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Winter Tasks

Now is the time to concentrate on preparing your growing environment for the next season.   We are assuming that most people will either have polytunnels or greenhouses for their chilli plants.

It has just turned January, so here is a list of tasks which we are currently in the process of undertaking at the nursery. We realise that this may be teaching people to "suck eggs" so to speak, but just in case you've missed something....




1) Sowing our chilli seeds - Not yet.  

We sow our seeds around the middle to end of February.   You can obviously sow yours now. However at the nursery we run on solar and wind and do not have the additional capacity in our batteries to allow for extra lighting and heating of chilli seedlings at this time of year.  
The second reason why we do not sow our seeds yet is because when the seedlings are big enough to come out of the propagators, we have nowhere warm to put them.
If we sow in feb/March, by the time the seedlings are ready to come out of the heated propagators, it is generally after the last of the frosts and they can go straight in the polytunnels until sun-covers   **Sun-covers are large propagator lids which offer additional height for seedlings and protection from slugs and snails. 

At this time of year, we make a grow list.   In this list we always have a few favourites which we grow year-on-year and have had good success with in the past - for example Ring of Fire chillies.  One of our favourites and a consistant "good variety" in our wet and windy British climate. We always have a couple of NEW varieties each year, so we can continue to trial varieties. Some grow better than others. It is only by trial and error, that we learn.  After all, Britain is not the natural climate for chilli plants!


2) Preparing the tunnels 

Lots of jobs to go in the polytunnel. Firstly we need to clear all old chilli plants.  These go on the compost heap. 
Next we remove any pots from the tunnel  (we grow chillies in the ground and in pots). The undersides of pots are a perfect place for slugs and snails to hide.   We clean and stack the pots in the potting shed.
Also make sure to weed around the edges to the tunnels.  Stinging nettles and brambles need to be removed not just cut.  Pull them out, roots and all.    
For the chillies in the ground, we grow under mipex (black porous matting which stops weeds coming up in the beds).  At this time of year, we pull back the mipex and rotorvate the soil underneath.  We dig trenches and then dig in horse mature into the soil.   Finally we cover the soil with the mipex and leave for 3 months.   The chillies wont go into the ground until around June - nearer the time, we rotorvate the soil again before planting.   Slugs are the enemy here and the majority attack your plants under the soil. By rotorvating, you can break up the soil and disturb places where slugs may be hiding and laying their eggs.

You can use a garlic candle which will fumigate the tunnels and deter any pests from hibernating in your tunnels.

Another task at this time of year is to clean the tunnels. We use a soft brush and a vinegar solution.  You will be surprised by the amount of grime which will build up over the year. 
Also make sure to cut back any hedges or plants which may be blocking light from the tunnel. A classic case is Rubus which will cover a tunnel if not kept in check. 
On your growing benches, if you are using porous matting underneath your plants it may be mouldy.  We tend to repair and replace the matting.   Repair by washing off any mould or moss by cleaning the mats in a bucket of hot water with a cap full of vinegar and a capful of lemon juice.
Wash the glazing, frame and inside polythene using a mild detergent diluted with water. We use a solution of hot water, lemon juice, vinegar and garlic!
Also wash off any potting benches. Check for snails and slugs hidden underneath.

In summary, have a good clean up.  Collect up all pots, string, old plant labels, leaves, dead plants, old containers and REMOVE.     The less pests that overwinter, the BETTER!


3) Overwintering your plants

If you intend to overwinter any plants and have them outside in the tunnels, try constructing an inner tent within your growing area. Use heavy duty bubblewrap or fleece and raise the plants off the ground onto benches. Use heated mats if possible underneath the pots. On warm days, you can always remove your plants from the tents to "hardy" them up. Make sure to place back on the heated mats as the temperature drops towards late afternoon.

We find it easiest to bring plants you want to keep indoors. If you keep them on a sunny windowsill, a piece of perspex or thick card behind the plant is a good idea. Keep plants away from cold draughts and not left behind the curtain next to a cold window, away from the central heating in the room.



4) Weather 

This is a good time to prepare for the winter. So far we have only had rain but wind is the biggest problem.  Our polytunnels at this time of year tend to resemble Fort Knox!  At the end of the season, we fit an additional groundsheet over the doors of the tunnels so stop wind blowing through them and breaking the doors.  We also fit batons over the plastic groundsheet for a tight fit.  In really windy conditions we fit brackets to the h-frames of the tunnels and then place a sturdy long piece of wood into the bracket thus preventing the doors from moving.
If you get snow, it is important to remove it from your tunnels asap.  Snow is heavy and can stretch the polythene or at worst break through.
Check the condition of the polythene all over your tunnels and use greenhouse tape to repair any rips.  Greenhouse/polytunnel tape is a bit like selotape but much stickier and alot thicker.  It is worth investing in a roll as cheap tape is a false economy.  If you have a greenhouse, repair or replace any broken panes.
Check and repair doors, vents, latches, pipework, caulking and any heating systems you may have in place. 


This is enough to be getting on with!

**If you have your chilli plants indoors, check out out overwintering guide here : 
http://www.dartmoorchillifarm.com/index.aspx?pageid=1674259

Phil