If you’re looking for a beautiful, unique and highly productive plant to add to your summer garden, you can’t go wrong with tomatillos! Here’s how to grow them…
Native to Mexico and commonly used in Mexican cuisine – particularly salsa verde – tomatillos are a small (usually) greenish-yellow fruit in the tomato family with a mildly tart and citrusy flavor. They grow inside of papery husks that that somewhat resemble paper lanterns. The super-productive plants are bushy, with shiny green leaves and green or purple-streaked stems (some varieties have purple fruits and purple stems), and the fruit husks turn yellow when ripe, giving the loaded plants a lovely and unique appearance.
Like tomatoes but smaller, these plants have a tendency to fall over when loaded with fruit, so I have found it is best to grow them inside a small tomato cage, or you can also stake them like tomatoes. Be careful when handling, as the stems are more fragile than tomato plants, and can easily split or break.
We have great success growing our tomatillos in hay bales, and the only pest problems we’ve had with them are a few stem borers, which also impact tomatoes in our area.
Due to their heavy production, you will probably end up with an abundance of fruits. Tomatillos keep well for several weeks in a cool, dark location or refrigerator, but you can also freeze them whole in freezer bags (remove husks and rinse and try first) for future use in salsas or other recipes.
Here are a few tips for growing tomatillos in your own garden:
Choosing A Growing Site
Select a growing area with full sun exposure and well-drained, moderately rich soil. The tomatillo is a lighter feeder than tomatoes, and while they are tough semi-wild plants, they do not fare well in soggy, poorly drained soil. Work a couple inches of compost into the soil before planting seeds, and fork deeply to improve drainage. Raised beds work great for the tomatillo plant if your garden has heavy clay soil.
Start tomatillo seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your last frost date. Harden off indoor-started plants before transplanting outdoors to the garden. Set out at the same time you plant your tomatoes, when all danger of frost is past and the soil is thoroughly warm.
Tomatillos are much like their nightshade family cousin the tomato, in that the plant sprouts roots along the stems, so it profits from being planted deeply in the garden. The indeterminate, sprawling plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall and at least as wide, so space the plants 3 feet apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Plan to give them support in the form of gardening trellises or tomato cages, unless you want to harvest the ripe fruits off the ground. Two to four plants are sufficient for fresh use for most families.
Tomatillos are hugely prolific and produce nonstop until laid low by frost. Start by applying 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch, such as grass clippings, to suppress weeds and keep the soil moist. Although moderately drought-tolerant, tomatillos do best with an inch or so of water per week. If space is limited, pinch off the growing tips to control spread. Fertilizer is not needed.
You’ll be preparing your first organic salsa verde about 75 to 100 days after transplanting seedlings. Harvest tomatillos when they fill out their husks and the husks just begin to split. If the fruits feel like mini marbles inside loose husks, wait awhile, but harvest before they turn pale yellow, as they become seedier and their flavor loses the desired tanginess as they ripen. Store harvested tomatillos in their husks at room temperature for up to a week or in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
Though the tomatillo seems like some exotic vegetable, they are popular with beginner gardeners, because they rarely suffer disease or insect pest problems. Cage the plants off the ground to allow air to circulate—which protects them from diseases, such as early blight—and to keep them out of reach of slugs and snails…
Tomatillos are not self-pollinating like their tomato cousins. In order for the tomatillo flowers to set fruit, you must grow at least two plants. Otherwise, you’ll be left with lots of pretty little yellow flowers and none of the tasty green edible fruit.