Owen Pidgeon's tips on growing capsicums and chillies in Canberra

Owen Pidgeon
If you plant your capsicums and chillies in pots now, you could enjoy dishes such as stuffed capsicums later in the summer.
If you plant your capsicums and chillies in pots now, you could enjoy dishes such as stuffed capsicums later in the summer. Photo: Getty Images

The wonderful colours of capsicums and chillies present those living in the cooler regions of Australia with a challenge. They originated in the central and south American tropical zones. The earliest records can date them back to more than 8000 years with seeds found in Mexican settlements. The Aztecs grew the hot peppers and they were also being grown for millennia in Ecuador.

Christopher Columbus had a real botanical focus in his explorations, discovering both the hot peppers and the sweet capsicums. Spain was to benefit first from this age of exploration in the late  15th century but traders would spread the seeds across western Europe and then into central Europe in the following decades.

Chilli powder is used extensively nowadays across the globe. South-east Asian dishes are spicy, as are Indian and Latin American cuisines. Cayenne, jalapeno and habanero are all very hot chillies to be used sparingly.

Hungary became famous for the manufacture of paprika and this spice has become one of the top five used in cooking around the world. I have had the privilege of visiting the central market hall in Budapest. The market stands close to the university and not far from the Danube River, on Vamhaz korut. Many stalls display a wide variety of the wonderful paprika, some sweet and some much stronger. Paprika is made by grinding down dried peppers. Almas paprika peppers are bright red in colour but have quite a thin skin which will dry well. The thick-walled bell capsicums are not the best for drying.

Capsicums and chillies love sunshine and hot weather and really need a long, hot summer to produce an abundant crop. In the mountain regions, such as Canberra, you will have needed a hothouse to get seeds to germinate already. They do not grow into such a large bush, with most plants only growing to 80 centimetres in height and you can space them 50 centimetres apart. Every home garden should be able to find enough space for a few of these colourful plants.

Take a few minutes now and pop down to your local garden centre to select some strong-looking, well-established seedlings. They will still take two to three months to begin producing a good harvest. Prepare the garden bed or pot and position them in a sunny spot.

Select some unusual varieties which are now available. Marconi red is a mild Italian heirloom capsicum. Corno di Toro (bulls horn) is another sweet capsicum growing to a long taper and becoming either bright red or yellow when fully mature.

The golden calwonder is a bright-yellow version of the well known Californian Wonder bell capsicum. Chocolate beauty is a very productive, disease-resistant capsicum with thick sweet flesh. You can add to salads, use it to make stuffed capsicums or add to stir-fry dishes. Purple beauty is another lovely bell-shaped capsicum with a crisp texture and sweet flavour. It also is a very productive variety that can add to your garden collection.

All capsicums and chilli plants will establish quite a deep root structure, so prepare a deep garden bed and dig in plenty of organic matter and compost before planting. Add in some slow release organic fertiliser too. Do not apply high nitrogen fertilisers or else you will end up with a very bushy plant with little fruit. As with tomatoes, they need regular watering but they do need to have good drainage. It is important not to have the plants become waterlogged.

Mulch around the plants and fix stakes to support the more vigorous varieties if they set a large crop of capsicums. The more colour the fruit develops, the sweeter will be the capsicum. Keep regularly picking your fully ripe capsicums to aid the continuation of the flowering and fruiting process.

Also remember that the capsicum family can live on for much longer periods than tomatoes. If you have time and a warm winter sheltered location, you can pot up all your capsicum and chilli plants before the frosts set in and maintain them over the winter months. This will give you well established plants in 12 months' time.

Hungarian goulash.

Photo: Getty Images

Hungarian goulash

1 kg lean beef
500g bacon pieces
2 large onions, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
3 red bell capsicums, sliced
2 tbsp tomato paste
½ litre beef stock
500g Roma tomatoes, diced
2 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage
2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbsp chopped sweet marjoram
1 tbsp caraway seeds
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups apple juice or cider
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 Rome beauty apples, peeled and diced

Heat a heavy based roasting pan (or Dutch oven) with olive oil. Cut the beef into chunky segments and brown in the pan, then set aside. Saute the bacon and then the onion and garlic, and set aside. Cook the capsicums for around 2 minutes then add in the beef, bacon and onions. Add the tomato paste and beef stock and cook for a further 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and seasonings and bring the goulash to a gentle simmer. Pour in the apple juice, cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the cover and add the potatoes. Simmer for a further 15 minutes. Then add the diced apple and cook gently for another 10-15 minutes. If the goulash is a little thin, thicken with 1 tablespoon of corn flour premixed in a half a cup of water and gently cook for an further two minutes.

Serve in individual bowls, garnish with sour cream, accompany with diced cucumbers and crusty bread.

This week in the garden

* Plant out sweet corn with beans planted between each row to provide extra nitrogen for the corn as it grows tall in the summer days.

* Plant rows of beetroot, radish, carrot and parsnip. Take care to spread the seeds thinly and keep moist until they germinate.

* Aim to finish planting out all those spreading vegetables that will need lots of time and space to grow: pumpkins, squash and zucchinis. Provide rich, deep garden beds for them to spread their roots into the nutrients.

* Take some time in the cool of the evening to search for and remove slugs, slaters and snails from salad vegetables and strawberry plants.

* Check for the appearance of pear and cherry slug on your trees. Spray with natural pyrethrum before the leaves become skeletonised.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.