Saturday, 18 July 2015

Peppers sweet and hot - Saving the seeds

A redesign of my polytunnel space this year gave me a central bed just ideal for sweet peppers and they have responded admirably. I already have plenty of fruits, though there'll be a wait if I want to eat them red. But just look at this one, appropriately named Purple Beauty.

This year I am growing five varieties of Sweet Pepper. There are:

Lamuyo - an F1 variety, great for chunky green peppers
Hebar - from - produces an abundance of very early, pale yellow peppers, turning red later
Yellow Ringo - A long, yellow variety, very sweet
Purple Beauty - from again - as it's name suggests. Another early cropper, so good for UK
Hungarian Hot Wax - really a chilli, but mild enough to be eaten as a pepper, especially when young and lime-yellow. Slightly hotter when they turn orange and then red, but still won't blow your head off

Hungarian Hot Wax

I tried to grow Red Marconi too, a lovely long red pepper, but the cheap seed I bought had clearly lost its viability as two attempts to germinate the measly 8 seeds I received both failed.

And therein lies a problem. For pepper seed (both sweet and hot chilli) does not stay viable for long. It is slow to start, taking up to two months for some of them to germinate, so if it fails you are really pushing it to start over. Having said that, with the aid of the polytunnel I do start my peppers off much later than other people. Many start them in January, when you need at least artificial heat and maybe even artificial light to get them going. I really can't see the point of this. Instead, I start my sweet peppers off in the first week of March and my chillis even later, in the last week of March. I have no trouble getting them to the ripened fruit stage and the seedlings certainly appreciate the extra heat of late spring and early summer.

The chillis that I grow are Jalapeno, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Cayenne, Paprika and Tabasco. Nothing special. In fact, I got most of them in a reduced priced packet of mixed chillis from a pound shop!
But all my original purchases of pepper seeds are now rapidly losing their viability. I had to sow plenty more than I needed to take account of this and even then I failed completely on the paprika. Luckily a friend had some to spare.
Not that I am tight, but I don't really want to go out and purchase a dozen packets of seed next year just to use a few from each packet. So the obvious answer is to save my own seed from what I have grown.
But chillis and peppers will readily cross, producing unpredictable offspring. That large sweet pepper could conceal the heat of a Jalapeno and that fiery Scotch Bonnet could be a completely damp squib.
Short of growing them a mile apart, or constructing special net cages for each variety, there has not really been a way to save my own seed.
However, here's where I sing the praises of The Real Seed Collection, a not-for-profit company which aims to actively encourage its customers to save their own seed and not need to keep going back for more. Without getting on my high horse too much, it makes commercial sense for the large seed companies (and some, like Monsanto, are truly global corporations) to discourage this sort of activity. After all, if we all acted like the thrifty gardeners of old and saved our own seed, how would they make their money?
Here's the header from the Real Seed Catalogue:

You'll find no F1 hybrids or genetically modified seed here - just varieties that do really well and taste great when grown by hand on a garden scale.
The name of the catalogue reflects what we are working to provide: real seeds for real gardeners wanting to grow proper vegetables.
Many are rare heirlooms, and because all are open-pollinated (non-hybrid) , you can save your own seed for future years, using the instructions we supply. There's no need to buy new seed every year!
The Real Seed Company have lots of great advice about seed saving on their website. They have also come up with a way of saving chilli and pepper seeds by isolating individual flowers on a plant.
Basically you make small bags out of old tights (stockings will do too, though not fishnets as they need to keep the insects out!). They say to sow, but I just tied the ends. You then place this over a flower which is just about to open and use a peg to close the end of the bag. This way nothing can get in or out. More precisely, no insect can transfer pollen from another plant to your chosen subject. Fortunately peppers will readily self-pollinate, so all you are doing is making sure that your chosen pepper develops in this way.

Obviously you want to be choosing a pepper on one of your best plants and it doesn't work on F1 varieties, as if fertile they will not produce true to type, most convenient for the companies which push them so hard. You also want to make sure that you bag your flower early enough in the season for the fruit to eventually ripen properly, otherwise you'll have no seed to collect.

After about 5 days, once the fruit has set, you remove the tights, marking the stem with a plastic twist tie so you know which fruit to eventually collect the seed from.
Once you collect the seed, dry it well and look after it through the winter (more very useful advice on the RealSeeds website). And that's it. The following year you'll have plenty enough seed for you and your friends.
Of course, if you've got an axe to grind with any of them, you could always try to cross a sweet Yellow Ringo with a Scotch Bonnet and give them that seed instead!

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