As the summer months approach, fresh garden salsa becomes in hot demand. After all, nothing tops the flavor that salsa from homegrown tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic creates. However, growing a salsa garden can be complex. How should you approach creating a garden that must provide for so many different types of herbs and vegetables? To answer this question, I’ve created a growing guide to address each aspect of the project, from pre-planning your garden to plant selection! Let’s dive in.
When I began my journey as a gardener, the idea of going into my garden, gathering my ingredients, and creating my favorite salsa was a huge goal. From my earliest days of growing plants, I built my gardens with an eye towards that idea. In this article, I am going to give an in-depth breakdown of all the lessons I have learned from my successes and failures in the pursuit of growing perfect garden salsa.
To begin, we need to start at the most important aspect of our project- planning!
To begin growing your new salsa garden, keeping some thoughtful preparations in mind will make the operation easier and smoother. In order to grow the maximum amount of produce to make your glorious salsa, you’ll need to pick the right plants to increase your success. Let’s start by identifying the key ingredients for making a great salsa garden.
To preface, there are other ingredients, like salt and lime juice, that are highly recommended for making a well balanced salsa. I will be focusing on the ingredients that we can grow, to a reasonable degree of availability, in our gardens.
Key Ingredients: Tomatoes, Peppers, Onions, Garlic, and Herbs.
The selection of plants for your salsa garden is an essential first step. For your tomatoes, let’s examine the characteristics you’ll need for your salsa.
Sungold Hybrid variety.
Tomatoes are the base of any delectable salsa. Due to the immense variety of tomatoes to choose from, determining the characteristics that would be most beneficial to making salsa is vitally important. Over my experience of growing tomatoes for salsa, I have found that the best characteristics for the salsa garden are:
1: medium-large size fruits
2: high productivity
3: meaty, with little seeds and juice
Focusing on these key characteristics will help us narrow our choices to plants that will increase our success in the garden. For our first requirement, finding tomatoes within the medium-large fruit size range is not difficult. There are dozens of varieties, like the Cherokee Purple or Gold Medal, that produce tomatoes anywhere from 8 ounces to 3 pounds. However, we are going to want to keep the other requirements in mind while deciding on a tomato. Since we are also looking for high productivity in our salsa garden, larger heirloom tomatoes may take too long to develop and produce, and won’t give us the results we need for a salsa garden on their own.
Rather, there exist varieties that have heavy and quick output. These tomatoes are considered determinant, meaning they will put out all of their fruit in 1-2 predictable flushes. In order to meet our first and second requirements, I would highly suggest incorporating more determinate varieties into your garden to get a large yield of tomatoes quickly.
For our last requirement, tomatoes with hardy interiors and little pulp are going to be the most ideal for making salsa with. With this in mind, I have found success year after year by growing the determinant plum tomato “Roma” and the indeterminate “Black Krim” together. The flavor combination is remarkable, and the high productivity of the determinant plants paired with the season-long producing indeterminates makes for a summer filled with salsa!
Now that we picked out our tomatoes, let’s find a pepper!
Habanero pepper variety.
Peppers give salsa its signature spice that has defined the food for centuries. Like tomatoes, pepper varieties are diverse and have endless differences in flavor and heat. To whittle down the broad list of options, let’s consider exactly what we need from our peppers.
Your pepper needs to:
1: meet your desired level of spice
2: Carry the flavor profile you want
Not all peppers are created equal, and you need to evaluate the pepper options you have to find the right fit for your salsa garden. The first thing to consider is the level of heat that you’d like your salsa to be. A good resource to learn about different pepper’s spice levels is their Scoville score, which describes how hot an individual pepper is. To fully understand Scoville, compare the number associated with the pepper you’re looking for (for example, Carolina Reapers have a 1.5M Scoville score) to a pepper you are familiar with (like a Jalapeno, which has a 2,500-8,000 Scoville score), and choose according to your desired heat level.
For the last requirement for our pepper, finding the perfect flavor of fruit is dependent on what kind of salsa you are going for. For example, you can select a more smokey pepper, like a Poblano, for a roasted flavor in your salsa. Meeting this requirement can be the difference between a more traditional garden salsa to a flavor entirely unique to yourself, which is why I think it’s such an important detail to consider.
Based on these requirements, the Serrano pepper is an excellent choice for including in your salsa garden. This pepper is definitely more spicy than a Jalapeno, but is not as devastatingly hot as a Habanero or Ghost pepper. I would implore you to also research the Carolina Reaper peppers and the Ancho peppers as an option for those seeking a less common taste to their salsa.
Now that we have narrowed down our pepper search, let’s look at some herbs for our salsa!
Lettuce Leaf Basil variety.
Salsa can take on many different forms. Choosing the right herbs for your salsa garden can be the fine touch that separates your homemade salsa from the rest. To begin, let’s discuss one hallmark herb for salsas. Cilantro, a favorite for many Latin dishes, is the staple herb for most salsas. It gives salsa an accent of spice that pairs well with the heat from your peppers.
Contrary to popular belief, cilantro can be difficult to grow in the summer due to the high temperature outdoors. This caught me off guard when I first learned about it, as I always associated cilantro with heat. In my experience with growing salsa gardens, I’ve found that cilantro does best in a nice, sunny windowsill. Outdoor planting is possible, but you must plant it in a shady area. With that in mind, let’s not forget that there are other herbs that are great in salsa.
Purple basil, cumin, and tarragon are all examples of savory herbs that can greatly increase the unique flavor of your salsa. Herbs can provide a twist of fresh flavor to the salsa, so be adventurous and experiment! If you’re going for a touch of lemon in your salsa, try Lemon Balm or Lemon Verbena to dramatically change the taste of your garden salsa.
Onions and Garlic
Onions and garlic, while essential for the salsa garden, have drastically different growing requirements. These two vegetables are root crops, meaning the primary use of the plant is derived from its roots. Because the roots are the part of the crop that we want to use, we are going to have to pull them out of the ground to harvest them.
While that is completely fine for the onions and garlic, the other plants in your salsa garden will likely respond poorly to the disruption of the root system. Keeping this in mind, I always plant my root crops in a container separate from the other plants. This will keep the soil of the salsa garden intact, which is important for the health of your plants.
Now that we have our plants picked out for our salsa garden, let’s plan out where we want to plant them.
Finding the perfect location on your property to build your salsa garden can be difficult. To best approach this, we need to begin by identifying what a salsa garden needs from a space to grow at its maximum potential. Since our garden will be made up of sun-loving crops, we are first going to find a location that receives 6+ hours of direct sunlight per day. Using a sun map, like the online resource SunCalc, will help you find the exact path of the sun to best map out your salsa garden.
The environment that you’re gardening in can be your greatest ally, if you use the layout of the property wisely. Look out for big obstructions, like trees or hedges, when building your garden. These can block out sunlight from your plants, causing them to be less productive and healthy.
For gardeners who are looking to build a salsa garden indoors, the requirements are going to be slightly different than those for outdoor gardening. The two primary challenges I’ve faced in the past with indoor gardening have been related to space and light. While these are extra challenges, they are by no means impossible to overcome.
In order to get the quality tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients we need for salsa, you’ll first need to create a space for your garden, and provide enough light to feed the plants. Getting a quality grow light can be a fantastic investment for the indoor gardener. I had success using the Unit Farm UF1000 LED Plant Grow Lights in the past.
To solve the problem of space for your salsa garden, a vertical space of 2-4 feet will be the optimal height for your garden to flourish. In an indoor setting, I find that hydroponic gardening is the most efficient and clean way to grow. However, if you are dead set on growing with soil instead, grow bags and plastic containers will function well with your salsa garden. The VIVOSUN 5-Pack of 5 Gallon Grow Pots have performed well for me indoors in the past.
Now that we have picked the location for our salsa garden, let’s plug in the last piece of the puzzle-our growing method!
“Growing method” refers to the techniques and systems used for growing plants. For instance, growing hydroponically, in raised beds, or directly in-ground are all different growing methods. For growing a salsa garden, the raised bed approach will be the best choice for the tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. Plant your onions and garlic in a separate container garden nearby, to prevent damage to the salsa garden’s roots.
Now that the planning stage has been completed, let’s build our salsa garden!
Building a Salsa Garden
For this guide, I’m going to focus on making an outdoor raised bed. To begin, we need to determine the size of our new garden space. I usually build my beds 4 ft. x 4ft. to best use the space I have. You can build the bed out of almost any material, but I prefer cedar wood due to its durability.
You will need four wooden planks (preferably 6-8 inches in height, 4 feet in length, and 2 inches thick) and 4 connecting pieces to link the wood together at each corner. Kits for building a raised bed, as well as raw materials for the build, can be purchased at most home improvement stores. I’ve used the Greenes Fence Original Pine Raised Garden Bed, 4′ x 4′ x 7” in the past with a lot of success!
The last consideration we need to take for building our salsa garden is the most important-the soil that we are going to fill it with. Building exceptional soil precedes success in the garden. Without a strong foundation, your salsa garden may underperform, which is a big problem for your salsa production.
To build amazing soil, we need to make sure we have the right ingredients going into the bed. Mel’s Mix from Square Foot Gardening is a recipe that I have had a lot of success with over the years. The recipe is:
Peat moss, compost, and vermiculite, in equal proportions.
This will give your salsa garden the elements it needs to be highly productive all season long. Before you go out and purchase a ton of materials, however, there is one last trick you can do that will not only save you money on soil, but will also boost the health of your raised bed.
The trick lies in filling the base of your raised bed with natural materials. To begin, place down some cardboard on the ground where you decided to build your raised bed. Construct the frame of the raised bed, and place it on top of the cardboard. Next, fill the empty bed with organic material like tree branches, compost, and logs. Having these items at the foundation of the bed allows for better water drainage and airflow in the soil. This can help prevent root rot, while simultaneously allowing for deeper watering.
After putting in your soil mix, the last step to building your dream bed is mulching. Properly mulching your bed can usher in a load of benefits that will lead to increased productivity in the garden. The reason mulch is such a powerful tool in the garden has to do with water retention and thermoregulation. Mulch helps maintain healthy soil temperatures in the brutal heat, locks in moisture in the soil, and prevents pathogens in the soil from splashing up onto your plants’ leaves during watering (which can cause disease).
Now that you have laid your mulch, your raised bed is officially ready for your plants!
Growing a salsa garden can be one of the most fun and rewarding activities you do this summer. With endless possibilities for flavor and spice, following the tips in this article is sure to provide you with great salsa that the whole family can enjoy. To review, we discussed the importance of planning out our salsa garden, picking the right plants for salsa production, and constructing the most ideal raised bed for making salsa. With that, good luck growing, and remember to take your gardening journey one day at a time.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.