Joe Hutchinson loves eating salsa. And for the past five years, he has devoted his entire garden to growing the ingredients needed to make it.
A UPS delivery person by day, this Mead resident has dedicated his spare time to all aspects of gardening.
“I got the knack from my grandpa, who was always working in his garden,” he said. “I’ve been gardening for at least 25 years now.”
He used to grow many different vegetable crops in the past. Several years ago, his wife, Donna, started experimenting with different tomato-based sauces and asked him to grow more tomatoes. That caused him to reassess what he should be growing each year.
“Tomatoes have always done well for me, and the kids like the peppers,” he said. “I’ve always grown onions, so I realized I have everything to make salsa. That’s what started it.”
This year, Hutchinson is growing a 48 tomato plants, 48 pepper plants, onions, cilantro, oregano and thyme.
The tomato varieties he grows are Roma Sauce Pompeii and Crimson Carmello. Pepper varieties are California Wonder bells, Jalafuego jalapeños, Anaheim and Sweet Banana. He raises Walla Walla Sweet and Spanish Utah onions.
“I make three kinds of salsa: a mild type using Anaheim peppers for my grandkids, a medium type using the jalapeños for a little more kick, and all of my peppers plus a lot of cayenne spice for a hot salsa,” Hutchinson said.
He enriches the soil in his beds with homemade compost and alpaca manure, due to its few weed seeds and the fact that it doesn’t burn the plants. He avoids using chemicals in the garden and prefers Lilly Miller’s natural MorCrop tomato and vegetable fertilizer.
Hutchinson starts all of his plants from seed. He has a halide light system in a section of his garage that puts off a lot of light and heat.
He started his onions Jan. 15, the peppers on March 9 and the tomatoes on April 10.
He was able to transplant his pepper seedlings out to the garden the third week of April because his raised beds have 6-mil heavy-gauge plastic covers to keep the plants warm. Each bed has sturdy hoops over them, which support the plastic sheeting.
“I keep the beds covered but leave the ends open,” he said. “If the nights are going to be cool, I close them and use black clips to hold the plastic in place. I usually find the soil is warm enough to keep the plants warm for the night.”
He waits until August to sow cilantro seeds because they tend to bolt to seed in hot weather. By waiting, he is assured of just having nice leafy growth to harvest at canning time.
Hutchinson supports his robust plants with cattle panels formed into square tomato cages. They are sturdy and it’s easy to harvest tomatoes through the openings. Purchased at a local farm supply store, the panels are 4 feet tall and 16 feet long.
On Aug. 15, he started trimming back the tomato plants to make them ripen the fruits that were already on the vines. He even clipped off any flowers he found.
In 2012, the Hutchinsons canned an impressive 124 pints of salsa, plus 120 pints of marinara sauce. How much salsa are they hoping for this time?
“This year, Joe’s shooting for 160 pints,” Donna Hutchinson said. “I’m certain he thinks salsa is one of the basic food groups.”
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