Wednesday 26 February 2014

Growing Chillies by Jason Nickels


YPS publisher majordomo, Cathi-next-door often tries to educate me with one of their ‘self published’ books. In this case it was not life changing as were the books from Dr. David Grimes. I don’t even like chillies unless they are very mild! When I grew a high yielding single plant a few years ago it gave us enough chillies for two years and that was too many for me! I do love sweet peppers and we had a minor domestic whether Jason’s fine book explained how to grow them too. It does, the methods are exactly the same. Pity the title did not inform Brenda of this - the confrontation induced me to drink an extra glass of wine beyond my self imposed ration.

Before I go further let me say that Jason Nickel’s, book is a very good read. It is an essential item for any chilli lover who wishes to grow his own, or merely wishes to know the best ones to buy and how to prepare and eat them. Jason has grown chillies commercially all his life and is a recognised expert who the media consult whenever they want authoritative information. His book embarks and succeeds on a difficult line. The book is written as a complete guide to growing peppers and chillies. In addition to appealing to someone with no horticultural experience what-so-ever, it is also a rich source of information for the good gardener who wants to glean professional insights in advance of those offered in the popular gardening press. 
Even if you want to grow something under glass other than chillies and peppers, much of the cultural information is as relevant as that you would learn on a college gardening course. 

My first experience with chillies was fifty years ago when I taught at the Lancashire College of Agriculture and Horticulture. We grew and sold edible Capsicum annua as a house plant as an alternative to the poisonous Solanum capsicastrum, the winter cherry. Much to our surprise most of the sales were for eating!  At that time there was zero  commercial production of peppers as an edible crop! 
I have a memory - I hope it is a false one - of advising a potential  producer that pepper production had no commercial potential!

I remember twenty years ago when I was consultant to a stately home garden, the poor gardener was suddenly informed he would have to produce peppers for 150 guests later that year in September for a special occasion. “How nice to produce one’s own peppers and impress the guests”. Did they not realise the vast cost this would be? Did they not care? 

I only started to grow sweet peppers three years ago. Why should I when they are so much better from Aldi, where they have been produced in warm sunshine and tropical light? 
I now grow some for ‘the hell of it’ and Brenda allows me to sow seed which litters our warm conservatory in March! I find it quite galling that she often turns her nose up at my perfectly good rather green peppers. I grimace when I look in her shopping basket and see bright yellow, orange and red.

'Growing Chillies' is a beautifully illustrated paperback, the colourful pictures are Jason’s own. The layout lends itself to read like a book or to use as a reference.
Equally suitable to amateurs or professionals it is mercifully brief when it gives information about commercial aids like automatic watering systems, hydroponics and artificial illumination. Actually for those souls who possess artificially illuminated propagation facilities, chillies will hugely benefit when propagating very early. Some gardeners love to play at being commercial growers with inappropriate gadgets. They will love these small sections.

To my surprise Jason favours loam based compost. Although he comes from a different direction to me - his dislike of peat for environmental reasons, I do agree that loam based compost has advantages over many of the poor quality loam-less composts often offered today.

The book is particularly good on cultural details and environment control. Sadly he repeats the old canard about water on wet leaves acting like a magnifying glass. He even describes symptoms! I am often set back when an acknowledged expert says silly things.There is no picture, Jason, have you ever actually really seen it? That is not to say that bright sunshine on previously shaded leaves coming from an amateur’s ill-illuminated propagator will not scorch in full sun and the book shows an excellent picture of this. Indeed it provides many excellent and helpful illustrations all round.

I did find a number of items of helpful information for my own unheated greenhouse crop. In the cold British climate he emphasised choosing varieties which mature quickly. I ordered Poseidon from, to me, newly discovered, 'Mole Seeds' a month ago, Their large packet will enable me to take Jason’s advice and if my germination is poor in late February I can sow some more! 
I have never stopped or pruned my peppers but vaguely assumed this was wrong. I now know I am doing the right thing. The book also confirmed that in generous sized pots like mine I will have larger plants and bigger yield. Jason even mentions that unless you need to conserve precious early season heated propagation space by potting in small pots, you can go the whole hog and prick out straight into final pots.  (Be careful, it is much more challenging to water properly small plants in large pots). That is the sort of gardening advice you do not get every day.

Thank you Cathi for this excellent book. Perhaps, like the good doctor Grimes it is life changing after all. Perhaps Brenda will actually use my peppers this year!

Postscript written today

My 'Mole Seeds' arrived last week after a very short wait of seven days. I was most impressed with the large generous protective-sealed packets. I sowed a little earlier than usual for me on 16th of February and sneaked a drainage tray holding a dozen two inch pots into our warm conservatory. There has been no protest yet, but there may be when I soon do the same with my tomatoes! I have sown one or two seeds in each pot and with luck I will be able to put out and pot on peppers in my unheated greenhouse on April fool’s day.

I expect these to take about two weeks to germinate in the warm sunshine in our central heated conservatory

PPS If you click through to the comment column you will find that Jason has sportingly taken up the cudgels about my magnifying glass remark. Here is a LINK to my original article

Update My pepper crop that year was my best ever. Brenda grudgingly used most of them and Cathi was ecstatic at the ones I passed over. Thank you Jason. I am still waiting for your evidence!

Friday 21 February 2014

Hacienda Baru Wildlife Park, Costa Rica

Walk in the park

Two highlights of our recent holiday was our walk round the park and our later return to celebrate Harry’s birthday for a superb lunch under a thatched roof in the sun.
Down by the sea bordering three kilometres of pristine beach, this warm wetland habitat is a haven and refuge for tropical wildlife. Not without a little excitement we walked the tracks in the jungle. Two metres from the path we spotted a caiman in a shallow pool! Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it dived below the surface before we could get a picture.

When opened more than thirty years ago they planted more than a thousand teak trees. Fine saplings now, it will be another seventy years before they are suitable for timber. They are growing very well and are not intended to be chopped down! In contrast a balsa tree had completed its life and had been blown over.

Harry lost his hat in the teak leaves

We found some very  prickly deciduous trees

There were insects everywhere. The din of the cicadas was continuous

The birds were superb

We were charmed by the Gumbo Limbo tree, not least the name

We carefully stepped over the rivers of leaf cutting ants
You had to look very hard to see everything

There was much of interest up in the trees

The bat was trying to sleep
Thank you Harry and Rowena

Birthday picture but who is that strange man?

They organised the holiday. They booked the holiday residence, the hotels at arrival and departure, they came over the Pennines  to supervise our bookings for the flight. Harry did all the driving. He drove us 120 miles back to St Jose airport for our departure. They generally held our hands! Their own holiday was to last another three weeks, they come home today. Harry took most of the pictures. When he gets his pictures sorted, I will give you a link to all of his pictures on flickr. They are wonderful friends.

Sunday 16 February 2014


Some ecologists fear that climate change is upsetting the balance between tropical lianas (woody climbers) and trees, to the detriment of the trees. This is perhaps made worse by the otherwise perhaps acceptable thinning of timber trees which lets more light to the openings in the forest canopy. We noticed on our holiday how climbing plants thrive in the clearings created by pathways and roads. I have no idea if there are more climbers now than in the past. What was clear in wildlife parks such as Hacienda Baru, that when some climbers were cut as part of the land management programme, how much better the trees grew. Of course in natural undisturbed jungle they are an essential part of the ecology.

Seen in the canopy
Capuchin, the monkey monk

Strangler Walk

We walked Strangler Walk at Hacienda Baru. It is a feature that highlights the vicious strangler fig. Don’t get me wrong the fig provides marvellous habitat to a wide range of tropical life world wide but not to it’s original host! There are many species of strangling ficus. You may harbour your own; Ficus repens is a common houseplant.

The fig’s life history starts with a seed germinating high in the forest canopy in natural mossy crevices. Initially a harmless epiphyte it makes rooting stems growing both higher to carry strong leaves and downwards a very long way to root in the ground. Once generous supplies of soil water and nutrients are available from the ground it starts to take over. It strangles the host’s roots, and grafts itself all over the surface trunk as many rooting aerial shoots twine and join together. It smothers the canopy of the tree which eventually dies. When it has  established its place in the jungle (or even in a Southern Californian yard) it strengthens itself further to make a very fine tree. It is often hollow where it has encased the corpse of the original tree!

Later in our holiday we walked the margins of a grove of tropical almonds very near to the sea. We saw no evidence of aerial shoots of scandent figs coming down but did see many of them going up from the ground. In a few places we saw free standing fig trees. Perhaps we were looking at the victors of this natural strife.

The effect of this unidentified climber reminded me what happens to a trunk at home when a string label is not removed. 

What happens when a climber takes over
We are not familiar in the UK with lianas dropping rooting stems from the sky

 Hemi-parasites can provide a rich ecology and nutritious leaf litter.

Residents in the canopy

Epiphytes enrich the canopy

Vines can provide ants with a route into the trees

The wasps fly to their nests

Frog on a fig
I wondered about vigorous temperate vines that have a way of taking over at home.The following certainly need to be kept under control!

Clematis montana, wisteria, Russian vine, Rosa ‘Kiftsgate' and Vitis vinifera.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Mission unaccomplished

What idiots would go to Costa Rica to see alpine plants?

Does he know something we don’t?
The cloud forest sounded very enticing. I imagined steamy hot tropical jungle. Harry Kennedy had found very skimpy details of a garden that brought together a collection of native flowers. It was in a deep valley at high altitude on the site of a great National Park. Rowena had a sat-nav device on her I-pad. Vague mention was made that the electronic maps might not be very precise over here.The anticipated journey time was a very manageable one hour and twenty minutes. I might mention at this point that Harry was driving a little rugged four by four. We had been told that such a car was necessary merely to access our holiday home. Nobody had mentioned special tyres. What could go wrong?

We ascended the winding narrow road for about two hours. We stopped to admire the view and recognised the many temperate flowers. Uncharacteristic Costa Rica flora such as iris, hemerocallis, montbretia, fuchsia and rose! It was getting colder.


Getting higher
Another hour and the tree line was starting to open. We had entered the clouds. A bit like a drizzly cold day in Preston, Rowena’s home town. We should have found the left turn by now . Nothing was sign posted. After some bickering we decided we had gone too far and retreated three miles. Up a very unwelcoming bumpy steep gravelled track we found a rather seedy entrance. Except that it wasn’t what we thought! Had we read Spanish we would have found that it lead to a telecommunications unit at the top of Costa Rica at 3400 metres elevation! Another mile up a very rugged track we found what at first sight was what might have been a rocket launch site or a base on the moon.
We were debating  whether to turn back - the car engine was almost steaming when a far superior mountain vehicle came the other way and stopped. Two amused and bemused beaming telecommunications engineers - pun intended - had not encountered stupid English tourists up there before. 
We overcame the language barrier to discover that we should go back to the road and continue for ten further miles.

Not yet quite up to tree line

Alpine scrub
Alpine lupin
Our tribulations were not over. We did find the start of the six kilometre track that leads to Los Quetzales National Park. We stopped at the only roadside cafe  -  the first signs of habitation for many miles -  before embarking on a not quite vertical descent down the almost unmade road. We tried to ask about the garden. Every enquiry was answered with a confident wave saying “that way, down there,”. We were pretty certain they did not understand the question!
We started down and it got steeper. There were signs of civilisation. We even had to negotiate a our way around an oncoming tourist bus! By now, even if we got there and found the garden it would be time to be leaving. What we saw of the national park itself was absolutely astounding but we  needed a week. Reluctantly we turned back and embarked on a three hour uneventful ride home.

Thoughts now we are home

Being a bit of a killjoy I often think that holiday experiences are best when you get home! So much to tell and the discomfort forgotten. Poor Harry, what a drive! Fortunately he loves driving and even though some of the roads were dramatic, we had total confidence in his skills. Don’t get me wrong about the roads, the surfaces are good if you do not go up wayward tracks! Road signs are precious and rare.
In hindsight we should not  have had our adventure at the very beginning of our holiday but waited to learn more before embarking. We should have taken warm clothes. When we at the top of Costa Rica at the telecommunication station we were frustrated and cold. The rocky alpine environment was a fascinating  botanical place but we did not have eyes to see it. We should have planned to stay over at one of the hotels in the National Park for a night. We should have realised that if you try to read a sign written in Spanish you can decipher a meaning enough to know that you are not driving into a garden!

The next day was spent on the  tropical hot beach with the wonderful surf. Much to Brenda’s surprise the highlight of her holiday was playing in the sea! She had never expected to go in the sea ever again but the water was beautifully warm and the breakers were safe! The camera lies and she was not about to be swept away!

Look out Brenda

Our sunshine holiday next year was to Madeira

Thursday 6 February 2014

Thoughts from Costa Rica

For someone who purports to hate holidays we are away again! We are ensconced in the foothills of the high central valley. Getting here reminded me why I hate to go away! So much for being an intrepid explorer!
Four years ago Harry and Rowena showed us their pictures of their then recent holiday to Costa Rica. Much to Brenda’s amazement I said I would like to go one day. When Harry rang last year to say they were going again and would we like to come, I said “yes”  and Brenda nearly fell off her chair. When in the next sentence she heard me utter  the immortal phrase “don’t worry about the cost” she needed reviving. 

Palm Oil
Costa Rica is one of the least ecologically damaged South American countries. The eco-tourist industry is a very significant part of national income, as are pharmaceutical products derived from the rainforest. Much of their natural forest is still intact. Never-the-less we did drive through many miles of palm oil plantation as we drove across the flat plain that leads to the mountains. I remember thinking that when we arrived at the gated community of residences on plots cut out of the jungle that we ourselves were part of the problem.

                                         Views from our plot

Our residence is surrounded by fairly unspoiled jungle. It is a little incongruous but quite understandable that the roads around the estate are lined with hedges and gardenesque mediterranean plants such as cordylines, dracaenas, codaeums, bananas, strelitzias, cannas, hibiscus, bougainvillea and palms. Our hectare garden is a strimmed levelled plot on the hillside. It is the dry season now and some of the grass is regularly irrigated. The garden is pervaded with exotic tropical plants of the world. 

Far be it for me to complain about introduced plants corrupting native vegetation. It would be quite hypocritical as I have already prepared a post, soon to be published, that argues the benefits of worldwide plant distribution!

Written three weeks ago, I have added some  further memories about our holiday experience.

The trees 
I imagined the absence  of any Winter would mean that the native shrubby vegetation would be totally evergreen. Most is, but perhaps 10% of the trees are deciduous. As we travelled to our destination I wondered if the leafless trees were dead; part of nature’s natural cycle or worse a result of despoilment. They proved to be native deciduous dry season  trees. 
The Costa Rica dry season is December to April. We noticed many deciduous  trees were  already sprouting. I read that with climate change the dry season was getting wetter. Was this the reason? More likely, I pondered, is was just like trees at home. Our own native deciduous trees do not wait the end of the Winter before gaining competitive advantage by making new growth. Many of these ‘Tican'  deciduous trees were  magnificent. We noticed on our return journey  that the forest was greener.

The palm oil plantations.
Once rain forest, the flat land was now fairly uniform but not without interest. On the lighter margins epiphytic ferns and and bromeliads colonised the palm tree  bases. Opportunist vegetation grew in a few permitted  places. 
First reaction is to regret the result of mindless international legislation that has created this modern tropical  crop. It is a curious hybrid of monotonous farming and forestry with a final dash of industrial processing. But should we despise the jobs provided for seemingly happy workers?

The people
It was clear throughout the visit that Costa Ricans were content albeit  many were poor. They were welcoming, cheerful friendly people. Most we met were very young. 

Our gardener
He came once a week to maintain the garden. I imagined our plot was a typical ‘up market’   mechanised American ‘yard’. Many of our neighbours were American and Canadian  seasonal holiday migrants escaping the North American Winter.
Our gardener discretely spent his first visit strimming a very large area of high banks and lawn. A young man he was armed with a small mini tractor the size of a mower. He worked extremely hard.
The second visit precariously perched on the steep banks of the garden he skilfully used a machete to fight back the invading jungle. He did a superb craftsman’s job and the edges were crisper than that done by any machine.

Lush vegetation on the bank  and the flat surface  was strimmed the previous week. The next week  our gardener negotiated the high bank to use his machete.

On this visit he also irrigated the more prominent parts of the lawn. My previous experiences with high temperature grass has been extremely poor and I have been very disparaging.The grass near the house was neatly clipped and a dark healthy green. After swimming in the pool I walked on the grass rather than the burning concrete. It was like walking on a resilient high quality deep pile carpet.
Not all the lawn was high quality. The sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica was one of the weeds.

I would have liked to talk to the gardener and compare our experiences. Beneath my sometimes extrovert persona I am quite shy and was reluctant to approach him. I knew their would be a severe language barrier as it proved to be. I plucked up courage and congratulated him on his fine work. Wishing to please, he smiled  and nodded in the right places. I shook him by the hand. I would have dearly like to discuss matters horticultural. I wonder whether he loved his plants as I do, or just whether it was the only work he could get.

Harry and Rowena’s pictures

Tree frog eggs spawned on underside of water hyacinth

Luke Skywater on the worldwide web
Our broadband was a little primitive

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