Assessing the Vegetable Garden and Planting with More Purpose

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For me, the most wonderful time of the year is tomato season. It means all the fresh salsa I can possibly eat—now that I’ve learned to build my garden with that goal in mind.

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My Southern California home garden is about 200 square feet. In years past I lived by the fittingly clunky motto “plant all the things now and figure out what to do with them later.” (To be honest, I still struggle with that urge come spring.) But each year I would end up with the same result: swimming in tomatoes, stumbling over zucchini and cucumbers, watching extra basil go to seed. Ironically, I also found myself lacking enough of the right ingredients to make a substantial dish. For example, one of my favorite summer recipes is blistered Shishido peppers with feta, but I never seemed to gather enough Shishidos to make it. What is one supposed to do with just a small handful every few days?

Ultimately I recognized the need to think realistically about how (or if) I would use everything that I wanted to grow. Now I ask myself two questions before planting my garden in spring: What do I want to eat fresh, and what do I want to preserve for later? (Fall is another good time to look back at the growing season, assess each crop’s use and, if necessary, tweak the plan for next year.) I find that dedicating my garden or an area within it to one purpose, or theme, helps me avoid an over- or underwhelming harvest of any one thing. This is how the salsa garden became my favorite strategy.

Because fresh salsa is one of my favorite ways to use the summer harvest, I started planning my garden around that goal. This theme has benefits in both summer and winter, because I like to can and ferment some salsa to store for the time when tomatoes are no longer in season. Opening up jar of fermented salsa takes me right back to the tastes and smells of summer.

The Salsa Garden

Salsa preferences vary, but here are the basic ingredients and quantities of plants that work perfectly for my basic recipe and growing space.

Every good salsa starts with fresh tomatoes. Go with paste and cherry tomatoes, because they’ll create a meatier salsa, versus a slicing variety like ‘Brandywine’, which has too much water. ‘Roma’, ‘Amish Paste’ and the yellow cherry ‘Sungold’ are perfect choices. Plant two Romas, one Sungold and two Amish Paste and you will have salsa from July until the end of the season.

I like to plant three or four types of hot peppers. Jalapeno offers mild to medium heat, with the spiciness varying with growing conditions. I plant it along with Serrano, which is considered very hot, and Habanero—a small but very mighty pepper for those brave souls. For something much more mild and slightly sweet, try the yellow-skinned Guero, or Santa Fe Grande, a favorite of my husband.

Salsa needs some bite and crunch, supplied handily by onions. Any onion variety will do the trick, but I love yellow ‘Walla Walla’. It has a sweet flavor, thanks to a low sulfur content. This also means fewer tears while chopping it. In the salsa garden I grow eight yellow onions and eight red. For gardeners short on space or growing in containers, scallions make a wonderful alternative. Ten scallions will easily fit in a fabric grow bag. Cutting just their tops, instead of harvesting the whole plant, will allow them to regrow for a continual harvest.

Referring to my salsa plan in spring reminds me to reserve a container for cilantro. This herb can be a little tricky to grow in the summer because it prefers cooler temperatures. By keeping it in a container, I can move it into a spot shaded from the midday sun when temperatures soar—or even inside my home. I find two plants are plenty for adding cilantro flavor to batches of salsa.

Some consider garlic an optional salsa ingredient, but for me it is essential. Take a whole head of garlic, break it up into cloves and plant each one in the late fall. Each clove will yield one whole head of garlic. Garlic also stores well and can last for many months once harvested and cured.

Branching Out

There are plenty of other themes to focus a food garden. As a tomato lover I’ve thought about planting a tomato-sauce garden, and my pepper plants inspired me to create a hot-sauce section. It’s one of my go-to condiments.

For a tomato sauce garden, you will need paste tomatoes like San Marzano—famous for this purpose—and Roma, as well as yellow onions, garlic, basil and parsley. Four tomatoes, eight onions, a whole head of garlic planted, two basil plants and two parsley plants would do the trick.

For a hot sauce garden, any kind of hot peppers will work, plus plenty of garlic. I like a mix of sweet, mild and hot, so I go with Fresno, Cayenne, Anaheim, Jalapeno, Tabasco, Habanero and Scotch Bonnet. If you like very spicy hot sauce, you could stick to just hot peppers. I like to ferment peppers and garlic first and then make a fermented hot sauce. Classic Siracha is made from fermented Fresno peppers.  

And P.S.: Not having enough Shishido peppers? That’s not a problem for me anymore. I plant at least four of these plants to make sure I can make enough blistered Shishido peppers with feta through most of summer.

Catch up with Becca Radin and find her recipes for pico de gallo, hot sauce and more at her website, littlemakerla.com.