Sometimes known as husk tomatoes, tomatillos are an intriguing addition to any garden. They’re originally from Mexico, where they were supposedly domesticated by the Aztecs. Today, tomatillos are grown in many areas of the United States, particularly Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Let’s learn more about these spectacular fruits, and how to grow your own.
Varieties of Tomatillos
Each tart tomatillo fruit grows inside a papery husk, like a small hanging lantern. They’re an easy-to-grow crop, similar to tomatoes. Furthermore, growing a couple of tomatillo plants is a great way to add a new flavor to your kitchen garden.
There are many different varieties to choose from, but the kind you grow will depend partly on your location and growing conditions.
The most commonly grown variety toma verde. It produces green, golf ball-sized fruits that are quite tart. It’s an extra early variety, and you can harvest its fruit about 60 days after planting in the ground.
Other popular varieties to consider:
- Verde Puebla: a large, heavy-yielding green variety
- Purple: an heirloom variety that produces sweet, purple-colored fruit
- Pineapple: a reliable variety that produces small fruit
- Amarylla: popular amongst northern growers, it produces immature green fruits that turn yellow when they’re ready to be harvested
Sowing and Planting Tomatillos
The tomatillo is a perennial plant in hardiness zones 10-11, and grown as an annual everywhere else.
These plants are not self-pollinating. In fact, without pollination, the plant won’t produce any fruit. To encourage pollination, plant tomatillos in groups of three or more. The manual pollination method by brushing pollen from one flower to another with either a brush or your finger, doesn’t work on these guys. They need insects to do that work for them.
Growing from seed
Seeds can be sown under cover 6-8 weeks before the last frost is expected. Sow the seeds as you would tomatoes, in pots or seed trays, with good quality, fresh, general-purpose compost. Germination takes place within 2 weeks, if the temperature is above 64°F.
Following germination, grow the seedlings in pots. Seedlings germinated in seed trays can be transplanted into 8cm pots when at least 3 leaves have developed. You can apply a dose of liquid tomato fertilizer after a month, which will encourage strong growth.
Once the temperature reaches 50°F and the seedling roots fill their pots, begin to harden off the plants. Gardeners in warmer climates can sow seeds directly into the ground once the chance of frost has gone.
Tomatillos thrive in full sun positions but they’ll also grow in slightly shaded areas. They also like well-draining soil that’s fairly pH neutral. Before planting, work in around 2 inches of organic matter. This helps the plants to establish themselves and encourages strong, healthy growth. Working the soil over also aerates it, improving drainage.
When planted, the tomatillo plant’s leaves should sit just above the soil. Once planted add a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch. This will help to improve moisture retention while discouraging weed growth. Most of these plants require around 3ft of space around them, so don’t crowd plants together.
Tomatillo plants can also be successfully grown in grow bags or containers. Plant one plant per 5-gallon pot, using a general-purpose compost. If you’re growing in containers, remember that they dry out quickly so you may have to water your plants more often.
Caring for Tomatillo Plants
Water sporadically, when the soil feels dry to the touch. Tomatillo plants struggle in drought conditions, so don’t let the soil dry out. They’re happiest with just a little water, and in humid areas you may only need to water during prolonged dry spells.
Fertilizing isn’t necessary, but you can apply a dose of tomato plant feed if you like. Just follow the instructions on the packet.
While pruning isn’t necessary, it can help to improve the plant’s yield and health. Before pruning, decide how many central stems you want. 2 stems will produce more foliage, which can protect the fruit and will also give you a larger yield. Removing all but 1 stem reduces your yield, but you’ll be able to harvest earlier.
As the plant grows, suckers will emerge in the crotch between the main stem and side branches. Pinch these out to allow sunlight to access the plant’s centre, and to improve air circulation.I find that a balanced approach, removing some but not all of the suckers, is best.
Pinch out suckers when they have at least 2 leaves and are no more than 4 inches long. If you’re growing in a limited space pinching off the growing tips can also control the plant’s spread.
Stakes or tomato cages provide the plants with extra support when the plants become top-heavy with fruit. Secure the plants by tying them loosely with twine or polyethylene. Try not to tie the stem just below the flower cluster, as this can cause the fruit to become deformed.
Common Tomatillo Problems
As long as your tomatillo plants are in a light, airy location, then they’ll be largely problem free.
While slugs, snails, and beetles can target the foliage, most insects tend to leave them alone. Should your plants come under attack from aphids, wash the pests away with a blast from a hose pipe, or by applying insecticidal soap.
Small or Deformed Fruit
Small tomatillos and empty husks are both signs of poor pollination.
As we’ve already noted tomatillo plants can’t self pollinate, and are also resistant to hand-pollination. Encourage pollinators by planting butterfly- and bee-attracting flowers and herbs. Avoiding the use of insecticides will also encourage bees to your garden.
Warm temperatures over 85°F, or humidity levels over 90% can discourage plants from forming fully functional reproductive parts, thus reducing yields. These conditions can also lead to smaller fruit.
Marigolds and nasturtiums are particularly attractive to pollinators. These flowers also discourage pests such as nematodes and white flies.
Root crops, such as carrots or onions, are also good companion plants. These break up the soil allowing the tomatillo roots to easily establish themselves. Onions also deter pests such as spider mites.
Asparagus, which deters root nematodes, and peppers are also beneficial companions.
Finally, herbs such as basil and parsley will also deter pests. The added bonus of growing basil, parsley, and onions alongside tomatillo plants is that they can all be harvested at the same time and combined to create great tasting dishes such as salsa verde.
Plants to Avoid
Kohlrabi and corn both tend to attract pests or stunt tomatillo growth. Potatoes and eggplants should also be avoided. Both attract pests that are harmful to tomatillo plants.
Harvesting and Storing Tomatillos
Tomatillos are ready for harvesting when the fruit fills out the papery husk. As this happens, the husk will start to split. While the fruit can be harvested before the husk splits, waiting allows it to sweeten. Fruit that has completely split the husk is overripe, and will lack the firm flesh and tart taste green tomatillos are famous for.
Some varieties may change color to purple or brown as they ripen. Occasionally the husk wont split but will instead turn leathery.
How to Harvest
Pick tomatillos as you would tomatoes. If you’re not using the fruit straight away, keep the husks on. This will protect the fruit, allowing you to store it in a paper bag in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks.
As you peel the husks, you’ll notice a sticky film on the fruit. This is perfectly normal and can be gently washed away.
Tomatillos can be frozen either whole or sliced. Carefully peel away the husks before placing the fruit in a freezer bag. Store in the freezer.
Alternatively you can preserve the fruit by canning. Green tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) is spectacular to store over the winter, and is excellent on all kinds of Mexican dishes. Try it on quesedillas, or as a side dish for huevos rancheros.
Storing Whole Plants
As the temperatures drop and frosts begin to threaten pull up any still healthy tomatillo plants and hang them upside down in an unheated garage. In this condition tomatillo fruits will keep for 2-3 months.
Harvesting Tomatillo Seeds
Upon opening a tomatillo you’ll notice a collection of seeds mixed in with pulp. Place the seeds in a bowl and add a little water. Cover the bowl put it in a warm place, about 75-80°F, for a few days, stirring occasionally. After a few days all the good seeds will have sunk to the bottom.
Remove the good seeds and place them on a plate to dry for about a week. They can then be labeled and stored for use the following year.
Tomatillo plants are an attractive and interesting addition to any garden. Easy to cultivate their fruit can be used in a number of dishes including salsas, chillis, and stews. For this reason tomatillos are fast becoming a staple of many allotments.