When and How to Harvest Garden Grown Tomatillo Plants
Not sure when to harvest your garden-grown tomatillo or the best way to do it? These tasty fruits can be picky about their harvesting schedule. In this article, gardening expert Logan Hailey shares when to pick your tomatillos, and how to do it without harming the plant.
Known as the key ingredient to salsa verde, tomatillos are tomato cousins that grow inside papery husks. As they hang from the plant in the summer warmth, tomatillos look like suspended green or purple-tinted lanterns waiting to be filled.
But when exactly should you harvest these tangy fruits? Tomatillos do not ripen red like tomatoes, so it can be hard to know if you are picking too early or too late.
Let’s dig into everything you need to know about harvesting ripe tomatillos for the best flavor and yield.
Tomatillo fruits look like Chinese lanterns hanging from a plant, but they can be misleading about their ripeness. Tomatillos won’t change color or give a noticeable visual cue that they’re ready to pick.
Instead, you need to get closer to the plant and use your hands to feel the ripeness of your fruits. Try this three-part test to check that your tomatillos are ready to pick:
Grasp a tomatillo and feel if the fruit has filled out the husk. The papery outer layer should be starting to open, and the sticky fruit should start to burst through.
Next, lightly tug the tomatillo. A ripe fruit will easily pull from the plant while an underripe fruit will give you more resistance. If it isn’t coming off with a light tug, the fruit may need a few more days to mature.
Lastly, check the color of the fruit and husk. Tomatillos do not turn red when they’re ripe. Instead, the fruit will be bright green and the husk may turn a brownish color. Yellow or purple tomatillos usually indicate over-ripeness or a different flavor. The main exception is for purple or yellow heirloom tomatillo varieties.
Tomatillos are typically ready to harvest 70 to 100 days after seeding. Not all fruits will ripen at the same time, so it is important to check tomatoes a few times a week and harvest the fruits that are ready. The best time of day to harvest is in the morning from mid-summer through autumn. These plants grow best with full sunlight exposure, which will help them get to harvest a bit quicker.
The first indication that tomatillos are ripe is when the inner fruit grows large enough to start bursting through the husk. The husk may also turn brown. Before harvesting, you can squeeze the husk to ensure that the inner fruit is filling its shell. If the husks are empty, it may be because you didn’t plant enough tomatillo plants for cross-pollination.
The second indicator is the tomatillo’s willingness to pull from the plant with a gentle tug. If it hangs on too tight, it probably isn’t ripe!
A third (but less reliable) sign of ripe tomatillos is their color. Green varieties will turn brighter lime green and tend to be overripe once they turn yellow or purple. However, heirloom purple varieties will begin to blush a dark mauve or plum color once they reach ripeness.
Ripe tomatillos are similar to ripe sauce tomatoes in many ways, except they won’t turn red nor will they be as soft. A ready-to-pick tomatillo is fairly firm and large enough that it has just begun bursting through its papery husky.
As the fruit inside outgrows the size of its “lantern,” the bottom is usually the first place to split open. The husk may turn purplish or brown, and the whole fruit can even fall to the ground.
A ripe tomatillo is usually bright green in color unless you have a colored variety. If they start turning yellow, your tomatillos may no longer have the tangy flavor they need to contribute to dishes like salsa verde.
It’s important to catch the plants right at the stage where they are bursting through the husk but not over-ripening. For this reason, many gardeners check their tomatillo plants every few days to catch the best fruits at the perfect time.
There should not be very much loose husk around the fruit or it may be underripe. However, the husk should still be stuck to the tomatillo so the sticky fruit is peeking out.
If the husk is fully ripped open or rotten, the fruit is probably overripe. Softening or yellowing fruits are another sign of overmaturity and more susceptibility to splitting.
Pro Tip: Once you spot a full-grown tomatillo, the easiest way to know if it is ready to be picked is if the fruit falls off the plant with a gentle tug. When tomatillos are hanging on with a stronger grip, it’s usually an indicator that they need a few more days before they’re ready to harvest. As a rule of thumb, if you have to use scissors or give the plant a strong yank, the tomatillo is not fully ripe.
If you pick tomatillos too early, they can continue ripening off the vine just like their tomato relatives. However, the tomatillos will not grow any larger inside the husk. Often gardeners will cut all the final fruits from the plant before the first frosts of fall.
You can also collect any underripe fruits that have fallen to the ground (but avoid overripe or rotten ones). Place these under-ripe tomatillos in their husk in a paper bag to ripen on your countertop.
These fruits are particularly sensitive to ethylene, which is the ripening plant hormone released in large quantities by fruits like bananas and ripe tomatoes. Avoid storing tomatillos near tomatoes or other fruits and vegetables.
Underripe tomatillos have a sharper, more acidic flavor. While some recipes call for under-ripe tomatillos, they are nowhere near as flavorful as the fully ripe, tangy, sweet fruits. For the best flavor, it is recommended to wait for the fruits to ripen on the vine and split their papery husks.
A ripe tomato is notoriously easy to spot amongst the green fruits and foliage of the plant, but ripe tomatillos do not turn red when ripe. Ripe tomatillos are usually still bright green or lightly browning on their husks.
If the fruits start to turn a darker color, it is often an indication that they are overripe and will not have the tangy citrus-like flavor that they are grown for. The only exception is purple or heirloom-colored tomatillos that may ripen to a dark color on both the fruit and the husk.
A mature tomatillo will be larger than a cherry tomato but smaller than a full-size slicer tomato. In Spanish, tomatillo translates to “little tomatoes.” Ripe fruits average 2-3 inches in diameter and should be bursting through their husks like Chinese lanterns, which is also seen on other fruits from the same family.
Generally, smaller fruit tends to be sweeter. However, if the fruit is still undersized inside its husk, it will usually be too hard and flavorless to enjoy.
Full-size tomatillos plants can be 3-4 feet tall and wide, depending on their cage, staking, or pruning. You may need to move branches aside to check the lower fruits that may be hidden near the base.
In a small space garden, you can choose a dwarf tomatillo variety, but be sure to plant at least two plants next to each other for proper pollination. Pruning can improve yields and reduce plant size. You can also find dwarf fruit varieties with tomatillo “berries” about 1 inch in diameter.
You may be alarmed by tomatillos falling from the plant, but this is often an indicator that they are ripe or overripe. Ripe tomatillos easily pull from the plant and sometimes get knocked off by strong winds or something brushing by the branch.
Fallen tomatillos can be collected from beneath the plant as long as they aren’t rotten or brown. However, overripe fruits are often prone to falling and may have a yellow or purple color that indicates they are too far gone to eat. Remember that this doesn’t apply if you are growing an heirloom tomatillo variety that produces purple or yellow fruits.
However, if tomatillo flowers are dropping, you may have a bigger problem. Transplant shock, extreme temperatures, or high humidity can cause the plant to prematurely drop its flowers. You could also have a pollination problem.
A lack of bees or insects, or the absence of a second pollinator plant, may result in un-pollinated flowers that spontaneously drop from the plants. Fortunately, your plants will likely continue to produce flowers as long as the weather is amenable to growth.
In summary, the easiest way to spot a ripe tomatillo is to use your hands rather than your eyes. Remember to squeeze and tug, then check the color. A ripe tomatillo will be firm, bursting through its covering, and bright green in color with a green or brown husk.