The miserable days of winter might dissuade one from venturing forth to the plot, but it is the ideal time for reviewing one’s seed collection, browsing catalogues, and deciding what to sow in the coming season. Whilst there is generally some time left for this task, some plants need an early start for best results, so it was time to look through the seed box and check the pepper, chilli, aubergine, and tomato seeds, which will probably form the first sowings of the season, any time from the end of January through to March. Peppers, chillies, and aubergines generally take a couple of weeks to germinate and are not too quick to get established, so are good candidates for early sowing. If the germination or early growth of the first batch is poor, there is then time for a further sowing. Tomatoes germinate more quickly and establish themselves much more readily, so I tend to sow those two or three weeks after the peppers.
After several seasons, we are starting to sort out a list of varieties that give us good, consistent results, under our growing conditions and methods of cultivation. I would like to get to the point where we are more or less stable, having a set of preferred varieties for each sort of fruit and vegetable we are growing, and then just trying a few new sorts each year, so that things are manageable. For many vegetables, the list is fairly stable already, but as we have grown so many varieties of sweet and hot peppers and tomatoes, our selection is still a bit variable.
After trying quite a few different sorts, my favourites thus far are the large block peppers from Asti – Quadrato d’Asti Rosso and Giallo, ripening from green to red and yellow respectively. Whilst sweet peppers are a bit of a lottery, needing a reasonable late summer and early autumn to ripen much of the fruit, even with the protection of the polytunnel or glasshouse, these seem to perform quite well. The fruits are often of a large size, are borne in good numbers, and have a very good flavour and meaty texture once ripened.
Despite last year’s plants failing to develop properly, I would also like to give Antohi Romanian a second chance. This small, somewhat tapered, heirloom sweet pepper ripens from pale yellow to red, and looks quite interesting. If it fails to produce a decent crop this year, it will be expunged from the list. I also have some seed of Doux Trés Long des Landes from last year, two plants of which were grown in the ‘chilli house’ even though this is a sweet pepper. They appear to produce a decent crop of very long and thin peppers, which ripen well, from green to red, and certainly seem worth trying for a second season.
I have often grown Sweet Banana, which has never failed to produce a huge crop of pale green peppers, and may well sow a couple this year. These will ripen to an orange-red if left for a long time, but their flavour does not seem to improve much with the ripening and they are ideally taken when pale green. They are quite early to reach this stage, usually before any of our other sorts are ripe. They are, perhaps, an acquired taste and neither of us is that fond of green peppers in general, but Sweet Banana can be quite good fried or cooked in various dishes, as well as raw in salads and such. When fried, they are much like those peppers often served as a first course in various Mediterranean regions.
I also have some seed of Marconi, a red bull’s horn type, and several packets of California Wonder, which came free with various magazines, but neither of these has impressed me much in the past, so I am reluctant to give them precious space in the glasshouses or polytunnel. I have discarded some older seed of Corno Rosso and Giallo, as these have never produced such a good crop, being, in our experience, slow to germinate and struggling to become established early enough to bear and then ripen their fruits.
Chillies are one of my favourite things to grow. After the spring rush, our smallest glasshouse is turned over entirely to the production of chillies of various sorts. The ‘chilli house’ can accommodate 44 plants in 10 litre pots, 20 of which are reserved for Hungarian Hot Wax, which I grow for pickling.
There is such an incredible diversity of chillies that selecting just a few is rather challenging. Nonetheless, over the last few years, I have developed a selection that appears regularly:
- Padron – a ‘tapas’ pepper, typically eaten when green, when only a few will be hot, but also excellent when fully ripened to a fruity medium heat
- Jalapeno – the classic Mexican chilli pepper, with medium heat; I allow some to ripen to red whilst others are picked at the green stage
- Cayenne – the usual culinary chilli pepper, with long thin fruits ripening from green to red; quite hot, but suitable for a wide range of purposes, and perhaps the most useful of all, and good in both the red and green state
- Bulgarian Carrot – a rather hot chilli, so named because it is shaped rather like a small carrot and is yellow to orange in colour
- Poblano – a very mild chilli pepper, which is sometimes found dried, when it is known as Ancho
- Piment d’Espellette – a mild pepper from the south of France, where it is often dried
I usually also grow either a Scotch Bonnet or Habanero sort. For the coming season, I still have seeds of a variety grown in the Botanical Gardens in Turku, Finland, CT’s home town.
As I have some seed available from last year, I will also grow Lombardo and Big Jim again this year. Both are mild chilli peppers, the former developing long slim fruits whilst the latter can produce some very large pointed fruits. Finally, I will be trying a new variety for me this year – Serrano – a small medium to hot chilli used in Mexican cuisine.
Aubergines have always been a bit variable for me; some years they produce a useful crop, but under poor conditions they do not seem to thrive at all. As CT does not like them much, they are not such a critical crop. In any event, the selection of varieties was rather straightforward this year – I have some seed remaining of Black Beauty and Violetta Lunga, which I will probably use this year, and some of a new variety for me, Violetta di Toscana, which I may well save until next year.
Both CT and I love tom/atoes of all shapes, colours, and sizes. Last year we grew 18 different varieties, and took some time to evaluate them. Some were removed from our list, whilst others established themselves as firm favourites. Descriptions and pictures of each can be found in the taste test post and here for Pera d’Abruzzo. Those now on our must grow list include:
- Pera d’Abruzzo – large deep red fruits with meaty flesh, perfect for slicing and superb for tomato sauce
- Gardener’s Delight – the classic red cherry tomato
- Saint Pierre – old French variety of medium sized slicing and salad tomato, with excellent flavour
- Black Cherry – more of a dark reddish chocolate brown than black, but with superb flavour and good sized fruits for a cherry tomato
- Marmande – superb medium to large slightly ribbed fruits, ideal for slicing
- Green Zebra – striped green fruits with an intense and refreshing flavour
Others that we have grown for some years will also be adopted once more:
- Principe Borghese – a small roundish plum type; it does reasonably well for us and we still have plenty of seed so will grow for at least one more season
- Costoluto Fiorentino – I did suggest in the taste test post that we might look for a different strain of this medium to large heavily ribbed red fruit, but as we still have plenty of seed we will be growing this for another season
- Sun Gold – this very sweet, orange cherry tomato remains CT’s favourite, and is the only F1 hybrid that I will be growing this season; as I dislike hybrid varieties I am hoping to find a suitable open pollinated replacement that she enjoys just as much, but until then I will continue to grow Sun Gold
- Banana Leggs – this is the best of the yellow sorts that we have found so far
Our evaluation of last year’s crop led to several varieties being dropped, some of which we have grown for many years: Moneymaker, San Marzano, Sweet Million, Ildi, Golden Sunrise, Yellow Butterfly, and Yellow Pear. One variety that we had initially considered to replace Sweet Million – another F1 hybrid – is Ciliegia a Grappolo. However, on reflection, we wanted to rebalance the collection, with more plants of the larger fruited varieties that are more suited to culinary purposes and more easily harvested and processed. The fruits of Ciliega a Grappolo, whilst having good flavour and texture, are rather small and this year we decided to stick with just one red cherry type.
In addition to the ten established sorts outlined above, we are trialling six new varieties:
- Pink Brandywine – one of several variants of the famous Brandywine heirloom tomato, which should provide large fruits of great flavour
- Amish Paste – an old variety that should be ideal for cooking, having dense flesh with few seeds
- Blondkopfchen – a pale yellow cherry tomato originating from East Germany
- Cuore di Bue – an Italian ox heart type, that should be good for both slicing and culinary purposes
- Black Russian – another of the dark skinned tomatoes, which we hope will produce some very tasty fruits
Results with these new varieties will be reported later in the year.