Hybrid vigor in pepper seedlings

Early Scarlet, radish, sprout

Hybrid vigor, or heterosis, is a poorly understood process from a genetic standpoint, but it’s one that plant breeders exploit quite successfully.  Simply put, they cross two varieties of a plant, then grow out the children called the F1 generation.  If the cross is successful, it produces a hybrid plant which has superior characteristics to both of its parents, and often has stronger vigor — growing larger and faster than either parent.  If you’ve ever had a mystery squash take over your compost pile and look like Audrey II, that was hybridization at work.

Hybrids are developed to have better yield, flavor, resistance to a particular pest or disease, and/or better performance in a certain climate.  In many ways, this is similar to the reasons heirloom varieties are developed.  Grandma’s special zucchini from years of saving seeds is a variety which performs uniquely well in her garden, but may do poorly in yours 100 miles away.  (Or not.)  Regional favorites, like banana peppers here in the South, do so well throughout the region that they become hugely popular and are often sold as commercial transplants.  Most people don’t think of these as heirlooms, but they still are.  And all heirlooms or newer open pollinated varieties start out as a hybrid cross.

Hybrids or “F1” cultivars are common in catalogs.  These are not “genetically modified” any more than a mixed breed dog is, they are just crosses that are commercially produced in order to sell the children for seed.  While you can’t save the next F2 generation for seed and expect them to reproduce true, sometimes hybrids are just the ticket for a vegetable that doesn’t want to do well for you.

I grow sweet peppers, bell or lamuyo, from hybrid.  The open pollinated varieties simply don’t do well for me.  However, hot peppers do.  This year my pepper crop includes the African-American heirloom Fish Pepper with it’s lovely foliage and mildly hot taste, and experimenting with the new Islander F1 bell which is purple in it’s “green” stage.

Here’s the comparison of seedlings at the same age of development and grown under the same conditions:

Fish Pepper seedling

Fish Pepper seedling

Islander F1 seedling

Islander F1 seedling

The Fish Pepper will grow up just fine, but the hybrid is nearly ready for planting. Unfortunately, the weather is not, so the hybrids will just have to wait a bit longer.

By the numbers: Sweet bell peppers

IMGP3931

Bell peppers are practically synonymous with “salad vegetable” here in the United States.  Lately fancy colored peppers in yellow, orange and red have become foodie trendy, but these colors are just the fully ripe versions of the humble green pepper.  Even the more exotic colors like chocolate and purple start out green.  (With the exception of the new Islander hybrid, which is shades of purple and pink when still unripe, and I will be trialling next summer.)  Green peppers has a slight bitterness to them; colored peppers are sweeter and more nutritious but are also a lot more money because getting peppers to the fully ripe stage takes a lot of time and many peppers are usually lost to rot and fungus when on the way.

Our household is very fond of peppers.  It’s difficult to weigh and log your peppers when so many get eaten while standing in the garden or vanish from the countertop when you bring them inside.  We eat most of them fresh, but some get sliced up into curries.

This summer I planted a whopping 8 bell peppers plants in rather cramped conditions: just 2.8 square feet per plant.

  • 2 California Wonder, the standard, an old open pollinated variety, 5.6 square feet – 3 lbs., .54 lbs/sq. ft.
  • 2 Orange Bell, an open-pollinated variety of unsure provenance, 5.6 square feet – 4 lbs., .71 lbs./sq. ft.
  • 4 Jackpot, a hybrid, 11.2 square feet – 31 lbs., 2.77 lbs./sq.ft.

Yes, seriously, the hybrid performs that much better.  It may not in your climate.  Most bell pepper varieties sold today are variants on the California Wonder which was bred specifically for California agriculture.  Alabama is nothing like California from a gardening or climate standpoint.  The Jackpot F1 tends to produce a larger and longer pepper which is not as square and blocky as the standard and with fewer seeds but just as thick-walled and tastes the same.  Like California Wonder, it will turn red when ripe.  Unlike the California Wonder, peppers exceeding 1/2 pound aren’t uncommon.

The Jackpot seed was a new packet this year but, I reused seed from previous years for the others.  The Orange Bell seed was nearly 10 years old and has really never performed well for me so it was forgotten.  It of course turns orange when ripe, and it also is virtually identical in taste to the others.  For the numbers, but let’s pretend I purchased all new seed at $3/pkg

Seed: $8
Fertilizer: Cottonseed meal, maximum value $1
Irrigation: Yes, twice this year, but usually I’d need to water 5 times or so,  $1.
Pesticides: None.
Row cover and other tools: None.
Labor:  Started seedlings indoors and transplanted.  Minor weeding.  Harvesting.  Re-used seed pots, cost of potting soil and electricity for lighting, $2.

Total cost to grow first year: $12

I don’t let many go ripe, because I lose too many to rot in our humid climate.  Ripe peppers tend to be mistakes; one lost in the foliage until it’s bright enough to see.  Sometimes, fetching it is a gooey experience, but sometimes not.  So the money numbers below are based on green bell pepper prices.  As of last week (this link updates, so if you click on it you will get the latest report and not the one to which I am referring), the average price of conventionally grown green bell peppers is $1.53/lb. and $2.99/lb. for organic.  Harvest time is the lowest price point per year you’ll see.  $5/lb. is not unheard of here on the off season… but I don’t have fresh peppers then; so I always compare with seasonal prices.  My price for home grown organic-ish bell peppers?

Pounds Cost to grow Cost per pound
California Wonder 3  $    3.00  $    1.0000
Orange Bell 4  $    3.00  $    0.7500
Jackpot F1 31  $    6.00  $    0.1935

For the California Wonder and the Orange Bell, I did better than the market rate, but not by an impressive amount.  For the Jackpot F1, I did very well, which is why I continue to grow Jackpot every year despite the fact I can’t save seed from it.  The cost of a packet of seed that lasts several years is easily recouped.  It goes to show the importance of selecting a variety that performs well for you.  From a financial standpoint, I rate bell peppers to be mixed: if you find a good performer, they are a good value for the limited space they require.  If you get modest results, they may not deserve space in your garden.  Consider the tough and prolific banana pepper instead.

However… the production of bell peppers for the mass market requires large amounts of pesticides and chemicals.  It’s one of the “dirtiest” vegetables you can buy.  If this is a concern for you, growing clean and pesticide-free peppers may outweigh any lackluster financial returns.

(By Nicole Castle)