Ole! Grow a Salsa Container Garden on your Porch or Patio

Think you don’t have enough space to grow tomatoes, peppers, and herbs for fresh salsa at home? Even just a few square feet of sunny space can yield a bumper crop of salsa ingredients. A batch of fresh salsa is always a hit with drop in guests and growing your own salsa container garden ensures that you have all the herbs, peppers, and vine ripened tomatoes you’ll need when friends arrive on your doorstep.  Regardless of where you live, all you need to grow vegetables in a container is a spot that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun each day.

Select a Container

Starting a container garden is a bit like the old chicken and the egg puzzle: which comes first, the plant or the container? The size of the container dictates the size and number of plants that can be planted, and the size and number of plants dictates the size of the container that can be used. Here’s a rule of thumb: herbs need a 15 inch pot, peppers require at least a 17 inch pot, and tomatoes need a 19” pot at a minimum.

Terracotta pots are easy to find, available in a wide range of styles and sizes, and are relatively inexpensive. However, terracotta is heavy and will dry out more quickly than water-tight containers. In areas prone to frost, all ceramic containers are susceptible to cracking if left to over-winter outdoors.

With adequate drainage, there are really no limits on what you can use for a container. If you choose a container that doesn’t have a hole in the bottom for drainage, you can use a drill to create one or two holes. Galvanized buckets, half barrels, even 5-gallon buckets are all great containers. Use your imagination- select something that shouts “Ole!” or that matches the style of your home. Keep an eye out for interesting containers at flea markets and antique shops.

Pick Your Plants

Select plants that are stocky and bushy, avoiding spindly looking plants. Try to select varieties that will mature around the same time. Vegetables are typically marked with the number of days to harvest, which you can use estimate when both peppers and tomatoes will be ready.

There are dozens of types of tomatoes to choose from. Heirloom tomatoes are experiencing burst of popularity with both gardeners and chefs alike. These tomatoes come in a stunning array of sizes, shape and colors- pink, gold, orange, even purple and black! Newer varieties of tomatoes that have been bred for bigger fruit, larger harvests, or disease resistance are also available.

Bush-type tomatoes are a better choice for containers than vining types, unless you plan to use a very large pot or a half barrel. Bush tomatoes are marked as “determinate” while vining tomatoes are marked as “indeterminate.” Whatever you choose, be prepared to stake your tomatoes as they grow. A variety of staking materials is commercially available, or you can improvise with materials that carry out the theme of the containers that you selected.

Tomatoes varieties recommended for containers include Patio and Window-box Roma. Patio is super hardy- it tolerates neglect very well- and in the milder areas it will grow right though winter and into next spring if sheltered from frost. If you don’t have a lot of space, try Red Robin or Yellow Canary varieties. Both are small enough for a hanging basket.

Peppers are among the easiest vegetables to grow. Most pepper varieties will grow to a max of 2 to three feet high and 18 inches wide and are ideal for containers. Even those that reach 4 feet are manageable in containers if you have the space for it. Jalapeno peppers traditionally add the heat to salsa, but milder peppers such as Black Hungarian and Aji Colorado will add a little zing without a lot of bite. For more daring palates, try Bolivian Rainbow or Serrano.

Cilantro, also known as coriander, is an herb that resembles flat leafed parsley. It has rounded growth habit and foliage in a cheerful grassy green. Cilantro is so attractive you may be tempted to grow it as an ornamental plant- and why not? The leaves are most flavorful when young, so you might consider planting cilantro at 3 week intervals to ensure a steady supply of young leaves throughout the summer and into fall. When you’re ready to bring in a new cilantro plant, move the older plant to another part of your porch or patio where it can start its second life as a decorative potted plant.

Planting and Caring for Your Garden

To plant your garden, you’ll need plants, pots and enough potting soil (not top soil or transplanting soil) to fill the containers you have selected. Before adding the soil to the pot, cover the drainage holes with shards of broken pottery or wire mesh. This will keep soil from washing out and bugs from climbing in.

Fill the pot with soil and gently shake or jostle the pot to settle the soil. Add more soil if the level of the soil sinks too far. Next, arrange your plants however you find them most attractive. Once you are satisfied with their locations, dig holes about 3 inches larger than the root of each plant. Carefully remove the nursery pots from your plants and nestle them in the appropriate holes. Gently cover the root of the plant with more soil. Give the pot a good drink of water, being careful not to disturb the new plants, and then position the containers in their new home.

Container grown vegetables need regular feeding. Whether you choose and water-soluble or time- release plant food is a matter of preference. Some gardeners prefer the convenience of time release food while others like to feed their plants a highly diluted water-soluble solution every time they water. Whatever you choose, always follow the plant food manufacturer’s instructions for the proper usage and timing. Too much fertilizer can burn plants, turning the leaves yellow or brown.

Adequate watering is one of the most important things you can do to ensure the success of your garden. Larger pots won’t have to be watered as often as smaller ones, but in the hottest part of summer expect to water your plants at least every other day, and possibly as often as twice a day. Soaking the plant is better than a quick drink- it encourages deeper root growth and larger more bountiful harvests. Use the 2 or 3 minutes you spend watering to check the plants for new growth, signs of distress or insects, or just to guess how many more days till you can make that first batch of salsa!

Tips for a Successful Container Garden:

  • Leaving at least a 1-1/2 inch space between the top of the container and the soil makes watering easier. Water is trapped in the pot till it is absorbed by the soil.
  • If watering becomes a chore, consider a installing a drip sprinkler system. Complete do-it-yourself kits are available for around $25 and are easy to assemble.
  • Mix ornamental plants in the containers with your herbs and veggies. Surround your tomatoes with yellow marigolds and mix red petunias with your peppers. Trailing plants such as alyssum or bacopa make a terrific contrast with taller plants.
  • If you’ll be out of town for a few days and no one will be able to water your containers, purchase a small wading pool. Fill the pool with 2-3 inches of water and put your containers directly in the water.
  • If aphids or whiteflies are a problem and you prefer not to use a pesticide, try this: spray the affected plant with a firm stream of water to knock of the bugs. Mix 2 tablespoons of dishwashing liquid with 2 cups of water in a squirt bottle. Spray the plant liberally with this solution. Repeat as often as needed.

Have you tried vegetable gardening in containers?  Let me know what veggies you grew and any tips you have!

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