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Feeling the heat

This year I have been growing several kinds of chillies and to be honest, I’ve been struggling. They have either not grown very big or they are simply not doing anything at all and look rather sad.  I decided to go and see Alex Duck of the Upton Cheney Chilli Farm at Manor Farm near Bath to find out where I’m going wrong and to see how the professionals do it! Chillies have had a huge upsurge in popularity in recent years and nearly three years ago Alex and his wife Louise decided to see if they could grow chillies successfully in their poly-tunnels at Manor Farm.  So far so good and they are already selling their chilli sauces at chilli festivals and farmers markets across the UK as well as hosting their own chilli events and opening to the public on a daily basis.

Alex showed me around the incredibly ancient farm site, which was mentioned in the Doomsday book and at present is home to pigs, goats, cows, bees and horses as well as the chilli farm and a farm shop and café.

The chilli farm is set within the vegetable garden. The sauces are all hand-made by Louise using their own produce grown on the farm and they even have a smokery for smoking the peppers as well as garlic and other foods.

Alex is very enthusiastic and passionate about his chillies and this certainly shows in the care they take over growing the peppers.  The site is organic and everything except the chilli seed is organic. Fertiliser is made from nettles and they are also experimenting with a hydroponics system this year.  Hydroponics is a method of growing plants into water, which has a constant supply of necessary nutrients and does away with weed control and soil borne pests. It also means in the long term that the chillies can be grown during the winter with the use of grow lights.

Recently the farm was commissioned by Bart Spices to grow a variety of chillies for them to use in their products.  These include Bulgarian Carrot, Hungarian Black, Goat Horn as well as Madre Vehra. These all vary in heat from mild to super-hot!

Alex explained to me, that to grow the best chillies at home, sow them early in the year in January or February. This is where I have gone wrong already having left mine until April. The hotter the chilli they earlier they need to be sown. He recommended sowing the seed into Jiffy 7 seed modules and then once the seedlings produce a second pair of leaves to move them into a larger pot.  Keep them in a warm place at all times, a sunny windowsill or heated greenhouse is ideal. They do not like their feet in water, which was my other major mistake having been watering mine enthusiastically every day, so keep them dry and keep them fed with a good fertiliser, he suggested using a concentrated seaweed feed or similar.

The chilli farm grown their plants in banked up beds with a leaky hose watering system ensuring that they get just enough moisture, this as well as being in poly-tunnels means they are getting the right levels of light and heat too. Their seed is supplied by Simpson’s Seeds from The Walled Garden Nursery near Warminster, and the farm have a special display poly-tunnel showing examples of the plants. I was particularly taken by the black chillies called Hungarian Black and are a very striking black Jalapeno, which apparently taste really good.  I also loved the super chilli that produces masses of tiny chillies on one plant, which are green turning to bright red. They are pretty hot but can be used fresh or dry.

Their heat classifies chillies. This measurement is called the Scoville Heat Unit and they vary from 800 SHV to 1.5 million SHV. The chilli farm grows the 7 Pot, which is the hottest chilli in the world at 1.5 million.  It’s really hard to imagine how hot this and Alex showed me the plant with the small green innocent looking chillies growing on it!  However Alex recommends for the Jalapeño chilli home growing because he reckons it’s the tastiest, neither too hot nor too mild and is the most versatile and easy to grow.

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