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Ask a Master Gardener: Growing a Salsa Garden

Garden-fresh salsa ingredients. Photo by Judy Weaver

By: Barbara Boone, Mobile County Master Gardener

Hola! If you are even minimally garden savvy or have a desire to be garden savvy, be aware that garden categories are trending. Of course, the standard garden planted with vegetables and flowers is still in vogue, especially for beginner gardeners; however, we now add Goth Gardens, Moon Gardens, Cottage Gardens, Butterfly Gardens, Meditation Gardens, etc., each focusing on different plants and esthetics. Now supplement that list with the Salsa Garden.

What is a Salsa Garden, you ask? Does it reference Tex Mex cuisine slathered with a tomatoey sauce or a dip for crunchy tortilla chips? Well, you are getting warm. A Salsa Garden is a space to grow plants that can be made into the condiment that complements what we know as Tex Mex food.

Imagining a Salsa Garden first requires some planning decisions:

·         Choose a space either in-ground or in a raised bed that receives at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day and lay out a design for the plants. Note: containers could also be used.

·         Make sure the soil mix is suitable for the plants.

·         Choose plants that grow well in the local grow zone (9a).

·         Choose plants recommended for salsa.

·         Ideally choose plants that according to their seed or seedling descriptions are tolerant to drought and certain pests.

·         Make sure adequate water is available for whatever watering method is used, hand watering or drip irrigation.

Assuming the space has been identified that accommodates the sunlight requirement, soil choice for salsa ingredients is next to consider. Use quality soil that is loamy, provides good drainage, contains organic matter, and ideally has been soil tested. Add about 3 inches of compost. Plant the following and mulch, mulch, mulch! Vamos!

A Salsa Garden should include tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro. If cilantro is not to your liking, substitute parsley or thyme.

Recommended tomatoes, Solanum spp., are paste tomato varieties like Romas because they are small, pear-shaped, and thick-walled, making them ideal for tangy sauces like salsa. Much has been written about growing tomatoes, making them the “superstars” in the garden. Growing tomatoes revolves around daily temperatures between 50-80 degrees, monitoring water consumption, monitoring fertilizer, and controlling pests because pests have their own idea of salsa.

The peppers chosen, Capsicum spp., can be warm to very hot depending on the Scovill Heat Units in each variety. Usually jalapenos are used (2,500-10,000 SHU), but hotter peppers like serrano (10,000-25,000 SHU) or habanero (150,000-325,000 SHU) can be used depending on the degree of heat tolerance. Muy caliente! Peppers like warm temperatures, plenty of water, and routine fertilization.

Onions, Allium spp., can be the scallion variety or, better still, a larger bulbed white type which yields a sharper, more pungent flavor. In the local area 2 varieties have provided good results: Granex and Texas Legend, both short-day onions. Short-day onions need 10 hours of daylight to begin an onion bulb vs. day-neutral onions which will bulb in any amount of daylight. Water and fertilize as usual.

There are 2 main types of garlic, Allium sativa, hard neck and soft neck. Hard neck is most often seen in grocery stores; a good variety of hard neck is German White. Soft neck is recommended for the South. In the local area, 3 soft-neck garlic have provided good results: Thai Purple, Lotus, and Lorz Italian. Mid-to-late fall is an optimal time for Mobile gardeners to plant garlic. Store harvested garlic in a cool but dry location for later use.

Cilantro, Coriandrum sativa, is an annual herb almost synonymous with salsa recipes. This herb grows best in cooler temperatures in early spring or during fall. Cilantro does grow in summer, but there is the chance of bolting, the natural stage of a plant producing seed to reproduce before or at end of harvest. These bolted seeds are known as coriander, also a useful herb. Cilantro grown in the correct temperatures is a low maintenance herb requiring minimal watering and fertilizer.

Now that all salsa ingredients are grown and assembled, the only thing left to do is to make salsa. Mix the following and store in the refrigerator:

6 Roma tomatoes, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

3 T cilantro, minced

½ onion, finely chopped

2 jalapenos, minced

juice of 1 lime

1 T olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Buen provecho!


Epic Gardening, Growing a Salsa Garden, April, 2023

Bill Fink Certified Master Gardener (2021)

Cilantro. Photo by Barbara Boone.

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