If Life Gives You Tomatoes, Make Salsa! By S.M. in Arizona

Gardening in the Southwestern United States is a huge challenge!  Growing a successful garden takes hard work and a commitment to never give up.  My gardening quest began in earnest in October 2010.  Prior to 2010 I had planted seeds in the ground with few, if any, results.  I had one lemon tree and aloe vera plants (part of my first aid kit, used for burns, skin irritations, etc.) that grew without much help from me.  A friend, who was a master gardener, gave a class one Saturday on how to start a garden.  He taught basic desert gardening and helped us create small square foot gardening boxes (2 x 2).  I brought home two of these (8 square feet total) and another shallow box in which to plant spinach and lettuces.  October was the perfect time to plant a fall garden.  I mostly planted greens, which are supposed to be easy to grow.  I watered and waited and hoped for a small harvest since I now had a miniature “garden” (if you could call it that).  It was a start.  Since that time, I’ve graduated to larger garden boxes that are four feet by eight feet long.  Planting in the ground here just doesn’t work due to poor soil and water loss. Garden boxes help control water usage/waste and soil quality. 
A visitor from up North was looking over a friend’s first attempts at a garden in the ground and remarked, “I had no idea what you were up against.”  People from other parts of the country can’t comprehend how difficult it is to grow a garden in the desert.  This gardener’s next attempts included raised bed boxes, bird netting and improved soil.  After a lot of hard work, he now has a garden to be proud of.

Building a garden box takes a few materials and a little bit of work.  Cedar and Douglas fir are good choices for building materials.  Four by four posts make the corners and then three two by six boards are screwed into the posts to make up the sides and ends.  The outside of the boxes are sealed with water sealer to help them endure the weather.  Once the rectangular shape is completed, an area is leveled and bricks are placed as a foundation for the box to sit on.  Place the box on top of the bricks and add ground cover cloth inside the box on the ground.  Cover the inner sides of the box with plastic sheeting to protect the boards from water damage, soil loss and water leakage.  Attach the plastic sheeting to the tops of each side with staples or secure with two by twos on the top of each side. Fill the bottom half of the boxes with sandy loam – delivered from a local company.   Next, finish filling the boxes with a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss, and two different types of compost.  Fill the boxes really full, since the soil will compact down over time.  Each planting season the boxes need to be topped off and the soil loosened.  This initial investment will last for years and grow excellent crops.  Test soil for nutrient levels with the local extension.  Very few weeds grow in these boxes, so most of that work is eliminated.

The type of seeds selected is also important.  Certain plants just won’t grow in the desert.  Look for heat resistant varieties.  The season in which a certain type of plant is planted matters also.  Zone nine has very different planting dates than other regions.  For example, tomato plants (not seeds) planted outdoors (from indoor starts) in late February will yield a nice harvest in May, June and into July.  The plants will usually stop producing and become dormant in August and part of September.  However, if they are kept alive, they will produce a nice second crop in late October, early November.  Even better, if the plants are covered and kept from freezing through the winter, then they will last for a second year.  After that, I like to grow new plants and move them to a different bed because diseases and bugs seem to overcome the plants at this point.  One friend had the same vigorous tomato plants that lasted for three years.

As of this writing, I have six garden boxes with one more in progress.  There is a permanent mountain of sandy loam on the back patio to be used in future projects.  At one point I felt that I had plenty of garden space with just four boxes, but last fall I planted half a box with carrots and the other side with onions (nice companion plants) and thought that would be plenty, but it wasn’t even close to enough.  Some onions were frozen while others were used in daily cooking (I like cooked onions) with very few left to use in making salsa, and none were left for dehydration.  The carrots were delicious and used quickly as well.  There weren’t any left to preserve.  The carrot tops went to a friend’s rabbits – a special treat.  Otherwise, the carrot tops would have been composted along with the rest of the garden leftovers to help improve the soil so we can stop buying peat moss.

The first couple of gardening years I had beautiful plants with little to actually eat.  I read somewhere that the most important part of growing a garden is the harvest.  Since then, I’ve concentrated more on production and how much we can eat from the garden.  The more the fruit or leaves are harvested, the more the plants are stimulated to produce.  This is especially true with strawberries, lettuces, spinach, and Swiss chard.

This year I have more than enough tomatoes.  Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, and combined with the citrus fruit that’s abundant in our area, scurvy won’t be a problem during an emergency situation.  Usually, I eat tomatoes fresh from the garden on salads or as a side dish with meals and that’s all.  It’s been nice to give them to friends and have leftovers to can as well.  One garden box was planted with two Early Girl, two cherry, and two Roma plants.  Six plants are the maximum one box will hold (tomatoes are space hogs and like to have lots of room for their roots).  The plants grew over six feet tall.  They are staked (with tomato cages and PVC pipe supports because I don’t like vines in the dirt. They seem to get covered with ants and the fruit rots easily) and have sun screens and bird netting over the top for protection.  Birds don’t seem to bother the green tomatoes in June, but once they start to turn, it’s a war to see who will get to the fruit first.  As the weather gets warmer, the birds get more aggressive and the bird netting in a necessity to keep the fruit from being ruined by the pests.  After the garden was planted, a friend brought over four additional Roma plants.  Roma tomatoes are wonderful – firm and medium sized with a pleasing flavor. 

What to do with the extra tomatoes?  First, a huge batch of spaghetti sauce was made using 1 jalapeno, green peppers, onions, and garlic from the garden.  Chili powder was also used since we like our sauce spicy.  This sauce included meat and was frozen.  Next, another batch of spaghetti sauce was made without meat.  This was canned using a cold pack canner – tomatoes are acidic enough that they don’t need to be pressure canned as long as they don’t contain meat.  I started with spaghetti sauce because the tomatoes don’t need to be peeled. 

Since I had so many tomatoes, I wanted to try salsa (first time) and knew the tomatoes needed to be peeled to make it correctly.  I found a few recipes and experimented.  Slip peeling tomatoes isn’t difficult.  Bring a pot of water to a boil and set up a large bowl of ice water.  Wash tomatoes and place in boiling water for 30 seconds, for canning whole (or 3 minutes for salsa, depending on the recipe).  Remove from boiling water and place in ice water for 30 seconds.  Remove from water, core with a knife, and then slip the skin off with your finger.  The skin will slide right off.  Some of these skinned tomatoes were canned whole with ½ tsp. lemon juice and ½ tsp. salt.  Fill jars to ½ inch of top with water/juice and process as usual.  The tomatoes that were processed for three minutes were cooked somewhat (which you need for salsa).  After peeling they go into the food processor or blender.  Depending on the recipe, the chilies and onion can be cooked first or added raw to the tomatoes.  Add spices and cilantro and put salsa in the fridge to be enjoyed right away or put into canning jars and processed for use later.

Usually my garden has finished most of its summer production by mid-July, but this year, in July, it’s still going strong.  We eat cherry tomatoes as a snack and on salad almost daily.  It would be nice if all the things I tried to grow grew as well as the tomatoes.  Beans, squash, strawberries, and cucumbers still challenge me.  My zucchini plants look gorgeous, but don’t produce any squash.  My gardening friend says I have a pollinator problem and need to pollinate by hand.  I can’t tell the difference between the male and female flowers so I just go out with Q-tips and rub pollen from one flower on all the others.  It just hasn’t worked.  He may have to come over and show me exactly what to do because I’m stumped.  Meanwhile, my gardening girlfriend has bounteous zucchini – maybe she will trade for tomatoes.  Next year I may not have as many tomatoes or they may get a disease, but this year I’m thankful for my successful salsa garden and I’ll do everything I can to preserve this bounty.

As I’ve studied material on gardening and prepping, I read comments such as, “Be sure to have seeds in your preps so that in a year or so you can plant them to replenish your food supply.”  A year?  A year is too long to wait!  Other than August, gardening can be done all year long in Southern Arizona.  Cool weather vegetables need to be planted in October, citrus ripens from December to April, and spring and summer gardens can be planted from February through March.  The seeds need to be put in the ground at specific times.  Even if seeds are started indoors, they can be transplanted outdoors later.  They need less water this way and can be protected from garden “raiders”.  Most marauders/scavengers would (hopefully) overlook seeds that had just been planted and garden boxes (the big ones) are not easily moved.  My small lettuce/spinach boxes could be easily taken away.  These I would gladly give up if the other plants were left alone.  In a worst case scenario I would still try to plant a garden using armed guards, if necessary. I’m counting on desperate people, who are looking for food, to overlook plants in the garden/ground as food, since food comes from a grocery store in cans and boxes – right?  It may not be practical, but I will try planting any way I can because a garden is a symbol of hope.  Even if just a few things grow, it will have been worth it to give myself and others even a small amount of fresh produce in a stressful time.  On the other hand, if trespassers steal my produce, then I will plant again and use my indoor stored food until I can plant again.

Here are a few things I have learned about/from gardening:
1.  Gardening is a process, a journey, and not a destination.  There will always be more to learn.   The more you learn, the more you realize you need to learn.
2.  Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and to make (many) mistakes.  Spend time in the garden just enjoying it.  Touch the plants and dig your fingers into the soil.  Attempt to unravel the mystery of an artichoke or whatever new and unusual plant you are growing this season.
3.  Be patient.  Growing a garden takes time.  I used to pick and wanted to pick things before they were ripe.  Sometimes, I still pick tomatoes a day or two early, but that’s to save them from aggressive birds.  They ripen nicely on the kitchen counter and still taste superior to store bought. A garden takes time to establish and the basic learning curve is about five years.  The things I’ve learned during the first four years in my garden have been invaluable to me.  I’ve become more confident in my ability to see a project through and not give up.  I’ve seen tiny carrot seeds become beautiful plants and then have gone on to eat and enjoy the crunchy, delicious taste.  I can’t imagine going without fresh Swiss chard or green peppers that have become a part of my weekly cooking, all in season, and not before their time.
4.  Eat/Preserve locally.  I never plant corn in my garden because so much corn is available here during June.  I can get it free and eat some fresh and freeze some for later.  A quick one minute bath in boiling water starts to cook the corn, which can be cut from the cob or frozen on the cob.  It stacks nicely in freezer bags.  Watermelon is also local and free.  An extended family member raises watermelon as gifts for friends, so we always get a few.  Farmer’s markets are great places to find fresh food to can or dehydrate.  When fruit is on sale it quickly becomes jam (strawberries, raspberries) or is frozen to be made into muffins or smoothies (blueberries).  Preserve what is abundant now.  Each year will be different.  If tomato products are coming out of your ears, then barter.  My neighbor down the street brings me grapefruit during the spring (I only have a lemon tree, but will be growing a grapefruit tree this year).  She gets tomatoes in June in return.
5.  When you think you’ve watered enough, water some more!  Water is a whole topic by itself, but there is no way to water too much.
6.   Keep a garden journal.  Include dates of planting, fertilizing, garden design & the changes made each season, and pictures of plants in different stages of development, especially new plants that are experimental or causing trouble.  This will be a great resource.
7.  Pray.  The Bible tells us to pray over our flocks and fields.  I’ve prayed many times for rain and for understanding to know what my plants need (Too much nitrogen? More shade?  Less fertilizer?)  In tumultuous times, a prayer on the garden as well as a blessing on the food couldn’t go amiss.  As I search for answers regarding watering a garden when the municipal water supply isn’t up and running, I keep turning to prayer to help me find answers to this important question.  (Again, water is a whole issue on its own.)  Pray in gratitude for the abundance that you’ve been given (thank you for the tomatoes) and more will be “added unto you”.

I’ll do whatever it takes to continue to garden.  I finally feel ready to take my gardening to the next level.  This includes planting heirlooms and beginning to save seeds from the heirloom vegetables (seeds should only be saved from ripe fruits/vegetables).  I want to move away from GMO/hybrid seeds and plants and try new varieties.  I’ll plant several new trees and will experiment with grapes and raspberries.  One of my garden beds will be used to plant a “three sisters” garden (corn, beans, and squash) next year, which according to Native American lore, help each other grow better (companion planting).  The corn shades the beans and squash while the bean plants grow up the corn stalks and the nitrogen content of the soil is nicely balanced. 

Plants that weren’t successful in the past will be tried again in new and better locations (improved microclimates) with some new techniques to see if better results will ensue.  I have a new location for strawberries and will cover them with straw when the weather turns hot and continue to water, long and slow.  This may save the plants for more than one growing season and protect the delicate leaves from sunburn.  Another item will be to plant more of what we eat/like and less of other things.  Dill is an excellent herb that I use frequently in my cooking.  It goes in potato salad, egg salad, deviled eggs and almost anything else that contains potatoes.  Dill needs to be planted in full sun in order to germinate, but doesn’t like the hot days of summer.  I’ll plant more in October and dry it when it’s ready.  Dill is so expensive to buy in small containers at the store, but is very inexpensive to grow.  A few seeds turn into a lot of dill! 

Another area to be improved upon is my composting.  I need a better system to save scraps from the kitchen and then remember to take them out to the composting container.  My container came free from the city simply for the asking.  It’s nearly full.  I may call and see if they will give me another one.  Many more projects and ideas are waiting, but I’ll tackle just one at a time and continue reading and learning about southwestern gardening.

My garden is a hopeful, positive place.  I can’t imagine my life without a garden now or in the future.  Gardening in challenging in Arizona, but I like the challenge and have learned how much can be accomplished with hard work and persistence.  Just start small and take it one step at a time like I did, and if you have lots of tomatoes, make some salsa (with salsa, who needs a recipe, right?), and if your lemon tree goes nuts, then make some lemonade too.