The Nickel Pincher: Plant a Salsa Garden!

Give yourself a steady, summer-long supply of the healthiest condiment in your kitchen.

June 29, 2011

Kick your salsa up a notch with homegrown hot peppers.

What do you think the best-selling condiment in the U.S. is? If you guessed ketchup…you'd be wrong. Second only to mayo, salsa is now number two on the list of must-have condiments in American kitchens. That's great, because salsa is one of the lowest calorie, healthiest dips or toppings you can add to your dinner, but what's not great is that most salsas aren't organic.

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So make your own! Or, more specifically, grow your own. Salsa ingredients are easy to grow, and since you don't need a lot of veggies to whip up a cup or two, you can grow plenty of the ingredients for your own summer enjoyment, even if all the garden space you have is a patio or balcony.

What to Plant

Look for organic seeds or seedlings of the following at your local nursery.

Tomatoes A single tomato plant is likely to produce all the salsa makings you can use. Select an Italian plum variety such as Roma, as there is less juice and more tasty, firm meat.

Peppers One or two pepper plants should produce plenty of flavorful fruits for salsa-making. If you prefer a very mild salsa, select a bell pepper plant and a mildly hot pepper, such as an Anaheim, so you can adjust the heat to your liking. For a medium salsa, go just with Anaheims, and for a hot salsa, plant an Anaheim and a very hot pepper, such as a serrano, a habenero, or even a Scotch bonnet for a really fiery blend.

Onions Onions are easy to grow from sets (small bulbs), if you can find some at your local garden store. Recipes usually call for mature onions, but you can also use immature green onions as a fresh and colorful (and much faster) option.

Garlic. Typically planted in late fall or very early spring, with the bulbs harvested in June, garlic doesn't fit well with the timing of an annual salsa garden. But you can plant cloves anytime and they'll sprout, providing you with chive-like green tops that you can add to any salsa recipe. This is a great use for garlic that has started to sprout on the kitchen counter.

Cilantro Start with one plant and one packet of seeds, as you will need to keep planting a few every few weeks for a continuous supply.

Tomatillos These tomato-like fruits, with their tangy lime flavor, grow in papery husks and look like greenish or greenish-purple tomatoes that ripen to a pale yellow.

Where to Plant

If you don't have enough garden space available, try container gardening. Your plants will thrive in any container that has drain holes in the bottom. A single large container should be enough for your entire salsa garden—a 2-cubic-foot planter or a 16-inch (diameter) pot will fit your tomato plant, two pepper plants, onions, cilantro and garlic sprouts. Or use multiple small ones, if that's all you have on hand. You can even skip the container entirely and just plant right in the bag the potting mix comes in.

If you go with individual containers, select a 14-inch-diameter pot for tomatoes. Those hold about 4.5 gallons of potting mix, which is what tomatoes require. Pepper and tomatillo plants need 10-inch-diameter pots that hold about 2.5 gallons of mix. Onions, garlic, and cilantro can be grown in individual pots as small as 6 inches across.

Put your container, or containers, in a location where it will get full sun for most or all of the day; onions and cilantro will tolerate partial shade, but the others need at least seven or eight hours of full sun a day. Then, fill them within an inch of the top with an organic potting mix. (Note the order: Place big containers before you fill them because filled containers are heavy!)

How to Plant

If you're using a single large container, here's how to organize your plants:

Evenly space your tomato, pepper, and tomatillo plants in the middle, setting the root ball of each into the potting mix deep enough so it's covered completely. Tomatoes, especially if they are long and skinny, can be planted very deeply, right up to the top four leaves or so. And when you're at the nursery picking up plants, get a few 4- to 5-foot wooden stakes for each tomato or pepper plant you're buying (or just use branches or poles you have lying around). Push a stake next to each plant as deeply as possible to help them grow and stay healthy.

Plant onion sets about an inch apart near the edges of the container. When you start to see green shoots, pull out every other bulb for green onions. As the others make small bulbs, pull out every other one again, leaving the remaining ones about 4 inches apart to grow into big onions (onions are edible at any stage). Plant individual garlic cloves the same way, but harvest the greens by clipping them off with a pair of scissors and letting them resprout a time or two before running out of steam.

Plant cilantro near the edge. Then, about every two weeks, plant two seeds in a different spot at least 8 inches away from the previous planting. With luck, by the time you use up all the leaves on the first plant, the next planting will have enough leaves ready to harvest (the leaves on the stalk will be tasty until they turn yellow and start to dry out). Keep making new cilantro plantings until about six weeks before cold weather sets in.

Water your newly planted salsa garden slowly and completely until the potting mix is evenly moist and a little water comes out the drain holes. From then on, water as needed, which may be every day or even twice a day in very hot, dry weather, aiming to keep the soil moist but not soggy, at all times.

Now sit back and wait! You could be making your very own homemade and homegrown salsa in as little as a few weeks, and almost certainly within about six.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every week with Rodale News.

For more summer gardening tips from the Nickel Pincher, see:

6 Easy Ways to Keep Your Garden Tools in Great Shape
Growing and Eating Edible Flowers
Holiday Gifts from Summer Gardens

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