We love us some salsa, down here at the Feed and Farm. Spicy or mild, fresh or roasted or smoky or sweet, they’re pretty much all delicious. How could we choose a favorite?
Luckily, we don’t have to.
But it’s not harvest season yet, and the time for making our own salsa is still a ways off. Before the harvest must come the planting, grasshoppers. And before the planting comes the planning.
We hope you haven’t gotten tired of us telling you this, but it really is very helpful to keep records of your garden and preservation adventures. (see Keeping a Homestead Journal here.) That way you know how much you can produce, how much you can eat, how much you like to give away! A journal is just another tool, like a good stock pot or the perfect wooden spoon, that helps you make the most of your time in the garden, and the kitchen.
One tomato plant can produce as many as 20 pounds of tomatoes in a season. That sounds like a lot, until you get to preserving! And beside salsa, there’s tomato paste and tomato soup, not to mention all the other ingredients in salsa, that each demand their own kind of appreciation and attention. Fermented peppers and smoky dehydrated chipotle, pepper jams and relishes and… we’re getting ahead of ourselves aren’t we? First we have to decide which varieties to plant, and how many of each. Cilantro matures much faster than tomatoes, and the onions are on their own time, too. How to balance it all?
This is how we are dancing with these factors this year, plant by plant. Perhaps next year, we might make some adjustments. Every year is a new challenge, another chance at perfection. Or failing that, some super-delicious salsa. You can make up your own recipe, find one in a trusted book or try the easy fermented salsa recipe found here.
Choose the right varieties of tomatoes for preserving vs eating fresh. Most often, this means using paste tomatoes for canning; many of the slicing varieties contain less acid than the paste types. The higher water content of slicing tomatoes, too, means that the finished product will be more watery, which is less than desirable in a salsa. Using dry-farmed tomatoes is also an option, too; dry farmed Early Girls are a classic preservation tomato. Many paste tomatoes are determinate, meaning that the plant will tend to bear its fruit all at once over a shorter period of time. This is good for canning purposes, since larger batches of fruit make for more efficient canning sessions. On average, paste tomatoes have a quicker maturity time than some of the beefsteak or heirloom varieties, usually about 50-60 days. We usually strip the leaves off of the lower stalk of the tomato seedling, and bury a large portion of the stalk ‘up to its neck’ in the dirt. The buried nodes that have had leaves removed from them will sprout roots where there once were leaves. While this is really only a trick to use for tomatoes (most plants would die, given this treatment), it is a useful way to increase the root mass of the plant, so that it can draw more energy up from the ground, and into those fat red tomatoes. It helps the plant develop a well proportioned rootball that can support the tall vines as they mature.
Onions require a much longer time to mature than tomatoes, usually at least 100 days; if you have not planted them by now, they will not be ready to harvest by the time you are harvesting the bulk of your tomato crop for salsa. Make a note in that journal, and get them in the ground next season in late winter or early spring, in time for next year’s crop. If you want to have some onions on hand for use in fresh (not canned) salsas, the bunching onions, otherwise known as scallions, are a great bet. They keep for long periods in the ground, and can be used at almost every stage of maturity. Stagger your planting times over several weeks, to ensure that you have a steady supply.
Peppers mature at about the same rate as the determinate paste tomatoes, on average, about 65 days. Some of the larger red and orange bell peppers may take longer, while the New Mexico and Anaheim chile types of peppers often take 70-80 days. We like to get them in the ground at the same time as the tomatoes, though we sometimes have to wait a little longer for the best selection. Once the days warm up a little more, they catch up fast.
Cilantro really only takes about 30 days till maturity, so the cilantro we are planting in May will not be the seasoning in our September salsas. However, we like to plant small batches of it from starts throughout the season, to ensure that we have a steady supply for humus, salads, and other uses.
Choosing the right varieties is one kind of fun, but the work of being in the garden is another, deeply satisfying exercise. Before planting into the garden beds, we make sure to treat the soil with a good batch of compost. There’s an old garden adage that says, Feed the soil, not the plants. The richer your soil is in well-composted material, the better it will both drain and retain water, a seemingly paradoxical formula that nevertheless is at the heart of every organic gardening tome in the land. This means that the soil will not trap water in a way that smothers or rots the plant roots, but will hold it in suspension so that the moisture is available to the white feeder roots.
Speaking of moisture, it is best to begin planting into a well-watered garden bed. Dry soil will leach moisture from the young, tender plant roots, so we water to field capacity before we even begin to work in the dirt. This also loosens up the soil so that any stubborn weeds will come out easier. For large areas, we like the (WEird big aeraetor fork thing), which penetrates down even into hard-packed soils, breaking roots and creating channels for water and nutrients to work their magic. For weeding and prepping on a smaller scale, the Japanese hand tools really cannot be beat. Of course, a quality round-point shovel is a classically indispensible tool, and you may even like to have a longer-bladed trenching shovel o hand, too, to really dig down deep into the soil to remove persistent roots.
If the soil needs to be amending with fertilizers, we like to dig the hole for each individual plant, and sprinkle the amendment into the bottom of the planting hole. See this popular tomato amendment formula for inspiration. Mix the fertilizer throughly into the soil, where the roots will be encouraged to stretch down to access it. This, together with the deep watering that the beds receive before planting, will make a more drought-resistant plant.
Gophers love them a salsa garden, too, so if your beds are not reinforced with gopher wire, individual gopher cages are a worthwhile investment. Tomatoes can easily fill a 3 or even a 5 gallon cage in a season; a 1 or 2 gallon cage will usually suffice for a pepper, and the small bedding cages work well for cilantro, basil, and scallions.
Once everything is settled down into the soil, we cover the surface with a layer of mulch and water again, taking care not to wet the leaves (which can cause sunburn if the weather gets hot, or disease issues if it’s too cold.) The mulch will retain the soil moisture, protecting it from drying out, and will eventually decompose to become part of the friable texture that good garden soil develops after years of such care. Be careful, however, because mulch can sometimes harbor pests such as sow-bugs or earwigs. While these bugs actually do help the soil in that they are decomposers of organic material, they also sometimes take ‘organic material’ to meant your fresh, young seedlings. If these pests become a problem, some Sluggo Plus with Bt is a good, non-toxic solution. Don’t bother with this unless those pests become an issue, however.
Once the soil and the mulch are dampened, and the plants are tucked into their garden bed, it’s time to head back in to the bookshelf, to pour over salsa recipes, and dream of the harvests that await us, with a little luck. Regular watering, and a feeding or two throughout the growing season, should keep us on the track to be eating salsa, all season long.