I learned how to grow a salsa garden and make garden fresh salsa years ago. We loved the homemade, homegrown salsa so much I started making HUGE batches to preserve and eat throughout the year. I’ve experimented and learned a few things over the years about how to plant a successful salsa garden in a cooler climate with a shorter growing season. Below are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years that will hopefully help you grow a great salsa garden this year!
What Does it Mean to Plant a Salsa Garden?
Every year when deciding what to plant in our gardens , I make sure we grow what is referred to as a “salsa garden”. Growing a salsa garden means you plant all the plants that will produce the ingredients needed to make garden fresh salsa (here’s our family’s favorite recipe for how to make and preserve garden fresh salsa)
Here in Montana we aren’t going to be growing limes, BUT we are blessed with relatives living in a much warmer climate who gift us their homegrown citrus fruit. That means that every single part of our homemade garden fresh salsa is “homegrown”. Well, maybe not the salt!
Planting a salsa garden is a fun project my kids love to help with. From starting seeds indoors to planting seedlings in the garden to harvesting and making delicious garden fresh salsa. Growing a salsa garden is so much fun and I promise you it tastes so much better than store bought since all of the key ingredients are homegrown.
What five plants to grow in a salsa garden:
Growing a Salsa Garden is simple. You need to grow five specific plants in your garden:
A bonus is if you live in a warm climate and can grow your own limes!
The best tomatoes to grow in a salsa garden
The best tomato varieties to grow in a salsa garden and make garden fresh salsa are tomatoes that are firm and fleshy, not soft and juicy. The firmer the tomato flesh, the less watery the salsa. These are the same types of tomatoes often used for making homemade ketchup or tomato sauce.
These tomato varieties are:
Roma: A delicious tomato with fewer seeds and lower water content great for salsa and sauces. Here’s where to find heirloom, non GMO seeds.
San Marzano: This variety is considered “the mother of all paste tomatoes” and one of the best for salsa and sauces. These are the organic, heirloom seeds we planted this year.
Amish Paste: A meaty, sweet tomato with lots of flavor great for making salsa and sauces. You can find heirloom, organic seeds here.
If you don’t have these varieties of tomatoes, you can still grow a salsa garden and make garden fresh salsa. The salsa may end up being a little more watery which isn’t a big deal. You just simply pour off a little liquid and it’s a delicious salsa you can scoop up with a tortilla chip.
I’ve used a wide variety of tomatoes over the years and often use whatever variety I have a surplus of. I’ve also added in handfuls of our favorite delicious, sweet Sungold cherry tomatoes when we’ve had an abundance we can’t keep up with eating fresh.
The best peppers to grow in a salsa garden
I prefer to grow red bell peppers to make my garden fresh salsa. Red bell peppers tend to have a sweeter flavor. You can use green bell peppers, the flavor will be a little more tart.
If you like a salsa with no spice, then skip the spicy pepper in the ingredient. When my kids were little, I made batches of garden fresh salsa with no additional spicy peppers. Now that they’re older and have developed a taste for a little more spice, I use jalapeño peppers.
The standard spicy pepper to use in salsa is the Jalapeño pepper. These offer a little spice without too much kick. In our cold region with a short growing season, we have to start our jalapeno seeds indoors in late winter or early spring so our plants can get a head start on the growing season.
If you want to step up the spice level a little, Chile Peppers are another common option to add your garden fresh salsa. There are so many different varieties of Chile peppers out there to choose from depending on the flavor and spice level you are looking for.
A few years ago a friend gifted us a variety of peppers she grew in her garden. We used them in our garden fresh salsa and it was so fun to experiment with the different spice levels. There are so many varieties of spicy peppers out there with varying spice levels so pick which suits your spice preference.
The best onions to grow in a salsa garden
White onions are the best option and the most traditional for making garden fresh salsa. White onions have a sharper, more pungent flavor which adds to the delicious salsa flavor.
I’ve used a wide variety of onions over the years when making garden fresh salsa. Similar to the tomatoes, I use whatever variety I have an abundance of in the garden.
Yellow onions, red onions, Walla Walla onions and even Vidalia onions make a delicious salsa. Some years I’ve even used a mix of these different kids of onions. Each onion flavor melds with the other ingredients in the salsa to make each batch unique and delicious.
When Should I Plant My Salsa Garden?
To make garden fresh salsa with homegrown produce from your salsa garden, timing is everything! I’ve learned over the years through trial and error when to start which plants in the garden so the fresh ingredients are ready at the same time.
When planning your salsa garden, think about the timing of the harvest for the ingredients for making garden fresh salsa. I focus the timing around when tomatoes and peppers will be ripe. I can always use an onion or garlic before it is fully mature, but I can’t use tomatoes or peppers if they aren’t ripe.
When to Plant Tomatoes and Peppers:
In our northern climate, tomatoes tend to ripen late in the summer and I’ve even had to ripen green tomatoes indoors when we get early frosts in August and September. We can’t safely plant tomatoes outdoors until early June but we can get a head start on growing the tomatoes by starting seeds indoors or growing seedlings in a greenhouse in late winter or early spring.
Maturity rates may vary slightly between varieties, but generally speaking tomatoes and peppers in a salsa garden will reach maturity in 75-85 days.
The key to timing the growing of tomatoes and peppers in a salsa garden is to start the seeds indoors or in a greenhouse at least 8 weeks before your last frost date.
(If you’re not sure what your last frost date is, here’s our tutorial on how to figure that out)
Some gardeners, myself included, strive to really get a head start on growing a salsa garden and start tomato and pepper seeds indoors 12 weeks before the last frost date. I do this because I used to find myself dealing with hundreds of pounds of green tomatoes that needed to be ripened at the end of the gardening season when the frosts started in late August and early September. One year I had so many green tomatoes it was the year of the epic green tomato salsa verde canning session!
I figured out that if I started my seeds indoors earlier in the spring, I don’t end up with as many green tomatoes that need ripened when the frosts hit. I’ve also learned that while the back of the seed packet may say 70 days until maturity, growing tomatoes and peppers in a cooler climate means they often take a little longer to reach maturity.
If you’re buying established tomato and pepper plants from a garden store instead of starting them from seed, plant them out after your last frost date in the spring.
When to Plant Cilantro:
I’ve learned to plant my cilantro later in the gardening season to be ready when the tomatoes are ripe. Planting cilantro in the beginning of the summer results in the cilantro bolting and going to seed by the time the tomatoes and peppers are ready later in the summer.
Cilantro leaves can start to be harvested about 3-4 weeks after seeding. If I’m expecting my tomatoes and peppers to ripen in late August, I time the planting of cilantro seeds in late July.
When to Plant Garlic:
Garlic is best planted in the fall the season prior and is ready to harvest mid to late summer. If garlic is ready to harvest before the tomatoes and peppers are ripe, it’s not a big deal since the garlic will be dried and cured to use year round anyway. Garlic can also be pulled up from the garden and used fresh before fully mature, the cloves may just not be as big as garlic cloves from a fully mature plant.
If you didn’t get your garlic planted in the fall, you can still plant garlic in the spring. The bulbs won’t grow to be as large as garlic planted in the fall but it’s still possible to grow some big enough to use.
When to Plant Onions:
We plant our onions in the spring, either by planting seedlings in early spring or onion starts in late spring to early summer. Onions have the longest timeframe to reach maturity, on average 90-120+ days, compared to the other plants in a salsa garden.
I prefer to start our onion seeds indoors or in a greenhouse at least 12 weeks before our last frost date. If you don’t get onion seeds planted indoors that early, using onion bulb starts are a great way to still grow a nice crop of onions in your salsa garden.
Similar to the garlic, if the onions are ready to harvest before the tomatoes and peppers are ready it’s not an issue. We cure and store our onions for use year round so they can be used at anytime if harvested before the tomatoes and peppers.
Onions are also similar to garlic in that we can harvest them to eat before they are fully mature. An onion harvested before reaching full maturity won’t have as large of a bulb as a fully mature onion but still usable and delicious.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to actually arrange the layout of a salsa garden in your growing space, here’s an article from Grow a Good Life about how to plan the layout of a salsa garden .
Where to Plant a Salsa Garden
A salsa garden grows best in a garden bed that receives at least 6-8 hours or more of direct sunlight everyday. In the summertime in Montana, the sun comes up before six a.m. and stays light out until 10 p.m. most nights so I try to maximize the amount of sunlight our tomato and pepper plants get in our salsa garden.
Since tomatoes and peppers are sun and heat loving plants, they thrive with even more sunlight than six hours. We plant our tomato and pepper plants in the raised garden beds we know receive the most sunlight. Starting with the first rays of sun in the east early in the morning, bright sun shining down in the middle of the day and capturing the last rays of sun before it dips behind the mountains to the west.
If we’re having an especially cool early summer, I use row cover (here’s our article on why we love using row cover in our gardens!) over our tomatoes and peppers to hold in more heat to help these heat loving plants grow.
I’ve learned that cilantro can quickly bolt and start setting seeds if it receives too much hot sun. We have a designated raised garden bed for herbs that receives partial sun throughout the day. This is where I plant herbs like cilantro in the middle of the summer so the cilantro harvest is ready when the tomatoes and peppers are ripe.
How Long Does it Take to Grow a Salsa Garden?
It takes approximately 70-100 days to grow a salsa garden. This number can vary greatly depending on your growing zone and climate. I find that if we have a cooler summer season like in 2022, our heat loving garden plants are slower to grow and in turn are slower to reach maturity.
If you live in a hotter growing climate than Montana, your salsa garden will likely mature a lot faster than ours will here in our northern climate.
At our old homestead, I grew some of our tomato and pepper plants in my greenhouse in the summer and they thrived in the warmer climate. This helped speed up the process of growing our salsa garden.
Where to Source Seeds to Plant a Salsa Garden
Years ago when I first started growing a salsa garden, I had to buy all the seed packets for the plants I wanted to grow. Then I started saving heirloom seeds so we rarely have to buy seeds anymore. You also may be able to source seeds to grow a salsa garden at a local seed swap or seed library.
Seed companies are now making it easier to buy seeds for folks who want to grow a salsa garden. A salsa garden seed kit comes with seed packets for all the varieties of garden plants you will need to grow a salsa garden. There are several seed companies selling Salsa Garden seed kits like this organic seed kit and this heirloom non-GMO seed kit.
Have you ever grown a salsa garden and have any tips to share?