Make Mine Picante: Tips for Planting a Salsa Garden

salsa garden

Tastes Like Summer

It’s the first thing that hits the table at your favorite Mexican restaurant. And usually the first thing that gets polished off at the backyard BBQ.

Chips and Salsa from Salsa Garden

Chips and salsa has quickly become America’s favorite snack. Since 1992, salsa has been the number one condiment in the United States. It even overtook ketchup as the top sauce at the dinner table.

Makes sense to me. Nothing tastes better than the fresh tomatoes, the crunch of the onions, the zing of the chili peppers, and how well it goes with adult beverages.

Growing up in Nevada, it seemed commonplace to put salsa on everything from hamburgers, eggs, tacos or anything else that needed a little zip.

Here’s some fun facts about salsa:

  • Salsa originated with the Inca people. There’s historic records of crushed tomatoes, chilies, and other spices from the 1500s.
  • Salsa is Spanish for sauce. It’s originally from the Latin word “sal,” or salt.
  • Over 22 million pounds of jalapeños were used to make salsa in 2015.
  • Chips and salsa are the official snack food of Texas.
  • May is National Salsa Month.

The Rooster’s Beak

While there are literally hundreds of salsa recipes out there, for my money, pico de gallo is the king. It’s what most of us think of as being salsa.

Pico de gallo is Spanish for “beak of the rooster.” Because of its rough, chopped appearance, pico de gallo got its name from the way a rooster would peck at his food.

I’m a pico de gallo fan. With chunks of tomato, slivers of garlic, diced chili peppers, and a little onion, it’s zesty and delicious. Best of all, all of the ingredients you need to make this popular salsa can be grown in a small garden.

Here are some tips for growing your own salsa garden this summer.

The Sun Also Rises

To grow great salsa, you’ll need five different plants:

  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Chili peppers
  • Garlic
  • Cilantro

Whether you start by seed or get starters from your local nursery, you’ll want to find a place in your yard to start your garden. Make sure there is plenty of early-morning or late-afternoon sunlight for your plants. I built a raised garden bed for my salsa garden, but you can use individual pots or a good patch of ground.

Tomatoes and Peppers for Salsa Garden

You’ll want to have a good balance of nutrients in the soil. Get a soil tester and see what the pH is. All of these plants like having the soil a little acidic—somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.0 to 6.8 pH. You might need to get some soil amender to find the right balance.

Keeping Good Company

The reason a salsa garden is a snap to grow is because each of the five plants share a lot of the same characteristics. Not only do they all like slightly acidic soil, they don’t compete too aggressively for the nutrients in the soil.

When plants grow well with each other, it’s called companion gardening.

Companion gardening can be something as simple as growing beans under the shade of corn or planting marigolds with tomatoes to ward off insects. In the case of a salsa garden, it’s a combination of both.

Plant your tomatoes in a location that casts a shadow on your peppers. Get good spacing between your onions and garlic because they draw different nutrients from the ground.

And cilantro is effective at drawing in praying mantises and lady bugs—both good for eating predatory insects.

Gardening should be like hosting a party: You want a good mix of different people.

If everyone was exactly the same, the party would be boring. Rotating plants and having a good mix is essential for keeping the nutrients in the soil.

Take advantage of the characteristics of each plant and you’ll sure to have a great party.

The Love Apple

With hundreds of variants, the tomato is the most popular garden resident. Technically a fruit—it has something to do with its seed reproduction—tomatoes are a lot of fun to grow and can be eaten in so many different ways.

Tomato Plant for Salsa Garden

I might have a green thumb but the tomato has always been hard for me to grow from seed. To make things easier, I’ve always gone with a starter from the local nursery.

Once they have sprouted, tomatoes only require adequate water and a good cage to keep them upright. I always thought it was weird that a healthy tomato plant can grow enough fruit that it will actually break its own limbs.

What’s really cool about tomatoes is you can pick the fruit and prune your plant throughout the summer. It’s the best way to get a bumper crop. The only real problem with tomatoes is after they start growing, you’re going to be giving away a ton of them by the end of the summer.

Quit Your Crying

Equally sweet and zesty, onions are important. They’re so important that during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote Congress: “I will not move my army without onions.” Grant’s troops used the onions for both food and to use as an antiseptic for wounds.

Onions are easy to grow. Get them into the dirt early. Make sure they get plenty of water in the first couple of weeks.

I like growing onions for a variety of reasons. I love how beautiful the stalks look in the garden. They also give off a slightly sweet aroma that goes well with fresh dirt.

Also, onions are tough on beetles. For whatever reason, Colorado potato beetles hate onions. I don’t like using chemical pesticides, so any time a vegetable can do the work of stopping insects, I’ll do it.

Onions for Salsa Garden

Next Stop: Scoville

Good salsa has to have some heat. That’s where the chili peppers come in. Sure, you can always dash on some Tabasco, but you owe it to yourself to grow some heat grenades.

All peppers are scored on the Scoville scale. They range from the meager bell pepper at 0 to the Lord-Almighty Naga Viper pepper at 1.3 million. For context, military grade pepper spray used to break up riots starts at 2 million.

I don’t think you want to destroy your guests with salsa that will cause involuntary crying and excruciating pain. But a little heat is always good.

That’s why I suggest you plant either serrano or jalapeño chili peppers. Both are a part of the Capsicum annuum family and pack a good punch. Sweet and spicy, they make the salsa sing. Plant your chili peppers after the last frost of the year.

Chili Peppers for Salsa Garden

The Stinking Rose

Look out, Dracula! We’re growing garlic.

Just like onions, garlic are a snap to grow. And when you’re making salsa, a little goes a long way.

Garlic is usually best when planted in the fall, but because we’re doing a spring/summer garden, plant them as soon as you can work the soil. Make sure to have good spacing (six to eight inches apart), give them a good shot of water, and cover them with some hay or mulch.

A side note: aside from eating garlic, one of the coolest things you can do with it is hang dry it.

After harvesting the garlic in late summer, weave the stalks together and store in a cool, dry basement or closet. We’ve been doing this for years. Not only is it good for salsa, it makes homemade marinara sauce taste that much better.

A Foul-Smelling Thistle

Cooks from around the world use cilantro for a variety of recipes. It’s common in Vietnamese cuisine, French cooking and throughout Latin America.

I’m of the opinion that a little cilantro goes a long way. It has a slight bitter, citrus flavor. Too much is overpowering but just a small chopped teaspoon or so can really make any dish.

Growing cilantro is as easy as mowing the lawn. This is something that I always grow from seed. All you need to do is run your finger through the soil about 2 inches deep and spread the seeds along the small ditch.

As they start to sprout, pinch off the excessive cilantro so there is about four to six inches of spacing between them. It takes about four weeks for cilantro to mature. Cut what you need for the salsa and watch the cilantro grow back.

Don’t Forget the Chips

I’ve been gardening for almost a decade. I’ve had great harvests and horrible failures. The one constant has been how much reward I get from being outside and working in soil.

I think you’ll find as you get your salsa gardening up and running, you’ll want to start experimenting with other plants like melons, corn or root vegetables.

The benefits always outweigh the cost. Fresh vegetables that you grow taste a 100 percent better than anything you get from the store. They make for great gifts for friends and can lead you down paths like canning or brewing.

Make sure to keep a positive outlook. Mistakes will be made and plants will eventually die, but when you get to pick your first jalapeño or cut your first tomato, I guarantee you’ll know it was all worth it.

How About You?

Tell us about your gardening plans this summer. Leave comments and offer tips for growing your best salsa garden.

Finally, I’d like to share one of my own favorite salsa recipes.

Salsa Recipe


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