Overwintering Tea, Coffee and Other Tender Edible Perennials

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…

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Scrubbing away a year’s grime

Fungus Gnats

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  🙂

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My nematodes – currently residing in the fridge

Chillies

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…

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The crazy chilli collection 2016!

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.

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Pickled chillies to heat up cold winter suppers

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…

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I’m hoping for an early harvest next year – if I can only manage to overwinter the tubers…

 

Lemongrass

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.

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These little guys never really developed into mature plants

Lemon Verbena

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.

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The lemongrass stirring from its winter slumbers

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).

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Makes the best tea mixed with Moroccan mint

Vietnamese Coriander

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.

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Vietnamese coriander – so far, so good

Inca Berries

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.

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My inca berry harvest

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…

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Assembled plants for overwintering – maybe we should move out?

 

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Old chillies v new chillies: how do you grow yours?

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.

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A rather leggy specimen

Renovation pruning

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.

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Radical pruning seems to be yielding results

 

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!)

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‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ seeds were out of date so I sowed lots – they all germinated!

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.

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Vigorous ‘Alberto’s Locoto ‘ seedlings

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?!

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Full window ledges and so many seedlings to prick out…