Michelle Byrne Walsh is an editor at State-by-State Gardening, a master gardener and a member of the Garden Writers Association.

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Grow a Salsa Garden—Everything but Tortilla Chips
by Michelle Byrne Walsh       #Recipes

If you are a salsa fan, you can grow an edible garden designed specifically to make this spicy sauce. Tomatoes, tomatillos, hot or sweet peppers, onions, cilantro—you can grow it all.

It was the first garden that actually made me drool. I stood in front of this 10-foot round vegetable and herb garden wishing I had a bag of tortilla chips. It was a salsa garden — a veritable earthen bowl of everything you need to make juicy homemade tomato salsa.

Numex Joe Parker Pepper

Although this salsa garden made me hungry, it was colorful and gorgeous, too — filled with red, ripe tomatoes, purple tomatillos, red onions, bunches of lime-green cilantro, deep green jalapenos and beautiful Mexican black beans. Mexican-hued flowers spiced up the fringes with saturated yellows, oranges and reds. But I didn’t find this wonderful theme garden in Mexico or even Texas—this was in the Midwest.

A couple summers ago, the Master Gardeners from the McHenry County, Illinois, office of the University of Illinois Extension planted a productive, multihued salsa garden. The salsa garden was planted in a circular bed that had previously been the site of a pizza-themed garden (a round bed divided in “slices” planted with tomatoes, onions, peppers and pizza herbs).

For added “flavor,” the Master Gardeners also planted ‘Persian Carpet’ zinnias for south-of-the-border color and used decorations featuring the Aztec Sun god and a sundial with Mexican-styled artwork.

Give it Sun, Water and Good Soil

To plant a salsa garden, you first need to ensure that the bed has everything vegetables and herbs require — good soil with adequate drainage, full sun, and easy access to a water supply for frequent watering. But you aren’t limited to a round shape. You could make your salsa garden unique and shape it like a giant jalapeno pepper, or you could make it resemble the Aztec Sun god or whatever suits you. Or you could go traditional and just use your existing raised beds. The colors and textures will tell their tale of Mexico.

Start Salsa-ing Now

If you are starting your own salsa garden right now in early June, you’ll need to buy plants at the garden center for an earlier harvest. Tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos take some time to grow.

When buying vegetable plants, be sure to check the “days to harvest” tags to coordinate your harvest. For instance, some tomatoes take 75 days to mature from transplant date. So you’d also want your tomatillos, peppers and onions to have roughly that 75-day-to-harvest window.

Also be aware that cilantro doesn’t like hot weather. Some cultivars are noted because they are “slow to bolt” (bolt means flowering and going to seed). By keeping cilantro from bolting, you extend the harvest and keep it going strong (without going to seed) until the tomatoes are ripe.

If you start onions from sets or transplants (not seeds) they will likely be ready to pick by August, around the time the tomatoes ripen. Be sure not to plant them too deeply, and make sure the tips are poking through the soil. Give them enough water and some fertilizer. The stalks will fall over and turn brown when the onions are mature. This usually happens mid to late summer.

The McHenry County Master Gardeners also included the colorful ‘Mitla Black’ Tepary beans (mostly for its color) and stiffneck garlic in their salsa themed planting. Garlic is often an ingredient in salsa, and garlic can be grown successfully in Chicagoland. However, garlic should be planted in the fall, because it needs cold treatment to produce large bulbs. You could try to plant stiffneck garlic (which is suited for northern climates) now, in the spring, but the bulbs will be very small.

Remember, there’s no wrong way to salsa. If you hate hot peppers use bell peppers. If you don’t like strong onions buy supermarket sweet onions and grow chives instead. Try tomatillos just for fun. Oregano (a perennial) or parsley can be nice additions, too. Variety is the spice of life — and salsa.

The Salsa Garden ‘Recipe’

The following are the varieties you might consider for your own salsa garden. All need full sun and adequate moisture: 

Paste or other meaty tomatoes Lycopersicon esculentum
Ropreco, 75-85 days.
Roma, 75 days.
Amish Paste, 80 days.
Health Kick, 75 days, has higher lycopene (antioxidant) content.
Viva Italia, 80 days. 

Serrano Pepper

Hot Peppers Capsicum annuum
Jalapeno Chile, thick-walled green fruits ripen to red, 70 days.
Purple Jalapeno, a purple variety, 75 days.
Garden Salsa, 8-inch long fruits, 73 days.
Serrano, a long, pointed hot chili, 75 days.
Habanero, (C. chinense) one of the hottest, 90 days.

Bell Peppers Capsicum annuum
Bell Boy, goes green to red, 70 days.
Lady Bell, green to red, 70 days.
Purple Belle, a purple bell, 70 days. 

Tomatillos Physalis ixocarpa 
Tomatillos have the same cultural requirements as tomatoes—full sun, moist, fertile soils. Tomatillos usually are ready to harvest in 75 to 100 days after transplanting. For best flavor, harvest the fruit when the husk changes from green to tan while the berry is still green.
Purple De Milpa, deep purple fruits. 
Toma Verde, green 2-inch fruits. 

Cilantro Coriandrum sativum
Santo, also known as ‘Slow Bolt’ cilantro, is bred for maximum leaf production without bolting, 55 days.
Delfino won the All-America Selection in 2006 for its fern-like foliage and the fact it is later to bolt, 50-55 days.

Onion Allium cepa
Transplanting young onion seedlings is the method that most regularly produces large, dry, attractive onions. Most will be mature by August.
Red Burgermaster, bright red with red and white flesh.
Ebenezer, a yellow onion.
Stuttgarter, a yellow onion 

Easy Homemade Salsa 

5 ripe Roma or other paste tomatoes, diced 
1/2 of a medium white onion, finely diced
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, diced
1 handful chopped cilantro
1 tsp. salt 
Juice of one lime 

Combine all ingredients and refrigerate a few hours before serving.

Garlic (spring-planted cloves produce small bulbs)
Music, hardneck, large white bulbs
Rocambole, hardneck, off-white and purple stripes
Porcelain, hardneck, white skin 

Add Extra Color from Flowers:
Persian Carpet Zinnia (Zinnia haageana), bi-colored dwarf Mexican zinnia with double blooms.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), an edible flower in yellows, oranges and reds, tastes peppery. Sow seeds directly.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis), an edible flower, tastes spicy, peppery. In yellows and oranges.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Byrne Walsh


Posted: 06/24/13   RSS | Print


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