Tomatoes start showing up in the big-box stores as early as February. To stay competitive, the locally owned nurseries probably stock them not much later, even though they know that it does little good to plant tomatoes any earlier than April 15th in Napa. Depending on your location, the low evening temperatures throughout the summer make it tempting to put tomatoes in the ground as early as possible. I mean, who doesn’t want a ripe backyard tomato by the 4th of July? In the school garden, however, you may want to be a little more selective with timing.
In a previous post (School’s Out for Summer, May 1st), I suggest that school garden educators select varieties that ripen later in the summer so they coincide with students’ return to school. At Pueblo Vista Magnet School, we time the planting of tomatoes with one additional thing in mind: the date of the back-to-school Harvest Festival!
The Harvest Festival is a community-building event that celebrates the bounty of the school garden with a salsa contest. All students in TK-5 participate in a salsa-making lesson in our commercial teaching kitchen. In order to have enough tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro, it takes careful backward planning. Although each of these ingredients can be harvested in the summer, they have different rates for reaching maturity. Believe it or not, planning for a well-timed harvest salsa starts well before those tomatoes ever show up in the nurseries. Next year, the Harvest Festival is on September 15th. Here is the process we follow for our salsa garden:
Plant Roots in Late Fall and Late Winter
- Garlic: Plant in November. In mild-winter climates, fall planting enables larger, more flavorful bulbs.Aim for Halloween, but be sure get the bulbs in the ground no later than Thanksgiving. If the tops tie back before school ends, harvest with a pitchfork and store until September.
- Onions: Plant sets in late February early March. Dry onions (as opposed to green onions) take about 90-150 days to mature. We plant enough to use all year, so we want to harvest these early enough to allow curing time for proper storage.
Plant Fruits in May
- Tomatoes: Early varieties take 55-65 days and small varieties take between 70-85 days, but the large, juicy fruit you want for salsa and sauce mature in upwards of 85-100 days. Remember, tomatoes keep producing through late fall, so consider total yield before planting more than 4-6 plants.
- Peppers: People are usually surprised to learn that red peppers are just more ripe green peppers. From transplants, peppers take about 45-55 days in optimal conditions, so planting them with the tomatoes is a safe bet. We plant one sweet and one hot pepper for lessons and rely on families to bring their favorite dried varieties.
- Tomatillos: Salsa verde requires roasted tomatillos. There’s nothing like it, so be sure to allow 75-100 days for tomatillos to reach full maturity.
Plant Leaves and Seeds in June
- Cilantro: Sow seed in a consistently moist bed. We allow it to self sow from plants we plant at the very beginning of the year because we like to have it all year. It makes a great life cycle observation lesson. Leaves take about 60 days, but seed takes another 40 days.
- Corn: Sow transplants just before school ends for a timely harvest (65-95) and sweet addition to special salsas. Remember, corn is wind-pollinated, so sow in blocks with at least four rows across.
Theme vegetable beds can be a lot of fun, but if you’re planning a harvest around an event or a meal, it takes a little diligence to get the timing just right. It’s not rocket science…it’s salsa science! Just add salt and limes.