Growing Your Own Salsa Garden
A few years back I decided to grow Thanksgiving dinner for my family (minus the turkey). It was satisfying and delicious, but a little ridiculous to spend an entire garden season focused on one meal. Growing a complete food experience, however, is fun. If you want to give it a try, I have a suggestion: don’t grow Thanksgiving dinner, grow a salsa garden instead!
Salsa is perfect summer garden fare, relying on the freshest tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. And, as any gardener knows, the best way to get fresh is to grow your own. Plus, what better way to enjoy summer—and to enjoy your garden—than by relaxing with some home-grown salsa, chips, and a cool beer or cocktail. You might get hooked on this salsa gardening thing.
Here’s what you need to know.
Site Selection and Planning
Salsa plants are sun-loving plants. You’ll need an area about four feet by four feet that gets enough direct sun—eight hours a day. The soil should be well draining and amended with organic matter, but don’t go overboard with nitrogen (this will lead to more leaves and less fruit on your tomatoes and peppers).
You’ll be growing plants of different heights, so you’ll want to locate the tallest—the tomatoes—in the back or the center of the bed. Figure out what angle your sunlight is coming from, where the shadows will be cast, and site your plants accordingly.
Summer is for tomatoes, and so is salsa. While you can make salsa with any ripe tomato, there are certain cultivars that are better suited to the task. Any paste-type tomato will give you a good amount of flesh and not too many seeds—try Juliet, Roma, San Marzano, or Amish paste. Indeterminate types of tomatoes will allow for an ongoing harvest (though they must be staked and supported). A determinate type of tomato will give a large harvest all at once (those are better grown with tomato cages). If you want to make large batches of salsa—for canning, or for a particular event—you might prefer determinate tomatoes.
If you start early enough in the year, you can grow tomatoes from seed (begin six weeks before you last frost date). But in late spring and summer, you’ll need to buy starts from the nursery or garden store. The later in the season it is, the larger a plant you’ll want to buy. In early May, it’s fine to buy a four-inch seedling, but by late June or early July, go for a full-sized plant so you don’t miss the season. Plant your tomatoes 18-24 inches apart, adding a bit of fertilizer and bone meal to each planting hole, and give each about one inch of water a week.
Peppers run the gamut in terms of heat and sweetness. While Jalapeños are a classic choice for salsa, you could go spicier with Serrano or Habanero, or milder with Anaheim. You can also mix peppers and grow a variety. Plant each pepper plant 8-12 inches apart and water one inch a week throughout the summer. You can get a better yield from peppers if you snip out the growing tip when the plant has eight to ten leaves. Cut just above a pair of leaves and this will cause the pepper to branch out and become bushier, with more flowers and fruit. We recommend these bypass pruners for small-scale trimming.
An essential part of salsa, onions are a little trickier to grow. You can start them by planting onion sets in the spring—or by starting seeds indoors in January or February. Select a day-neutral variety, which will begin to bulb when the sunlight hits 12-14 hours a day (good varieties are Candy Crisp, Sweet Red and Cimarron). If you live in a climate with a mild winter, you can plant day-neutral onions the prior fall, but you need to be thinking very far ahead to be that organized.
Because most people are not planning their summer garden the fall before, there are a few shortcuts to get to onions for your salsa. Bunching onions or green onions grow fast and can be planted later in the season. You can start from seed or onion sets, just keep them well watered and fertilize, as they are heavy feeders.
A final shortcut—one that became popular in the pandemic and is still continuing—is the practice of cutting off the bottom inch and roots from any scallions or green onions you buy from the store and replanting them in your garden or in a pot or window box. If kept well-watered, they will sprout and grow. These produce greens more than a bulb, but when chopped up they give salsa that onion flavor that you need (just snip off the greens and use those).
Garlic is also tricky because, like onions, it is planted the autumn before. If you don’t have garlic in the ground already, never fear. You can get a good garlic flavor by growing garlic chives—sometimes called Chinese chives or Nira (their Japanese name). These chives look like grass, flattened and broad (unlike European chives that grow round and hollow), and produce lovely white flowers on a long stalk. Chopped up, they will give that garlic zing.
If you want to grow traditional garlic, it is possible to plant it in the spring—but the bulbs will be smaller and may not form cloves (a certain amount of cold weather is required for that). Short season garlic is called green garlic and looks like a tiny leek with a small rounded bulb, the flavor will be milder but true.
Another shortcut is to plant any garlic cloves from your kitchen that might have started to sprout. Again, they won’t produce fully formed bulbs, but you can get garlic flavor that way.
It’s easy to think of cilantro as a warm-season crop, because it is used so frequently in cuisines from warm climates, like Mexico and Vietnam. But cilantro prefers cool temperatures and will bolt and produce flowers and seeds in warm weather (this is not an awful thing; those seeds are the spice coriander and can be dried and used for cooking or to plant again for next year).
It’s best to grow a cilantro bred to prevent this, which will be labeled slow-bolt. You can also reduce bolting by growing cilantro in a cooler, partially shady area of your garden (or in a pot that can be moved into the shade when the temperatures rise). It’s also good to plant in succession—starting a new crop every three weeks throughout the summer, so you have new leaves coming on when the older ones are going to seed. Finally, cut the cilantro leaves when they are short, about three inches, and don’t let them get tall and leggy.
You can grow all these items together in combined garden bed, or in separate pots on a terrace or balcony. The onions. garlic, and cilantro will be fine in a planter or window box—especially if you are growing bunching onions—but the tomatoes will need larger pots (at least five gallons). Make sure to use good potting soil and a bit of fertilizer—and monitor the moisture level, as containers always dry out faster than in-ground plantings.
You might find you like salsa gardening so much that you want to branch out in new directions. Instead of tomatoes, try a green salsa with tomatillos, which will be tangy and refreshing. Just make sure to plant two tomatillo plants, in order to get proper pollination.
Here’s to summer, here’s to salsa! Time to get that garden going.