Halfway up a hill on the outskirts of Bath, something is stirring.
Walk past one particular house late at night or in the early hours of the morning, and you may see from the conservatory an eerie pinkish glow. Passers-by of a nervous disposition may even imagine they detect flickerings, groans and noxious gases emerging from this otherwise ordinary suburban semi.
“What can it be?” you may ask. “What unnatural experiment are the inhabitants conducting within? Can they be harnessing the forces of nature to engender some foul and ghastly new life form?”
Steel your nerves, dear reader, and you will learn.
The house, as you may already have guessed, is Dixon Towers. And no, the pinkish glow is not an early Valentine’s Day lurve gift but, well, something of an experiment.
For a few years now the Dixon conservatory has produced a small but steady flow of chilli peppers – enough to keep us in pizza toppings, Saturday night curries and interestingly-flavoured vodka throughout the year.
But this year it was decided by the chief chilli-grower (yours truly) that we needed something a bit more challenging than your run-of-the-mill Cayenne. So we’re going for the Naga Jolokia, officially recognised as The World’s Strongest Chilli.
Or at least, that’s what it says on the seed packet. Where it also says that Naga Jolokias have a long growing season, and need to be sown in early February at the very latest to give you any hope of a crop by September.
But early February in the Dixon conservatory is traditionally a time when there’s very little natural light. So what we needed was a bit of illuminative oomph.
Now your typical greenhouse lighting system requires ventilating, ballasting, all sorts of complicated stuff. Stuff that doesn’t sit well in a conservatory that doubles as a home for three lively guinea pigs, 27 half-finished Airfix models and a ten-foot pile of choral music (don’t ask).
What was needed was a compact light source: hence the eerie glow.
Because what we ended up with was a new-fangled bank of LED grow lights. Pure blue and red illumination. No heat, low power, easily suspended above the plant pots using a length of old plank, three feet of string and a couple of lengths of angle iron.
The initial set-up caused some merriment among the younger generation (“Dad, are you growing ganja?”) And some of the instructions are a tad over-dramatic (“Shut off the power when there may have thunderbolt to avoid being damaged by the high pressure.”)
But we got there in the end. In a week or two, the Naga Jolokias will realise that they’re in an environment that approximates to their natural home in the Khyber Pass, and start to sprout.
Bathed in a magenta glow for 18 hours a day, the seedlings will burgeon into sturdy plants, and by September we’ll be feasting on blistering pods with a Scoville rating of a million or more. We hope.
And what of the flickerings, groans and gases? Don’t worry: they’re just the after-effects of last year’s crop.