It's officially summer and party season for us and our vegetables, not least the capsicum - a slow bloomer worth the wait, says Mat Pember.
December's here and we've shifted into another gear. It's summer and that means not only has the heat cranked up, but life has too: it's party time - for us and the veggie patch. It can be a juggling act managing the planting opportunities of the new season with a busy social calendar, but being proactive with mulching, staking and watering will give summer-loving crops such as capsicum the best chance to thrive.
A member of the Solanaceae family, which includes chilli, eggplant and tomato, capsicum is best planted once the soil temperature is stable at a balmy 20C plus. Much like its cousins, capsicum is a heat-loving variety, but that doesn't mean it enjoys baking in the sun without refreshment.
Capsicum requires well-drained soil that has been integrated with compost and chook-poo pellets before planting for a hit of nitrogen to get started. Or, if the last of your nitrogen-fixing broad beans have just hit the dinner table, plant capsicum where they once stood.
Afford them the hottest part of your patch to accelerate the ripening of the fruit when the time comes, but keep them protected from wind, which will throw the plants around and dry them out. If they're planted in an exposed position, consider installing a windbreak or stake them once planted.
Space seedlings 20 to 30 centimetres apart and expect casualties from the heat. Thin out to 40 to 50 centimetres four to six weeks after planting so healthy plants have room to mature. In summer, hydration is critical and young seedlings need regular watering to get established. Give them splashes daily, or twice daily if it's particularly hot. Time the second watering for the tea-break in the cricket and be careful not to wet the foliage - it may burn in the sun.
Once planted, mulch with pea straw, lucerne hay or sugar cane; this not only holds moisture in the soil, regulates temperature and bullies out competing weeds, it also provides nutrition as it breaks down. Mulch to a depth of three to five centimetres, keeping a few centimetres clear around the stems, as capsicums are prone to stem rot.
After a month, the seedlings will start to find their feet and watering can be cut back to two to three times a week. While the frequency of watering is reduced, the volume of water is increased. Giving the soil a good soak, and then allowing it to almost dry, encourages the roots to reach for water, creating a stronger plant.
By the third month, flowers should start to appear and the long wait for a vine-ripened capsicum begins. Give plants an application of liquid potash to help them develop and, while you're at it, check the mulch levels and staking. The summer heat can be a killer, but with the right care and watering, your plants will go nuts. Check, secure and reinforce regularly.
As the fruit develops, your patience will be tested; capsicums take a month or so to form fully and even longer to reach their ripened colour. It can be a frustrating wait, but you'll appreciate the price difference between red and green capsicums.
The plants will produce for an extended period - sometimes well into winter - but the rate of production and ripening will get even slower as the temperature cools. Rather than rip out the plant and start again next season, cut it right back to the main stem and strongest offshoots, and leave it in the ground. Once the soil warms up again next spring, it will re-shoot and take up where it left off, but a little stronger, a little hardier and a little better - if not faster - at producing.
One-minute skills: choosing the right pot
As potted gardening becomes more popular - through necessity often rather than choice - many people make the mistake of planting into pots that are too small. It's an easy trap to fall into, but the herb you just bought in a 100-millimetre pot shouldn't find its new home in a similarly tiny pot. Here's some advice on choosing pots. Other than saving space and money, small pots present few benefits, particularly for the plant itself. Without enough room to spread its wings (or, more appropriately, its roots) it will quickly become pot-bound and stunted. it may look awkward at first - much like your child's first pair of school shoes - but seedlings need to find homes in pots large enough to let them realise their full potential. It's a sliding scale: a 30-centimetre pot will see your herb happy for a year; a 50-centimetre pot a lifetime. A larger growing space gives the plant more opportunity to draw in enough nutrition and moisture to really take flight. And with your plants happy, you will be too.