU). It is also known as Hungarian apple pepper. The chillies start as a pale yellow and mature through orange to a rich red colour. Apparently you need lots of plants if you are going to dry it for paprika which I don’t have, but it tastes good stuffed like Hungarian Hot Wax and is an interesting novelty.
‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’ is an aji type like ‘Aji Crystal’ and has a rating of 30,000-50,000 SHU. The long, hanging fruits start a pale green and then mature to a light yellow. They are great in curries and good to stuff if you fancy a hot lemony treat.
These ‘Lemon Drop’ chillies will get lighter as they mature
I haven’t had fruit to try on the other varieties yet as some arrived a little late as plug plants. But they all have either flowers or ripening fruit, so I’m looking forward to a late tastebud tingling harvest of ‘Joe’s Super Long’ (15,000-20,000 SHU), ‘Piri Piri’ (175,000-250,000 SHU), ‘Habanero Red’ (150,000-325,000 SHU) and ‘Habanero Big Sun’ (250,000-350,000 SHU)!
An amazing array of different colours, shapes and sizes – I love chillies as they tick both my boxes – ornamental AND delicious…
So all that remains is to hope for more warm weather so all the chillies will continue to grow and ripen, and start concocting more devilish chilli plans for next year. In the meantime there will be more roasted chilli suppers, Thai curries and still chillies left over to freeze for winter curries, soups and stews. What better way to remember a long, hot summer than with steaming Thai tom kha soup on dark December evenings?
Chilli Seeds and Plants
I save seeds from my chillies as well as overwintering some plants and growing new varieties each year. I’ve particularly enjoyed the chillies I’ve either bought as plants or sown from seeds from these sources (these links are not sponsored, but based purely on my own experiences and recommendations):
Pennard Plants – Pennards have a fabulous collection of heirloom vegetables, fruit and herbs, including many chilli pepper seeds which I’ve been sampling and growing for several years. This year I visited their stand at Chelsea and bought a chilli trio recommended by Chris at Pennards. Can’t wait for January so I can sow the seeds and start a whole new chilli journey…
Real Seeds – really unusual varieties with excellent information about the required growing conditions, histories of the cultivars and customer recommendations. I love Real Seeds because every time I visit the website there’s more to learn and new varieties to try…
Suttons Seeds – wide selection of chilli seeds and plants, with some excellent offers later in the year which enabled me to get a set of 10 chilli plug plants this year for £4.99. Suttons have been exploring more unusual vegetables, fruit and herbs over the past few years working with James Wong. I’ve enjoyed sowing their seeds and have now established several plants I’d not be without, such as cucamelons, Chilean guavas and my particular favourite this year… the trombocino (more on my soon-to-be prize winning trombo later in the month) 😉
Has the weather been kind to your chillies this year? What varieties have performed well and have there been any disappointments? I’d love to hear your chilli stories, so please do leave me a comment. Thanks 🙂
Follow my blog to get further updates on my chillies and other harvests…
Kaffir lime leaves from India, chillies from Zambia and lemongrass from Thailand – although I love cooking food from all round the world, I’m sometimes dismayed at the air miles which an international meal requires. So last year I decided to have a go at providing most of these ingredients from my own garden and allotment, without resorting to lots of produce from overseas. I’ve had fun growing lemongrass and chillies from seed, trying Kaffir lime and vanilla grass as house plants, substituting lime balm and lemon verbena for lime juice and experimenting with Vietnamese coriander, garlic chives and vegetables for the base of the curries.
Here’s the recipe for aromatic Thai green curry which serves 4 people, to prove that anyone can grow their own Thai curry at home:
1. Kaffir lime leaves – 2 leaves
I’ve been growing Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) in the kitchen for the past 3 years and it is thriving. I have two pots (I repotted the small seedlings I received into 2 groups when they arrived). I water them regularly and feed them with liquid citrus feed over the summer. The fresh leaves are amazingly aromatic and are far better than dried leaves in my opinion. For very little effort, these plants are a lovely addition to my curry collection and they are very cost effective as 1g of dried leaves can cost upwards of £2!
2. Vietnamese coriander – a handful
I bought my Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) recently at Hampton Court Flower Show and it beats growing regular coriander which I found tricky to harvest before it bolted, not to mention the necessity to repeat sow throughout the summer. It will need overwintering in a heated greenhouse – or in my case I’ll be putting it on the spare room windowsill with the chillies and lemongrass. I love the fact that it’s perennial, so no need to sow each year. It tastes remarkably like ordinary coriander too and is a pretty prolific grower.
3. Lemongrass – a stick or a few leaves
I love growing lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and this is the third year I’ve sown from seed and had a good success rate. This year I’ve used the leaves in cooking as harvesting a whole stick would decimate the plant, but last year I was able to pull the whole stick off my 2 year old plants and still leave a sizeable plant to produce more offshoots. Unfortunately a cold spring this year was the final straw for last year’s plants, which died in the cold. Next spring I’ll be much more careful about temperatures when returning the lemongrass to the greenhouse.
4. Garlic chives – a small handful
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are a lovely addition to the herb border. They have beautiful white flowers in the spring and can be grown just like ordinary chives. They have a mild garlic/onion taste and are great in salads.
5. Lime balm and lemon verbena – small handful of each
I’ve been growing lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) for a few years and it never fails to please me with its sherbet lemon scented leaves. I have propagated plants for friends and my original plant overwinters successfully in the unheated greenhouse every winter. I always think it has died, but without fail, each spring it sends up new shoots and flourishes. Lime balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Lime Balm’) is a new plant this year and combined with lemon verbena it makes an alternative for lime and lemon juice in curries and salads. It is best grown in containers as, like its relation lemon balm, it has a tendency to be vigorous (aka. invasive). It has a lovely lime fragrance and can also be used in teas, ice creams and as an insect repellent.
Lime balm and lemon verbena ready for harvesting
6. Chillies – 1-4 chillies to taste
This year my chilli obsession has got a bit out of hand and the most recent count reached 39 plants of 14 different varieties: ‘Cayenne’, ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Purple Gusto’, ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, Rocoto – Alberto’s Locoto, Hungarian Black, Numex Twilight, ‘Aji Limon’, ‘Joe’s Long’, ‘Habanero Red Devil’, ‘Habanero Big Sun’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Piri Piri’ and ‘Alma Paprika’. I love eating them for suppers stuffed with cream cheese and baked. Now the kids are getting a bit older we can finally introduce a bit of heat into family meals too. For this recipe I used ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Aji Limon’ and ‘Purple Gusto’ because they happened to be available, but any chillies would be fine and the variety can be adapted to suit the level of heat required.
7. Garlic – 2 cloves
I’ve been growing garlic for a few years in large potato containers after we got white rot in our garden soil. They seem to thrive and give relatively big crops for very little work. I grow ‘Early Purple Wight’, ‘Red Czech’ and elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) which is, as the name suggest, enormous and with a very mild flavour. I save some cloves each year for planting the next which makes this crop cost effective. We also get to eat the garlic scapes or flowering stalks in early summer, so get two crops for the price of one.
8. Mint – small handful for the salad
I’m also a bit of a mint fanatic, because it’s so easy to propagate. I have 12 varieties at the moment – orange mint, banana mint, berries and cream mint, grapefruit mint, apple mint, peppermint, garden mint, basil mint, lime mint, ginger mint, Corsican mint and Indian mint. It all started last year as a plan to create an interesting collection for the school plant stall, but since then I’ve become fascinated by all the different tastes and uses. Watch this space for a post soon on the different varieties and their uses.
9. Seasonal vegetables – potatoes, kale, broad beans (enough vegetables to feed 4 people) carrots and cucumber (3 carrots, 1/2 a cucumber)
I would just use any vegetables for the curry and salad which are available from the garden or allotment at any given time. At the moment this includes new potatoes ‘Lady Christl’, broad beans and kale (Cavolo Nero) for the curry, and carrots and cucumber for the accompanying salad. That’s the beauty of recipes like this – they allow you to celebrate whatever’s in season and try different combinations throughout the year.
10. My prize coconut tree – 1 coconut (or a 400ml tin of coconut milk)
Every summer I send the kids up the coconut tree with small woven baskets to collect the coconuts to crack open for curries…
OK – so this is one ingredient I can’t grow in the UK and thus should be taken with a large pinch of salt, which incidentally, is another ingredient not harvested from our garden/allotment, along with sesame oil, 200ml vegetable stock (either made with with left over vegetable cooking water or vegetable stock powder and water) or chicken stock (either from boiling a roast chicken carcass with bay leaves or ready made) and fish sauce (nam pla). Leftover roast chicken is good added to the curry if it is available.
If anyone knows of a home grown alternative to coconut milk, (or has a tree with coconuts on it in the UK!) I’d love to hear from you.
To make the green curry sauce I blend the garlic chives, lemon verbena, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, Vietnamese coriander, lime balm leaves, chillies, garlic and a 2cm piece of ginger in the food processor and then add the cold stock, a few drops of sesame oil and a splash (2-3 tsps) of fish sauce to allow the mixture to be completely blended. I find if I try to make a green Thai curry paste (without the liquid) with these ingredients, it tends to end up with stringy bits throughout. Then I add the sauce to the pan, add the coconut milk and begin to heat it gently.
Next I add the vegetables, suiting the cooking time to the type of vegetables I’m using. With the new potatoes I added them for 15 minutes until soft and then added the broad beans and kale for a further 5 minutes until all the vegetables were cooked.
Serve with rice (yes, I know, not many rice paddies in Hertfordshire) and a Thai salad.
Recently I’ve been adding a few vanilla grass leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius) to the rice as I boil it to add a subtle vanilla flavour. This lovely houseplant has been happy in our bathroom for the past 3 years and only needs rainwater and ericaeous feed in the summer to keep it producing leaves for the kitchen.
For the salad I usually shred some of our carrots, cucumbers and/or courgettes, spring onions or chopped chives, chopped mint, lime balm and Vietnamese coriander. Then I add chopped chillies, crushed garlic, a pinch of salt, a few drops of sesame oil and a squeeze of the honey produced on a neighbouring allotment to mix with the raw vegetables.
How do you create international dishes with local ingredients? If you grow other useful ingredients please leave me a comment as I’d love to broaden my range of different ingredients and different cuisines. I’m hoping to grow Japanese hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) on the allotment next year so I’ll be able to add that ginger tang to my curries. I’ve also grown Thai basil from seed in previous years and used it successfully in curries, so I’ll be sowing it again next year to add extra depth to the flavour – and thanks to the reader who suggested this lovely ingredient ☺
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Next I’m planning more mouth-watering summer recipes for gluten-free scones with homemade redcurrant and strawberry jam. (Our favourite jam and very useful if you’re struggling with a glut of redcurrants!)
To sow or not to sow?
It has been a real labour of love overwintering last year’s chillies in the spare room. It’s the first time I’ve tried to grow chillies perennially and it’s been mostly trial and error. First they had a bad case of fungus gnats, then greenfly. The room was filled with little flies when the in-laws came to stay and the windows covered in sticky residue and blobs where I had squashed hundreds of insects. Then nearly all the leaves fell off, leaving them resembling pots of dead sticks. I fought back with nematodes (very successful – killed all the gnats) and organic fatty acid spray – killed the greenfly provided it was repeated periodically. I collected up the dead leaves and waited to see what would happen come spring.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, tiny leaves started to unfurl on the leggy stalks. (I was very bad at pinching the chillies out last year – partly through inattention and partly through sentimentality, so they grew much taller than I would have liked and lacked a vigorous, bushy shape.) I’m experimenting at the moment by cutting several of them down to about 15cm from soil level, thus removing the forked stems higher up, to see if I can restructure the plants as the new leaves emerge. I’ve also given them a feed in the hope that a bit of tlc will perk them up. So far it seems to be working and in a week or so I might cut the rest down, once I’m sure they’ll eventually forgive me.
A growing collection
At the same time spring started breathing life into the old chillies, I began sowing new ones to increase my stock and experiment with different varieties. Last year’s veterans include ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Aji Crystal’, ‘Hungarian Purple’ and ‘Numex Twilight’. This year I’m sowing ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ and ‘Albertos Locoto’. I was also waylaid by some small chilli plug plants at the garden centre who threw themselves into my basket, namely ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Purple Gusto’ (I’m noticing a certain penchant for purple fruit and vegetables in these blog posts!)
Chilli ‘Alberto’s Locoto’ intrigued me as it’s supposedly well suited to overwintering, so I’ll be attempting to keep it in the hope of earlier, heavier crops next year. It’s a rare chilli sometimes known as the tree or Rocoto chilli and has big purple flowers, black seeds and numerous fruit in late summer and early autumn. More information is available from Real Seeds.
How do you eat yours?
For several years we’ve been using fewer chillies as child-friendly meals generally require milder flavours. But as the kids get older their tolerance for spicy food is growing and last year we also ate many of our crop filled with cream cheese and baked, to reduce the heat. This became a favourite supper. I suppose the sensible approach would have been to grow milder or fewer chillies, but where’s the fun in that?
I’d love to know if you have successfully overwintered chillies. How do you prune them in spring and have crops been heavier in subsequent years? How do you cope with a growing chilli collection – do you stop buying new seeds or just move to a house with more window ledges?!