Serendipity and silver linings. That’s how Edible Ornamentals came into being.
Joanna Plumb, who runs the business with her husband Shawn, told us the story. Many years ago, her parents (who were commercial cucumber farmers) were approached by a national DIY store to grow 3000 chilli plants for their shops. Unfortunately, the DIY company pulled out of the deal leaving Joanna’s parents with 3000 unwanted chilli plants and the headache of watering and nurturing them with no buyer in sight. Just before her dad decided to compost the lot, Joanna (who was studying for a horticultural qualification at the time) stepped in and devised a plan to sell them at car boot sales. She quickly expanded to include local farmers markets and was happy to find that the chilli plants were hugely popular and sold well.
Shawn and Joanna set up their chilli growing business in 2001. In 2007 they purchased Cherwood Nursery, a disused flower nursery Chawston, Bedfordshire, and Edible Ornamentals finally had space to grow. Since then they’ve added several new polytunnels, a staff room, a shop-cum-cafe and a proper kitchen unit. At the time of our visit they building a new outdoor seating area to expand the cafe and provide a pleasant space for visitors to sit and enjoy.
Back in the 1990s the couple lived for a few years in Antonio Texas, where they developed a love of chillis and began growing some of the locally popular varieties. When they returned to the UK they brought back with them an abiding love for chillis and a wide range of Tex-Mex recipes. These recipes gave them a great basis to expand their business into making bottled sauces, jams and relishes which they sell onsite and online. In fact, Joanna was a walking chilli-recipe database and rattled off lots of suggestions as she walked us around the polytunnels and greenhouses full of plants, picking and telling us about different varieties of chillis as she went.
As well as chillis, Shawn and Joanna also grow tomatillos which is how we’d come to visit in the first place. Already supplying their specialist chillies to the catering industry, when Chipotle Mexican Grill were unable to find fresh tomatillos in the UK, Edible Ornamentals were able to help. They were already very familiar with tomatillos, which are a popular ingredient in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. Chipotle got in touch with me asking if we’d like to visit the farm with MD Jacob but sadly we were not able to make the proposed date. They kindly arranged for us to visit on our own in June. We’ll also be visiting the restaurant later this summer to taste their tomatillo dishes for ourselves.
Like tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, chillis and peppers, tomatillos are a member of the nightshade family but they fall within the physalis genus. Native to Mexico, they are similar to and part of the same genus as cape gooseberries (which we know here as physalis) and and which originated in Peru, Columbia and Ecuador. They have the same lantern-like papery husk surrounding a smooth round fruit. Joanna told us how they’re the key ingredient for green salsa amongst many other dishes.
As we know from our own allotment and garden experiences, everything has been a bit late this year and in June the tomatillos weren’t yet ready for harvest, though there were plenty of pretty lanterns containing growing fruits within. To our delight, Joanna kindly gave us two tomatillo plants (they don’t self-pollinate so you need a minimum of two for them to set fruit) so we’ll hopefully be able to harvest our own later this summer.
Joanna also gave us a collection of pimento de padron, jalapeño, serrano and poblano chillis to take home – I’ll be sharing some recipes soon.
Joanna’s Chilli Growing Tips
I asked Joanna for her key tips for growing chillis at home. We have grown several types from seeds as well as purchased and been given the occasional plants and love the satisfaction of harvesting colourful fresh chillis throughout the summer and autumn.
Don’t Overwater! Chillis originate in hot climates, so are used to being a little parched.
Use good quality multi-purpose compost.
Pick chillis from your plant regularly – don’t wait till they’re all red to pick. Removing fruits encourages the plants to create more, so you’ll get a much bigger harvest overall.
Chillis aren’t just about heat. Find a variety that has a flavour you really enjoy.
I asked her to suggest three varieties she loves and recommends.
Jalapeño – a milder chilli that works well stuffed with cream cheese and either wrapped in bacon or breadcrumbs and grilled or fried.
Pimento de padron – a great medium heat chilli that is beautiful grilled or barbecued and served as tapas.
Dorset Naga – a super hot chilli that has a beautifully aromatic flavour. Use a tiny sliver in a curry or in red onion marmalade. Joanne used a single chilli in a 30 jar batch and it was plenty!
So there you have it. Do you have any great chilli growing tips or recipes or stories to share? I’d love to read them!
With thanks to Edible Ornamentals for the lovely tour, chillis and tomatillo plants and to Chipotle Mexican Grill for organising our visit.