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Thursday, December 1, 2011

KNOL: How to Grow a Salsa Garden

This entry is a copy from a KNOL I wrote found at Google. Google will be discontinuing the KNOL's platform and I am in the process of storing them on my blog. Please enjoy the article. I have about 50 coming over to this blog.

A video on making salsa. Anyone who can dig a hole can grow a salsa garden. Imagine picking fresh wholesome organic vegetables and herbs that you grew from seeds and transplants.  Now imagine turning them into the world's best  homemade salsa. Can you taste it! Growing a salsa garden brings family and friends together. It is a wonderful way to beat stress and tap your creativity on so many levels.  Let's grow, it is time to get your hands dirty.

How to Grow a Salsa Garden
By Gary Pilarchik LCSW-C

Join My Garden Blog:The Rusted Garden

What is Salsa?

Let's keep it simple. Salsa is a type of sauce originating from Mexico. The basic ingredients include: tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, cilantro and other herbs, fruits, and finally onions or garlic. Many of the items you use to make salsa can be seen above. You can grow what you like and make it how you wish. It can be cooked and chilled or just chopped, blended and served straight from the garden. Salsa is packed with flavor and it's low in calories and fat. So eat all you want but keep an eye on those tortilla chips.

Step One: What Kind of Salsa Do You Like?

It's your garden. What do you want to grow? What do you like in your salsa? Do you like your salsa hot, mild, tangy or even sweet? Maybe you like them all. The first step is to do a little research. Use the list below, read the salsa jar in your refrigerator or search the web. What do you like? There is no wrong answer. It's your garden to create. Garlic, onions, both or no way? Grow what you love and even grow something you have never tasted.
  1. Do you like tomatoes?            
  2. Do you like hot, mild or sweet peppers?    
  3. Do you like the tartness of a tomatillo?
  4. Do you like cilantro?
  5. Do you like basil?
  6. Do you like onions, garlic and chives? 
  7. Do you like fruit chunks in it?       
  8. Do you want it to be colorful as in yellow, orange, purple or red tomatoes?
  9. Do you want the peppers to come in green, yellow, red, orange or purple colors?

Step Two: Where Will You Plant Your Salsa Garden?



You will need to find a spot in your yard that gets 6 or more hours of direct sunlight. The more the better. I recommend 8 hours but don't stress over it. You can never have to much sun in salsa garden. Tomatoes and peppers love the sun and heat. If you are unsure where the best spot is in your yard, look for a spot that gets direct sun from 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening.  If you know what part of your house is the southern exposure then that is the side that will get the most sun.


Garden Size:

The spot you choose should be able to hold a salsa garden that is about 4 ft. x 4 ft. Why? Because that is the perfect size to tend and manage without having to put your feet in the garden. If you stretch out your arms, you will notice you have about a 2 foot reach. You can walk around your garden and reach in to tend the garden without ever stepping on the soil around your plants.  So a 4 ft. x 4 ft. it is. If you just don't have the room then two 2 ft. x 2 ft. plots will work fine. Small but effective.

No Land:

Remember I said a salsa garden brings family and friends together? If you don't have the land to grow a salsa garden, perhaps a family member or friend does. Call them and tell them you will do all the work and split the rewards for the use of their yard. It's a great way to get back in touch with those close to you.
GARDEN TIP ONE: Plants grow best in loose soil. Stepping in the garden compacts the earth and harms the plant's roots.

Step Three: What Will You Grow in Your Salsa Garden?


Pick the Plants:

You decided what you like in salsa. Now it is time to make a list of what you want to grow.  I will use what I like as an example below. Your list is what you will use to build your garden. It will help you determine what you need to buy in the way of seeds and transplants. All of which I will explain. Don't be afraid to add in a few extra herbs.

Plant Limit:

You do have a space limit. Since we are using a 4 ft. x 4 ft. space you will have to follow these guidelines: 2 tomato plants, 2 or 3 pepper plants, and 1 tomatillo plant (if you don't want a tomatillo you can replace it with an additional tomato or pepper plant). Don't worry about the number of herbs or onions. They will get tucked in around the bigger plants.  
    1. Red Tomato
    2. Yellow Tomato
    3. Jalapeno Pepper
    4. Sweet Banana Pepper
    5. Tomatillo
    6. Cilantro
    7. Large Leaf Italian Basil
    8. Chives
    9. Onions

Step Four: Digging and Turning the Garden

Measure the Plot:

Measure out a 4 ft. x 4 ft. plot. A tape measure or guestimation works. You can spray paint the lines or drop common flour on the lawn to create the lines. Don't strive for perfection.  

Remove the Grass:

You will want use a shovel with a tip to remove the grass. This type of shovel is called a spade. The point makes it easier to dig through grass roots. No spade, well use what you have. Dig down 3 or 4 inches to remove the grass and grass roots. Bang the clumps of grass over the garden to remove loose soil. Toss the grass clumps in a bag and put them curbside on your yard waste removal day.

Loosen the Soil:

You will need to loosen the soil by turning the earth for the first time. Just push the spade down to about 10-12 inches and turn the soil over. You can do 6 inches and move the dirt and do another 6 inches. It doesn't matter. You just want to loosen up the soil for best plant growth. You can turn the soil and put it right back in the same spot. Nothing fancy, the plants don't care. All you want to do is dig about 12 inches down, flip the soil and break up the clumps. Your garden is now dug. You can dig it along the fence. You might surround it in boards or just put it straight in the ground. Any style is fine.
GARDEN TIP TWO: Tomato, Pepper and Tomatillo plants GET HUGE. Don't over plant them.
If you want to build a raised bed for your salsa garden here is my Knol:


Step Five: Preparing the Garden Soil

Don't Worry:

This is the easiest part. It is also the part where people start saying things like soil test, alkalinity, clay soil, compost and lots of other garden terms. Forget them. All you need to know is the garden will grow if you prepare a decent garden that gets at least 6 full hours of direct sunlight.

Buy Garden Soil: 

You have already dug the garden. Now you need to go to your local home improvement center and buy at least 4 bags of garden soil. Do not buy TOP SOIL , buy GARDEN SOIL. It will say it right on the bag. Buy what every kind of garden soil you want. It doesn't matter. You can buy moisture control, with or without fertilizer, name brand or whatever. Just remember you are preparing the garden soil by buying garden soil. The bags should say 1 cubic foot on them. You can buy more than four bags if you wish. The more the merrier.

Buy Fertilizer:

You will also need to buy some fertilizer. You can ask for a box of tomato fertilizer. You do not need the big 40 lb bag of fertilizer. It's the size of a box of instant mash potatoes. That is all you will need for a 4 ft. x 4 ft. salsa garden.

Spread the Fertilizer:

Now that you have your supplies, it's time to finish preparing your garden. Take 3 or 4 handfuls of the fertilizer and spread it directly over your freshly turned garden before you put down the garden soil you just purchased.

Dump the Garden Soil:

Now simply toss the bags of garden soil onto your garden in an even row. Open the bags and dump the bags out. Keep about 1/4 of a bag of the garden soil for starting seeds. We will discuss seedlings in another step. Roughly rake the soil across the garden.

Fertilize Again:

After you have dumped the bags out, take another 3 or 4 handfuls of fertilizer and spread it evenly over the garden. You'll have to turn the garden over one more time to mix the new garden soil with the standard earth. 

Rake, Break and Mound:

If the soil is clumpy you should break up the clumps. A clump is measured as the size of a meatball or larger. Anything smaller, don't worry about it. Finally, use a rake to mound the garden. Rake the edges of the garden towards the middle of the garden. The middle should be about 6-10 inches higher than the edges of the garden. If mounding is too hard, well just rake it flat. Your salsa garden is now ready to be planted.

Step Six: Purchasing Plants and Seeds

Tomatoes, Peppers and Tomatillos:

You can easily find pepper and tomato transplants at your local home improvement store or garden center. Tomatillos are harder to find. I recommend buying tomato, pepper and tomatillo transplants. If you can't find tomatillo transplants then you will have to buy seeds. 
Only buy green plants. The leaves should be completely green. Sometimes you find yellow or purplish colors mixed on the leaves. Sometimes the leaves are spotted. These colors changes are all due to some sort of nutritional deficiency or water problems. The plants should be perfectly green.

Other Plants:

You can buy the plants below as seeds, transplants or bulbs. I will suggest the best way to purchase them but you do have a choice.
    1. Cilantro
    2. Large Leaf Italian Basil
    3. Chives
    4. Onions
Cilantro is best purchased as seeds. You will need to buy 2 or 3 packs because you will need to plant them every 2 weeks.
Basil is best purchased as seeds. You should also buy 2 or 3 packs of the variety of basil you like.
Chives are best bought as transplants in the herb section of you local garden shop. Chives don't grow nearly as fast as cilantro or basil so you will want use a transplant. They are also a perennial plant and will come back year after year.
Onions fall into 2 categories. One is scallions which should be bought as seeds. The other is onion bulbs or sets. These are the onions you buy in the grocery store to eat but in baby size when you plant them into your garden. You can find onion sets where you find seeds. Remember, these are miniature onions about the size of a large marble. They are bulbs. You can buy a bag of 50 for a few dollars. You can use either or both to flavor your salsa.
GARDEN TIP THREE: You might as well buy some oregano, thyme or other herb  transplants. You will always have room to stuff another herb into your garden. Now you will have an herb and salsa garden.

Step Seven: Starting Seeds Indoors

Six to Eight Weeks:

Most seeds need to be planted indoors  6-8 weeks before the last frost. In the case of your salsa garden you want to plant your seeds 6-8 weeks before the nights will be consistently 50 degrees or higher. You don't have to be exact. You need warmer nights for many of the plants you will be growing.



Purchase 8 oz -10 oz Styro-foam cups. Poke 3 holes in the bottom of the cups with a pencil or about 15 holes using a fork. You must put holes in the bottom. You will be watering the plants from the bottom. Write the date and seed type on the cup before you put the soil and seeds in it.


Fill the cup to the top with soil from the bag of garden soil you saved. Tap the cup several time to let the soil settle. Gently press the top of the soil down with your thumb. You are firming the soil up a bit so it holds the seeds.

Planting Tomatoes, Peppers and Tomatillos Seeds Indoors:

Drop 3 seeds in each cup. In your cup, for example, labeled tomatoes put in 3 tomato seeds in the shape of a triangle. You should do the same for the peppers and tomatillos. Each cup should hold identical seeds. Cover them with the appropriate amount of soil. The seed pack will tell you how to cover them. If in doubt a quarter of inch of soil will always work.
When the plants reach 3 inches high you will need to pluck all but 1 plant from the cup. You want to let the strongest plant grow. Remember if you are growing 2 tomato plants then you need to use 2 cups of 3

Planting Herb Seeds Indoors:

Most herbs can be sown directly into the soil or you can find them as transplants. You can choose. Here is how I recommend planting specific herbs seeds indoors.
Cilantro: Plant 1 or 2 cups of cilantro indoors. Put 5 to 10 seeds in each cup and cover with about 1/2  an inch of soil. Just let them grow. You will not thin these plants.
Basil: Plant them just like cilantro.
Chives: Plant 1 or 2 cups of chives indoors. Put 10 to 15 seeds in each cup and cover with about 1/2 an inch of soil. Just let them grow. You will not thin these plants.
Oregano: Plant 1 or 2 cups of oregano indoors. Put 20 to 30 seeds in a cup and cover them with about 1/4 inch of soil. Just let them grow. You will not thin these plants.
Thyme: Plant them just like oregano.
Onions: Onion seeds or bulb sets should be sown directly in the garden.
Garlic: Garlic should be sown directly in the garden.

Watering Your Seedlings:

Do NOT water them from the top. It will wash the seeds away and can cause disease when the seedlings first appear. You should water your plants from the bottom. Place the Styro-foam cups in a brownie pan, Pyrex dish or foil meatloaf pan. Anything that has 1 or 2 inch sides will do. You can purchase foil pans in all sizes at your local grocery store.
Fill the pan with water to about 1/2 inch above the Styro-foam cup's bottom. Wait 45 minutes and remove the cups and dump the excess water. The water will fill from the bottom of the cup through the holes. You will have to do this every 3-5 days in the beginning and about every 2-3 days when the plants are growing well. Just eyeball the soil. You can't over water the plants this way.
Purchasing a foil tray from the grocery store makes the process much easier. You can keep the cups in the tray on the window sill.

Where to Set Your Cups:

The seedlings need direct sun for at least 6 hours. The more the better. I recommend 8 hours if you are going to do it right. If you don't get enough sun the plants will grow poorly. You can move them to different windows as the sun moves through out the day.
GARDEN TIP FOUR: Don't forget to thin your tomato, pepper or tomatillo transplants to 1 per cup when the plants are 3-4 inches tall. One plant per cup is all you need.

Step Eight: Planting Your Salsa Garden

How to Plant a Tomato an Tend to Its Needs Use this Knol if you want more technical details.

When to Plant:

The best time to plant your garden is when the nights are 50 degrees or warmer. Plant you garden when you get 3 consecutive 50 degree nights. Some of the plants can be planted when it is much cooler but let's keep it simple and use 50 degrees. If the temperature drops into the 40's here or there, it isn't something to really worry about.

Hardening Off Your Transplants:

Your transplants have grown accustomed to a sheltered life indoors. They should be use to the sun from your window but you want to introduce them to the outdoors slowly. You have to harden them off to the real world. All that means is you have to put them outside in small doses for a few days. Over a 3 day period by putting them outside, you will "tuffin" up your plants. Here is a basic plan.
First day in the real world:
Put them on the shady side of the house where the will get a little early MORNING sun for about 2 hours. Let them sit in the shade for an additional 4-6 hours. You do not need to be exact. You just want them to get early morning sun. Morning sun isn't as strong or damaging as afternoon sun.
Second day in the real world:
Put them outside where the will get 2-3 hours of morning sun and then move them to shade for the rest of the day. Don't forget to bring them in at night.
Third day in the real world:
Put them outside to get a full day's morning sun 4-5 hours and move them to shade around lunch time. Don't forget to bring them in at night.
Morning sun is sun from about 7am to about 12 noon. After three days, they are hardened off and ready to be planted.

 How to Plant:

All you have to do is get them into the ground and they will grow. There are some basic strategies for planting location and plant spacing and depth.
Tomatoes and tomatillos will grow the tallest. If the sun spends most of the time on the left side of your garden then you will plant the tomatoes and tomatillos on the far right side of your garden. The tallest plants stay on the opposite side of the garden, from the sun, so the don't block the sunlight from shorter plants.
Peppers are the second tallest group of plants. They should be planted on the left side of the tomatoes using the example where the sun spends most of the time on the left side of your garden.
The rest of the plants can be planted as seeds or transplants to the left of the peppers. You can follow the directions on the seed packs for help. You really can't mess up planting herbs, onions and garlic. You just want to make sure the tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers don't grow to block the sun from them.
Tomatoes and tomatillos need about 2 feet between plants. You can plant two plants per row in a 4 foot garden. Peppers need about 1 1/2 feet between plants. You can plant 2 -3 peppers per row in a 4 foot garden. Don't worry about being exact, 6 inches either way is fine.
Bulbs need about 2-3 inches between each bulb and seeds will have the directions right on the seed package.
Cilantro and basil plantings can be 6 inches apart. Remember, like the cup planting you used indoors, drop 5 or 10 seeds per planting. Put a hand print in the ground. Drop 5 to 10 seeds into your hand print. Space the hand prints 6 inches apart. Cover with a 1/4 inch of soil.
Oregano, chives, and thyme are perennials. They will come back year after year. They need to be planted with 12 inches between each plant.
If you are planting seeds, just follow the seed pack directions. If you are planting bulbs, the depth is about 1 1/2 -2 inches or the length of you index finger will work. Poke you finger into the garden soil and drop the bulb in, root side down, and cover. Remember to space the bulbs about 2-3 inches apart. The bulb will still grow fine even if you plant it upside down.
Tomatoes are vigorous vines that will sprout roots off the stem. Plant the tomato plant to 1/2 the size of the plant below the ground. If your transplant is 6 inches tall then plant the bottom 3 inches of the plant below the ground and leave 3 inches above the ground. Most transplants are 12 inches or taller. In this case, plant the bottom 6 inches of the tomato plant below the ground and leave 6 inches above the ground. Do the same thing for tomatillos. You can even go as far as planting 2/3 of the plant below ground.
Peppers are almost planted the same as tomatoes. For peppers, plant 1/4 of the plants total size below the ground. That would leave 3/4 of the plant above the ground. Pepper transplants are typical 8 inches tall. Plant the bottom 2 inches of the transplant below the ground and leave 6 inches above the ground.
Herbs are very hard to kill. Plant them to the same depth as to how the transplant looks in the cup or container. That is, look at your plant that is in the cup. Keep what ever is above the soil in your cup, above the ground and what ever is below the soil in your cup, below the ground.

Every Two Weeks:

You need to plant basil and cilantro every 2-3 weeks to make sure you have fresh plants. These herbs grow fast and will flower and seed. Once the plants start to flower and set seed, they stop growing and lose a lot of their flavor. You want to keep new plants growing throughout the summer.
GARDEN TIP FIVE: Cut and freeze the cilantro or basil as it is available. You will always have cilantro available via the freezer. It is the key to salsa after-all.

 Step Nine: Tending and Picking

Staking the Big Plants:

You will need to put stakes in the ground to support the growth of your tomatoes, tomatillos and sometimes peppers. To make it easier, buy a stake for each tomato, tomatillo and pepper plant that you have in your garden. Any garden center sells vegetable stakes. You want to buy a wooden stake that has a 1 inch x 1 inch minimum width and it should be 6-8 feet tall. If you have trouble finding stakes, just ask an employee. You don't need to buy the stakes until the plants are about 2 feet tall.
To stake the plants, drive the stake into ground about 6 inches next to the stem of the plant it will support. You can buy staking string (jute) or use torn pieces of cloth to tie your vegetable plants. You will want to tie the plant to the stake about every 8-10 inches. The only rule is to LOOSELY tie the stem to the stake. Do not bind the stem directly to the stake. It will choke the plant and damage the stem. You want to tie the plants to the stake leaving a space. Make an OK sign with you fingers. The circle formed by the touching of your index finger and thumb is the space you should have when you tie the plant.

Watering and Feeding the Garden:

You really won't have to feed/fertilize the garden. You loaded it with fertilizer. If you want to fertilize the garden around mid-summer, I would buy Miracle Grow fertilizer and follow the instructions. It works wonders.
You will have to water the garden well every 2-3 days. The best time to water is in the morning. I recommend watering established plants at their base. You need use a watering can or gentle spray nozzle for seeds you just planted or over new growth. A stream of water will wash seeds away and uproot tiny seedlings.

Picking Vegetables and Herbs:

Well, I am not going to say more than you will know when to pick by just looking at your impressive salsa garden. Just be gentle when your picking the vegetables or cut the herbs. You now have a summer long salsa garden. Enjoy!  Be sure to look for my upcoming Knol's on other gardening topics and gardening recipes.

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1 comment:

  1. Nothing like great salsa in the summer. What we try to do here at Charlotte Pest Control is grow an organic salsa garden with no pesticides by performing integrated "green" pest management. Our center city garden in Charlotte NC serves as a great community model for green pest control that we likewise offer to our residential pest control customers.

    learn more at


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