Have you ever tried growing a tomatillo plant? Often used as part of salsa or Mexican cuisine, this relative of the cape gooseberry is a popular fruit. But what are tomatillos, really?
As a member of the nighshade family, the tomatillo is a warm weather loving plant that is perfect for salsa gardens, and green tomato gardens in general. You can grow them alongside your favorite herbs and pepper plants for delicious flavor throughout the fall.
The greenish or purple tomatillo fruit is used in an ever-increasing number of dishes, not to mention the salsa verde we all love. Let’s talk about all of the requirements for growing them so that you can enjoy them yourself!
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Good Products At Amazon For Tomatillo Growers:
- Monterey BT
- Take-Down Garden Spray
- Neem Oil
- Safer Soap
- Beneficial Nematodes
- Monterey Liqui-Cop
Tomatillos: Quick Care Guide
|Common Name||Tomatillo, green tomatillo, yellow tomatillo, purple tomatillo, husk tomato, jamberry, Mexican groundcherry, large-flowered tomatillo, Mexican husk tomato, miltomate, tomate de cascara, tomate de fresadilla, tomate milpero, tomate verde, husk cherry, little tomato|
|Scientific Name||Physalis ixocarpa, Physalis philadelphica|
|Days to Harvest||60-100 days depending on cultivar|
|Water||1” to 1.5” per week|
|Soil||Rich, well-draining soil, can tolerate sandier soils as well|
|Fertilizer||Balanced fertilizer or compost|
|Pests||Cutworms (especially tomato fruitworm), armyworms, root knot nematodes, flea beetles, cucumber beetles, potato bugs, aphids, whiteflies, thrips, broad mites, leafminers|
|Diseases||Septoria leaf spot, fusarium wilt, mosaic viruses (multiple species)|
All About Tomatillos
The Mexican husk tomato, sometimes called jamberry but more commonly called tomatillo, is a strange little plant. Its fruit grows within a natural lantern-like, papery husk. Once ripe, the papery husk splits open and the fruit of your labor is ready to use.
Botanically, tomatillos come from two species: Physalis ixocarpa and Physalis philadelphica. Their common name, tomatillo, comes from the Nahuatl word for tomato, tomatl. The plant is incredibly important to indigenous peoples in Mexico, and has become important for the rest of the world as well.
In most areas of the world outside the tropics, the tomatillo is grown as an annual. However, in its native range, or in subtropic and tropical regions, it’s perennial.
While most tomatillo varieties have origins in Mexico, tomatillo fruits are common throughout the Americas in the wild. There are two species, Physalis ixocarpa and Physalis philadelphica, but there’s many cultivars.
Types of Tomatillos
Tomatillos come in one of two species: Physalis ixocarpa, and Physalis philadelphica. Related to the ground cherry, these Physalis species produce green, yellow, or purple fruit.
I’ve compiled a list of different colorations of tomatillos and where to find seeds for them. There’s more varieties out there, too, but these are some of the most common!
- Toma Verde: 60 days. An early-maturing variety with large, flattened round fruit with a bright green color.
- Gigante: 75 days. Sweeter than many other tomatillo varieties, packed with flavor.
- Miltomate: 80 days. 1″ small green fruit which is perfect for salsa verde.
- Rio Grande Verde: 85 days. A determinate variety that produces 3-4oz fruit with high yields.
- Green Organic: 100 days. 2-3″ round tomatillo fruits that ripen to a yellow-green color. Easy to grow.
- Amarylla: 60 days. Bred for cooler summer conditions. Sweet and bright yellow when ripe.
- Mexican Strain: 65 days. Average 2″ fruit, more savory flavor than other tomatillos.
- Pineapple: 75 days. Light pineapple flavor in this small fruit, enjoy fresh or cooked.
- Organic Purple: 70 days. 2-4oz fruits in a rich, dark purple hue. Popular variety!
- De Milpa: 70 days. Purple and yellow-streaked fruit, small to medium size.
- Purple Coban: 70 days. 1″ purple tomatillos, popular in Guatemalan food.
- Tiny From Coban: 70 days. Tiny little purple tomatillos, not much bigger than a dime!
Growing Tomatillos From Seed
One of the best things about tomatillos is that they’re extremely easy to plant. In fact, if you don’t harvest all the fruit, you may find them coming back as a weed the next year! Here’s how to plant tomatillos deliberately for optimal conditions.
About four weeks after the last frost has passed is the time to plant tomatillo seeds. You can start them earlier if your weather warms up quickly, but they won’t germinate without soil temperatures of around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Growing tomatillos from seed can be done either in cells for transplanting, or directly in the soil. You will need a full sun location for best tomatillo growth.
Purple tomatillos make good container plants, while green ones seem to prefer a bit more root space.
For container gardens, you’ll need a large container, at least a foot across, filled with well-draining potting soil and compost. Your soil will need to hold some water as tomatillos will suck the soil dry quickly once established!
Beds should be amended with plenty of compost and should also be well-draining. They will not grow as well in muddy conditions.
Be sure that you can stake or use a tomato cage in the area where you’re planting to help support the tomatillo and its bounty of fruit. These vine out quite a bit, but aren’t as heavy as a standard tomato plant.
Seeds just barely need to be covered by soil. If direct-seeding, space your seeds out so that they aren’t within a foot of each other, and thin out weaker plants until they’re about 2-3 feet apart.
Sowing in transplant cells or starter pots is similar. Just barely cover them with soil, no more than 1/4″ deep, and try not to put more than a couple seeds in each hole. Your plants will quickly grow once they’ve sprouted. Space plants far enough apart so they can spread out.
Caring For Tomatillo Plants
Tomatillos will practically grow themselves. These plants are hardy and persistent! But there’s some optimal conditions you should aim for to get gigantic tomatillo harvests.
Light and Temperature
Full sun is optimal for your tomatillos. These plants grow heartily in Mexico and other hot climates, and can handle the heat.
While some have grown tomatillos in partial sun conditions, they don’t thrive as well that way. Tomatillos really prefer the sun to thrive.
The optimal temperature range for tomatillo-growing is between 70-90 degrees, but they can handle it if it’s warmer. Early to mid spring planting is fine as long as it doesn’t get much colder.
Essentially, if conditions are good for your green tomatoes, they’ll likely be good for growing tomatillos as well. If your summers regularly get over 100 degrees, consider a little afternoon shade to help them cool down.
Once established, tomatillos can continue to produce fruit until frost time. They may also re-emerge after he last frost has passed in spring.
Water and Humidity
An inch to an inch and a half of water per week is perfect for growing tomatillos. They don’t like soggy soils, but they do love to have an abundance of water.
Try to allow the soil to dry out between waterings. This reduces the likelihood of disease, and also encourages your plant to ripen its fruit more quickly. They are somewhat drought-tolerant plants.
About once a week, give your tomatillo plants a good watering, and more often in hot weather. As long as you achieve the inch or so that they want of water, the dry periods in between won’t cause significant heat stress if the weather’s mild.
Well-draining, nutrient rich soil is essential for good tomatillo growth. While these grow wild in nearly any soil type, they will really appreciate starting out with an abundance of nutrition.
Sandy soils are okay, but you’ll still want to amend them to provide extra compost for nutrition and moisture-retention.
If they have plenty of food to start with, tomatillos can often reach 4′ heights and sprawl out 2-3 feet. Spacing them accordingly will help ensure their roots aren’t crowded.
Both species of tomatillo prefer a neutral pH range between 5.8-7, but seem to do best in the 6.5-7 pH range.
It’s important to use 2-3 inches of organic mulch around your plant. This will ensure that the soil beneath the mulch stays moist even during hotter weather.
Fertilizing Your Tomatillo Plant
You won’t need anything fancy while growing tomatillos. A general all-purpose balanced fertilizer is just fine by these easy-growing plants. If you start with rich soil, you may not need to fertilize at all until late in the growing season.
For those who want to encourage heavy growth and fruiting, consider using a watered-down balanced liquid fertilizer monthly. They shouldn’t need more than that.
I like to ensure that my tomatillos get an occasional dose of compost tea to add beneficial microbes to the soil as well. While they’re fairly pest-resistant plants on their own, the extra boost certainly doesn’t hurt.
Light pruning is good for tomatillos, as it promotes good air circulation around the plant. The majority of your pruning should be removing sucker shoots.
A sucker shoot comes up in the V-shape created by the main stem and a branch. Simply pinch off the new shoot once it reaches 2″-4″ in length, or trim it off with a clean and sterile pair of pruning shears.
Be careful not to remove all of your sucker shoots, as this will reduce the yield when you harvest tomatillos. Only remove those which are blocking good air circulation to the center of the plant.
In addition, the number of main stems makes a difference. While with a single stem your fruit will ripen faster, two stems joined at the base will produce more fruit overall.
As your young plant grows, decide whether you want just one main stem or two, and keep suckers and side branches pruned to train it to your desired configuration.
Tomatillo Plant Propagation
Tomatillos can be grown from seed or from cuttings.
Cuttings will take root easily. In fact, if your plants sprawl, branches that touch the soil may develop roots on their own.
If you wish to do cuttings, select a 6″ or longer vigorous branch. Remove it along the stem, and strip off lower leaves, ensuring that there are a few leaves still remaining at the tip. Trim it down to a 6″ height.
You can dip it in rooting hormone if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. Place your cutting into a container of moistened potting soil and it will form roots within a couple weeks.
Ensure your soil remains damp, but not soggy, while it’s setting roots. This will be enough to keep your stem hydrated until it forms new roots to absorb nutrients.
Before you save tomatillo seeds, be forewarned: any plants which have been subject to plant diseases should not have their seeds saved. Fungal diseases and viruses can be stored in the seed itself and will simply cause any new plants to catch the disease.
In addition, tomatillo seeds which have been cross-pollinated with other varieties may not breed true. If you’ve only grown one variety of tomatillo, this isn’t a problem, but if you’re growing two to three it might be.
To save tomatillo seeds, simply cut open your tomatillos. Scoop out the seeds into a bowl with your fingers and use the rest of the fruit for cooking or fresh-eating purposes.
Once you’ve deseeded your tomatillos, rinse off as much of the naturally-forming goo and pulp as you can, gently rubbing the seeds with your fingertips to get the gunk off. Place your tomatillo seeds on a piece of wax paper or parchment and allow them to completely dry.
You can opt to ferment the seeds to remove all of the goo, which is what I prefer. To do this, place your seeds into a small, sealable container. Add enough water to cause the seeds to float and close it. Every day for three days, gently slosh the seeds around in the water.
Once the goo has started to ferment, it will easily separate from the seeds. You can just rinse them off and then place them on a tray to dry.
Like green tomatoes, tomatillos can be planted more deeply. You can cover up to a third of the young plant’s height in soil, and it will happily send out roots along the covered portion of the stem.
Prepare your planting location, ensuring that the soil there is amended with compost.
I like to add a little bone meal, some used coffee grounds, and some vermicompost under the seedling plant, as these help provide extra nitrogen and phosphorous. Powdered eggshell is another good additive.
You can opt for organic fertilizers if you’d prefer. Avoid granular ones that might burn tender roots.
Remove your tomatillo from its prior pot carefully, and examine the base. If the roots seem compacted, gently open them up with your fingertips. Then place the tomatillo in the ground and work soil in and overtop of the old pot’s soil.
Harvesting and Storing Tomatillos
Tomatillos can be quite prolific once the fruit starts to come ripe, and many people have experienced a sudden rush of ripe produce. It’s hardly a chore to eat lots of salsa verde, but what if you’d like to harvest tomatillos and use them in other ways?
Worry not, I have solutions for this problem. Read on to learn how to store your tomatillos, whether fresh or preserved!
Your tomatillos are ready for harvesting when the papery husks feel full and firm. You can opt to leave them on the plant for a little while longer, but once the papery husk splits, harvest them immediately.
A gentle shake of the plant should cause ripe tomatillos to fall off on their own. If you find some that feel ready but don’t drop, you can pick them yourself, but use those after those which naturally fall to be sure they’re at their peak ripeness.
Use a knife to cut through the stem close to the tomatillo husk. Do not pull them off, as you may cause damage to the vine structure of the plant.
Leave the husks on the tomatillo when you take them inside, as they are useful in short-term storage.
If you’re doing the last harvest before the winter sets in, there’s a fun trick you can use! Uproot the entire plant and dust soil off the roots, then hang it upside down in the garage, fruit and all.
If the temperature in the garage is below 50 degrees and it’s dry, the tomatillos can be stored there for a couple months. A root cellar works too. Just be cautious about moisture, as that can cause the plant and fruit to rot prematurely.
Storage For Tomatillos
Tomatillos that are still in their husks will last a bit longer than those that aren’t. The papery husk forms a protective outside layer that pads and protects the fruit’s skin beneath.
Going to use your tomatillos within the next week? You can store them in a basket right on the kitchen counter. Tomatillos that are going to be used soon can be stored either inside or outside of their husks.
If you do remove your tomatillos from their husks, be sure to thoroughly wash them. Tomatillos produce a natural pest repellent inside their husks which stops bugs from dining on the fruit within. It’s a bit sticky and will collect dust.
Storing them dry on the counter is only good for a few days, though. Beyond that, you need to opt for longer-term storage solutions.
2-3 weeks of storage can be achieved by refrigerating your tomatillos. Leave the husks on, and place them inside a paper bag in the coolest part of the fridge. You may want to add a paper towel liner inside the bag as well.
This bag (whether paper towel lined or not) will absorb excess moisture and help preserve your tomatillos. Check them regularly to make sure none are starting to spoil!
A big harvest of tomatillos can be divided up into fresh and frozen tomatillos. Freezing them will soften the flesh of the fruit somewhat, but it can still easily be used in sauces or cooking.
For frozen tomatillos, remove the papery husk and thoroughly wash and dry your tomatillos. Then place them on a baking sheet that’s lined with parchment paper. You can cut them into chunks or leave them whole as you prefer.
Put this sheet into the freezer until they’re completely frozen solid, then pop the tomatillos into a freezer bag and mark it with the date of harvest. They can be thawed out and used whenever you’re ready for them.
Tomatillos can also be freeze-dried or canned, although they may suffer from some loss of flavor in both processes. However, for salsa verde, it works just fine to can or freeze-dry them.
Troubleshooting Tomatillo Problems
Tomatillos are reasonably pest-resistant, and tend to be immune to a lot of different plant diseases. But there are still some tricks you’ll need while growing tomatillos.
One of the biggest problems many people face is that their tomatillos produce beautiful flowers, but never seem to set fruit. In large part, that’s because tomatillos are not self-pollinating.
You’ll need at least a pair of tomatillo plants for pollination purposes. You’re welcome to have more than two if you’d like, but a minimum of two is essential. Otherwise, you’re not going to have any produce!
It’s also quite likely that you’ll need to help the plants along by hand-pollinating your flowers. This isn’t hard to do
Take a soft, narrow paintbrush and gently roll the tip around inside one flower on one plant, then inside a flower on the other plant. Switch back and forth until you’ve hand-pollinated all the flowers.
While bees and other natural pollinators do visit your flowers, it’s still pretty common that you’ll need to assist, just to ensure everything is fertilized and will bear fruit.
Few pests do severe damage to tomatillo plants. However, there are many pests who feed on them! It’s just unlikely that most of these are going to wreak the havoc on tomatillos that they do on other plants.
Let’s begin with the assortment of caterpillars that feed on tomatillo. The most damaging among these is the tomato fruitworm, Helicoverpa zea.
Tomato fruitworms are related to the tobacco budworm, and between the two of them they can cause severe damage. Armyworms are also of concern to tomatillo growers, particularly the southern armyworm or fall armyworm species.
All of these can be wiped out by the use of bacillus thurigiensis, more commonly known as BT. BT spray is an excellent product to spread around your plants for organic control of caterpillar-type pests.
The root knot nematode can be a below-ground pest of tomatillo. These microscopic pests will chew on the roots of the plant, causing damage that makes it difficult for the plant to feed.
Root knot nematodes should be controlled by the use of beneficial nematodes. Spreading these beneficial varieties throughout your soil will take care of a large number of pupal pests as well as pest-type nematodes.
Now we come to the beetles. Of these, the flea beetle is the most prominent feeder on tomatillo plants.
However, the potato bug and the banded cucumber beetle are both opportunistic feeders on tomatillos, and they can cause havoc in other parts of your garden.
While using BT has effect against potato bugs, you should opt for the use of azdirachtin sprays or pyrethrin sprays for the other beetles. Neem oil is a good deterrent. To kill them off, opt for a stronger pyrethrin.
Finally, we come to sucking and burrowing insects. There’s a wide selection of these, but the potato aphid is the most prevalent on tomatillos.
In addition, whiteflies, thrips, and broad mites can cause light damage to the leaves and stems of tomatillos. And leafminers will create trails through the plant’s leaves.
In nearly all cases of the sucking and burrowing insects, your first treatment should be neem oil. This horticultural oil will smother pest eggs and make your plants less appealing.
Application of insecticidal soaps will also prove effective. And, of course, be sure to have plenty of beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings in your garden!
Septoria leaf spot is a fungal disease which can cause blackened spots to appear on leaves. While far more common on green tomato plants, it can also strike tomatillos. Copper-based fungicides are effective in the early stages of this disease.
Fusarium wilt is a possible danger. This fungal disease should be prevented before it can begin by ensuring your soil has a healthy microbial population. Once it has become established on your plant, infected plants may need to be destroyed.
The most damaging plant disease for tomatillos is the physalis mosaic virus. Evolved from the turnip mosaic virus, it is widely spread by aphids and other sucking pests.
Symptoms of mosaic virus on tomatillos include curling leaves, yellow or white streaks on the leaves, stunted growth, and bumpy fruit.
There is no cure or treatment for mosaic viruses, so it’s important to avoid them in the first place. Eliminate pests which are feeding on your plants. Plant resistant varieties, and sterilize tools before moving between plants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can you eat a raw tomatillo?
A: You can, but it may be a bit sharp and tart! You might want to add some sort of sweetener to that salsa verde if your tomatillos are at all on the less-ripe side, or else you’ll find your lips puckering. Tomatillos taste great when cooked, even if it’s for a short period of time. The natural sugars in the tomatillo fruit will emerge and provide a wonderful flavor.
Q: Are tomatillos toxic?
A: This is a matter of some debate. These plants won’t send you to the hospital, but when underripe, they are extremely tart and not very pleasant on their own. You may find the acidic nature to cause you some mild stomach upset. Be sure your tomatillos have fully ripened prior to use. When the husks split on their own, they’re ready. They’ll also be full and firm to the touch inside their papery shell.
Q: Are ground cherries tomatillos?
A: While the ground cherry (also called the cape gooseberry or sunberry) is a Physalis species and are closely related, they are not the same plant.
Q: Do tomatillos plants come back each year?
A: In temperate regions, the tomatillo is perennial and will return in spring. In cooler regions, it’s annual.
Q: How long does it take for tomatillos to grow?
A: Most varieties of tomatillo take about 60 to 80 days to go from seed to fruit production.
Q: Where do tomatillos grow best?
A: Of course, they’ll do best in and around their native range of Central America. However, they thrive in other temperate regions.
Q: How big do tomatillo plants get?
A: They grow to 3 to 4 feet tall on average. In optimal conditions they can grow taller and may need some staking to stay upright.
Q: Do you need 2 tomatillo plants?
A: Because they aren’t self pollinating, you will need at least 2 tomatillo plants to cross pollinate and enable fruit production.