This is the time of year for vegetables that like it hot and when it comes to heat, chillies love to both give and take, says Mat Pember.
The final throes of the warm season bring out the true lovers of heat, and the chilli is a summer pro. Chillies derive their spice from capsaicinoids and the intensity is measured by Scoville heat units (SHU), but no one pays too much attention to the specific ratings. There are mild ones, hot ones, those that tingle the back of your eyeballs, and those that seem to threaten your survival and could send you to an asylum.
Chillies demand a hot, sun-drenched space, preferably up against a north-facing wall to capture extra warmth. But don't let their infatuation with heat lead you to neglect their basic needs; like any other plant they require free-draining soil and adequate watering to cope with the baking.
Enrich the soil with compost and chook-manure pellets before planting and space the seedlings 20 to 30 centimetres apart. Given the time of year, plants will need daily watering, maybe even twice daily if conditions are hot (see below). It also pays to mulch immediately after planting, so apply sugar cane, pea straw or lucerne hay to a depth of two to five centimetres to help reduce evaporation by locking in moisture. Ensure you keep the mulch away from the stem of the seedlings as they are prone to stem rot.
If your patch is exposed to the hot summer winds, strong gusts can throw the plants about and play havoc with their root systems. It's therefore worthwhile staking the plants or installing a windbreak. This could be as complicated as building a small structure or as simple as leaving the double-pram parked wind side of the plants.
Once the chillies are settled - three to four weeks after planting - thin out the seedlings to a spacing of 40 to 60 centimetres and cut back the frequency of the water, but increase the volume.
A deeper soaking of the patch will send the roots in search of these reserves and form a stronger plant. This is where drip watering systems really earn their keep - by applying water directly to the root zone and penetrating deep into the soil. And when you're on holiday, they're much more reliable than your teenagers or busy neighbours.
After a couple of months, your plants should be sprouting little flowers that develop into little bullets of spice. Those well versed in chilli production believe the hot ones shoot skyward in search of sun to intensify their heat, but don't be fooled by those that hang. The birdseye, for example, chases the sun, but according to Scoville rates only 100,000 to 250,000 SHU. The bhut jolokia, meanwhile, comes in at 1,041,427. This chilli does not point skywards.
As the first flowers appear, apply liquid potash to help promote the forming of the fruit and production of more flowers. Green chillies form quickly, but ripening may take another month or more. Earlier in the season, ripening occurs relatively quickly and then begins to slow down as the weather cools into autumn.
Pick chillies individually with sharp nails or sharp scissors. I can't tell you the number of times I've hastily gone to harvest them but dislodged an entire branch with multiple flowers hanging onto it. Sadly, these guys will never realise their potential.
In the right position a chilli plant can survive the cooler months and still hold fruit - but they'll take an eternity to ripen. Rather than let the plant suffer like this, cut it back to a bare skeleton to hibernate over winter. When warmer temperatures return, the plant will shoot new growth and away we go again.
One-minute skills: hot-day watering
February is a month for heatwaves, so how should you handle watering your plants when they're wilting and barely surviving? Well, the first thing to do is to keep a cool head. As much as it might seems like the logical thing to do, refrain from submerging your patch in a torrent of water. Instead, here are some tips on how hydrate your plants effectively.
1 When your vegetables are flagging under the duress of the mid-summer heat, they appreciate a drink but it must be administered correctly. Leaving the plant's leaf matter wet and sitting under direct sunlight is akin to giving it a drink and then setting it on fire. Water droplets can magnify under the intense light and burn the plant.
2 Make sure to keep the water stream low and directed over the root zone. This is where it's best used and where plants need water most. To avoid any catastrophes, you could wait until the sun has subsided, however, this should not change you strategy. Repeat after me: aim low and apply to the root zone.