Growing a whole food experience is fun. Salsa is the perfect summer garden treat, relying on the freshest tomatoes, peppers and herbs. As any gardener knows, the best way to get fresh is to grow your own. Besides, what better way to enjoy summer and your garden than with home-grown salsa, chips and a cool beer or cocktail? You might get hooked on salsa gardening. The following content also has some reference value for raised garden beds.
Here's what you need to know.
Site selection and planning
Salsa is a plant that likes the sun. You need a place about four feet square, with plenty of direct sunlight for eight hours a day. The soil should be well drained and organic material added, but not excessive nitrogen (which results in more leaves and less fruit on tomatoes and peppers).
You'll be growing plants of different heights, so you'll want to put the tallest -- tomatoes -- at the back or middle of the bed. Figure out which Angle your sunlight is coming from and where the shadows will fall, and arrange your plants accordingly.
Summer is tomato season, and so is salsa. While you can make salsa with any ripe tomato, there are some varieties that are better suited to the task. Any kind of mushy tomato will allow you to get plenty of pulp without too many seeds - try Juliette, Roma, SAN Marzano, or Amish mush. Tomatoes of indeterminate species can be harvested continuously (although they must be staked and supported). A large crop of a particular type of tomato can be harvested all at once (these tomatoes are best grown in tomato cages). If you want to make a large amount of salsa -- for canning, or for a specific event -- you might prefer to use tomatoes.
If you start early enough in the year, you can plant tomatoes from seed (starting six weeks before the last frost date). But in late spring and summer, you'll need to buy from a nursery or garden store. The later in the season, the bigger the plants you want to buy. In early May, buy a four-inch seedling, but in late June or early July, buy a whole plant so you don't miss the season. Plant tomatoes 18 to 24 inches apart, add a little fertilizer and bone meal to each planting hole, and water each hole an inch a week.
Chili peppers have both heat and sweetness. While Jalapenos are a classic choice for salsa, you can opt for a spicier Serrano or Habanero, or a milder Anaheim. You can also plant a mix of peppers. Plant peppers 8 to 12 inches apart per plant and water 1 inch per week throughout the summer. If you cut off the growing tip of a pepper when it has 8 to 10 leaves, you can get a better yield. Make a cut just above the leaf so that the pepper will grow branches and produce more flowers. We recommend these bypass trims for small range trims.
Onions are a big part of salsa, and growing them can be a little tricky. You can start planting Onions in the spring or plant them indoors in January or February. Choose varieties that are neutral during the day and will start to sprout when the sun reaches 12-14 hours a day (good varieties are Candy Crisp, Sweet Red and Cimarone). If you live in a mild winter, you can plant neutral Onions on the previous fall day, but you need to think very long term.
Since most people don't plan their summer garden before fall, here are some shortcuts to getting Onions for your salsa. Bunches of Onions or shallots grow quickly and can be planted later in the season. You can start with seeds or onion plants, just water and fertilize them, as they are a lot of fodder.
A final shortcut - which became popular during the pandemic and continues to do so - is to cut off the bottom inch and roots from store-bought scallions or leeks and replant them in the garden, in POTS, or in window boxes. If watered well, they will sprout and grow. These produce more greens than bulbs, but when they're chopped up, you get the onion flavor you need (just cut the greens off).
Garlic is also tricky because, like Onions, it is planted in the fall. If you don't have garlic in your field yet, don't worry. You can get a great garlic flavor by growing garlic leeks, sometimes called Chinese leeks or Nira(their Japanese name). These chives look like grass, are flat and wide (unlike European chives, which grow round and hollow), and have lovely white flowers on long stems. When it's minced, it's going to taste like garlic.
If you want to plant traditional garlic, plant it in the spring, but the bulbs will be smaller and may not form cloves (this requires a certain amount of cold weather). Short-season garlic, known as green garlic, looks like a small leek with a small round ball and will taste milder but authentic.
Another shortcut is to plant any garlic cloves in the kitchen that may have started to sprout. Again, they don't produce fully formed bulbs, but you can get a garlic flavor this way.
It's easy to think of cilantro as a warm-season crop because it's often used in dishes from warmer climates such as Mexico and Vietnam. But cilantro loves cool temperatures and will sprout and bloom in warm weather (which isn't a terrible thing; These seeds are the spices of cilantro, which can be dried for cooking or replanted the following year).
It's best to grow a type of cilantro that will prevent this from happening, which will be labeled as "slow supposers." You can also reduce bolting by planting cilantro in a shady part of your garden (or moving it to a pot in the shade when temperatures rise). Continuous planting is also good - a crop of new leaves every three weeks throughout the summer, so that new leaves come out when the old ones are sown. Finally, cut off the cilantro leaves when they are short, about 3 inches, and don't let them get too tall and long.
You can plant all of these crops together in a garden bed, or in separate POTS on a patio or balcony. Onions. Garlic and cilantro are fine in POTS or window boxes - especially if you're growing Onions - but tomatoes need larger POTS (at least 5 gallons). Make sure to use good potting soil and a little fertilizer, and monitor humidity levels, as containers will always dry out faster than ground planting.
You may find that you enjoy salsa gardening so much that you want to branch out in new directions. Instead of tomatoes, try a green salsa made with tomatoes for a tangy and refreshing taste. Just make sure to plant two tomato plants for proper pollination.