Chillies For Peat’s Sake – With Professor Pods

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When we left Professor Pods back in August he was finding the sweet spot with coco as a sustainable alternative to peat-based substrates. His experience of getting coco dialled-in was, and remains, a really insightful look at common difficulties and how they’re overcome. Despite initial tribulations, the Prof, AKA Neil Ferguson, had seen his coco-grown chillies progress smoothly in the #thechillimeter, a side-by-side contest with identical plants grown in soil. Finding plenty, the coco-grown plants kicked for home and finally ran out wide margin victors in terms of size and development. Yield, however, was the key criteria.

Above: After a tricky beginning Neil has absolutely hit stride with coco in AutoPot modules

Harvest time for the Reaper x Scorpion, Yellow Chinense, Aribibi Gusano, and Jamaican Red chillies would provide the ultimate reckoning. What news from Dumfries; the crucible of Professor Pods scientific endeavours? First came word that, whether grown in Mills Ultimate Soil or Mills Ultimate Coco, the 1Pot module-grown plants roundly trounced those plants grown in standard pots. This was Neil’s first time with the 15 litre / 3.9 gal modules, in his own words; ‘the 1Pot modules are just amazing. You can get huge yields, even in just one square metre of growing space, and things stay very manageable.’ Glad tidings indeed! But what of the 1Pot coco vs peat weigh-in? 

Above: Weigh-hey! The coco-grown Reaper x Scorpion wins it’s (ahem) heat by a whopping 2kg

If you predicted that the Reaper x Scorpion would produce 2 kg more fruit when grown in coco than in peat, then quite frankly you can do our lottery numbers this week. No one foresaw this astonishing gulf in yield. Coco-grown won that side-by-side test by 2,667 g to 757 g. Getting even close to a kilo, let alone over 2.5 kg, of Reapers from a single plant in Scotland is a stunning achievement. As Neil says, ‘this is a very tough variety to grow in these conditions. Scotland’s season is short, with frosts as late as the end of May and beginning again in mid-October, very high rainfall and temperatures typically varying from 14 to 17 ˚C for most of the season.’ A far cry from such chillies’ equatorial stomping grounds. Happily Neil has found that, ‘these super-hots are very well behaved in the AutoPots and produce at least three times what they would otherwise yield.’

Above: Yellow Chinense giving generously in it’s 1Pot module

Proof positive that different strains respond differently to coco came with the Yellow Chinense weigh-in. For the uninitiated, these fruits are a pretty unique Habanero cultivar, characterised by an extremely aromatic flavour combined with a very robust heat. They yielded 1,641 g in peat based compost and 1,185 g in coco. The fact that the coco-grown got as close as they did after an inauspicious start and the huge margin of victory for the Reaper x Scorpion suggests there may be more scope to optimise Yellow Chinense in coco. Not that we’re criticising over 1.6 and 1.1 kg of chillies from individual plants!

Above: Jumping Jack! These cute little Aribibi Gusano (‘caterpillar chillies’) look like they’re enjoying themselves

The only kind of caterpillar you want on your bush, Professor Pods’ Aribibi Gusano (‘caterpillar chillies’) are fascinating little fellas. These bijou peppers are Bolivian in origin and despite their size pack in an abundance of flavour. Pods mature from a lovely light green to creamy white when ripe. They have a strong citrus flavour and, by the Prof’s reckoning, are ‘firmly in charapita territory come harvest time’. After a delightfully arduous picking session these tipped the scales at 1,377 g for peat and a splendid 1,728 g in coco. Advantage ecology!

Above: The Aribibi Gusano also tip the scales in favour of coco

Nature can be so ungrateful sometimes. Here we are, trying to find a sustainable alternative to the peat we’ve been mercilessly hacking out the ground for centuries, and a bunch of ne’er-do-well winged aphids come and eat the coco-grown Jamaican Red. Didn’t they get the memo? Professor Pods doesn’t use, or support the use of, nasty pesticides, relying instead on biological pest control. Whilst Neil’s parasitic wasps were on their game the usual backup from wild ladybirds failed to materialise this year.

Thus the peat-grown Jamaican Red won it’s round by default, but dry your eyes, Professor Pods will soothe you. ‘That made it two wins apiece for coco and peat based compost. However, for plants grown in AutoPots with peat based compost (aggregated data from 4 plants) the average per-plant yield was 1.12 kg. Whereas the average yield per-plant for the coco AutoPots was 1.86 kg (aggregated data from the 3 plants that survived the aphids). Thus, across the 3 strains where direct comparisons could be made, the Mills Coco/Cork and AutoPot combination gave the highest yield per plant.’ We’ve saved the world again!

Above: #ProjectGoatToHell, Neil’s first overwinter adventure gets underway with Bahamian Goat peppers in 1Pot modules

Neil ties the whole contest up really nicely; ‘clearly then, coco is not only a viable alternative to the types of peat based substrates we’ve historically used, but it can actively outperform them by quite a margin. Especially if you find strains particularly well suited to coco, and optimise the growing conditions.’

‘Aside from the commercial benefits of high yields, you get very large fruits with AutoPot. I’ve also noticed this with the AutoPot XL modules. Thus, if you want to get specimen peppers, growing with AutoPot is a really good way to achieve this. Simply put, you get massive pods. Watering and feeding is 100% taken care of, your main concern is properly supporting the plants, as I keep finding branches snapping under the weight of the fruit. It’s a good problem to have, but be forewarned!’

Above: Just can’t get enough, #ProjectGoatToHell aims to establish year-round supplies of chillies for Professor Pods award winning sauces

Smitten by 1Pot modules, Neil is planning his first indoor overwinter grow to bolster his supply of Bahamian Goat peppers. These are just one of the myriad varieties he employs in his range of scientifically delicious sauces. Don’t be fooled, the appliance of science to Neil’s sauces makes for anything but a clinical combination. It actually opens up a rich vein of distinctive, mappable flavours, untapped by traditional cook-off-and-see techniques. ‘The processes we’ve developed allow us to capture the essence of the fresh chillies that we used to make them. This year we submitted two of our popular sauces to the Guild of Fine Foods annual Great Taste Awards. We were blown away to win awards for both our Bonda Ma Jacques and Bahamian Goat Pepper Sauces.’ The winter grow, #ProjectGoatToHell, also looks to compare AutoPot indoor growing with other irrigation systems including Kratky and DWC, an intriguing prospect!

Such inspiring forays into horticultural innovation can really drive wider adoption of sustainable cultivation techniques. If you doubt that for a second then just take a look at Neil’s insta posts and the threads thereon. A thriving community of curious growers is interacting right there, swapping tips to improve their plants and yields. The monster hauls detailed here were made possible in part by the role of contributors like @plantasia_shop and @millspaysthebillsuk who helped get Neil’s coco dialled-in. Free advice for a wealth of crops? Why not!

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